Tuesday, January 01, 2008

2007 late round-up: films

Let the belated blogs continue. (Even a week and a half off work hasn't allowed enough time to catch up on the backlog of material...) There are four fantasy films we've seen post-wedding that I think merit some online waffling, and I propose to start with the most recent, and the most tenuous.

I'm cheating slightly by including this one, having seen it with work colleagues earlier in the year, but we saw a relative's DVD copy over the holiday, and this time I felt an urge to write up my observations.

Perhaps it's stretching it a bit for me to class this film as fantasy, but I don't think it entirely qualifies as science fiction either: a magic cube of unknown origin creates living machines that magically disguise themselves as domestic terrestrial objects. I'm using "magic" here as shorthand for "complete absence of even an attempt at explanation". Of course it's not really SF, nor really fantasy, but just a narrative advert for a range of toys, as was the cartoon series that preceded it. The plot, such as it is, isn't, but we all know and admit that the film doesn't need a plot, because the entire point is to watch giant transforming robots beating the stuff out of each other. This spectacle is provided in abundance.

All right, it's a fetish film. Techno fetishism, but more specifically ordnance fetishism. The Transformers are described as weapons systems, and this they are, with all manner of cannons and handguns magically appearing on the ends of their arms. Caught in the middle of their giant robot war are the jets, armoured vehicles and portable weapons of the US Army, and incidentally the soldiers who operate them. Sure, there's one attempt to objectify the female lead, but it's fairly ham-fisted and soon pushed aside to make room for the big, loud, visually confusing, pornographic grindings of metal on heavily armed metal. Is this still a promotional device for a range of toys, or has it become a "get-'em-young" recruiting drive for the military?

Excellent, excellent, excellent. I couldn't find fault with this slightly tongue-in-cheek fairy tale. A friend compared it to The Princess Bride (in favour of TPB), but I think it benefits from not having Columbo giving framing narration. It's also nice to have such a British fantasy blockbuster - the cast, bar the big name guest stars, is crammed full with Brit comedy performers, and when we compared notes afterwards we found we'd all been playing Name That Face throughout. Well, y'know, when we weren't laughing or cooing. Probably my choice for Film Of The Year.

Like Stardust, it has Neil Gaiman's hands on it. Unlike Stardust, it's presented entirely in CGI. The technology's advanced enough that you can make things like hair and water look realistic, but not so realistic that it doesn't still look like a computer game. And really, the only obvious reasons for using CGI here are a) Grendel, b) Grendel Mk II, the dragon, and c) to give Ray Winstone the physique of a thirty-year-old athlete. They might just as easily have cast someone else in the lead (or swallowed their preconceptions and run with a chunky older Beowulf, and why not?), CG'd just the two monsters (optionally three, if you feel you need to actually see Grendel's mum in non-Jolie form, but let's face it, you can get away with as much as they did here just by suggesting it) and made it as a live action film. I mean, if the idea was to make it look as realistic as possible...

There's an amusing sequence when Beowulf strips off for the night and prepares to fight Grendel naked. (And yes, it turns out, he does this in the Old English source text.) Suddenly all you can think about is Austin Powers, as objects strategically interpose themselves between your line of sight and Beowulf's groin. And then Grendel bursts in, and suddenly the possibility of seeing Beowulf's computerised balls isn't so funny. (Although bouncy Yoda does spring to mind at times during the fight.) Yes, the action sequences are good, both of them, but the rest of the film drags somewhat. These are the moments at which you're left to admire how much Anthony Hopkins' character looks like Anthony Hopkins, which only leads you to ponder why you're not looking at Hopkins in the flesh. Ditto most of the cast. It just draws attention to the fact that they've felt obliged to "improve" Ray Winstone.

I dunno... it's good, but somewhat lacklustre.

The Golden Compass
Or, as it used to be called in book form, Northern Lights, part one of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Here it makes strange sense that they changed the title, because the film-makers have cut the story short, and it doesn't actually feature any Northern Lights except briefly in a slide show near the start. Perhaps, as with the second Lord of the Rings film, the exciting ending's had to be bumped to allow more time for the effects people to do the big climactic effect justice. In both cases, the film ends with a lull in the story as the characters journey towards the ending.

The film makes more sense than the stage show and feels less rushed, but I have the same problem with the story (which suggests to me that this may be down to Pullman after all, and perhaps I needn't read the book). To wit: our heroine makes allies by ambling from set-piece adventure to set-piece adventure, meeting one single defined representative of a race or species, who then pledges the faceless mass of their kin to help her in the final set-piece adventure, when a bunch of Cossacks with dogs appears from nowhere on an icy plain and is surprised by the equally abrupt appearance of the heroine's allies. There's no sense that this means anything, there's no sense that Lyra's progressing at all, she just wanders around collecting groups until she arrives at the secret polar laboratory and returns to the plot.

On the other hand, the blending of live action and CGI is very nice (which only shows up Beowulf all the more) and there's some good acting on display. On balance I'd probably take this over Narnia. I doubt, though, that it's destined for the greatness of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.


Christopher Pittard said...

Ah, I can provide the more prosaic reason for the fillum changing the title of the novel from *Northern Lights* to *The Golden Compass*: namely, that the novel was never called *Northern Lights* in the US (as I found out when I went to Borders in Davis CA to furnish my now-wife with a rack of Pullman). Thinking about it though, and knee-jerk outrage dispensed with, the US title makes a lot more sense in the context of the story and the titles of the other novels.

You haven't read the novels? How on earth did you make sense of the stage adaptation (sorry, "The Phillip Pullman Narrative Shortcut Six Hour Bonanza")?

Strabec said...

No only 'name that face' but also 'name that place' part of the Stardust was shot on the Isle of Skye, I recognised it as I was watching the film. I know that is not very interesting but I thought I would share.