Monday, 20 February 2017

Adaptation: We Can Remember It For You Wholesale



The A-word.
It's the bane of cinephiles, everywhere.

That book you love; the comic you remember; the show you used to watch; the game you lost an entire summer playing? Oh, someone's adapted it and it's getting made into a movie! Whether a cause for pre-emptive celebration or foreboding caution, it leads to only one thing: expectation. And expectation is the death of the 'clean' movie-viewing experience; no matter how closely the film sticks to its source material, or how much it tries to distance itself, it will be faced with the hurdle of comparison.

And while the movie industry loves the pre-built marketing buzz of 'now a major motion picture!', they loathe the comparative references which will be made from the first review onwards. Because many punters will expect to get exactly the same reaction from a completely different medium, to a story they already know. And therein lies the problem.

In this monthly series, we'll look back at some of the most respected and best-loved properties which have made the perilous journey to the big screen; often with some controversy, and almost always with far too much hype. This isn't so much a review of the films themselves, more an appraisal of their suitability as an adaptation.




We Can Remember It For You Wholesale
We Can Remember It For You Wholesale
Philip K. Dick (1966)

As initially feared, the problem I had with WCRIFYW is that I've seen the (first) subsequent movie a fair few times, but haven't read the book. So my brain had to overcome the hurdle of retcon-adaptation. Now, after Minority Report I wasn't expecting to read a detailed screenplay, but Dick's short story (23 pages in the edition I have) is barely even the idea of what it later became on-screen, let alone a compacted version of it.

But I'm here for what is written, not what I think should be. The story centres around one Douglas Quail, a low-level office worker who can't afford a trip to Mars (which, in the context of the book isn't yet fully colonised, so is only populated by government-types or the extremely wealthy), so pays a visit to Rekal Incporated, and then pays an extortionate amount of cash for the memory of being a secret-agent there. So far, so good. The implant doesn't fully take, however, when the laboratory staff discover the memory they're trying to insert is of events which actually happened to Quail, and have been subsequently wiped. All hell breaks loose, Doug is very confused and nobody actually goes to Mars (within the duration of this story, at least). In fact, the entire narrative basically occurs in two locations, albeit back and forth between Doug's flat and Rekal Inc. And the taxi which ferries Doug around, if you want to make it three.

As with the last tale of Dick's I did, this is still accessible enough for the average non sci-fi reader, even if it's perhaps a little too 'presented'. Not so much "here's an intriguing story to make you think about perception and the validity of human recollection", but more "here's a novella crunched down so tightly that I can't focus on the central conceit of the story and have you finished with it yet I haven't got all day you know come on hurry up hurry up".

The golden rule of 'show, don't tell' is disregarded almost completely as characters explain to each other what's happened in Doug's life (I assure you this matters just as much on paper as it does on-screen), and the plot device of a previously undisclosed telepathy implant only makes this more obvious. It's never badly written in itself, but feels like Dick got bored of the story he initially set out to write when he was only halfway through. That said, at least our Phil takes the time to mention that the receptionist at Rekal is topless. Twice. So it's not like he's paying no attention to his own universe. Oh, and in this future-Earth, I noted that we can ostensibly settle on Mars, but Quail spends one moment in the book looking for carbon-paper for his typewriter. Ah, the curse of speculative fiction…

Anyway, when I said that Minority Report was crying out for expansion, it turns out I didn't know the half of it. Not unlike Douglas Quail, in that respect...






Total Recall
Total Recall
Paul Verhoeven (1990)

It may have a date-stamp of 1990 on the outside, but rest assured that Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall is a towering monument to the late 80s. The Dutch director's own version of future-noir is implemented through constant paranoia and garish consumerism, and borrows thematically from his work in 1987's Robocop. The opening titles feature an "Inspired by" card, rather than the more direct 'based on', making some concession to the fact that you'd be unable to fashion an entire film out of the 1966 story. That said, Total Recall opens with Arnold Schwarzenegger's Doug (Quaid this time, rather than the original's Quail) dreaming about Mars, with his wife Lori trying to brush aside his growing obsession with the planet (expertly played here by Sharon Stone). As the movie quickly adds on Doug's nagging mistrust of his wife and his paranoia blurring the perception of what's even real, this becomes a pretty solid expansion of what was written over twenty years earlier. Arguably moreso than Philip K Dick managed.

After this setup of course, the film branches out into its own story and sub-plots. And in the context of An Arnold Schwarzenegger Sci-fi Movie Featuring Michael Ironside And Ronny Cox As Bad Guys™, it's more than acceptable.

