Autodidact: self-taught

Feb
13
2014

Threads

by V. L. Craven

Threads
In 1984, after rising tensions between the Americans and Soviets nuclear war breaks out.  Threads is a documentary-style film about the events leading up to the warheads, the chaos during, the nuclear winter and rebuilding efforts afterwards in Britain.

The plot initially revolves around a couple in Sheffield, Ruth and Jimmy, who have decided to marry after accidentally falling pregnant. It then expands to include the emergency operations staff, which has been sent down into a bunker.

The real story is about what would actually happen prior to and after a nuclear attack, should you survive. The writer (Barry Hines) clearly did his research–every step taken by the government before and after seems terrifyingly likely. The list of people consulted includes Carl Sagan, as well as loads of other very smart people so I’ve no doubt it’s as accurate as possible. Which makes this all the more terrifying.

If you’re looking for a horror film that has a very real basis in reality, then here you are. You may want to have something by Pixar in the sidelines for afters, though.

You can watch the entire film here  for free and I highly recommend it. It’s grim as hell, but thought-provoking. I’m glad I watched it, but will not be watching it again.

From the Wikipedia page:

[The director Mick] Jackson later recalled that unlike most BBC productions, which once finished airing would immediately result in phone calls of congratulations from friends or colleagues, no such calls came after the first screening of  Threads . Jackson later “realised… that people had just sat there thinking about it, in many cases not sleeping or being able to talk.”

Nov
07
2013

Sleepy Hollow and Its Various Incarnations

by V. L. Craven
Sleepy Hollow and Its Various Incarnations

Ichabod Crane, Respectfully Dedicated to Washington Irving by William J Wilgus (1819-53)

There’s a new show based on Washington Irving’s ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’. I was going to give it a miss, but then I found out they shoot it where I live and it’s always fun to play spot-the-location. My introduction was a cartoon, which I’ll get to, but I wanted to compare some of the adaptions (cartoon, film and TV series) and realised I hadn’t read the story. So that came first. It’s available from Gutenberg  for free.

Irving’s writing is incredibly atmospheric and he captures nature beautifully. The characters are two-dimensional, though, and not likeable–particularly the protagonist and his crush, Katrina van Tassel. Typical of a short story, there isn’t a great deal going on–the descriptions and atmosphere are the selling points. Oh, and prepare yourself for the casual racism. This was written in the early 1800s. It’s pretty minimal compared to other things I’ve read written during that time, but it’s still there. Be warned.

Sleepy Hollow and Its Various Incarnations

This was the only scene I remembered.

As mentioned, my introduction to the story was the Disney cartoon , made in 1949. Which, upon, re-viewing, was rather disappointing. My young mind had glossed over the romance, greed, and singing and paid sole attention to the spookier aspects like the headless horseman and chase through the woods. The singing, however, does happen in the story. In fact, the cartoon is holds very close to the source material. They leave out the racism, thankfully, and they cut down on the general spookiness, but overall it’s quite accurate.

What was odd was that I could have sworn there was a bit where Brom Bones and his friends had pulled the prank where they chased Crane, pretending to be the Horseman. Because I was expecting it in the Burton adaptation. I have a very clear memory of this happening. The way the brain works, wow.

Sleepy Hollow and Its Various Incarnations

‘I swear, I’d lose my head if it weren’t screwed on… DAMMIT’

Many years later (as in decades) Tim Burton remade the tale with a bunch of spectacular actors, including Christopher Walken as the Headless Horseman. This will probably always be the definitive version for me because it’s Burton, whose aesthetic pleases me greatly, and because of the aforementioned cast. He changed…nearly everything. Except he made two very minor characters mentioned in passing in the story into important characters in the film.

Burton’s version is visually dark–it’s Burton, what do you want?–though the story happens in Autumn in New England when everything would have been reds and golds and oranges. Ichabod was, indeed, a wimp, so that remained the same, but Katrina became a witch (something that would carry over into the TV series), rather than the vacuous flirt from the story and cartoon and there was blood and a real horseman. Something that’s left up in the air in the story and cartoon.

Sleepy Hollow and Its Various Incarnations

Eventually spring will come to Sleepy Hollow…that won’t be spooky…

So then Fox announced they were making a television show called  Sleepy Hollow  and I was sceptical. How could they take a short story and make it into a series? But after reading this review  I decided to give it a shot and I’m glad I did.

The first two episodes were the set up and people getting to grips with their roles in the battle with the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The third episode felt like the first ‘real’ episode, if that makes sense. The one where they work out who a baddie is and take it down, Buffy-style. The entire show is very Buffy-like–dramatic and supernatural and occasionally laugh out loud funny. They’ve already renewed it for a second series, which I’m very glad to hear, particularly since our landlord’s daughter is now working on the show.

And I get to pretend I live in a city like Sunnydale, but I’m not one of the stupid people who gets killed on a regular basis. Seriously, that place must have had a ridiculously high death rate.

