strange_complex: (Chrestomanci slacking in style)
This is normally the time of year when I look back over the books, films and TV which I have consumed over the past twelve months. Previous posts in this series can be found at the following links: 2009, 2008 and 2007.

Unfortunately this year I am at a bit of a disadvantage in looking back over the books I have read in particular, as I have completely failed to keep on top of reviewing them. I knew I'd got behind, but have just looked at my books read 2010 tag, and it turns out that I have only actually managed to review three books this year, with the most recent written up in February. I am also behind by one film review and two Doctor Who reviews - although in both of those cases that represents a much smaller proportion of the total. I've been actively focusing on clearing the backlog of film reviews during December (I managed six - not bad), and was going to get on to the books and Doctor Who after that, but never quite made it.

Nevertheless, I am going to write up an overview post now anyway, in keeping with my normal practice, even though not everything I'll be looking back over has actually been written up here yet. And I do want to get on top of the unreviewed material, so that is a little goal which I am setting myself for January - try to write up my unwritten book, film and Doctor Who reviews for 2010, while doing my utmost to avoid accruing any more. And maybe also learn to write shorter reviews, so that this doesn't happen again in the future. Although I do believe that I resolve something of the sort around this time every single year, and I never manage it - so I may as well just accept the status quo.

Books )

Films )

Doctor Who )

Other television )

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strange_complex: (Alessandro tear)
This film was directed by Federico Fellini, which is reason enough to watch a film in my book. But that wasn't why I watched it.

It's also set in Rome, which is reason enough too. But again, that wasn't why I watched it.

I watched it because it features the one and only screen appearance by a certain Giulio Moreschi: nephew and adopted son of my beloved Alessandro Moreschi )

As for the actual film, the plot revolves around a small-town newly-wed couple, Ivan and Wanda, who have come to Rome for their honeymoon. He is conventional, fastidious, and obsessed with honour, status and prestige. He has come to Rome mainly to show off his new wife to his well-connected uncle, who has an important position at the Vatican and can get them in to meet the Pope. She is sensitive, idealistic and innocent, and has come to Rome hoping to meet the star of a photo-strip which she follows: the dashingly handsome White Sheikh.

At the first opportunity, while he thinks she is taking a bath, she sneaks out to the office from which the photo-strip is produced, where she ends up accidentally getting swept off to the day's location shooting on a beach outside Rome. There she meets her hero - but discovers that he is nothing like the dashing romantic figure she had imagined, and ends up disillusioned and stuck miles away from Rome with no way of getting back to the city. Meanwhile, the husband is desperately trying to hide the fact that his wife has gone missing from his uncle's family, and pretend that she is simply ill in bed.

It's a gentle social comedy with a healthy dose of farce, but some sombre notes as well. For Fellini, it is an early effort - his first time as sole director, in fact. But his later signature touches are definitely recognisable - the caricaturing of ordinary everyday eccentricity, the ribbing of the pompous and the bureaucratic, the interest in sexual hypocrisy, Catholicism and the process of cinematic production. For me, the funniest scene was one set in a police office, where the husband had come to report his wife missing, but was terrified of the whole story ending up in the papers and bringing his name into disgrace. As one policeman questioned him, and he gradually and reluctantly divulged the details of the whole torrid affair, another sat close by with a typewriter, thundering out every name and sensitive personal disclosure in stark black and white, as the husband writhed with discomfort.

Obviously there won't be that many people out there who will be as excited as me by Giulio Moreschi's role in the film. But I know there are a few Fellini fans on my flist - and I would definitely recommend this film to them.

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strange_complex: (Miss Pettigrew)
This was the latest Cottage Road Classic, which I went to see on Wednesday with [ profile] ms_siobhan, [ profile] planet_andy and [ profile] big_daz. The cinema had really gone to town on creating an appropriately festive atmosphere: not only was the film itself a Christmas classic, but they had also put on mulled wine, mince pies and Christmas cake, as well as making sure that the usual prelude of vintage adverts, public information films and cinematic announcements included clips wishing all patrons a merry Christmas and a happy New Year. We weren't wished a Gay 1964 this time, as happened at the December showing last year, but we were apprised of the benefits of smoking Grandee cigars, and of making sure that we took food with us on a day out.

We also enjoyed a ten-minute silent 1920s comedy short about police cars rushing to the aid of a child who had wandered out on a beam balanced precariously on the edge of a cliff. It involved a lot of slap-stick stunts along the lines of cars getting stuck on train tracks, people being repeatedly run over, people trying to clamber onto moving cars, cars falling to bits while people were driving them, and so forth. As far as I could tell, most of this must have been done by using old cars which nobody minded damaging, practising all the timing very, very carefully, and (in the case of running people over) taking advantage of the fact that 1920s cars had quite a high ground clearance, so that you could actually run someone over quite safely as long as you made sure that the wheels went either side of them. It was also obviously filmed at less than 25 frames per second, so that it looked like it was all happening incredibly quickly, which made it all look a lot more alarming than it probably was in real life.

The main feature is obviously a great classic, but I had never seen a single second of it before, so it was all new to me. I enjoyed it, and thought that it did what it was setting out to do very nicely. But I think it can probably only really enchant those who believe quite genuinely and wholeheartedly in the values of small-town American life, complete with the designated roles for women and ethnic minorities which that demands. It reminded me rather of Pleasantville, except without anyone ever turning into colour - which is no surprise, really, given that it idealises the very values which Pleasantville sets up and then deconstructs.

Funnily enough, after having had that thought I was rather surprised today to see on TV a clip from the film in colour, which was not how we saw it on Wednesday. In fact, according to Wikipedia no less than three colourised versions have been produced. It's almost as though people were retrospectively trying to help poor old George Bailey (the hero) finally realise his dreams and escape from drab old Bedford Falls into a better, brighter world after all.

As for me, I was obviously watching it all with too cynical a head on. In particular, I found it next to impossible to swallow the scenes in which George manages to talk his customers out of a bank run, magically acquires a dream house by moving into a run-down wreck in imminent danger of collapse, and is finally saved from financial disaster by everyone from the town coming round and 'chipping in' to cover his partner's absent-minded loss of $8000. I know that the whole point of the film is meant to be about how setting out to help other people rather than exploit them for personal gain brings its own rewards, and that it isn't trying to set out a realistic alternative model for ethical economic prosperity. But I'm afraid I just found myself sitting through those scenes and thinking "Oh, please!"

