Directed by: Pete Travis
Written By: Alex Garland
I can trace the steps of how I became a fan of the fantasy/sf/horror/fantastika/call-it-what-you-will genres. In my first year at high school, way back in the last century, we had The Hobbit as a set book in English, which made me a fantasy fan, which led me the local library and Conan and to the local games shop and D and D which led me to White Dwarf (then a magazine about all sorts of role-playing games) where I read Dave Langford’s review columns and bought (from Exeter’s much missed Read ‘n’ Return bookshop), The Stainless Steel Rat and Friday. The other thing I also had at this time was a paper round, which led me to 2000AD and years of reading of Judge Dredd (and others).
I stopped reading 2000AD a couple of decades ago, but still have very vivid memories of the series I read, which doubtless makes me an unsuitable viewer for this film version. My memories of the Dredd strips I read as (just) a teenager, are of a futuristic, brightly coloured sort of bonkers setting lying behind the character (if such he is, rather than an icon) of Dredd. To my own individual set of nerdy nostalgic memories, then, Karl Urban is a better Dredd than Stallone was in 1995, but, the equally important character of Mega-City One seems here to be barely futuristic at all, beyond some huger-than-now tower blocks.
Of course, there are completely valid budgetary reasons for this, beyond the obvious one of there being no sensible reason to make a film specifically for my own particular memories, and I know the early Dredd strips were in black-and-white and so on; but as a general point I tend to think the word “dark” is a disaster for films based on comics; and I retain a greater affection for the brightly coloured Fantastic Four films, than I do for, say, the (admirable, perhaps, but not always enjoyable (to me, anyway) Nolan’s Batmans…) For goodness sake, I didn’t even hate Catwoman.
Anyhoo, I still liked this version of Dredd for several reasons. For a start, there is no time wasted on origin stories, the bane of modern comics-based films (especially as they now tend to be “re-booted” every five minutes); and the fact that John Wagner was on hand as consultant meant any temptation for Dredd and Anderson to indulge in pointless snogging etc. was correctly vetoed (if only Doctor Who would take note!) Too, for old people like me, there was still the voice activated Lawgiver with Dredd announcing the r0unds before firing, and Urban, Olivia Thirlby (as a new version of Anderson), and Lena Headey (as Ma-Ma) were all excellent.
In summary, then, one of those adaptations that deserves a sequel but which, like John Carter, probably won’t get one, which is a shame.
Two more things: 3D. The reason I didn’t watch this in the cinema was that there wasn’t a 2D version near me at a time I could go. The more I see of 3D, the more I think it, in my grumpy old way, just an expensive way to ruin the experience of watching films, and unless a 3D showing of a children’s film is the only one I can take my daughter too, I now refuse to watch anything in 3D. (The one exception I have made to this rule is John Carter, which I would have gone to see however many D it was in.) I almost felt guilty watching the scant extras on the DVD (the fact that you now seem to have to fork out for a Blu-Ray player and the Blu-Ray discs to get decent extras is a rant for another time), where various members of cast and crew explained the trouble they’d gone to with the 3D, but only almost. If nothing else, 2D is still brighter…
Also, and more refreshingly and importantly, as this article in the New Statesman by Laura Sneddon points out [though SPOILERS, perhaps], it was splendid to watch an action film where, for once, the female characters weren’t all Bechdel Test-failing sexualised weaklings.
So, I would watch a sequel even it was in 3D, and you really can’t say fairer than that, nowadays…
There are many reasons to love Jack Vance. Leaving aside, for now, his abilities as a prose stylist and storyteller, one of the reasons I like him, being a bit of a sucker for all sorts of apparatus and framing devices, is his brilliant use of footnotes. (Dave Langford’s entry on him in the Clute/Grant Encyclopedia of Fantasy, mentions many other reasons to like him, and in particular says this: “His gift for appropriate character and place-names is remarkable.”)
And not just character and place names. Apart from the military wing of the galactic cluster’s ruler (or ‘Connatic’) being called ‘The Whelm’, and star-drives being called ‘whisks’, the book currently under advisement contains an example which combines both word-coining and footnotes:
‘Tomorrow we go our way,’ said Vang Drosset in a plangent, fateful voice. ‘Forlostwenna is on us, in any event; we are ready for departure.’ 
“Forlostwenna” is glossed in a footnote as follows:
*Forlostwenna: a word from the Trevanji jargon – an urgent mood compelling departure; more immediate than the general ‘wanderlust. [footnote to p48]
This, I think, is just wonderful: the threefold combination in the word of the elegaic forloneness of leaving home, the fear that such a departure might result in becoming lost, and the “wenn”-ness of whether you might return…Lovely.
