Monday, December 29, 2008

Yes, Well, Who Remembers Giant Robots?

Just for the record, this year's D[octo]r Who[?] Christmas Special was quite good. However, the sheer weight of refrigerator logic problems got to be a problem by the end. And lampshading the big one didn't actually help.

(Yes, "recent Dr Who episode suffers from logical coherence problems". Please try to act surprised.)

Sorry about all the geeky jargon there.

Anyway, if we're going to spend time and effort discussing the chances of supporting cast from previous episodes becoming the next Doctor - is it too late to start a claque for Dervla Kirwan?

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Metropolitan Line

Angela picked up one of my wishlist items this Christmas, and bought me a copy of a nice two-disc DVD of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, enabling me to patch over another hole in my education. So the other night, we sat down to watch the movie.

To start with the obvious - yes, it definitely lives up to its rep for production design and general imagination. The Art Deco futurism on display is clearly one of the foundation stones of modern media SF; I honestly don't know how much, say, Blade Runner or Dark City (or, more distantly, 2001 or Ghost in the Shell) can be said to have been directly influenced by Lang, but he sure as heck got there first, and made it look good. And the excellent modern clean-up job on display on these disks, and the original orchestral score on the soundtrack, make it quite a pleasure to watch as well as an education.

The content was also interesting, in a way I expected less, mostly because I'd forgotten most of the many comments I must have seen in the past about the film's oddly old-fashioned, Gothic, sometimes downright theistic elements. The biblical references go beyond stuff about the "New Tower of Babel" (rightly invoked in that British Museum exhibition, now I come to think of it) and a slightly pantomime-ish vision of the industrial machine as the demon Moloch, to scenes in a Gothic cathedral, complete with references to the Seven Deadly Sins (in handy statue form). Perhaps more interestingly, Rotwang isn't an SF mad scientist so much as he's a good old-fashioned wizard, Faust with a dash of Prospero and a touch of Merlin, never far from a plainly depicted pentagram. It turns out (the DVD notes say) that Lang originally planned to have some explicit magic in the film, in overt opposition to the technology; arguably, his status as a founding father of the European SF tradition is a bit compromised or compromising. There's also a sense of puritan disapproval breaking through in the nightclub scenes, which look like a slightly misplaced rant at Weimar decadence more than anything else.

Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) is a fun character, though, but he wasn't the one who I found most interesting, funnily enough. Brigitte Helm worked hard in the dual role of drippy social activist and loopy robo-vamp, but the prize for actual acting probably has to go to Alfred Abel as the arch-capitalist ruler of the city - an oddly austere figure, who seems to be oppressing the proletariat out of a sense of propriety more than anything else.

The film's politics are certainly (notoriously, as it turns out) a bit drippy, with a simple-minded lets-all-be-friends ending that probably explains why H.G.Wells called the whole thing "the most stupid of films" - but I'd be prepared to write that off to its date and to commercial pressures. I don't think it's something that'd be fixed if the print hadn't been slashed so harshly by the early distributors; this DVD has slightly bemusing long intertitles explaining what happened at various points in the original script, seeking to restore various bits of actual characterisation and relative subtlety to the plot. Interestingly, it seems that a full version of the movie has been rediscovered in the past year; it'll be interesting to see how this changes things when the missing scenes are eventually cleaned up and the movie is restored to its original 153 minutes.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Yes, Mr Ganndhi, it turns out to be a very good idea indeed, thank you.

Taking the Christmas break as an opportunity to do a bit of cultural catching-up, we hit London yesterday for a couple of exhibitions.

Morning was Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian at the National Gallery. This was... Well, how often do you get to see the Arnolfini Wedding and Holbein's Ambassadors within a couple of rooms of each other, and still get distracted by other stuff? The thing that maybe jumped out most of all for us was Bellini's Doge Leonardo Loredan, but... Oh heck, I'm not qualified to pontificate on this art history stuff. It was a good show, okay?

Afternoon was Babylon: Myth and Reality at the British Museum. This was interesting, but a bit unsure what it was really about. It started with some archaeological bits and bobs - I think that they'd borrowed some Babylonian tilework from the Louvre - which was pertinent, but some of us have been spoiled by seeing the full (reconstructed, and technically partial, but still) Ishtar Gate at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. After that, though, the Myth bit tended to take over; Blake prints, Athanasius Kircher engravings, '50s film concept art, Victorian paintings of Bible scenes, videos about Rastafarianism, snippets of silent movies... British Museum-style things that would have grabbed me, like what seems to be the first-ever known map of the world, got a bit lost. Equally, the looping voice recordings associated with some display cases - some of them offering readings of some of these ancient texts in the original languages - were thoroughly drowned out in the noise of all the visiting families. (They might work better on a less busy day, but the place would have to be very quiet indeed to make it feasible to linger by each case while listening to several minutes of speech comfortably.) Still, there was a lot to provoke thought (not least the last video, basically a polite rant about the bright sparks who arrived in Iraq to find that Saddam Hussein had damaged the site by parking some grotty "reconstructions" on top of it, and responded by adding one of their own military bases to the mess), and some interesting modern artworks (mostly borrowing the imagery of all those wonderful Renaissance "Tower of Babel" paintings). So a Bronze Age city got intermittently lucky in its empire-building efforts, and picked some enemies whose propaganda-historical writings gained religion-driven staying power - and now it's part of our cultural vocabulary, albeit in shapes that have little relationship to the original. (All those Towers of Babel are basically the Colosseum, reiterated and stacked.) Weird and curious, if hard to convery without looking bitty.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Light Colour