Still, the clothes were nice, the scene at the dance where everyone ends up jumping into the swimming pool was fun, the crow which randomly lived in the Bailey family's bank was cool, Henry Travers as the angel was lovely (and reminded me quite a lot of Derek Jacobi), and at least I will properly know who people mean when they talk of James (or 'Jimmy') Stewart now, instead of having to just nod and smile vaguely. So I'm glad I went, but I don't think I'm going to be joining the fan-club for this film any time soon.

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strange_complex: (Eight morning)
I actually watched this months ago - some weekend in the late summer when I was feeling rather ill and it was on one of the cable TV channels, I think. So it is well out of sequence as far as my reviews are concerned. But better late than never.

I saw it when it first came out of course, on the broken sofa in the damp basement kitchen which I shared with [ profile] hollyione and three others in Brookfield Road, Bristol. At that time, we were mainly bemused by how little resemblance it bore to anything that we had previously understood as Doctor Who. But this time, watching it retrospectively with a knowledge of New Who, I was struck by the place which it occupies on the cusp between the two.

In many ways, of course, it isn't like either. The emphasis on action heroics, rather than quirky cleverness, puts the movie in a place all of its own by comparison with the rest of the TV canon. But obviously it does owe a great debt to the Classic series, while on the other side many of the things that seemed odd and alien to us watching back in 1996 have actually since been picked up and built on by Russell T. Davies. These are the backward-looking and (with hindsight) forward-looking aspects that I noticed on this viewing )

I'm not going to bother discussing the plot, because there isn't much of one, or the awful cartoonish travesty that is Eric Roberts as the Master. Dearie me! In spite of both, though, I actually found myself really enjoying the film overall.

Seven, Eight and Chang Lee )

Grace )

The half-human issue )

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strange_complex: (ITV digital Monkey popcorn)
I spent yesterday afternoon asleep on the sofa, recovering from a busy week and a busy term. But today I came over all functional and sociable, and spent the afternoon in the balcony of the Hyde Park Picture House instead, watching a stop-motion animated film called Mary and Max with [ profile] ms_siobhan and [ profile] planet_andy.

It's an absolutely lovely film - very sweet and touching, but with lots of humour too. It tells the story of an eight-year-old Australian girl called Mary with an alcoholic mother and a birthmark who gets teased at school, and an American man in his forties who has Asperger's syndrome, likes eating chocolate hot-dogs, and finds the world very confuzzling. They become penfriends after she picks his name at random out of a phone-book, and bond over their shared love of chocolate and lack of other friends. Gradually, albeit with a few twists and turns, they become the most important people in each others' lives - even though they never quite manage to meet.

The humour reminded me quite a lot of Roald Dahl's stories, in that it focuses on the icky, the idiosyncratic and the downright dark. But while Dahl invites us to be quite judgemental about his nasty or dysfunctional characters (think of the Twits, or all the families other than Charlie's in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), this film encouraged us to sympathise with them. The portrayal of Mary and her family reminded me quite a lot of Muriel and her family in the film Muriel's Wedding, too - and not just because the central character in both was played by Toni Collette. I guess there must be quite a strong tradition in Australia of bittersweet humour about empty suburban lifestyles.

I don't know how easy it'll be to get to see this film now, as I'm not sure how wide a release it has had outside of Australia. But I'd definitely recommend it if you get the chance. And if you don't weep uncontrollably at the end, then you are made of sterner stuff than me.

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strange_complex: (Vampira)
I'm rolling two reviews into one here, because they are both for classic films which I saw with my fellow aficionado, [ profile] ms_siobhan, as well as [ profile] planet_andy and (in the latter case) [ profile] big_daz

28. House on Haunted Hill (1959), dir. William Castle

I saw the abysmal 1999 remake of this in the cinema with [ profile] mr_flay when it came out, and we both agreed that it had stolen precious hours from our lives. But it took me until this October to get round to seeing the original properly, during a film afternoon at [ profile] ms_siobhan's. Needless to say, it was ten thousand zillion times better! Vincent Price is fantastic, the plot kept us guessing, and we also rather liked the somewhat Art Deco-ish appearance of the exterior of the house (strangely at odds with the Victorian gothic interior, but there you go). Like all the best ghost stories (and unlike the remake), it remains ambiguous for most of the film whether there is actually anything supernatural in the house at all, or just a bunch of scared and / or villainous human beings. If you've not seen it, I'll leave the pleasure of finding out how it all resolves to you!

29. The Ladykillers (1955), dir. Alexander Mackendrick

This one we saw at the Cottage Road cinema, complete with the usual vintage adverts, national anthem, ice-cream tray in the intermission and so forth. It's another Ealing comedy: the second which the Cottage Road has shown this year, after The Lavender Hill Mob. And it's one I've seen a couple of times, as my parents have a copy on video and it's quite a favourite of theirs. Obviously not for some years, though, as I'd forgotten it was in colour, and while I knew how it ended, I couldn't really remember how it got there.

It's just lovely in every way. I can never quite decide which member of Alec Guinness's criminal gang I secretly want to be the one to get away with all the money - although I think it's probably Guinness himself in the end. And of course it's so much the better when it actually turns out to be spoiler-cut, because even though this film is over half a century old, knowing the ending in advance will actually still significantly reduce the pleasure if you've not seen it before ).

Mrs Wilberforce's story has an edge of sadness and genuine social commentary to it, too, which lends a lovely bittersweet tone to the comedy. Widowed and living a dignified but obviously rather impoverished and lonely life in a bomb-damaged house, she must have been all too common a figure at the time when the film was made. But although she is shown as fussy, foolish and forgetful, she is also portrayed with an incredible strength of personality that seemed to me to convey a profound respect for women of this kind - the ones who had weathered two world wars, and ended up in a strange and alien new world with precious little to show for their sacrifices. Her independence of spirit and ability to cow a bunch of hardened (if incompetent) criminals into behaving like gentlemen when she tells them to actually has quite a feminist edge to it, and the way her story ends up is a kind of wish-fulfilment - a statement of what ladies like her truly deserve. Anyway, she is very definitely the real star of the film, and it's no wonder everyone loves her.