Having said all that, the reason I love this book is, at least partly because I’m also a sport’s geek, and the plot of Trullion: Alastor 2262 involves Hussade, the most gloriously implausible, splendidly utterly barking (in a good way) future sport in the whole of sf (maybe). Typically, Vance hints at how his sport works in a footnote:
The hussade field is a gridiron of ‘runs’, (also called ‘ways’) and ‘laterals’ above a tank of water four feet deep. The runs are nine feet apart, the laterals twelve feet. Trapezes permit the players to swing sideways from run to run, but not from lateral to lateral. The central moat is eight feet wide and can be passed at either end, at the center, or jumped if the player is sufficiently agile. The ‘home’ tanks at either end of the field flank the platform on which stands the sheirl.
Players buff or body-block opposing players into the tanks, but may not use their hands to push, pull, hold, or tackle.
The captain of each team carries the ‘hange’ – a bulb on a three-foot pedestal. When the light glows the captain may not be attacked, nor may he attack. When he moves six feet from the hange, or when he lifts the hange to shift his position, the light goes dead; he may then attack or be attacked. An extremely strong captain may almost ignore his hange; a captain less able stations himself on a key junction, which he is then able to protect by virute of his impregnability within the area of the live hange.
The sheirl stands on the platform at the end of the field betweent he home tanks. She wears a white gown with a gold ring at the front. The enemy players seek to lay hold of this gold ring; a single pull denudes the sheirl. The dignity of the sheirl may be ransomed by her captain for five hundred ozols, a thousand, two thousand, or higher, in accordance with a prearranged schedule. [footnote to pp64-65]
“Sheirl” by the way, is explained in another footnote:
Sheirl: an untransatable term from the special vocabulary of hussade – a glorious nymph, radiant with ecstatic vitality, who impels the players of her team to impossible feats of strength and agility…[footnote to pp 15-16]
Nicely, various of the hussade teams are mentioned:
…the Welgen Storm-devils, the Invincibles of the Altramar Hussade Club, the Voulash Gialospans of Great Vole Island, the Gaspar Magnetics, the Saurkash Serpents… 
Voulash Gialospans! As we’d expect, their nickname is also glossed in a footnote:
*gialospans: literally, girl-denuders, in reference to the anticipated plight of the enemy sheirl. [footnote to p58]
Anyhoo. Another of the joys of this particular edition of Trullion is the back cover, which, one notices, after getting over the shock that, as recently as 1979, a new UK paperback cost 85p, is the absurdly over-the-top way the blurb writer tries to market this rather gentle and charming tale. DEATH WAITS IN PARADISE screams the blurb, before mentioning the “ferocious passion for gambling” that drives folk to “risk all – even life itself – on the hazardous water-chessboard gaming fields.”
Eh? Calm down…
The cover above, by Peter Goodfellow from the ’79 Mayflower edition I purchased in Exeter’s much missed Read ‘n’ Return bookshop, is splendid and appropriate, but other covers of this book have been, well, less so. For example, this one, which, apart from anything else, seems to be alarming pre-cognitive of a Lady Gaga concert…
Have updated this and re-posted from an ancient blog of mine following a conversation about sports on twitter. The comments there reminded me that there’s a another Alastor cover [Wyst this time (though that’s a card game, not a sport though, isn’t it?] cover which worth mentioning:
The bloke with the 70s haircut and silly shorts seems to be reaching towards the breasts of the woman in the bikini walking past him, while she seems determined to make every possible effort (and quite rightly so, he’s clearly a drunken menace) to avoid even looking at him…
Oddly enough, the biggest problem with this (at least if, as I did, you watched it in the comfort of your own home), is the box the DVD comes in (at least in the UK). It’s not that it’s badly designed or made or anything (it even has one of those cardboard sleeves with a 3D hologram thingy on it, the sort that makes you feel faintly nauseous whenever you look at it); but rather what’s written on it. Specifically, there are quotes from reviews that contain words like “head-spinning” and “twist”, and, crucially, on the back there’s a list of the special features, which, we learn, include various storyboards. The ‘crucial’ part is that the packaging lists what these sequences are called.
This becomes important two-and-a-half minutes into the film. At this point there’s a moment with a doorbell which sets off a light bulb above the head of anyone that’s seen Lost Highway. “Aha!” you think, “I know broadly how this is going to be structured!” If you’re me, you write this thought down, so you can check you haven’t been cheating later on. (Yes, I know.) After you’ve done this, you remember the list of scene titles for which you can peruse the storyboards later, and, after another minute or so, you pause the DVD and write down in some detail what you think is going to happen. (Yes, I know, again.)