 

 

Sep
26
2013

Da Vinci’s Demons

by V. L. Craven

Da Vincis Demons

I’ve recently had the opportunity to catch up on some television recommended by GetGlue . One of the shows is Da Vinci’s Demons, which is an original show by the Starz network, and dramatises the life of Leonardo da Vinci. Going into the show, the only things I knew about our man was that he was ambidexterous, likely bisexual, and an artistic genius.

After watching the first series, I’m sticking to that set of things, as I’m sure all sorts of facts were altered to make the show more interesting. That’s fine by me, as I’m not a history major, though I would be interested in what was changed. It was fun to see some of his more fanciful creations on screen, though. And Florence was beautiful as always.

I most enjoyed their version of ‘Charlie vision’, which is what they called what happened on Numbers when Charlie began explaining his current plan for saving the world with some algorithm. They do something similar on Da Vinci’s Demons, but the graphics are in the style of Da Vinci’s sketches.

The plot of the first series is Da Vinci trying to solve an ancient puzzle with his brilliant mind whilst also being caught up in the political intrigue between the Medicis in Florence and the Vatican in Rome. During this he is also juggling his complex love life (to say he makes poor choices in this department would be an understatement).

Da Vincis Demons

This isn’t from a Saw movie. It’s something Prince Charming below has.

Then, episode six happened. It was entitled ‘The Devil’ (each episode was named after a card in the major arcana). Da Vinci’s quest takes him to a castle in Wallachia. From afar, he and his friend and assistant notice something odd around the walls… people impaled on spikes. They ride up and are met by the owner of the castle and his men. The owner in question is Vlad Tepes. Dracula.

Wow, was that a fun episode. The set was aptly dark, but I wish they’d thrown up the lights a bit so I could have got a better look at his castle. There was a spectacular skull and long bone chandelier and skulls in the torches. I’m sure there were loads of other fantastic details I simply couldn’t see due to the murk.

Da Vincis Demons

Not that the darkness is a hindrance for someone with no soul.

The entire first series was only eight episodes, but a second series has been ordered, so I’m looking forward to that.

If you’re looking for something based in reality–there was a very good show called  Doing DaVinci , which aired on the Discovery Channel where a team of designers built and tested some of DaVinci’s designs. Some with more success than others. The list of things they attempted to build is here.

The official website for Da Vinci’s Demons is here with extras and behind-the-scenes footage along with air dates and ways to watch the show if you don’t have cable. If you saw the show, let me know what you think.

Sep
05
2013

The Winter Guest

by V. L. Craven

The Winter Guest

The Winter Guest was the original film I thought of when doing this series of reviews set in cold climates. It’s also one of my top five favourite films. Everything about it is perfect–acting, directing, set design, score, cinematography. It’s the sort of film that, every time I watch it, I’m surprised yet again at how beautiful it is and at how well all of the pieces work together.

That said, it’s always difficult to write about one of your favourite pieces of media, be it book, film, or music, as the way it moves you is as much to do with who you are as it is about the actual piece of art. Still, I’m going to give it a go.

The film is directed by Alan Rickman (yes, that one), who also adapted the screenplay from the play by Sharman MacDonald. Prior to making the film, Rickman directed the play–three of the eight actors from the stage version appeared in the film.

The Winter Guest

Set so far north in Scotland that the sea freezes, the film focuses on eight people; a mother and daughter (played by Emma Thompson and her real-life mother, Phyllida Law), two young boys skiving off from school (one of whom will go on to play Oliver Wood, the Gryffindor Keeper), two elderly women who frequently attend strangers’ funerals, and two teenagers who argue and flirt.

It’s a quiet film that feels very much like a play–most scenes are between two characters at a time. For people who are used to blockbusters it will feel like nothing is happening, but all sorts of things are going on beneath the surface. Not unlike the sea that is outwardly frozen, but is certainly roiling beneath the ice.

It’s probably the most character-driven film I’ve ever seen. The depth of each character is such that it’s difficult to sum up each one succinctly so, for fear of cocking it up entirely, I’m not going to try. Yes, that’s a cop out, but I’m not trying to sell people on Remembrance of Things Past , either, even though it’s my favourite book. I don’t think I could do it justice.

On top of the performances and directing and the stark radiance of Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography (which I could look at all day) Michael Kamen’s score is the perfect complement. And then there are Robin Don’s incredible sets. There’s a beauty and delicacy to everything in the film. It’s a masterpiece.

And now that I haven’t oversold it at all , find it and see it for yourself. Make a mug of hot cocoa, wrap  up in your warmest blanket, and enjoy this under-appreciated classic.

The Winter Guest

Aug
08
2013

The Ice Storm

by V. L. Craven

The Ice Storm

I’ve always loved the look of an unbroken plain of snow. The hush it gives the world. How, in the moonlight, it can be so bright. How, when you live some place unprepared for it, you get out of school for flurries. Cold weather clothes are my favourite, as well. Oddly, I do not care to actually be cold. I do, however, like that when it’s cold one can use that as an excuse not to leave the house. And I like looking at cold things. Like films set in cold climates or during cold snaps. And since it’s currently ridiculously hot and humid where I am I’m choosing to chill out with some cool films over the next few weeks.