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strange_complex: (Metropolis False Maria)
I saw this yesterday with [ profile] big_daz, [ profile] ms_siobhan, [ profile] planet_andy, [ profile] nigelmouse and [ profile] maviscruet in a big jolly Northern Goth Contingent family outing at the Light. I've seen the fullest version of Metropolis previously available before - in fact, that was the first film I wrote up when I began systematically blogging all the films I had seen on LJ back in January 2007. But this is an all-new version, complete with an extra 25 minutes of footage taken from a recently-rediscovered Argentinian print of the film, and a newly-recorded soundtrack based on the original orchestral score.

The Argentinian footage is badly damaged, so that it stands out very distinctly from the rest of the film (itself in any case compiled from multiple sources at varying levels of quality). It is scratched, covered in dancing vertical lines and cropped along three edges, and even now there are still a couple of scenes missing. But it really does turn the film into a whole different ball-game. Whole themes, sub-plots and secondary characters now make sense in a way that they just didn't before. And in any case, seeing it on the big screen - a VERY big screen, actually - is an entirely different experience from watching it at home on a DVD. There is a lot of fine detail in the models of the overground city, the machine-rooms, the catacombs and the actors' costumes which I'm pretty sure escaped me last time I watched it, and which really adds to the magic.

I enthused over the film's scale and scope last time I wrote it up, apparently particularly liking its ambitious special effects and imaginative vision, so there's no need for me to repeat all that - though I have certainly been forcefully reminded of it by this repeat viewing. This time, though, I was also struck by how balletic the whole film seemed. The score is very much in the tradition of 19th-century Romantic symphonies. It reuses some of their motifs, and is even explicitly divided into three movements labelled 'Prelude', 'Intermezzo' and 'Furioso' on the intertitles. The effect is heightened in this new release by the fact that you can actually hear the sounds of an orchestra coughing and turning over their sheet music between the movements - just as you would have done if you'd been to see the film at a large cinema on its original release. Meanwhile up on the screen, the exaggerated gestures and body language of the actors draw heavily on the balletic tradition - partly because of course that is the natural parent genre for a relatively new medium trying to tell stories without words, but I suspect also partly as a conscious stylistic decision to suit the fantastical, allegorical story of this specific film.

Perhaps not so very surprisingly, given the balletic aesthetic, I was also struck this time by how very, very homoerotic some of the scenes were. This is actually a bit annoying on one level, because it springs all-too-obviously from the film's almost total side-lining of female characters. Apart from Maria, who is hardly a real person anyway, as she is too busy being quite literally a Madonna or (in her evil doppelgänger capacity) a Whore, the only women in the film are there to be passive sexual objects and / or mothers. Though you can't literally distinguish between 'speaking' and 'non-speaking' roles in a silent film, it is certain that none of them (except for Maria) have character names, or get to have any input at all into any of the action or drama of the film. Instead, they just hang around looking pretty in gardens, sexy at night-clubs or despairing when they think that their children have been drowned.

Still, subversive feminism would be a bit much to expect from a film made in 1927 - even a fantastical one. In fact, since the vision of the future which Metropolis presents is clearly meant to be dystopian, you could even argue that its marginalisation of women is slightly feminist, in that it is presenting this as a characteristic of a profoundly unhappy society. But that's probably stretching things a little... Meanwhile, as original Star Trek fans know, a fictional environment without any meaningful female characters in it is a fertile breeding-ground for slash. And we have here a film which is deeply concerned with the male body - from the athletic figures of the youthful elite exercising in the 'Sons' Garden' to the struggling bodies of the male workers in the grip of the Machine. Central to both the plot and the imagery of the film is tender love of Freder, the Capitalist Overlord's son, for said workers - especially Josaphat, a clerk fired by his father, and Georgy 11811, an ordinary worker on one of the machines. And given that this love was conveyed via anguished looks, impassioned embraces and romantic music, while the actors concerned wore theatrical-style make-up complete with eye-liner, it seemed incredible at times that they didn't just go the whole hog and kiss madly.

Anyway, I'll certainly be looking out for a DVD release of this version of the film - not least for its amazing score, which is still going round my head today. Here's hoping I end up having to buy yet another one some time in the future, when those final eight minutes of lost footage are rediscovered...

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strange_complex: (Vampira)
I headed over to [ profile] ms_siobhan and [ profile] planet_andy's place yesterday evening for a film night. They've recently acquired this Hammer Horror box set, and we began our viewing by selecting Rasputin: the Mad Monk from amongst the possible options (with the aid of a d6). Before long, we were chorusing "Ooh, wasn't she in Dracula: Prince of Darkness?" "And him!" "And that's the exact same set they used for Dracula's castle, too!". We quickly established that this was for the very good reason that the two of them were made back to back: Prince of Darkness in from April to June 1965, and Rasputin from June to July. So we decided to proceed onwards to the Dracula film for the second half of the night.

24. Rasputin: the Mad Monk (1966), dir. Don Sharp )

25. Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), dir. Terence Fisher )

Meanwhile, watching the two films back to back gave us the perfect opportunity to devise and refine a suitable list of Hammer horror clichés for the purpose of drinking games, bingo cards, etc. [ profile] ms_siobhan wrote down the master list on paper as we went along, but has kindly already posted it to Another Social Networking Site, so I can also replicate it here as follows:
  • Fainting lady
  • Proper set-piece scream
  • Lady tossing and turning in a flimsy night-dress
  • Inn scene complete with check or gingham table-cloths
  • Any peasants
  • Speeding carriage sequence
  • Close-up of the villain's eyes
  • Snorting horses
  • Tolling church bells
  • Bubbling pseudo-scientific equipment
  • Day-for-night filming
  • Obviously fake scenery
  • Obvious painted backdrop
  • Bad fake severed body-part
  • Rag doll falling to its doom
  • Red poster-paint 'blood'
  • Coloured water 'wine'
  • Glycerin 'sweat'
  • Prop also used in any other Hammer film
  • Set also used in any other Hammer film
  • Music also used in any other Hammer film (bonus points for timpani)
  • Actor who has appeared in any other Hammer film
  • Actor who has appeared in any other British film or TV that you can name

That should be plenty to get you rolling blind drunk on the floor - but do, of course, feel free to add further suggestions of your own!