Twenty-five minutes in there’s a vaguely Shining-esque moment, which will have you reaching for your pen and drawing ticks all over the notes you made earlier (Yes, I know, again, again, &c.) and, when the credits roll after the regulation hour and half  you’ll note that everything you wrote down was quite right.
I don’t want to this to sound like a “do you see how clever I am?” exercise (bit bloody late now! Jesus. – Ed) because I actually really rather enjoyed this, and I have endless admiration for filmmakers like Christopher Smith who create and get lower budget stuff like Triangle actually made and into cinemas. I don’t mean to suggest for a moment, either, that Smith was cribbing from Lynch or Kubrick, beyond anything any filmmaker would.
The short (ish) point is that, as a reasonably film-literate person who reads the film magazines and reviews etc, and, having thought I’d find this interesting (and realised that I would, for location and parenthood reasons, be very unlikely to see this “at the time” on the big screen) therefore carefully avoided spoilers for months and months, it was slightly disappointing to have the film ‘spoilt’ (as it were) by the packaging on the DVD I’d finally shelled out hard-earned for (and which, essentially, with the aid of film-memory related light bulbs, enabled me to map out most of it within five minutes…)
That said, there were plenty of minor moments that I hadn’t written down, and I’d still very much recommend it. I’m still having (genuinely, and yes, yet again, I know) fun drawing a chart of exactly what I think the time-line(s) are, which is the reason I haven’t linked to the spoiler-filled wikipedia page, as I haven’t yet finished deciding to what extent I agree with it yet…
So: nice one, despite the efforts of the packaging designers, and I fully realise how colossaly wanky and unforgivably unnaceptable I sound here…
 Incidentally, hooray for this being the right length for the story rather than several days too long. Increasingly, as I get older and grumpier, I find this sort of thing is not trivial)
Directed by: Drew Goddard
Written by: Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard.
SPOILERS! SPOILERS, I SAY!!! (On which, more later, but, if you don’t want to know the score &c…..)
Like my friend, the writer and man Mark Blackmore, I’ve recently been watching this film, which seems to have been somewhat of a marmite affair. I’ve seen several comments on twitter from people whose opinions on these sorts of things I usually agree with, who thought it awful, some of whom, it seemed, had reached this verdict at the point (presumably) the spoilerphobes wanted to proctect us from. This is obviously fair enough, and to each their own, of course, but personally, I’ll say at once that I agree with all of Mr Blackmore’s facts.
This spoilers business is interesting. Especially on twitter, the avoidance of spoilers seems recently to have attained an almost hysterically giddy importance; the capo di tutti capi in recent TV being of course Moffat-era Doctor Who. And yet, if something depends on the surprise, is it really good? I came to Doctor Who as a fan (as opposed to a viewer) at the time Tom Baker was regenerating into Peter Davison; by the time I caught up on many of the previous episodes I’d never seen, I knew every turn of the story in detail: and some of those episodes remain my favourites and most rewatched. (Also: who’s watched The Sixth Sense more than once? Honestly?)
So. I avoided spoilers, didn’t read anything online, and yet, and but, for unavoiable reasons, before I watched the DVD, I bought a copy of it, and thus, unavoidably, saw the DVD cover above, which was also, I think, the film poster.
“Aha!” I thought, “That’s spoiled it straight away, though, hasn’t it?” (My other great spoiler moments have been Triangle (which was spoiled by the DVD cover) and After Life, which was spoiled by the Director on the DVD, of which more on both shortly…)
And yet, there’s nothing in the “spoilers” that would have ruined this for me. The review on the SFX magazine website, written by someone who knows more about genre films, and is a better writer than I’ll ever be, said: “It’s a film that’s difficult to describe without spoilers, despite the fact that, audaciously, you’re let in on the main secret – or at least, handed the first piece of the puzzle – in the opening scene.” How have we reached a world when that sentence can even begin to make sense??? If you like horror films, and Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, and an ultimatlely Lovecraftian explanation as to why horror films are so often poor, you’ll probaly like this, and, if not, you probably won’t, and spoilers be damned…
It’s going to be hard, perhaps, to claim that this, from 2004:
or this, from 2005:
Today’s challenge: write a thousand or so words on how the multiple Razzie-winning 2004 Catwoman film isn’t actually that bad, remembering that any gags about how the end titles include a credit for “Whip Coach” are outlawed…
Not really. But, we might wonder, why is it that, when, in these times when superhero films bestride the world like vast money-making machines, so few are about female heroes, and those that are (from Supergirl onwards) tend to be rather derided.
