Category Archives: Hollywood

Prometheus (UK/US 2012)

Noomi Rapace as archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw in ‘Prometheus’

Prometheus is a good example of ‘Global Hollywood’ and its release in 2012 points to several aspects of how Hollywood is coping with the evolving global film ecology. The film is a prequel of sorts to the Alien franchise which began in 1979 with three further instalments (and two more related to the Predator franchise) over the next thirty years.

The production cost an estimated $130-140 million to produce and a great deal to market ($60 million if the 50% of production cost rule applies). Only a Hollywood studio could afford that kind of money. It was produced by three companies, two American and one British for the studio major 20th Century Fox. Producer-director Ridley Scott is British, the scriptwriters are American. The principal technical credits are for Europeans who are all US residents (Polish cinematographer, Italian film editor, German music composer). There are thirteen speaking parts in the film and these are played by five English, two Scottish, one South-African, one Irish-German, one Australian, one Swedish-Spanish and two American actors. Having said that, all the principals are known to American film and television audiences. As if to add to the confusion, the art director Arthur Max is an American who has worked mostly in the UK. The film was shot mainly on Pinewood sets in the UK and on location in Iceland, Scotland and Spain. The extensive visual effects work was carried out in the UK, US, Australia and New Zealand.

Trying to assign ‘nationality’ to a film like Prometheus is clearly pointless. IMDB currently describes it as a ‘US’ production. That must be wrong. If anything it is a British production using international talent and facilities, all of which are paid for with American money (though of course that money probably comes ultimately from a variety of sources).

Prometheus is a ‘tentpole’ release by 20th Century Fox, a News Corporation company. Its release strategy follows that of Avengers Assemble (or whatever it is called internationally!) in releasing to the ‘International’ market a week before the ‘domestic’ North American release. I haven’t yet seen a convincing argument as to why this development has taken place. We know that ‘international’ is now twice the size of ‘domestic’ but that doesn’t explain why it necessarily comes first. In the UK, Prometheus opened on 1,019 screens with 73% of box office coming from 3D presentations (UK multiplexes are now almost completely converted to digital projection). Given that the opening date coincided with the Jubilee celebrations this was perhaps an odd decision. On the other hand, it was also a school holiday (it’s a ’15’ release) and the weather in the UK has been terrible – which is always good for the box office. I expect a healthy total for the full week following a weekend screen average of $10,000 (though the inflated cost of 3D presentations disguises the admissions numbers). The film opens in the US today.

But what about the film as a narrative? It deals with a mission at the end of the 21st century to find an alien civilisation which may have visited the Earth 3,000 years ago – as seen on cave paintings. (This idea is loosely drawn from The Chariot of the Gods, the 1968 book by Erich von Däniken.) The ship’s crew find the remains of an alien base, which at first appears derelict, but then . . . etc.

I confess that I’m not a Ridley Scott fan. His films are brilliantly ‘visualised’ and always contain exciting sequences – but most of the time they are also confused and messy in their storytelling. On a few occasions Scott has had a decent script and a strong cast and the film is a standout – I give you Thelma and Louise and Alien. (I still can’t forgive the scriptwriters for what they did to Phil K. Dick’s work in Blade Runner.) Unfortunately, I have to agree with what I think is the majority verdict on this, his latest film. Prometheus looks great, the cast is terrific and the script is pretty ropey. (I watched a 2D version.)

Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender are terrific, Idris Elba and Charlize Theron have less to do but certainly have a presence and with supporting cast as strong as Kate Dickie, Sean Harris, Timothy Spall and Benedict Wong there shouldn’t really be a problem (the casting and the theme of the film are very reminiscent of Danny Boyle’s underrated Sunshine).

There will no doubt be a sequel (i.e. at least one more prequel to Alien) but I hope that more work goes on the script. I’ll just mention one irritating script element. At the beginning of the film a credit tells us that the ‘Prometheus’ has a crew of 17 – yet only 10 of the crew have lines of dialogue. In a confined space like the ship, doesn’t it seem lazy to have nearly half the crew as simple, mute spear carriers?

I think in the end that this ‘global film’ isn’t in fact ‘global’ enough. It will be interesting to see how it fares at the box office outside Europe and North America. An English-speaking audience will hear its ‘Britishness’ in the dialogue but that will be lost in dubbing. In the first week, Prometheus was released in 15 territories and entered the international chart at No 3. It failed to beat Men In Black 3 (in 90 territories) and Snow White and the Huntsman (in 45 territories). The comparison with Snow White is significant. That film was in its second week in some territories but its screen average was still higher than that of Prometheus. The grittier, more ‘realist’ end of science fiction is not such a global attraction as comedy and romance/fantasy.