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strange_complex: (Miss Pettigrew)
I should really have read the book this is based on before progressing to the film, so that I could see properly what Stephen Fry was doing with his source material. But it seemed like a natural fit on my Lovefilm list after Easy Virtue (the last film I saw), and a pleasant way to spend a Sunday evening. I can pick up the novel later.

Obviously, it presses a lot of my buttons. Stephen Fry, Evelyn Waugh, 1930s glamour and decadence, a fantastic period sound-track by Anne Dudley (who also did the music for Jeeves and Wooster) and an astonishing role-call of British character actors. It's hard to watch the film without mentally going "Jim Broadbent! Harriet Walter! Imelda Staunton! Nigel Planer! David Tennant! Simon Callow! Fenella Woolgar! Michael Sheen! Stockard Channing (not that she is British, obv)! Brief, unexpected Mark Gatiss! Peter O'fucking Toole!" Which is always a pleasant thing to do. Many of them I know best from later appearances in Doctor Who, of course, and all are familiar faces that I'm not surprised to see turning in great performances. All the same, though, I thought Fenella Woolgar stood out as particularly captivating in the role of Agatha (here Runcible, not Christie) - a great role which gave her every chance to be fabulous and flamboyant (including a spell looking rather delicious in black tie and tails), but which also touched on the empty void beneath.

The story seems a hackneyed one now that we're all familiar with the concept of youthful hedonism, though I'm sure it wasn't when Waugh first penned it. The trajectory reminded me of Human Traffic (1999), in fact - non-stop party antics turn to emptiness and tragedy, with some characters redeeming themselves by finding a more meaningful and fulfilling lifestyle at the end of the film. The main difference lies in the accessibility of the hedonistic lifestyle - in the 1930s restricted to the sons and daughters of the aristocracy, but in the 1990s available to everybody.

The pace is fast and a bit surreal. We plunge from dizzy heights to dismal lows very rapidly, and although the colour palettes capture this nicely, in terms of acting and dialogue the tragedies of some characters are skipped over in a very matter-of-fact fashion. I think that's deliberate, reflecting their uncertain grasp of their own emotions - they simply don't know any other way to express the effects of their own downfalls. But it can feel as though some of the emotional impact we would normally expect from scenes of suicide, social disgrace, financial ruin and madness is missing. The time-scale is strange too - you think for most of the film that you're in the late '20s or early '30s and then suddenly BAM! it's the Second World War. Again, though, that's part of the style of the film, fitting in with the surreal and erratic schedules of the party set.

One more strange thing: the film contains two scenes in which the main heroine, Nina, is 'sold' by one man to another. First the man she supposedly loves, Adam, sells her to the richer-but-duller Ginger in order to pay his hotel hill. Then, years later, Adam buys her back for a fortune which he has acquired largely by luck. Each time, these transactions actually only consolidate what is happening anyway - the first time, Nina is already drifting away from Adam towards Ginger, and the second time Ginger has realised she doesn't love him, and has recognised that he would be better off letting her go and leaving the country. So the 'sale' itself, and Nina's apparent lack of say in the matter, is less utterly obnoxious than it might be - more a way for the two men to come to terms with what is happening to them anyway, including her changing interests, than anything else.

But the motif struck me because it also popped up in another recent adaptation of an Evelyn Waugh novel - the 2008 adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, where Rex similarly 'sells' Julia to Charles (after which she is this time rightly outraged). That most certainly wasn't there in the novel, and the second scene from Bright Young Things can't be there in Vile Bodies either if, as Wikipedia says, it ends with Adam alone on a battlefield rather than reunited with Nina as in the film. So does this all stem from just one scene actually written by Waugh, in which Adam sells Nina to Ginger half-way through Vile Bodies? I'll have to read it to find that out for sure. But if so, why have modern adaptations seized on the motif so eagerly and repeated it wherever they could manage? I suppose it is an easy way to convey a decadent society and morally-questionable characters. But I think I would prefer it if we didn't collectively seem to be quite so vicariously fascinated with it.

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strange_complex: (Me Art Deco)
Watching this film was the one thing I did manage to do while lying wiped out on the sofa yesterday evening. It's my latest Lovefilm rental, which I'm pretty sure someone here recommended to me because of the 1920s setting. I can't remember who now - but thanks, whoever it was.

The basic plot is one of culture clashes. The action takes place almost entirely in and around an English country house during the autumn and winter of 1928. We have a tired, run-down mother trying to keep the family together, a feckless husband, two rather future-less daughters and a bon-vivant son in the Bright Young Things / Bertie Wooster tradition. At the beginning of the film, he turns up with a modern and devastatingly-beautiful American widow named Larita, whom he has married on a whim during a trip around Europe. Cue multiple tensions between the English family - impoverished and beholden to a traditional bond with the rural estate their ancestors have tended for generations - and the American wife - urbane, dynamic and independent.

It's based on a Noël Coward play, though with some tweaks, and a little extra fleshing-out of certain characters. Some of his trademark witty dialogue is present, but it doesn't feel like a riotous comedy. The tensions between the English family and the American wife become really quite nasty sometimes, and although she comes out of it all right at the end, it's clear that other characters won't. Handled very carefully, this could have worked, creating a poignant balance between comedy and tragedy, but I didn't feel it really came off in this particular case. The feelings and motivations of the characters seemed neither realistic and convincing enough for powerful drama, nor light-heartedly exaggerated enough for high comedy.

Despite the country house setting, the film deliberately challenges the conventions of British period drama. The dialogue includes some quite modern turns of phrase; there is an anachronistically chummy relationship between Larita and the butler; she herself is really more of a 21st-century woman than even the most modern woman in 1928 could have been; the characters occasionally burst into song as though they know that they are in a period pastiche; and indeed some of the soundtrack consists of modern songs like Tom Jones' 'Sex Bomb' or Billy Ocean's 'When The Going Gets Tough...', re-rendered in a jazz-age style. I thought this was a nice idea, but as with the balance of comedy and tragedy it didn't entirely work. It needed to be rather more comprehensive to really constitute something challenging, and as it was felt like a bit of a half-hearted effort.