The prime example, of course, is the aforementioned Halle Berry-starring Catwoman, directed by the absurdly appellated Pitof, to which, I guess, the only acceptable response is, “Pit of what?” (I must admit, I initially thought his name was “Pitou”, which would have been much better, as it leads to a “Bless you!” joke.)
Anyway. Interzone’s famous film critic Nick Lowe once suggested that, in films with more than one (or one team of) credited writer(s), it’s fun (bearing in mind the useful rule of thumb that the number of credited writers is often only the cube root of the number actually involved) to try and spot the bones of previous drafts peeping through the carcass of what eventually makes it to screen.
Oddly enough, though, the moment in Catwoman that most clearly gives a whiff of the film that might have been is the opening titles. A montage of cats and women through history, starting in Egyptian times with Mau cats and the goddess Bast, and moving through time to witches, and thence right through to modern suggestions of the comic-book Catwoman character, suggest a suitably epic, rich, and mythic background, and genuinely make one look forward to what might follow…
Alas. As is usual with superhero films, there then follows an interminable and soul-destroying origin/background story (though Catwoman is no worse than any other superhero film in this regard, it’s 20 minutes before Patience “dies” and becomes Catwoman, and the traditional “But – what does any of this have to do with me?” line doesn’t occur until, so help me, nearly 50 minutes have passed.) What’s wrong, though, is not the slowness, which seems to be de rigueur for initial films in superhero franchises, but the tone: the backstory here has to do with the fact that an evil corporation is planning to release an anti-aging beauty cream that is toxic. Now, this might be okay in something like Erin Brockovich; but having tantalized the audience with the prospect of a suitably mythic and epic story, and that the heroine’s adversaries will similarly turn out to be epic, and mythic, and interesting, and battle with her for the future of the world, the villains of the piece actually turn out to be business people preying on the propensity of idiotic women to purchase expensive creams that will allegedly make them appear younger. It’s hard to express how dull and ugly such a story is, and the excuse that it ties in with the film being about “accepting who you are” and “female empowerment” won’t wash either: at one point a policeman, asked whether his wife would crawl out onto a ledge far above the street to rescue a cat, says: “Only if the cat was carrying a pizza.” I don’t want to come over all PC and moralistic here, but leaving aside any questions of whether or not this is funny (it isn’t), it’s so tonally out of place with any guess as to what the film is trying to be, that it’s genuinely hard to guess why no-one thought to say, “Actually, hang on a minute…”
It’s a shame. The CGI Catwoman is pretty good, as these things go (certainly no worse that the CGI Spiderman or anything in the Matrix films [aside for another post, if I can ever bring myself to watch them again: The Matrix films are rubbish of the highest order, and the most over-rated things ever. Fact!]) Too, Halle Berry is as good as anyone could be with this and could have been the definitive Catwoman with better material; and Sharon Stone would have been a great supervillain if the script had written her character as such, as opposed to a colossally uninteresting businesswoman. (There is, though, an enjoyable moment when Stone says to Halle Berry, “Take my phone,” and Berry picks it up and stuffs it down the front of her trousers. Captain Subtext hasn’t been so busy since Xena: Warrior Princess finished.)
Ultimately, though, you have to say the target has been missed if the most memorable moment (as is the case here) is a scene in which Catwoman escapes from jail by squeezing herself through the bars of her cell in a cat-like manner, and, purely because of the way the scene is edited, at the crucial moment the viewer thinks, “Alas! She’s not going to make it as her bottom won’t fit through…”
On the converse side of the bullpen, 2005’s Elektra, directed by the much more sensibly named Rob Bowman, and a spin-off from the vastly underrated Daredevil, rather than tantalize the audience with what might have been, competently does (to coin a cliché, and while by no means equaling Frank Millar’s comics) exactly what it says on the tin…
Starring the also more or less perfectly cast Jennifer Garner (and ER’s latest Dr Sex Goran Visnjic) there is, as we’d expect by now, a fair amount of tedious background to be got in, but, compared with the first half-hour of Catwoman, this is woven in a lot less obtrusively (let us pass over, for now, any possible similarities between this film’s “The Treasure” and Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “The Key”), and the bad guys (though they ultimately end up being dispatched in a somewhat deux ex machina fashion) are at least suitably mythic…
Equally, the otherworldly and odd way Elektra has of moving is rather better rendered than the similar effect in Catwoman: and this is not merely a matter of saying “boo!” to the audience (witness the way that Batman scribe David Goyer’s film The Unborn does this without ever actually being particularly marvellous.)
Ultimately though, both films end up being, a trifle yawningly, about “finding yourself” and thus (?) saying goodbye to your current potential boyfriend. Argh. Both creations deserve better…
Before we get on this specifically, one might ask, more generally:
Why are depictions of chess in fiction so rubbish?
