My book The Victorian Planning System: Practice, Problems and Prospects is now available from Federation Press.
My book Movie Towns and Sitcom Suburbs is out now through Palgrave Macmillan.
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Category Archives: Film Reviews
Max Brooks’ novel World War Z is a faux-documentary account of a zombie apocalypse, comprising a series of first-person accounts from around the globe as the undead take over. It essentially tries to game out the zombie apocalypse: if such an outbreak really occurred, using the rules we saw in George Romero’s classics, how it would actually play out? Could humans survive? And if so, how?
It’s an intriguing book, and its single-mindedness in thinking through its scenario to logical conclusions has justly made it a classic of the zombie niche. Yet it presents some obvious problems as a basis for a film narrative, and especially a big summer blockbuster. It lacks a central protagonist (the witness accounts are told to a central investigator character, but he’s essentially a passive, off-screen narrator). Its events take place over a decade, and in disparate locations. And it involves such massive, large-scale carnage that it presents budgetary problems for any adaptation. At the same time, those things that make it challenging to adapt are also much the same things that offer a point of difference from the glut of other zombie properties on the market (the 28 Days films, Romero’s Dead films, the Zack Snyder Dawn of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, TV’s Walking Dead, and all the rest).
Life of Pi (Ang Lee, 2012)
Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is one of the most visually beautiful movies I have seen. So was his Brokeback Mountain. But here’s the thing: the two films are beautiful in totally different ways. Lee is such a strong and versatile director that he seemingly reinvents himself for each movie; you could love every one of his movies but still not consider him as your favourite director, because he’s like a different one each time.
Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012)
Sam Mendes’ Skyfall is an unusual Bond outing. It follows closely on from its predecessors Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, continuing their rebooted take on James Bond. Yet at the same time it reaches back to before the reboot, reinstating many elements of the older series. And even as it attempts to knit together the old and new Bond, in key ways it is unlike any of the previous entries.
Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012)
Ridley Scott’s return to science fiction, thirty years after Blade Runner, would be a big deal on its own. That he has returned with a revisitation of the universe of his other science fiction classic, Alien, makes this an even more enticing prospect. Yet there’s a reason the trailers have soft-pedalled the connection to the 1979 film: Prometheus is quite a different film in both intent and execution.
It takes place before Alien, and follows a deep space mission to find a star system that had been depicted in ancient cave paintings. Led by archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and the improbably icy project sponsor Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), the mission hopes to uncover secrets about Earth’s origins. The team lands on a moon, finds and enters an ancient alien structure, and undertakes an orderly, well organised series of explorations in relative safety things start to go disastrously wrong.
Scott’s original Alien took a very similar opening set-up and turned it into a single-minded exercise in suspense and occasional visceral horror. Prometheus, commendably, is more ambitious. There’s a strong element of Alien-style menace, but Scott also wants to have a try at more thoughtful, idea-driven science-fiction. The film works to some extent on both fronts, but never really gels as a whole: it’s a film more interesting and laudable for what it attempts than what it actually manages.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher, 2011)
I hadn’t read Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (or seen its 2009 Swedish film adaptation), so I went into David Fincher’s version of the story with little knowledge or expectation. The striking credit sequence promises a dark and intense thriller, as you’d expect from someone of Fincher’s talent, and indeed I was intrigued for much of the film …until slowly it became apparent just how non-intriguing it truly is.
The Adventures of Tintin (Steven Spielberg, 2011)
I don’t need to re-cap the level of anticipation to which I ascended in the lead-up to Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Hergé’s classic comic strip series The Adventures of Tintin; my salivating is all preserved on-line. Getting worked up ahead of the fact is part of the fun with modern blockbusters, but it means that actually seeing the film can often be a let-down. Amongst the recent mega-franchises we probably have to go back to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy to find one that truly lived up the hype; at the other end of the spectrum, and far more common of late, are wretched let downs like Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Tintin arrives heralded to the screen by both Jackson (as producer) and Spielberg (as director), so the form line for this was mixed. The good news is that their adaptation does justice to the source material and lives up to the expectations. I loved The Adventures of Tintin.