The cinematography was pretty good, though, with lots of interesting shots - like a direct view down into the open sports-car as Larita and her husband drove up to the house for the first time, for instance, or a shot of a perfectly still record with the entire room spinning around it which gradually shifts so that the record is spinning and we are dancing around a now-stationary room with the characters. There were lots of looming stuffed animals, which I presume were there to represent the slightly creepy, fusty traditionalism of the family. There were lots of direct references to paintings and shots of characters framed through things which I read as representing the way so many of the characters were trying to live as idealised portraits rather than three-dimensional people. And there were also many shots of people reflected in shiny surfaces, which I saw as related to the way that the two opposing factions were holding not-entirely-flattering mirrors up to each other's beliefs and ideals.

The costume department had also done a very nice job of representing the cultural gulf between Larita and the family by having them all in quite tired-looking 1920s clothes, but Larita in the fashions of the next decade - bright, clean colours, short jackets with wide-legged trousers or close-fitting long evening gowns, depending on the occasion. I liked the trousers especially because I recently bought some very much like them myself, and have been enjoying wearing them as the occasion has allowed.

Overall, then, a good effort which I'm glad I saw, but maybe falling too much between different competing stools to be a real stand-out. Still, probably worth it for Larita's clothes alone.

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strange_complex: (Vampira)
I saw this early yesterday evening at the Hyde Park Picture House with [ profile] ms_siobhan and [ profile] planet_andy, to the accompaniment of a 'live re-score' by a Sheffield outfit named Animat. It stars Vincent Price, and is the earliest adaptation of Richard Matheson's 1954 book, I Am Legend. Later versions of this book are generally better-known: The Omega Man (1971) with Charlton Heston and I Am Legend (2007) with Will Smith. But all of them tell the same basic story of the last man left alive (here Vincent Price's character) after the rest of human-kind have either been killed or turned into vampires by a deadly plague.

I'm afraid the general consensus was that the film was great, but that we would have preferred to see it with the original music. The sound-balance wasn't very carefully handled, meaning that the music was slightly too loud for the film the whole way through, and frequently drowned out bits of dialogue. And although it was funny and post-modern for five minutes to hear tracks like Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' while the vampires were attacking Vincent Price's house, complete with his own spooky voice-over, on the whole the joke wore thin pretty quickly. We agreed afterwards that we'd have preferred to hear the original gramophone records which he listens to during that sequence (in order to drown out the voices of the vampires calling him by name), as they probably added a lovely period atmosphere to the film which we didn't get to experience.

I'd also hoped to come away from the film with some idea of how one inserts new music into a film which already had its own original music, but without removing the dialogue. It's obviously easy to do for films from the '20s which didn't have any soundtrack in the first place, but I thought that most films with soundtracks were released with the dialogue and the music inextricably mixed together as part of the same recording, so I don't really understand how you can strip the music out while still keeping the voices. Anyway, I'm afraid I am still none the wiser on that front. All I can tell you is that the film was played from a DVD (I know, 'cos we saw the title menu at the beginning and end), and all the music we heard came from these two chaps sitting off to one side with laptops and a keyboard. Maybe this particular DVD somehow has the option of turning off the music? I don't know.

Anyway, music aside, Vincent Price was everything you would expect, and I can certainly see how the film had an influence on later zombie films like those of George A. Romero. In fact, having recently seen 28 Days Later, I could see quite a few shared topoi - e.g. general scenes of Price's character moving about in deserted urban spaces; a scene of him going into a supermarket and pushing trolleys aside to get in; and a church sign reading 'The End Has Come', which reminded me of the words 'The End Is Extremely Fucking Nigh' daubed on the wall of the church in 28 Days Later. It follows the book reasonably faithfully, but also establishes a legacy for Charlton Heston's The Omega Man in the ways that it deviates from the novel. Two things which they certainly share are a) the main character getting hunted down and killed in a rather Christ-like fashion, rather than imprisoned and committing suicide and b) the possibility of a happy ending of sorts, in that although the main character is dead, he has already passed on a proper cure for the disease to others before this happens. I haven't seen the Will Smith version, so can't comment on what happens there.

The film is set in America, and nearly convinced as such, but a scene set on the steps of the Colosseo Quadrato gave away the real location in Italy. I wished I'd known that when I went in, in fact, so that I could have looked out for other iconic buildings from around Rome, but I only realised while I was watching (and confirmed it afterwards from t'internet). Now that I've seen the film, I can also report that the Gothic mansion depicted on the publicity poster for it is rather misleading, since no such building features at any point during the film. It's far from the only movie poster from this era to feature generic images which have nothing much to do with the film, of course, but it's interesting to see in this case what particular image was chosen. It seems pretty clear to me that the poster was trying to evoke the Roger Corman-style Gothic horror numbers that Price was most famous for in order to get bums on seats. It suggests that contemporary audiences were being assumed to have pretty conservative tastes, given that in fact the whole point about Matheson's story was that it broke away from the Gothic legacy, and tried to update vampire mythology by making it more modern and scientific.

Anyway, a lovely evening out - but as I say, we came away resolved to get the DVD and see it in its original format for ourselves. Live re-scoring may be good for silent films, but it would have to be absolutely brilliant to make it worthwhile for films which already have their own original soundtrack - and this really wasn't.

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strange_complex: (Rick's Cafe)
I've been writing up reviews of films seen at the Cottage Road cinema's classic film nights here for a while, but last night the Hyde Park Picture House offered an equivalent of its own: an evening of 1940s cinema. I went along with [ profile] planet_andy, [ profile] big_daz and [ profile] ms_siobhan - who had really thrown herself into the spirit of the evening by taking the cinema management's encouragement to dress in period style to heart. She wasn't the only one, either. I'd say there were probably about 50-60 people there, of whom at least ten had taken the opportunity to dress up, and some of whom had really gone to town. Unlike at the Cottage Road cinema, we didn't get any dodgy vintage adverts at the start of the programme, but we did get two short films before moving on to the main feature.

19a. Listen to Britain )

19b. 6 Little Jungle Boys )

19c. Perfect Strangers )

Anyway, a very enjoyable evening all round; and capped off by a jolly nice late dinner in Hyde Park, too. Posters outside the cinema promised Vincent Price in The Last Man on Earth, complete with a new musical score, next Saturday night - but I can't actually see anything about that on the Hyde Park Picture House's own website. Still, if it's on, [ profile] ms_siobhan and I are going. Anyone else?

Edit: The Last Man on Earth is now on the official Hyde Park Picture House site, too - so definitely a goer!