[Before we go any further, I’ve not gone out of my way here, but: “POTENTIAL SPOLIERS WARNING!!!” – at least if you’ve not seen Season 1 (or followed all of the links that the above hyper-stuff will take you) of The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and, possibly, if you’ve not read The Fionavar Tapestry, or are unaware of Byrne-Fisher 1956…]
This moan, in my case, goes beyond any complaints about the usual “it’s a game of chess out there!” or “chess is like war!” (or vice versa) clichés: as someone who used to (at an extremely amateur and inauspicious level, let’s be honest) play league chess and compete in congresses back in the last century, it’s the way that actual games are depicted. (To be fair, I feel a little bit guilty about picking on The Sarah Connor Chronicles as the heading for this bijou moan, since the opening clichés about chess and war in “Queen’s Gambit” are much better done than most…So it goes…
Anyway, it will therefore be necessary, for a bit, to switch:
[chess geek on]
What set my geek alarm bells off (after, to be honest, when it became clear where the chess game was going) was the comment by the commentator in this episode that “the Japanese seize control of the center with Bishop to c5.” The Japanese (i.e. the Black pieces in this episode) are appearing in the role of Fischer, yet in the game (see link above) it was Byrne (with the White pieces) who played Bishop to c5…The position (after Byrne’s 16th move [Bc5, indeed]) was:
Argh. Later, John Connor seems to realise this:
“That bishop on c5 totally hammered them, Black’s in total zugswang,” he says, with possibly quibble-able use of chess terms, and, to boot, a rather different idea of who’s played what in the current episode (though to be fair, later shots of the board back up the actual Byrne-Fischer game with a White bishop on c5)..
Anyhoo, after 16…Rfe8+, 17 Kf1, Be6!!, as occurred in the game, and is depicted in the programme, the commentary says:
“An unorthodox move from the Japanese, leaving their Queen hanging on b6 sqaure.”
Urgh. As surely any computer would agree, there is no way out for White now. Try playing through, rather than 18. Bxb6 [as portrayed here, and as played by Byrne in the game against Fischer] and the alternative: 18. Bxe6 Qb5+, 19 Kg1 Ne2+, 20 Kf1 Ng3++ etc…(Byrne was presumably hoping for 17…Nb5? 18 Bxf7! etc…)
[I’m less inclined (at the moment) to carp about John’s fluctuating chess knowledge, or the fact that he knows Bryne-Fischer but only recognizes it right at the end of the game…, but….]
To end though, (albeit ignoring the fact that surely a computer would have realised long before, and despite the witless commentator’s comments in the episode about “victory being immanent for the American team”), “Rook to c2 checkmate” was, indeed, for once, how things actually ended (on move 41) in Byrne-Fisher. (Play through it, seriously, it’s great!)
Also, to pick another one I feel extremely guilty about, since it’s one of my favourtie books, there’s a bit in Chapter Five of Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Summer Tree where Paul Schafer plays a game of chess with Ailell, the High King of Brennin, which, whatever the passage’s splendour, breaks the narrative spell, if, like me, you’re inclined to react with a cry of “hang on!” to mentions of how an occasional player marshals his pieces into “a vortex of attack”, only to be met by, “a defence of intricate, resilient, subtlety.”
Yes, I know, it’s probably (and doubtless rightly) only me…
[/chess geek off]
PS: All this has reminded me that a] my favourite review of the first Harry Potter film occurred in the excellent Malcolm Pein’s chess column in the UK’s The Daily Telegraph. (I’m quoting from a long since decayed and fallible memory here, but it was something along the lines of “the Scandinavian Defence seems an odd choice when your life depends on it…”) and, b] my old chess club still has a splendid web presence…
Written by: Dan O’Bannon and Miguel Tejada-Flores
Directed by: Christian Duguay
A second Underrated Thing, here, following on from Blair Witch 2. Seeing as 1995 was 16 years ago, and this (“Third Revision”) version of the screenplay, credited to legendary sf screenwriter O’Bannon alone, from the days when the project was still called CLAW1
is dated “October 1981”, and, seeing further, that the Philip K. Dick short-story, Second Variety, upon which both of these are based, first appeared nearly sixty years ago in 1953, I don’t think we need worry too much about warning that COLOSSAL SPOILERS will ensue.
That said, I do think all these version of the story (particularly Dick’s original) are Very Good Things, and the film version we finally got with Screamers remains, despite the fact that its long, many-handed gestation period partially (though by no means completely) weakened the ending, my favourite of the billions2 of Dick screen adaptations. Well worth going and reading/watching any or all of these first, in other words.