Many territories will see the film as simply ‘American’. On the other hand, there is not a specifically American ideological feel about the story – though it does have a ‘creationist’ discourse which I assume will resonate more in the US than it does over here. It’s worth remembering that the original Alien was written by Dan O’Bannon (co-creator of one of my favourite science fiction films Dark Star (1974)) during the counter-culture years in Southern California – indeed, Wikipedia suggests that the Alien script was developed from Dark Star. I don’t know if that influenced the sense of corporate exploitation of space with its truculent crew but the Alien films seem quite different in ideological terms to the Star Trek franchise (which has always felt like an odd combination of progressive, liberal ideas married to an American military ethos).

It’s going to be interesting to see how feminist film studies approaches this ‘re-boot’ of the Alien franchise. And I’m particularly looking forward to the analysis of Noomi Rapace as Elizabeth Shaw v. Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, triangulated with Noomi as Lisbeth Salander. I suspect that Ms Rapace is here to stay. She looks and sounds different – and she is an outstanding acting talent.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (US 2011)

The first meeting between Lisbeth and Mikael (I'm intrigued by this still which shows cigarette smoke – but no obvious source of a burning cigarette). The extent of smoking in the film is one of its controversial features as a mainstream Hollywood film.

I’m already on record as arguing that this was a pointless production, so I wasn’t an impartial observer on my cinema visit to see this film. However, I felt I had to see it and having done so I must slightly revise my original condemnation. In preparation for watching the Scott Rudin/Steve Zaillian/David Fincher film, I first looked at the DVD of the Swedish film adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s novel directed by Niels Arden Oplev and written by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg. When I first saw that film in the cinema, I don’t think I really appreciated it because I was still wrapped up in the novel trilogy (see comments on this posting). I then, on the same day, watched the Fincher film and consequently went back to the novel. There is so much plot in the novel that I couldn’t keep all of it in my head and I realised that I’d forgotten a lot of what I first read in 2008/9.

My first surprise was that I really enjoyed watching the Swedish version again. I was very angry at the rather dismissive tone of many critics towards Oplev in both the promotion of the Fincher version and the reviews of that film. Oplev is treated as if he were almost an amateur. In fact, the Swedish film is a highly competent piece of filmmaking and works very well. I also found myself quite emotionally involved with Mikael Nykvist and Noomi Rapace as the principals. The Oplev film runs to 152 mins. The Fincher film is only 5 mins longer but it includes quite a lot more plot as well as an extended title sequence. I was surprised to discover that the Zaillian script for Fincher is actually more ‘faithful’ to the book – although it can’t, of course, include everything in the very densely plotted 500+ pages. One odd point is that despite what I read in some interviews about Zallian/Fincher not wanting to watch the Oplev film, they seem to have taken certain scenes from the first film rather than from the book. (One example is the scene in which Lisbeth Salander’s computer is trashed on the Stockholm rapid transit system.) We seem to be in the same territory here as with the Coen Brothers’ True Grit remake. The big Hollywood production attempts to distance itself from the original film by claiming fidelity only to the book. All this posturing seems quite silly to me.

The Zaillian/Fincher film is highly competent. It looks good and moves along at a fair lick over 157 minutes. I wasn’t impressed by the music or the stylised credit sequence that everyone seems to be raving about – but that’s probably just a matter of taste. (The squirming black oiled objects in the title sequence made me think about Nazi paraphernalia – not sure if this was the intention.) The music in the Oplev film is not memorable – but it isn’t obtrusive either. Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara perform their roles as Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander very well. But that’s what they are – performances. I didn’t feel for the characters as I did with Nykvist and Rapace. I was quite taken with Robin Wright though – she was much closer to my idea of Erika Berger. In the end the Fincher film kept my attention but I didn’t really feel engaged. It was just another Hollywood crime thriller. Despite the Swedish locations it didn’t feel like a Swedish story. I’m aware that this is dangerous territory for a critic and I’m sure that there are Swedish audiences who prefer the Hollywood film with its stars (see audience figures below). Mikael Nykvist is something of a Swedish everyman appearing in many films – he doesn’t look or act like an action star. This means that Swedish audiences might be bored with him, but he is ‘fresh’ to overseas audiences. Daniel Craig has to ‘act’ as if he isn’t a big star and I think the shtick with his spectacles, stubble and bewildered look sometimes teeters on the edge of the ridiculous.