One of the key things that fuelled expectations was the talented triumvirate of geek favourites that Spielberg and Jackson had snared for screenwriting duties: Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, and Joe Cornish. The trio have done well in forging a largely seamless hybrid of Hergé’s The Crab with the Golden Claws and The Secret of the Unicorn, with a few small details from other books thrown in for good measure. The start of the film recalls the tone of Hergé’s earlier Tintin stories, with Tintin entering into an adventure accompanied only by his brave and faithful dog Snowy; in the latter portions, Tintin meets and then teams up with the irascible drunkard Captain Haddock. Their quest is to locate a series of parchments which, together, will provide a clue to the location of a hidden treasure; racing them to the target is the murderous Sakharine. The adventure takes Tintin from Europe to north Africa and back again.
Super 8 (J.J. Abrams, 2011)
With Super 8, J.J. Abrams pays tribute to a body of work that some feel Hollywood has been methodically aping for thirty years: Steven Spielberg’s work of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Yet even if you accept the Peter Biskind “Hollywood drank Spielberg’s Kool Aid and was forever changed” school of thought – about which I said a bit more here – you’d have to acknowledge that it was a particular aspect of Spielberg’s filmmaking that Hollywood latched on to. The lesson everybody seemed to learn from Jaws, Close Encounters, and E.T. (plus George Lucas’ Star Wars) was that people were after escapist, wonder-inducing science fiction and fantasy. What almost all of the imitators didn’t understand, or couldn’t replicate, was Spielberg’s knack for depicting the real world setting and the domestic backdrop against which the adventure took place. That, of course, was what made the transition to the extraordinary and other-worldly in Spielberg’s work so effective. What makes Super 8 really interesting, albeit not completely successful, is the care Abrams devotes to replicating that more mundane side of the Spielberg formula.
American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1973) and
Two-Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman, 1971)
The pair of car-culture themed films being screened by the Astor theatre in Melbourne as a double bill from the 24th to 30th of April make a fascinating pair; at once complementary and highly contrasting.
George Lucas’ American Graffiti was an exercise in instant nostalgia: released in 1973, it had the temerity to be nostalgic for 1962, only eleven years before. At one level this might be partly excused by the extent of social and political change that occurred in those years. These days, however, we might more readily cast it as a sign of something lacking in George Lucas. He’s known now as a cold and technocratic filmmaker, more interested in fantasy and machinery than with people; and it’s easy to see American Graffiti as part of that pattern. Its escapist revelrie of an adolescence untouched by the social upheavals of the 1960s but glammed up by rock and roll, drive-in diners and hot rods can be painted as Lucas’ rejection of all subject matter that was more complex, troubling, contemporary, and adult.
True Grit (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2010) and
True Grit (Henry Hathaway, 1969)
We hear a lot of griping about Hollywood remakes, usually in the context of telling us how creatively bankrupt the industry is. Well, perhaps – perhaps – there’s some truth in that. But we can also look on remakes as a way of measuring the progress of basic storytelling craft in Hollywood, by seeing how the same material is treated differently over time. And so it is with the western True Grit, Joel and Ethan Coen’s adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel, which had previously been filmed in 1969 by Henry Hathaway.
Such an exercise is never scientific, of course. Hathaway was an experienced old-hand, in his early seventies, towards the end of a long career that stretched back to the silent era. While a distinguished studio veteran, he wasn’t a figure of the calibre of John Ford or Howard Hawks; he was never held in the same esteem as the Coen brothers are today. In other respects, though, the talent in the films can be seen as comparable. Hathaway’s film was still a prestige production, and in John Wayne it features the kind of old-fashioned star power that the post-classical era Hollywood can’t really build any more. It is also interesting for its pairing of Wayne with a couple of notable figures from the then-emerging generation of New Hollywood actors, with Dennis Hopper and Robert Duvall in small-ish but important supporting parts. Against that, the Coens have Jeff Bridges in the Wayne role, Matt Damon in the big supporting part (played by musician Glen Campbell in Hathaway’s film), and a comparable stock of interesting supporting players as villains (most notably Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper).
The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)
Early in David Fincher’s Facebook origin story The Social Network, nerdy and socially inept Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is chatting to the Winklevoss twins (both played by Armie Hammer). Zuckerberg has proven himself a programming whiz with a campus-blitzing piece of computer hacking; they’re a pair of old-money golden boys looking to recruit him to work on their start-up web business. Despite the modern trappings, the exchange is filtered through more traditional power dynamics, with the tall, good-looking, WASP Winklevosses deigning to let the thin, geeky, Jewish Zuckerberg into the entry hall of their exclusive campus fraternity. It’s at that moment that the analogy between David Fincher’s prestigious Oscar-favourite drama and a campus fraternity comedy such as Animal House snaps into focus.