Credit where it's due (and I admit I've been overly snarky about this film in the past), Total Recall has a vision that's way broader than the original story. It's just happens to be a vision which is an action-adventure, since the film is incapable of being any kind of cerebral conundrum while Verhoeven's at the helm. Schwarzenegger pretty much plays himself of course, being at once both the saviour and nemesis of the film. And sure, the model/prosthetics work on display has aged about as well as the vision of future society, but it all adds to the charm. Not to be outdone by Dick's aforementioned typewriter, we can establish a mining colony on Mars here, but all the computers have external flashy lights and CRT monitors. I cannot wait for the future, I've still got a 14" portable TV upstairs. That said, the tactless editing-in of stunt-double shots during the fight scenes is sadly timeless, yet ironically gets worse every time I watch this.

Best dialogue exchange:
Melina: Where'd this reactor come from?
Quaid: Aliens built it.
[the subject is then changed]


But, perhaps most importantly from a storytelling point of view, this is a movie about a secret agent who goes to Mars, and which features a secret agent who goes to Mars. Given the scope of the original story, I think we shouldn't lose sight of that. Although only an actioner of this pedigree would feature two hit-men watching their quarry get into a taxi, and then have them get out of their own car to pursue on foot…

And when even Paul Verhoeven makes sure the receptionist's got her top on, you know your source-text has issues…*1






Total Recall
Total Recall
Len Wiseman (2012)

A different year, a different approach. 2012 saw Underworld director Len Wiseman trying his hand at revitalising WCRIFYH for a new generation of moviegoers, still under Sony's watchful eye (Tristar produced the Arnie flick, Columbia managed this one). Despite its lukewarm reception, the film still takes a decent stab at adapting and expanding Dick's original story and like its predecessor quickly becomes its own thing (although like its predecessor, that's because it has to).
No-one travels to Mars in this version of the tale, indeed the planet is only even mentioned in the script-equivalent of a cameo appearance. If there's a stand-in for interplanetary travel here, it's the daily commute from Australia to the South-East of England*2.

A short series of film-opening captions brings the audience up to speed with the world we're stepping into. The aesthetic this time around is far more post-apocalyptic cyberpunk, and the film is looks closer to Ridley Scott's vision for Blade Runner, albeit with the pacing and stunt-work of Minority Report. This is definitely closer to an action-movie than a sci-fi one, although the film's seven (seven!) writers take the time to quote and reference the original book as much as they do Paul Verhoeven's interpretation of it.

Character-names tend to stay close to the previous movie, with Doug Quaid being surrounded by wife Lori, accomplice Melina, and Harry, McClane and Cohaagen*3. In terms of the quality of the film itself, I still largely stand by the words I wrote upon its release in 2012. A decent enough movie which turns into an extended chase-sequence in lieu of story-development. Although it's neither the first nor last film to be made in that category.

Was this what Philip K Dick had in mind for We Can Remember It For You Wholesale? I shouldn't imagine so. But Len Wiseman's version has narratively-irrelevant boobies in it as well, so I'm sure he'd have signed it off…


We Can Remember It For You Wholesale / Total Recall…


Is the original thing any good, though?
Well, it's good in a 'sketched out on the back of a beermat to be expanded once I'm back in my study and the hangover's gone providing I don't forget all about the beermat in my pocket and just start working on something else' sort of a way, yeah.


Is the film-version any good, though?
Both Total Recall adaptations are solid expansions of the initial premise, and both in ways which reflect the times they were made in.


So, should I check out one, both or neither?
The two movies themselves definitely bear comparison, but you probably wouldn't lose too much by skipping the book (not that you'd need much time to read it anyway).


Oh, is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
Didn't hear one in either movie and no-one was quoted as saying "AIE-E-E-E!" in the written version.


Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: The 1990 film's got Weechee the Ewok in it; the 2012 one features the voice of Admiral Raddus.



*1 Although that apparent act of cinematic chivalry is undone once the action moves to Mars, of course. And if anything, it back-pedals by 150%… [BACK ]

*2 Okay, I know I touched on this in my full review of the film, but my estimate of 2,000 miles per hour was way off. I missed it first time around, but it's actually stated in the script that the journey from England to Australia known as The Drop™ will take 17 minutes. Now, the diameter of the planet is 7917 miles. Which means that the drop-shuttle has to travel, on average, at a speed of 27,942 miles per hour. That's a cylindrical object which is pretty much flat at each end, shooting through a tube which doesn't appear to allow for wind-resistance (terminal velocity's not going to help with that shape or the required speed). So, in the future, it's more efficient to build and operate a machine that's capable of reaching almost 28,000 miles per hour within the Earth's atmosphere and gravity (and there's apparently only one of these vessels in operation, remember), than it is to just build labourers some slum housing underneath the factory they all work in. Assuming the passengers would even survive the journey. Apparently. Glad we got that straight. [BACK ]