Anyhoo. The plot involves a war between The UN and the Soviet Union (“Second Variety”) The UN and the New Ecomomic Group (CLAW), or The Alliance and the New Economic Block (Screamers), and the questions of who is human or who only appears as human3, encountered by Joe Hendriksson (the legendary Peter Weller — the characeter is named “Hendricks” in Second Variety and CLAW), as he embarks on a doomed peace mission.
The self-replicating, evolving CLAW/Screamer robots, you see, have learned how to imitate humans, and evade the jamming devices the UN/Alliance soldiers who initially deployed them use to protect themselves. Several varieties of these are discovered, from the basic churning, flying buzzsaws, to cyborgs disguised as a lost child carrying a teddy bear (the genuinely creepy Davids), to wounded soldiers crying for help; and their type, or model number, is discovered from chips retrieved from destroyed models…But what is the second variety?
In Dick’s original story, the first development from the psychotic flymo parts (the wounded soldier) is the First Variety, the Davids are the Third, and the supposed Second Variety (the soldier Klaus) turns out to be the Fourth; the Second turning out to be the story’s female charactor, Tasso. At the tale’s end, the doomed Hendricks, having sent Tasso (whom he believed to be human) away on a single-seat evacuation rocket, reflects that at least Tasso’s previous actions had showed that the CLAWS were developing the technology to destroy each other, and not just humans.
Although O’Bannon’s CLAW script heeds to this numbering, the ending involves Hendricks escaping away from various Tasso robots; but then the script ends with a final scene of an ageless CLAW version of himself piloting ships full of Tassos to the stars…
This is where Screamers nearly blows it. It fudges the numbers issue a bit, and, though Tasso (by now, rather wetly, renamed “Jessica”), still turns out to be a CLAW, the first (?) version of her that Hendricksson meets, and who has fallen in love with him, turns out to have a “heart” (*vomits*), and fights off a version of herself to enable Hendricksson to escape on the evac-rocket4. Right at the death though, the film is saved5 by a teddy bear, of the sort carried by the Davids, and which is lying in the evacuation rocket, starting, in a brilliantly Dickian fashion, to twitch…
So, Screamers is a film that covers Dick’s grand theme, in a relatively low-budget, not-scarred by fatuous CGI way that feels more like Dick’s writing than things like Total Recall (still great fun, given O’Bannon’s input and P. Verhoeven’s usual barking turned-up-to-11 performance as director) or Blade Runner (a couple of genuinely excellent moments, but still, I can’t help but find, personally, not something I ever want to watch again) managed.
A genuinely UNDERRATED THING…
1 Cybernetic Lurking Antipersonnel Weapon.
2 Slight exaggeration.
3 “My grand theme” — Philip K. Dick
4 This sort of robots with a heart of gold bollockosity still occurs, sometimes, even here in the 21st Century. See, e.g. Victory of the Daleks, in, to be fair, the excellent Matt Smith’s mostly splendidly enjoyable first series of Doctor Who.
5 Rather like the superb Bernard Cribbens turned up at the end to save the last couple of finales of the previous Tennant of the Tardis’s tenure on Doctor Who…
The first in an occasional series on UNDERRATED THINGS.
The 2000 sequel to The Blair Witch Project (Book of Shadows) still stands as a lesson in how not to turn your surprise-hit, no-budget found-footage horror into a megabucks franchise: by ditching the format entirely and attempting straight scares. It was, and is, a failure. [p142, Issue 262.]
Now, this is a view (and the most common one I’ve encountered over the past decade, let’s be fair), and I only differ in as much as I think the opposite to pretty much everthing in those two sentences.1
The original Blair Witch Project, which appeared just a year before this sequel, was, let’s be honest, a not especially scary film about three tiresome, not to say incompetent and useless hikers, redeemed, just at the death2, by a memorable “stay-with-you” final scene. By far the most interesting thing about it was the guerilla internet marketing and the way that combined with the (less original) faux-documentary ‘found footage’ set up of the film itself.
In this regard, hiring noted documentarian Joe Berlinger to direct the second film, and having him make a sequel, not to the first film itself, but rather to the effect the film had (both on Burkittsville and audience) and the whole idea of the blurring of fact of fiction in the digital age, and the way that can be manipulated, and the implications for the words “truth” and “documentary” that this entails, seems to me to be an original and splendid move rather than a failure.
Neither does Berlinger disappoint. His intention3 was to make a film that blurred the lines between fact and fiction and meditates on the distiction between fiction and documentary (or “documentary”, if you will). It’s not perfect — as Berlinger notes in his commentary, the studio-demanded gore inserts do make the line between ‘are these kids the perpetrators of an atrocity or the victims of evil?” less blurred than would be ideal (and make planted lines like Jeff’s about how video never lies although film does more (perhaps) of a giveaway than originally intended): although I think the intercutting of the final interrogations throughout the film, rather than having them all together at the end is less harmful than Berlinger thinks.