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strange_complex: (ITV digital Monkey popcorn)
Whew! It's taken me a couple of days to type this lot up, as I saw a lot of films on the final day of the festival, and I think we all know I am a bit prone to tl;dr reviews, even when I think the thing I'm writing about was rubbish. But I've managed it now! It's up to you to decide if you are brave enough to read it all. ;-)

15a-f. Short Films )

TV Heaven: Children of the Stones (HTV, 1976) )

16a. Intrusion (1961), dir. Michael Reeves )

16b. The Sorcerers (1967), dir. Michael Reeves )

17. Robocop (1987), dir. Paul Verhoeven )

18. The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (1974), dir. Jorge Grau )

So that was a pretty intensive weekend of film viewing all told - in fact, coming out of the other end of it I find that I am now well ahead of 2009's total of 14 films seen over the entire year, even though it is still only June. I absolutely loved it, though, and have found myself haunting Amazon and eBay ever since it ended, swooping up copies of films I saw, or other works by the same actors and directors to add to my collection. Debate is currently raging on miss_s_b's journal about what form next year's festival should take. But whatever the final line-up, unless life conspires to stop me I'm pretty sure I'm going to be there.

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strange_complex: (Vampira)
12. Horror Express (1973), dir. Eugenio Martin

I have to admit to not having seen this one before, despite having been a massive Lee and Cushing fan for over twenty years and knowing perfectly well that it was one of their great classics. And I've been really missing out, because it's completely brilliant )

13. 28 Days Later (2002), dir. Danny Boyle )

The screening of 28 Days Later was actually only one half of a double-bill along with 28 Weeks Later. I've seen that before too, and indeed enjoyed it very much, so was sorely tempted to stay and see it again, especially so that I could compare the two films back to back. But I opted for a new experience over a tried-and-tested one - and I've got to say that on this particular occasion it was a real mistake...

14. Mark of the Devil (1970), dir. Michael Armstrong

See, Mark of the Devil sounded great in advance )

In short, this is 90 minutes of solid torture all right. But for the audience, not for the characters. I spent the rest of the weekend having to carefully avoid the director's eye, in case I accidentally blurted out "Your film was embarrassingly dreadful! What were you thinking?" Some horror films are bad in ways which are unintentionally funny, and that is a major source of the pleasure in watching them. But this one was just a huge, steaming crock o' shite, and definitely the low point of the festival for me.

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strange_complex: (Wicker Man sunset)
So, as mentioned in my last post, I spent the earlier part of the evening at the opening instalment of the Bradford Fantastic Films Weekend. I bumped into matgb in the station, and then caught up with miss_s_b in the Media Museum bar, looking all Tank Girl-ish with a blond slanty fringe and bicycle-induced bruises, and accompanied by [ profile] innerbrat! From the internet! Who scored exactly the same as me on today's Daily Mail poshness test, but nonetheless turned out to have a much posher accent than I have been reading her journal with for the past however-many-years-it-even-is now.

Anyway, we also saw a film! Which was excellent. It wasn't my first time for this one - not even on the big screen, actually, thanks to the Phoenix's late showings back when I used to live in Oxford. But it's probably something like eight to ten years since I saw it now, so it was lovely to have the chance to rediscover it.

The festival director introduced the screening, talking about what a horror classic this film is, and what a loss that Michael Reeves died the following year from a(n accidental?) drug overdose. And he was right - it was definitely a cut above what most horror directors were doing in the late '60s; especially the camera-work. This is obvious from the opening sequence, which appears to present a rural idyll, but gradually homes in on a regular banging sound which turns out to be the noise of someone putting the finishing touches to a hangman's gibbet - a disturbing contrast which really sets the mood for what follows. Throughout the film we get lots of interesting angles and imaginatively-composed shots, although it was a pity they'd felt the need to rely quite so heavily on day-for-night filming. When you've got a character delivering the line, "It must be important, for you to wait for him after dark", the effect is rather compromised if he's doing it in silhouette against a bright blue summer sky, dappled with altocumulus...

Some parts of the script are a bit clunky, especially when people are delivering historical exposition or characters are being established. But that's by no means out of the ordinary for horror scripts of this time. The brutality, though, definitely was out of the ordinary. It wasn't quite as unrelenting as I'd remembered, and was occasionally rather undermined by the use of bad fake waxy blood. But the bleakness of the ending in particular marks it out as quite different from what e.g. Hammer were doing in this period. On the face of it, the good guys have won. But rather than getting your standard-issue uplifting music and romantic embrace, we instead see both the hero and the heroine reduced to a state of near-insanity by the experiences they have been through, and the hero's friends looking on in horror and disgust. That must have been quite a shock to the original audience, and it certainly does suggest that Michael Reeves was gearing up to be a challenging director with some new ideas about how horror should be done.

Meanwhile, of course, we also get the WONDER that is Vincent Price. According to the pre-show talk, Michael Reeves actually wanted Donald Pleasence in the title role - and fair dos to him, because Pleasence would have been awesome too. Stuck with Vincent Price at the insistence of the studio, he basically made it perfectly clear to him that he wasn't the star he wanted, and insisted on Price toning down the greater excesses of his campness - despite the fact that Reeves was less than half Price's age, and this was only his fourth film. Price was so shocked at being spoken to like this that he actually did what Reeves said, and the result is that he oozes with menace and presence throughout, without ever turning into a cartoon villain. Wikipedia tells me that he later considered it one of the best performances of his career, and he may well be right.

PLUS we get Ian Ogilvy, dear to me in particular as Drusus in I Clavdivs, but also from many a happy Sunday morning watching Upstairs, Downstairs over my breakfast. And there are lots of thundering horses and frightened sheep and billowing cloaks and heaving bosoms and suggestively-placed pistols - not to mention the fascinatingly-precise and symmetrical curls of Matthew Hopkins' wig, which I can never quite tear my eyes away from. All in all, a damned fine start to the weekend.

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strange_complex: (Twiggy)
Seen with [ profile] ms_siobhan at the Cottage Road Cinema.