*3 Incidentally, the hero's alter-ego carries the same moniker here, too. In both movie versions, he goes by the names Douglas Quaid and Carl Hauser. Which suggests that if you were to smash his two personalities together in the Large Screenplay Collider™, you'd get Dougie Hauser [BACK ]


DISCLAIMERS:
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Review: The Great Wall





The Great Wall (3D)
Cert: 12A / 103 mins / Dir. Zhang Yimou / Trailer



We definitely need a word for that thing when you expect a film (book, play, album) to be entertainingly dreadful and it surprisingly isn't, although it's still by no means a great experience. But then, we're in the third week in February, which is traditionally the time when all the big studios release their A-game material*1, so what better than Matt Damon as an unconvincing mercenary trekking across China in search of the mythical and new-fangled Black Powder™ to surreptitiously take back to Europe for nefarious purposes? Except FURIOUS METEOR LIZARDS*2! OMG!

Yes, this is the tale (self-professed 'legend', admittedly) of an early doors extra-terrestrial invasion - the very thing the wall was built for, to keep marauding lizard-beasts out of the capital city. Except the film's opening title-cards tell us that construction took over 1,700 years, and I can't imagine many attackers sitting patiently for over a millennia and a half just saying "it's alright, we'll wait". Unless the Chinese just happened to be building a wall anyway, of course. And it's lucky that the meteor landed on the far-side of that wall really, isnt it? Speaking of which, they might have got it finished sooner (and used a hell of a lot less masonry) if they'd built the thing in a straight line, surely? It's all over the place. But y'know, it'd be foolhardy to list logical inconsistencies in a movie where Matt Damon's character is walking around with an American accent in the 13th century*3. Foolhardy lists are just my thing.

So, the film. It's not terrible. But it could be far, far better. It constantly feels like a crass Hollywood reboot of a folk tale, despite only basically having Damon, Pablo Pascal and Willem Dafoe*4. representing the studio-system. There's the feeling throughout that it'd be much stronger with an entirely Chinese cast and completely subtitled dialogue. Although the screenplay has Damon's character as 'a mercenary/trader', there's not any pressing need for him to be 'a westerner'. In fact, the more of a mistrusted-yet-helpful outsider he is, the more objectionable his character becomes. I'd like to say he charms his way over that hurdle, but I'd be incorrect in doing so.

But the audience aren't here for cultural appropriation and inelegant scriptwriting, they want monsters! And monsters they will get, at wearyingly regular intervals. The mindless hive-beasts are richly textured, but feel weightless against the impressive set-dressing and costumes on display. Visually, the film's battle-scenes borrow heavily from World War Z and the Resident Evil movies, like some bizarre celebration of mediocrity.

This happened to be my first 3D screening of 2017, although more by chance (read: convenient performance times) than agenda. Cinematographers Stuart Dryburgh and Xiaoding Zhao do a sturdy job in reminding us what a dreadful combination hand-held cameras and 3D are. And in a bid to get the money's worth out of the stereoscopic conversion, arrows, axes, daggers and shields come flying at the audience with alarming frequency. Which would be fine if the 3D wasn't used so badly elsewhere. One scene will be sharp and have a naturalistic depth of field, then the next will be ghosted all over and have blurred central characters. By which I mean visually blurred. Narratively, they're more bland.

It also seems odd that a film which has a gleeful battle scene every fifteen minutes takes a moment in the middle to start moralising about Black Powder™ and how it will be 'the ruin of mankind', in a cackhanded foreshadowing of the guns and explosives which will be developed from it. This is already a movie about a civilisation who (in this telling of the tale) build a wall to keep out an enemy that they fear and view as mindless, savage beasts. Yes, this in 2017 of all years. The screenplay doesn't see fit to look into that box of guilt, oddly. I imagine that's down to it having six writers.

In and of itself, The Great Wall is a fine fable with classical roots, albeit a one essentially ruined by unrestrained CGI and the mere presence of Matt Damon. The film has has aspirations it can't live up to all the while it's striving to be a mainstream Hollywood actioner. Like some a cigar-chomping film producer's gone "Sure, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was fun, but you know what people are liking more than that? Characters talking in God-Damn English, that's what! Also, why is the dragon hiding for the whole movie? Our version will have thousands of dragons! Right there! Shrieking! Every time Matt God-Damn Damon turns around! BOOM!".

Still, it's better than Assassins Creed.