If the idea appeals to you, here are some lists of suggestions:

Time:  Top 10 Freezing Cold Movies
Letterbox: Gloomy Movies Set in the Cold
A.V. Club: No Cure for Cabin Fever: 16 Memorable Films Set During Cold Snaps

The first film in this series of reviews is The Ice Storm by Ang Lee.

The Ice Storm

It’s Thanksgiving 1973 and it’s a groovy time. Except for the ridiculous amount of dysfunction running rampant in the Carvers and the Hoods, the households the plot centres around.

You’ve got all of the 70s–swinging, Nixon, casual drug use, marriage counseling is all the rage, etc. And every single character is having some sort of sexual problem. Either they’re sleeping with the wrong person (or trying to) or they’re frustrated in their marriage or they’re a teenager–and not the kind having easy sex. Everyone is trying to figure themselves out–adults and kids alike. It’s like a metaphor for the 70s, in a way. the rules were no longer hard and fast and people didn’t know where that left them.

The backdrop to all of this is cold, cold weather, culminating in the titular ice storm. Even though it was actually shot during the spring, the cinematographer, Frederick Elmes, did an excellent job of making it feel cold. The scenes outside even before the weather turns is beautiful; and once the weather does turn towards the worse, one of the characters takes a walk. And it’s gorgeous.

The Ice Storm

The Ice Storm is a character-driven, quiet piece, much like Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, which puts much of the weight on the actors.

Which brings us to the cast. The younger set are Christina Ricci, Elijah Woods, Tobey Maguire, Katie Holmes and David Krumholtz. This was released in 1997 so they were really young. It was Katie Holmes’ film debut.

The adults are Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver and Jamey Sheridan. Allison Janney has a great smaller bit. All of the performances were excellent.

Released in 1997, it was based on a 1994 novel written by Rick Moody, who, apparently enjoyed the movie so much he wept through the closing credits. I’m sure many other authors have wept through the end credits of film adaptations of their work, but I’m not sure how many of those tears were out of joy.

This is one of those films where everything worked together very well. The writing, directing, acting, soundtrack, etc. It would be good any day of the year, but it’s perfect for a sweltering day in August.

Feb
21
2013

Puccini for Beginners

by V. L. Craven

Puccini for Beginners

I watched Puccini for Beginners at the weekend and it was a fun enough romp. New York was shot beautifully and the actors did a better job than what I was expecting–I don’t have high hopes for most lesbian-themed films, as they usually don’t have great budgets. Gretchen Mol was nice (this is the first thing I’ve seen her in–is it just me or does she look exactly like Kate Hudson?) as were the other two leads, Elizabeth Reaser and Justin Kirk.

The premise is a commitment-phobic lesbian (Reaser) is dumped by her heterosexual girlfriend (a Molly Parker look-a-like named Julianne Nicholson) and falls into bed with a man (Kirk). They have a relationship of sorts and have a rather ridiculous conversation about the differences between heterosexuals and homosexuals philosophies towards relationships. The friends of the lesbian-dating-a-man are two dimensional, but the actresses (Jennifer Dundas and Ute Lemper’s twin Tina Benko) do their best. And I know it seems like I’m saying everyone in this film looks like someone else, but that’s bound to happen, really. There are only so many ‘attractive’ faces in the world and a good number of them are on the screen–some of them are bound to resemble one another.

The thing about the film that’s stuck with me longest was the pronunciation of “Turandot” by Reaser within the first five minutes of the film. She pronounced it: TUR-in-dot. I thought it was a French name and therefore the ‘t’ would be silent. So I looked it up and the final answer is: Yay, I’m right. According to Puccini scholar Patrick Vincent Casali, Puccini never pronounced the ‘t’. Which totally kills the illusion that the character was supposed to be such an opera buff. Oh well. At least I learned something.

[Repost from now-defunct blog. Original post date: August 7, 2007]

Apr
07
2011

Harry Potter and the Nearly Incomprehensible Film

by V. L. Craven

I’ve finally seen the fifth Harry Potter film. I can’t believe anyone who hasn’t read the books could have any clue what the hell was going on. I know they only have so long for a film, but I don’t think a fifteen hour long DVD for the fans would go amiss. Watson was still in over-dramatic mode and Grint was Mr Mumble-Face but Radcliffe has improved a great deal.

What I found most confusing were the things they partially put in but didn’t explain. Like that Harry was the snake–there’s a half second shot of a snake but it’s not obvious that it’s a reflection. Then Sirius’s mother’s portrait is heard whispering behind a curtain but it’s never explained who she is or what the hell she’s muttering about.

I liked the look best of the films thus far (though the third one comes close) and the veil Siruis fell through was much more beautiful and haunting than I’d pictured. And have mercy but Helena Bonham Carter was perfect for Bellatrix, but overall the film felt rushed.

And there wasn’t enough of Rickman or Smith. And they cut my favourite scenes, but I always say that. Whinge whinge gripe complain.

And of course I’ll buy the next two films. Because I’m a good consumer.

[This is a re-post from a now-defunct blog. Original post date: 11 January, 2008]

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