I went into this film forewarned that it would reduce the cause of feminism to a shallow, materialist parody, while also being terrifyingly offensive about Middle Eastern culture to boot. Some of the reviews I had read included:And you know, OVERALL, those reviews are all absolutely right. This film buys straight into any number of questionable western patriarchal stereotypes, which should be enough to write it off on its own. It also isn't a patch on the TV series, and is catastrophically out-of-touch with its recession-hit audience. It is poorly paced and structured, with minor characters popping up one minute and forgotten the next, and minor plot-points rushed through so fast that if you blinked you would miss them. It is crawling with unsubtle product placements (Rolex, Spanx, iPhone, and doubtless many others which I am too fashion-ignorant to spot). AND it includes a superfluous apostrophe, clearly visible in the title of a Vogue article entitled 'Marriage and the terrible two's' which we see Carrie printing out in the first half of the film. ARGH! [ profile] ms_siobhan and I certainly had plenty to exclaim in horror and disbelief over as we headed for delicious Thai food afterwards, and I fervently hope that my memories of the TV show won't be further tarnished by yet another foray into sequel territory.

But the experience of watching it ended up being for me above all an object lesson in the dangers of over-stating a rhetorical case. Because while I agree with the basic points which all of the above reviews are making, now that I have seen the film I can also see that in several places all three of them have slipped into caricaturing what the film actually does in order to get those points across. The result is that I find myself in the rather odd position of feeling that I need to defend certain aspects of the film against particular points made in those reviews, even though I entirely agree with their overall assessments.

See the thing is - yes, Samantha is shown taking 44 vitamin pills every morning )

And yes, we are shown that Miranda's job is interfering with her home life )

And yes, we do indeed witness the sorry spectacle of Samantha hurling condoms at Middle Eastern men in the street )

So all in all, this may be a pretty crappy film, peddling some seriously unsound ideologies and not even terribly well put-together as a story. But you know, when the reviews make that very point by peddling distorted half-truths, they also undermine their own case. I guess I should know by my age that that's how journalism works (she says, still scowling angrily at The Telegraph). But sometimes I don't half wish it wasn't.

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strange_complex: (Asterix Romans)
Seen with [ profile] ms_siobhan, [ profile] planet_andy and [ profile] big_daz at the Cottage Road cinema. IMDb page here.

Yup, it's another of the Cottage Road Classics. The evening of course began with the usual vintage adverts. We were informed that Shell has the power to lubricate, and that Bobbi perming solution would not give us kinky curls. We also got to see some gloriously 1970s adverts for Coke and shoes, the latter featuring Lulu in some cracking flares. And there was a Fairy liquid ad from the 1950s, featuring a young girl who wanted her mother's used Fairy bottles to play skittles with. That one hardly felt like a novel and exciting view into the past, though, since Fairy draw so much on their advertising back-catalogue anyway in a drive to create a sense of nostalgia and tradition around their product that we are still seeing scenes just like it on our TVs every day.

The film itself is a French comedy classic. Actually, I'd never heard of Monsieur Hulot before this showing came up, but apparently the character was a HUGE phenomenon in his day, with a whole series of films and a massive popular following. More recently, the films have provided direct inspiration for Mr. Bean, both in the sense of presenting a central character who is awkward and accident-prone, and in the sense that they have very little dialogue - mainly just gestures, facial expressions and occasional trivial chatter.

M. Hulot is definitely not the same as Mr. Bean, though - thank goodness, because I can't stand Mr. Bean. Where Mr. Bean is creepy, childish and mean-spirited, M. Hulot manages to seem quite sweet and well-meaning even while he is also gauche and absent-minded. I've never felt the slightest scrap of sympathy for Mr. Bean - only an urgent desire to change channel or, failing that, leave the room. But though M. Hulot certainly does things which are annoying (like inadvertently setting off an entire shed-full of fireworks while everyone else is trying to sleep), he does also at least try to be polite and gentlemanly and thoughtful. He even turns out to be unexpectedly good at tennis - not because he has any real skill, but because he faithfully mimics some rather odd racket movements demonstrated to him by the lady in the tennis shop, and they turn out to be a winning formula. By the end of the film, quite a few of his fellow vacationers have had enough of him, mainly because of the fireworks. But others bid him fond and enthusiastic farewells, in terms which suggest that they've secretly rather enjoyed his little antics.

The film has no plot as such, which is why dialogue isn't really necessary. But it more than makes up for that in characterisation. It comes across as an extended bout of high-quality people-watching, interspersed with idyllic shots of a French seaside town and overlain with lilting summery music. We simply follow M. Hulot and his fellow holiday-makers about their day to day business, dropping in and out of people's conversations, picking up on their funny little quirks, and then shifting our attention onwards. The little boys playing naughty tricks on the beach, the bossy mother, the pretentious intellectual, the young woman in search of romance, the jolly English tennis coach, the bored restaurateur, the military veteran reliving his greatest moments. They're all lovingly sketched out and beautifully played off against one another.

It's a tradition at the Cottage to round off classic film nights by playing the national anthem and projecting a picture of the Queen (or occasionally one of her predecessors) onto the screen. In deference to our French cousins, though, this time we had the Marseillaise and a picture of the Arc de Triomphe instead! And then it was out into the evening air (and a huge cloud of dandelion-seeds) to walk home, laughing once again over all our favourite moments. The moment when he got a stuffed fox stuck on his riding-boot; the moment when he was flipped into the harbour by a tow-rope; the deflating tyre at the funeral; the man who dropped his pen in a fish-tank, carefully rolled up one sleeve but then accidentally stuck the other arm in to retrieve it; the paint tin washed in and out by the tide; and so on and so forth. Not the sort of comedy I usually think of myself as liking - but somehow here done just right.

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strange_complex: (Kida Atlantis meep!)
I watched this on Saturday evening while staying with my sister, largely on the basis that we all fancied a quiet night in with the kittens, and she happened to have it recorded on their hard drive. And it's a good thing that we had the kittens to distract us, because the film itself was dire.

It's not that I am simplistically anti-Disney. I love The Little Mermaid for its bright optimism and sing-a-long soundtrack, and love Hercules for its witty, knowing take on Classical mythology. I also saw the first Mulan film with my sister when it first came out, and we both thought it was all right - typically Disneyfied, obviously, but nicely drawn and with at least a moderately feminist message.

This, though, is a straight-to-video sequel, and it shows. It looks cheaper, the songs are dreadful, there's barely any plot, and in fact most of the film really just consists of the characters being goofy or starry-eyed. There were also parts of it that I found grossly culturally offensive - particularly the song Like Other Girls, sung by three princesses who are being sent to marry three princes they have never met in order to cement a political alliance.