Partly this is because the cast is uniformly splendid, and partly because there are still enough curveballs (particularly re. the consistency of the filmed portions regarding the editing of the videotapes of the missing hours; the real state of the truck; the appearance of the police files etc. etc.) to ensure the true state of affairs does remain genuinely ambiguous; and partly because this is just a better film than the first Blair Witch.
Let’s start with the “straight scares”. These are much better done, and much more scary in this film than the first one (e.g. the girl on the bridge, the heard sounds from dreams, the extent and nature of what, if anything, is missing from the protagonist’s memories etc.) and (which is always a consideration in horror films) the funny lines of dialogue are genuinely funny. (“Oh my God, who made that?!?!?! Oh, I did earlier!” and the light bulb joke: “How many Heather Donohues does it take to screw in a light bulb? *tearfully bellows* JUST ONE!!! JUST THE ONE OF THEM!!!”)
Too, the final scenes, containing the refrains, as various video (rather than film) footage plays, of “I didn’t do that!!” and Stephen’s stressed, uncontrollable, yet determined (or is it?) cries of, “Somebody fucked with that tape!!!” are just as much ‘keepers’ as the final act of the first film.
So. Not just an UNDERRATED THING, but better than its predecessor, and, indeed, one of the best horror films of the noughties.
1 I’ll certainly give them that Book of Shadows didn’t turn Blair Witch into a “megabucks franchise” though. This is far from the least of the film’s achievements.
2 As it were…
3 One of the many great things about Book of Shadows is that the DVD contains perhaps the most honest and enlightening director’s commentary ever. I’m one of those fellows that if I buy a DVD I inevitably find time to listen to the commentaries, but even I’d be hard pressed to describe them as essential. Two I genuinely think are though, are Berlinger’s on this film, and that on the first Spinal Tap film, which, brilliantly, functions as it’s own sequel…
1966? That’s about a quarter to eight, isn’t it? Gosh, I so sorry…
Recently, in a fit of nostalgia, I’ve been re-reading a load of Asterix books, including this one, wherein Asterix and Obelix travel to Britain and (marvellously) encounter boiled food, rugby, and warm beer. I first read these, erm, sometime in the latter stages of the previous century when I was still at school, and they’ve long been the source of two of my favourite ever punning jokes. (The first is part of one of my favourite running gags in the series: Asterix and Obelix destroying the ships of assorted pirates, Romans etc. on their way to wherever the current book might be set. This particular iteration involved a furious Roman ordering his men to get their ships out of the way and not stop to “contemplate any navals!” The second was a play on Wellington’s famous quote about the playing fields of Eton, and involved a character saying “We’ll meet you on the playing fields, after we’ve eaten.”1)
The main delight in the British editions of these books, of course, is the superb example of the translator’s art carried out by Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge. It was therefore rather alarming, on arriving home with a pile of library copies of these books, to discover on the copyright page the dread words “Revised edition and English translation (c) 2004…” Happily, from what I can find on the interwebs, it seems as if the translations are the same, although the books have been re-lettered. 2
I do take gentle gentle issue with the words “leaving the original joke incomplete” on wikipedia’s page on the translations of Asterix linked to above, though. In the section on that page headed “Lost in Translation” the following appears in relation to Asterix in Britain:
In Asterix in Britain, there is a scene in Londinium where a greengrocer argues with a buyer — in the next panel, Obelix says (in French) “Why is that man wearing a melon?” This relies on the fact that the French word for melon is also the name for the iconic British bowler hat; with no way to convey this in English translation, in the British edition Obelix says, “I say Asterix, I think this bridge is falling down” referring to the children’s rhyme “London Bridge is Falling Down”, leaving the original joke incomplete. In the panel shown, the reply of the reply of the British man on the right was, “Rather, old fruit!”, in some publications of the book; a good pun and typical of the way the British address each other in Asterix in Britain.
Well, yes, but the argument with the greengrocer in the English translation in that panel goes thusly:
GREENGROCER: “Oh, so this melon’s bad, is it?”
CUSTOMER: “Rather, old fruit!”
The melon’s bad because it’s a rather old fruit, do you see? In other words it’s not a case of the original joke being left incomplete, but the translators substituting one that makes sense in English (and is a good pun itself, as wiki says!), and changing Obelix’s next words from something that calls back to the previous panel to another reference that will stand alone for British readers.