So, watch this if you enjoyed?
Those Resident Evil films.
And that's not meant to come off as snarky as it probably sounds, although at the same time it totally is
.


Should you watch this in a cinema, though?
Why not? This film's impact is almost entirely dependent on the size of screen on which it's presented.


Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
Given that it's ultimately bankrolled by Universal, probably yes.


Is this the best work of the cast or director?
For the ones I'm familiar with? No.
For everybody else? I hope not
.


Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?
I won't.


Yes, but is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
Inexplicably not.


Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 2: This has got Willem Dafoe in it, and he was in that Platoon alongside Forest 'Gerrera' Whitaker.


And if I HAD to put a number on it…


*1 Yes, this is sarcasm. No, don't write in. [ BACK ]

*2 When I first saw the trailer, I assumed these creatures would be dragons. After all, that would fit with the whole Chinese-legend aesthetic. It immediately occurred to me of course, that you wouldn't build an eighty-foot wall (the sections we see in the film are much taller than the actual wall, like that matters) to keep out a creature which can fly. Luckily, the many screenwriters seem to have pooled that idea between them, so we get land-bound lizards, instead. [ BACK ]

*3 I may be mistaken here (and I sincerely hope I am), but it seems like every twenty minutes or so Damon attempts what I think is supposed to be an Irish accent, indicative of his character's apparently European roots. It's hilarious if only because he clearly doesn't bother the rest of the time. Although it's also hilarious because of how fucking bad it is. [ BACK ]

*4 An veteran actor who has very little to do, yet still looks increasingly embarrassed each time he appears on-screen. And rightly so. [ BACK ]


DISCLAIMERS:
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Review: Dirty Dancing





Dirty Dancing (30th Anniversary Screening)
Cert: 12A / 98 mins / Dir. Emile Ardolino / Trailer



Okay, let's get something straight once and for all…

Dirty Dancing: Nobody's In The Corner

It's been the elephant in the room (the corner of the room) for thirty years now…


So, watch this if you enjoyed?
I'm actually not sure. This has found its place as one of the definitive chick-flicks, but that label feels like damning with faint praise. There's more to the film than the disposable, idealistic fluff which makes up so much of the genre, yet at the same time I didn't find it as impactful as it could be (because a well-made film is a well-made film, irrespective of genre or target-audience). Not that I actively disliked the Dirty Dancing, I hasten to add, just that I couldn't really connect with anything that happened in it.


Should you watch this in a cinema, though?
This was a 30th anniversary screening so it's not like the option's really out there, but a) I enjoyed it more than the various stretches I've seen on TV because in-the-cinema is how the film was meant to be seen, and b) there was quite the audience present for this; it's clearly still got some cinematic pull (one-off screenings of Ghostbusters, Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting in recent years didn't attract anywhere near as many people).


Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
So have you ever watched a movie and thought 'ooh, this is dated', despite not really having seen it before? And even though it's meant to be a 'vintage' setting anyway, but the things which have dated the most are the visual flourishes from when it was made, not when it's set? It occurred to me watching Dirty Dancing that all my favourite movies from the late 80s are either action or comedy-oriented, and have seem to have worn more smoothly as a result. It has to be said, both the soundtrack and the dancing have aged very well here; the melodrama and the cheese, far less so. It's difficult to fathom the audacity of a screenplay revolving around a character called Baby Houseman, who is neither a baby, a house nor a man.

And how come the film opens with her diary-narration, then that's never used again? That always pisses me off.

Mind you, in the finale where Johnny brings that record and hands it to his cousin to put on, the clear implication is that he's got a copy of that actual 1987 song in 1963, with all its late-80s overproduction. I'd thought that maybe the track itself was just a metaphor and in-story, Johnny and Baby could be dancing to anything. But then Johnny starts mouthing the lyrics. Which implies he's got a time-machine knocking around somewhere. Presumably he locks himself out of that at regular intervals, too.

Also, once the iconic song kicks into its first verse, the sound of the audience clapping-along has been dropped over the top. This happens around a second before the camera cuts to show the audience sitting motionless. The band have started clapping, but there's only about four of them. Now bear in mind, the sound mixer has put this in, knowing full well it doesn't sync with the visuals. It's hard enough to believe in this shit as it is, without also having the film-crew working against me...


Is this the best work of the cast or director?
I haven't seen Jennifer Grey in much other than Ferris Bueller to be honest and I've managed to largely avoid Patrick Swayze's work. As noted above, both are great at the dancing here (which is the point of the movie, to be fair). But whenever the script requires Grey to engage any level of emotion, she just starts raising her voice until she's bellowing flatly at whoever's two feet away from her, and Swayze is just shocking any time he opens his mouth (although I admit that the script holds partial blame for this).