The essence of this song is that princesses have to be dutiful and do things that they don't want to do, whereas 'other girls' get to be free. Freedom includes eating cakes, running around, getting dirty, not worrying about manners, not being fussed over by nurses, and (the bit that really shocked me) not wearing pinchy shoes. Yes, that's right people - not wearing pinchy shoes.

In an effort to check whether this really was as culturally insensitive as I thought it was, I tried to work out when the Mulan films are meant to be set - i.e. were they really situated in a world when ordinary Chinese girls enjoyed almost total personal liberty, and princesses merely had to wear slightly pinchy shoes? It's not as simple a question as I thought. Apparently, the story of Hua Mulan, on which the films are based, first emerged in the 6th century AD, purporting to tell a story set in the 4th century. So far, so good, as actually the practice of foot-binding did not emerge until the 10th century. Maybe 4th-century princesses really did just wear slightly pinchy shoes?

But the story was also significantly re-worked during the Ming Dynasty (spanning our late medieval to early modern periods), by which time foot-binding certainly was practised. And in any case, the story as presented by Disney is clearly basically a fairy-tale, set in a Chinese equivalent to the generically 'olden times' which also form the setting for most of our European fairy-tales. The princesses singing the song are portrayed as belonging to a highly traditionalistic society, and surely it ought to occur to any western viewer with the slightest grasp of Chinese culture that that might well include the practice of foot-binding?

So I don't think it is appropriate to present cheap and cheerful songs featuring such princesses aspiring to a 21st-century western model of personal freedom, implying that this is something they might be familiar with, or indeed that even while they don't have it, the worst of the impositions which they have to put up with is having to wear slightly uncomfortable shoes sometimes. It seems to me a total denial of the culture the film is supposed to be portraying, to the point that it becomes grossly offensive, and you may as well not bother attempting to show a different culture at all.

OK, so it's a straight-to-video Disney film, and I should have known better. I doubt any of you are in much immediate danger of accidentally falling into the trap of watching it. But this one really is particularly well avoided. I've had the displeasure so that you don't have to.

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strange_complex: (Willow pump)
I saw this nearly a fortnight ago now, with [ profile] ms_siobhan and [ profile] planet_andy at another of the Cottage Road cinema's classic film nights.

We started off with a couple of vintage adverts for local businesses, including an '80s one which first showed a woman in a lovely vintage kitchen, and then claimed she would be far happier surrounded by awful pine cupboards - [ profile] ms_siobhan and I were unanimous in our total disagreement! Then we had a Pathé news-reel, which mainly went on about the entertainment tax of the 1950s, and how unfair it was, and how it was causing cinemas across the nation to close down. At first I watched with modern cynicism, laughing at the self-righteous tone of the voice-over, which was basically suggesting that it was every viewer's public duty to save the industry by coming and watching films, no matter how good or bad they were. But then they showed cinema owners having to close their businesses and say goodbye to all their staff, and a local councillor explaining how all the old people in his town had nothing to do any more because their cinema had closed down, and I realised that it was pretty sad after all. Anyway, the tax got repealed in 1960 - but my experience of British urban landscapes tells me that a lot of the cinemas which closed as a result have never gone back into service since.

So it was on to the main feature. Rebecca is the earliest film I've seen at the Cottage Road cinema, or indeed anywhere since I saw Freaks (1932) three years ago, so what struck me most about it was how much cinema changed as a medium after the second world war. 1960s cinema now looks stilted and static and unnatural to our modern eyes - but this film reminded me how much more that applied before the war, even outside obviously mannered genres like expressionism. There was a great deal of what we would see as chronic over-acting and unnecessarily crisp diction, to the extent that I commented to [ profile] ms_siobhan in the intermission that I felt the best actor in the film so far had been the de Winter family dog, who thankfully wasn't capable of either. But either I acclimatised to it, or things got better in the second half. The scene in which Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) tells his wife (Joan Fontaine) the real truth about Rebecca's death (adapted to meet the requirements of the Hollywood Production Code) in the cottage by the beach was quite powerful.

The main point of comparison in my mind was the 1997 TV adaptation with Charles Dance and Emilia Fox, which to my modern taste felt like a better adaptation of the book because of its more naturalistic, intimate tone. But actually, given that the book was published in 1938 and this film came out in 1940, this has to be the more 'authentic' adaptation by the standards of the time. And it is good, once you've adapted to the style. The claustrophobic feel of Rebecca's constant presence in the house where she had once lived came across really beautifully; and the mad, triumphant look on the face of Mrs. Danvers in the middle of the house fire, just before the timbers crashed in and killed her, was absolutely awesome. So I guess I'd still recommend the '90s TV version to a modern viewer who'd just read the book and wanted to see the story more or less as they had imagined it on screen. But this is a very fine example of the cinema of its day, and worth seeing it its own right.

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strange_complex: (Penny Gadget)
I know I am several years late to the party on this one. I did actually try to see this film when it first came out, but hadn't booked ahead and couldn't manage to get into a showing. So, what with one thing and another, this is the first I've seen of Daniel Craig's Bond.

It's definitely quite a change in direction. I liked how the chase straight after the opening sequence was on foot - it signalled the 'back to basics' approach, but also still made me gasp with awe at the clever use of gymnastics and props. And I like the way some of the old paradigms were inverted - like seeing Daniel Craig emerge dripping from the sea in his bathing trunks, in place of the classic old-school image of Ursula Andress in Dr. No.

I can't say I followed the plot terribly well, despite having read the novel as a teenager, mainly because I actually watched this film in two halves with several months in between them (all to do with a cock-up in setting the recorder for it in the first place). But it didn't really matter - I don't ask for Bond films to be anything much more than a series of impossibly-exotic characters floating through a succession of spectacular set-pieces anyway. And the set-pieces certainly delivered - particular the destruction of the Venetian palazzo at the end of the film, which was absolutely breath-taking.

I did find the portrayal of Le Chiffre's asthma slightly annoying - it's often mis-portrayed in film and TV, and I do wish actors and producers would bother investing five minutes in learning how inhalers are actually meant to be used before trying to portray it on screen. Still, then again, I don't suppose many people really go around bleeding continually from their left eye or re-joining poker games minutes after experiencing cardiac arrest either, so maybe I shouldn't be too picky.

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