The major issue for me is that this Hollywood film doesn’t seem to know what to include/what to leave out of the story. Symptomatic of this quandary is the way in which some actors use an accented English ‘suggesting’ Swedish and others don’t and how certain documents appear in Swedish and others in English. Nobody uses Mikael’s nickname ‘Micke’. But perhaps the best example is the depictions of the Nazi past in the Vanger family. Where the book and the Swedish film refer to the ‘Winter War’ (between the USSR and Finland/Germany in 1939/40), since this wouldn’t mean anything to the multiplex audience in North America, it’s left out of the Hollywood version. In one interview Fincher states quite clearly:

“The mystery of this movie wasn’t that interesting to me.  You know, Nazis, serial killers, and the evil that people do in their basements with power tools wasn’t the thing that . . . the thing that was first and foremost was this. I hadn’t seen this partnership before. I hadn’t seen these two people working before to do anything. So I liked the thriller and I liked the vessel of that, but I was really more interested in the people front and center.

. . . I had read a lot of stuff in The New York Times and in different magazines about the Steig Larsson story. But I think that the actual sort of political leanings of the material are probably not the reasons why the book was optioned or the reason why everybody waiting for a plane at La Guardia are reading this book. It has less to do with everyone’s fear of the ultra-right in Scandinavia. So no I didn’t . . . like I said, my interest was that it had a ballistic envelope and it had aerodynamics to it. Obviously, 60 million people thought it was a ripping yarn. I thought that part was a ripping yarn. But the thing that interested me most was these two people. (From the interview here.)

I’ll return to Fincher’s interest in the couple a little later but here’s another example of missing the point – the Millennium offices in Fincher’s film are opulent and styled to the nth degree. In the book and the Swedish film they more accurately reflect the parlous financial state of the magazine. I wonder why the Hollywood production spent so much money on beautiful photography on location in Sweden which doesn’t seem to capture the feel of Sweden as presented by Larsson and Oplev? And when it isn’t beautiful, the photography and editing tend towards the tricksy. The Swedish film leaves out large chunks of the novel’s plot and possibly distorts the narrative but it still feels ‘right’ as a representation – perhaps because the small details are authentic. The Swedish adaptation also exists as a two-part mini-series for Swedish TV running at 180 mins (in 2 x 90 mins parts). I’m not sure what is in the extra 38 mins, but the cinema film seems coherent to me.

Now that I’m re-reading (skimming really) through the first Larsson book again, I’m beginning to recognise the overall structure of the trilogy much more clearly and the way in which everything points towards ‘The Men Who Hate Women’ – the literal translation of the Swedish title of the first part of the trilogy. Zaillian’s script includes more plot than Oplev’s film but doesn’t seem to know what to make of it – and Fincher clearly isn’t interested in the politics. Overall, I think that I prefer the Swedish version but having seen the Danish TV series, The Killing, I think that the best format for the Larsson adaptations would have been as weekly serials on television in 1 hour episodes. Then we could have seen everything, including the magazine business issues which are largely ignored in both adaptations, but especially in the Swedish film.

Will Sony/MGM make films of the other two books? The Fincher film has taken $140 million worldwide so far with major markets like France still to open. It did very well in Sweden and Norway and in the UK. However the budget was $90 million (Box Office Mojo) so it is still some way from even covering costs (only around 30%-40% gets back to the producers). Fincher says he wants to make the other two films back to back in Sweden but there must be some doubts about whether Sony will stump up the cash. Book 2 is action-orientated and would veer even more towards a Hollywood thriller with more focus on Lisbeth but Book 3 is essentially a courtroom drama/legal investigation. If Fincher can transform it into a mainstream $90 million movie, he’s even cleverer than his reputation suggests. But since he’s not interested in the politics perhaps he will just focus on Mikael and Lisbeth. Hmm!

Education possibilities

Remakes are irresistible as study texts because they allow us to ‘compare and contrast’ and to demonstrate that there are specific choices that casting directors, production designers, directors, cinematographers etc. all make. The two adaptations discussed here would be very interesting to compare, though the sheer length of the films would probably put off many classroom teachers. However, if students could be persuaded to watch the films in their own time, several interesting explorations are possible. One would be to question what is ‘political’ about the films. Larsson himself was clearly a political animal but do either of the films really carry through his exposure of the decay of Swedish society? Possibly only the novels themselves do this. My guess is that most students could be more interested in the creation of Lisbeth Salander as a certain kind of young female character – who finds herself in a world dominated by evil men who need to be ‘brought down’. In turn this poses the question, how does Lisbeth relate to Mikael as a potential partner in her principal objective – and in an intimate relationship? (OK, the project is mainly his, though Lisbeth has two very personal projects to bring down the men who have oppressed her.) This relationship is what Fincher has identified as his main interest.