Anyway, I was pleased to find the Asterix books still rock like a menhir, so there’s still no need for me to ever see the films…
1 To be honest, I haven’t found this one again yet, and am not entirely certain that I actually got this from Asterix, but it certainly sounds as if I ought to have done…
2 Certainly I don’t remember from my first readings the irritating tic of the letter “I” always appearing as “i” rather than “I”, when all the other letters are rendered in upper case. That’s not to say my memory isn’t faulty, of course; this may always have been the case in the Asterix books, but still: why would anyone do this?
Written by: Art Monterastelli and Sylvester Stallone (with, natch, due credit acknowledgements to David Morrell).
Directed by: Sylvester Stallone
A fair old while ago, while (whilst?) attempting to justify my fondness for The Brotherhood of The Wolf to a friend of mine, I wrote the following words:
Firstly, it’s because I think bits of this are the best Sword and Sorcery film, ever.
(Parenthetically, the other best serious Sword and Sorcery film of recent times, I think, is the fourth Rambo film.)
Was I pissed, I wonder, or had I simply run mad? Well, quite possibly; but I still agree with myself, to be fair…
The lengthy (and excellent) entry on ‘Sword and Sorcery’ in the John Clute and John Grant edited The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, [1997, and henceforth EoF] (the S & S entry was written by Clute and contributing editors Dave Langford and Roz Kaveney) begins thusly (words in CAPS, here and afterwards, are EoF cross-references):
In 1961, Michael MOORCOCK requested a term to describe the the fantasy subgenre featuring muscular HEROES in violent conflict with a variety of VILLAINS, chiefly WIZARDS, WITCHES, evil SPIRITS and other creatures whose powers are — unlike the hero’s — supernatural in origin 
Now, it seems we might have struck a problem straight away here with the requirement of the villains’ powers to be “supernatural in origin”, but, I’d aver, by choosing as the story’s backdrop the the horrifying and ongoing conflict in Burma, the scenes where the soldiers of the military regime prey on villagers with mines, sub-machine guns, etc. have the same effect (in literary terms) as the destruction of peasant villages with magic and supernatural weapons in a more “traditional” S&S tale. 
Too, setting the film in the jungles of the Thailand/Burma border make it easier to imagine the tale taking place in the WATER MARGINS of a LAND OF FABLE, particularly as the EoF entry continues:
The geography of S&S is designed as an arena for heroes and heroines who awake each morning at the beginning of their lives; it is designed for more to happen .
This is certainly true here.
So, Rambo. By presenting him here as a virtually elemental force of nature (EoF: “the hero (and from an early stage the heroine) of S&S does not age in the mind’s eye; he or she fights on for ever, in the dawn of the day we do not wish to end.” ) the portrayal of Rambo here is, in fact, the best screen version of Conan yet filmed (and the eternally buff Stallone, in his Rambo mode, even looks more like Conan than anyone else ever has. Too, in Rambo, before travelling down the heart-of-darkness river to the main action of film, he doesn’t tool up with hi-tech weaponry in the modern action film mode, but, rather, forges a sword…)
Ah, Conan, and Robert E. Howard.
Penguin Modern Classics in the UK recently (2009) issued an edition of Howard’s stories, selected and with an introduction by John Clute. In this piece, Clute says, of Howard:
here is a young man in rural Texas, late at night in his bedroom, typing a story. So caught up is he in the thrust of creation, that (as his neighbours have attested) he is shouting the tale aloud into the night…[x]
And in his review of a collection of Conan stories from 2001 (collected in Scores: Reviews 1993-2003), Clute says of Howard’s writing:
It does not stop for a second. It is full-blown with the hard clarity and momentum of some rare dream not subject to paraphrase, as though Conan and story that tells him were coterminous .
This is why Rambo is a great Sword and Sorcery film. Stallone actually says in one of the featurettes on the DVD that his directorial idea was that the film was “directed by Rambo”; and the (admittedly, by some standards at any rate, barkingly OTT) violence recalls nothing so much as the delirious, frenzied, unstoppable intensity of the action scenes of Howard’s best fantasy stories. If Howard had lived long enough to write screenplays for the films we have now, surely this would have been one of them…
And finally, measured against today’s bloated running-times, Rambo’s 92 minutes or so renders it virtually a short story, just like Howards 70-80 year-old yarns for Weird Tales….
 In purely structural terms, at least. I’m conscious here of the potential to appear extremely insensitive and oavish. Rambo is set against a real, and desperate and heartbreaking situation, of course, but (for reasons of utter unqualification) I’m not commenting on that, or the film’s presentation of it, here — merely its (genuine, I think) merit as a work of fiction…