Finally got around to watching, having picked up the DVD: The Colour of Magic.

This is one of those movies - often fantasy - which primarily exists as an adaptation of a popular book. People who haven't read the source can sit there trying to work out what's going on and what the point might be; people who have are the primary target market, and can sit there being impressed by the realisation of the book's imagery. Not having read any of the Harry Potter books, I know how it feels to be in the first category; having read all the Discworld books (I can even say "twice" for some of them, sort of, which is unusual for me - but that was for professional reasons), I could really rather enjoy this. Ankh-Morpork looked the part, if not quite big enough, and a lot of other details were dead on.

The script was a pretty fair adaptation and condensation of The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic, only very occasionally feeling rushed, mostly dropping the right things, and getting one half-decent joke (all the Bel-Shamharoth references) out of the excisions. One small necessary addition was the explanation of why Rincewind should be David Jason's age, but that doesn't particularly explain why David Jason was cast as Rincewind in the first place. (To sell the thing outside the guaranteed target market, of course.) Rincewind should have been played by a younger Nigel Planer - but instead we got the current Nigel Planer not doing very much as the Arch-Astronomer of Krull. Hey ho.

And some of the casting was fine. We even got Jeremy Irons in a cameo as the Patrician, which is as good as it gets, at least in the absence of Alan Rickman (and yes, I know that the Patrician of Colour of Magic the book isn't Vetinari - let's apply a no-geekery rule, shall we?), and Tim Curry had and was enormous fun as Trymon. (Rule #7 of cult movie making; let Tim Curry enjoy himself, okay?) Karen David and and Liz May Brice got Liessa and Herrena right, and David Bradley managed Cohen the Barbarian dead on, at least in the talkie bits.

But that reminds me of the other notable problem; the action sequences were a bit feeble. Pratchett may be a comedy writer, but he's a comedy writer who can handle action immaculately (the climax of Moving Pictures is a masterpiece of choreography), and he's working within and around the traditions of pulp action fantasy. Cohen ought to be Conan with creaky joints, a deadly-subtle combat style, and a screeching battle-cry; the interior of the Wyrmberg ought to be up there with the Mines of Moria for gob-smacking awe and high fantasy violence, subverted only by Rincewind's terror. This treatment just didn't cut it in those moments; they were just sitcom punch-ups in funny costumes. (The Wyrmberg generally was squeezed in and thrown away.) And while the special effects generally weren't bad, they showed worrying signs of budgetary tightness; the giant troll looked okay, but rampaged against the skyline rather than smashing up the scenery, while the brief "characters on horseback" shots were pure 1960s back-projection.

But, you know, whatever. The fans will catch this, one way or another, and the non-fans who find themselves trapped will have David Jason to watch or some good incidental Pratchett gags to listen to, according to taste. It could have been more - it's perfectly possible to adapt literary comedy to good effect (see the better past Jeeves/Wooster TV projects, for a start), and a bigger budget for FX and fight arrangements would probably have made a big difference - but if we're going to have Discworld movies, getting some bits right is a start.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Titles are shadows, crowns are empty things

At this point, I can actually announce for certain something which has been teetering on the brink for a little while; I am now officially the Line Editor for the Steve Jackson Games Transhuman Space product line.

I promise not to let the power go to my head.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Dunsany Dreams

Caught today (at the Cambridge Arts Cinema): Dean Spanley.

This presumably counts as some kind of freak, insofar as it's a 21st century fantasy movie (based on a work by a Famous Fantasy Author, even), with no special effects whatsoever. Apart, of course, from Peter O'Toole's acting, which admittedly makes the annual output of Industrial Light and Magic look feeble by comparison.

It's to the film's credit that it still comes across as a four-way ensemble piece, with Sam Neill carrying the actual fantastical element by playing absolutely straight. (Some actors might have succumbed to temptation when playing a man remembering being a dog and with O'Toole on the set, but this isn't Neill in The Piano mode.) And Jeremy Northam and Bryan Brown handle their jobs smoothly, Northam in particular playing off O'Toole just right. Credit also to Judy Parfitt for her supporting work, and to the town of Wisbech for impersonating halcyon-days Edwardian England.

It's a flimsy little number, but gem-like. Anyway, highly recommended.