So, best-remembered? Yes.
Best? No.


Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?
I shouldn't think so, otherwise I'd have been berating a hell of a lot of people on the way out of the auditorium. Although Mrs Blackout noted with some amusement that at one point, the guy sat next to me had his arms folded in exactly the same way as I did. Like we'd both been dragged along against our will. For the record, seeing this at the cinema was my suggestion, okay? Besides, John Wick 2 doesn't open until Friday...


Yes, but is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.

Although I'd have slotted one in during the scene where Johnny's lamping that Robbie, conspicuously managing to avoid planting a single mark on his mush. I suppose even in the heat of battle, they're thinking 'No, despite our differences, we're all Redcoats and the face is off-limits'. Which is precisely the sort of do-gooding boundary-setting nonsense that means Petulant Patrick will never really win a fight, and will have to go flouncing off again in his polyester slacks and Cuban heels...


Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 2: This film's got the magnificent Jerry Orbach in it, and he popped up in the Cheaters episode of The Golden Girls starring Bea 'Ackmena' Arthur.


And if I HAD to put a number on it…
I didn't hate it.
Although I probably won't bother watching it again.

Genuinely delighted that you love it, though.
Seriously.


DISCLAIMERS:
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Review: T2 Trainspotting (second-pass)





T2 Trainspotting (second-pass)
Cert: 18 / 117 mins / Dir. Danny Boyle / Trailer



"The world changes, eh? Even if we don't…"
~ Francis Begbie, T2.


It's always good when you can get a new experience from re-watching a film, and T2 Trainspotting is a fine example. After not knowing what to expect the first time round and being bombarded with the twenty years of catching up that Boyle, Hodge and Welsh throw at the audience, my second-pass was a quieter, even more isolating watch. Not more poignant exactly, but knowing the destination means you can enjoy the journey more and take in the scenery*1.

Away from the attention-grabbing, gurning bromance between Ewan McGregor and Johnny Lee Miller, this is really Robert Carlyle and Ewen Bremner's film. Begbie and Spud are the half of the original gang who actually manage to achieve some level of advancement from everything that occurs. And while I'd initially thought the movie was beating nostalgia with a harsh stick (being a large part of the reason that Renton and Sickboy find themselves caught in the same failing behavioural loops), it became clear that a more focused, objective nostalgia is the very thing which allows Spud to move forward with his life. And while Begbie still has some way to go by the closing credits, his character develops more in those two hours than it has in his previous fifteen years.

Although on the subject of the former two, that the scene in the King William Arms where Renton and Sick Boy improvise a sectarian musical number in the process of robbing and entire pub is excruciating. Utterly masterful and utterly excruciating. An underhanded confidence-trick played once on the page, it's amplified through by the screenplay to become so unfeasible that it somehow just works completely. All the while underlining the character-flaws in everybody on the screen. T2 embodies a pastime which has been made more popular and accessible than ever in the twenty-first century: looking on in gleeful, satisfied awe at the poor decision-making of others, ignoring the quiet voice at the back of your brain reminding you that you're no better.

I can see this movie getting some serious play at my house...



So, watch this if you enjoyed?
Trainspotting, pretty much.


Should you watch this in a cinema, though?
While you still can, yes.


Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
It does.


Is this the best work of the cast or director?
Maybe not best of everyone involved, but certainly in the top-half of their CV.


Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?
Absolutely not.


Yes, but is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.


Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: Obi-Wan Kenobi's in this.
Plus, at the end of the movie there's a kid outside Renton's childhood home playing with a toy lightsaber. A blue one as well, so I think it's safe to assume that's a self-referential easter-egg? I mean it'd be a bit weird for someone to bring that to the set and have it be Anakin's saber, wouldn't it?


And if I HAD to put a number on it…


*1 That said… while I think we'd all agree that Irvine Welsh deserves a repeat appearance in this movie, you'd think that at some point in the last twenty years he'd have taken some acting lessons, no? And while I'm on, in that scene where Spud steps out of the boxing-gym and has a flashback looking down the road, the repeatedly alternating camera-angles make the continuity-gaffe with his sweatshirt (on/off his shoulder) glaringly obvious. And also while I'm on moaning, can someone have a gentle word with Danny Boyle and point out that soundtracking a film by hitting shuffle on your iPod only works if you have good taste in music to begin with? Much like its predecessor, T2's soundtrack features three good tunes and the rest is padded out with bland filler. Ridiculous. [ BACK ]


DISCLAIMERS:
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.