Monthly Archives: October 2012
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…