I’ve seen reviews that claim Fincher shows us much more of the Mikael – Lisbeth relationship developing than in the Swedish film. I don’t accept this. There is more overt sexual activity in Fincher’s film (and even more in the book) but less about the joint investigation of the Vanger family in which we see the two edging towards each other. My focus, however, would be on the sequence towards the end of the film when Lisbeth has to decide to whether to save the villain or let him die and how Mikael accepts or questions her decision. Again, I think that the Swedish version offers the better presentation of this narrative development. I would also consider the difference between the two films in the use of flashbacks. The Swedish version uses flashbacks to show us various aspects of the story but especially how/why Lisbeth has been placed with a guardian because of what she did to her father. Fincher leaves this out (I think – I’m already getting confused as to what I’ve seen!). I think work on these scenes could prove highly productive for film and media students.

Also useful for students is this posting on Nick Lacey’s website (with all the comments).

Roman Holiday (US 1953)

Ann (Audrey Hepburn) and Joe (Gregory Peck) in Roman Holiday

Last year I enjoyed watching some of  Audrey Hepburn’s early films collected in a DVD box-set. The only drawback was that Roman Holiday was not included. Now I’ve finally managed to see it I realise that it is an important production in relation to the concept of global film – as well as an extremely entertaining film.

Audrey Hepburn’s first Hollywood film (for which she won an Academy Award) was directed by the legendary William Wyler shooting wholly in Rome. The story by Dalton Trumbo (working incognito as he was blacklisted at the time by HUAC as one of the Hollywood Ten) is very simple. Princess Ann (Hepburn) is a young royal from an unnamed European country visiting Rome on a European tour. Bored by her engagements and desperate to experience the nightlife of Rome she ‘escapes’ from her Embassy but only after she has been given a strong sedative. Falling asleep on a city pavement she is rescued by an American journalist (Gregory Peck) who takes her to his apartment. When he realises who she is, the journalist plots to make some money from an exclusive interview but the Princess is unaware of his plans and simply wants to have fun in Rome. They have a day of adventures – but what will be the outcome? Around the time that the film was released in the US in September 1953, Princess Margaret (younger sister of the recently crowned Elizabeth II in the UK) was in the news when her affair with Group Captain Peter Townsend became the focus for public discussion. How much Trumbo drew on this ‘real’ story, I don’t know, but it probably helped sell the film.

Global Hollywood

The major studios began to produce films in the UK very early and Paramount had a studio in London in the early 1920s. In the 1930s various small studios in the UK made ‘quota quickies’ on behalf of the Hollywood majors. There were also working relationships between the Hollywood majors and mainland European producers in the same period but it wasn’t until the Americans arrived in Rome in 1953 and founded ‘Hollywood on the Tiber‘ that the modern concept of ‘Global Hollywood’ began to take shape. When William Wyler set up the production of Roman Holiday he was able to use the resources of Cinecitta – then one of the best studios in Europe – and also to shoot in local palaces and on the streets of Rome. In some of the extras on the DVD a Paramount executive claims this was the first film to be shot on location in Rome in this way and even the film writer/scholar Molly Haskell (who should know better) claims that the shoot pre-dates and predicts the Nouvelle Vague. Of course it does, the films of Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio de Sica amongst others had been made in this way since 1944 and indeed Ingrid Bergman had left Hollywood and begged for a part in a Rossellini film after seeing Roma, citta aperta (1945) in a screening in America. The main difference between Wyler’s film and neo-realist classics such as Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D is that Wyler had two big stars and a fully functioning studio machine behind him.

Hepburn and Peck together – looking like a couple really having fun.

In some ways, Trumbo’s script suggests neo-realism in its simplicity and lack of contrivance. But perhaps the major similarity is in the beautiful cinematography. Wyler hired two veteran European cinematographers. Franz Planer had thirty years experience and had worked for Max Ophuls in Europe and Hollywood. Henri Alekan had shot Beauty and the Beastfor Jean Cocteau in 1946 and had also worked in Britain. Between them they created fantastic deep focus compositions as Ann scampers through the backstreets after leaving the Embassy – nighttime cinematography with deep black shadows in film noir style followed by sunlit scenes of joyful abandon in the second half of the film. It really is a visual treat throughout.

Gregory Peck is excellent in the film but Audrey steals the show. This was her first Hollywood film, but she had already appeared on Broadway and in British films, including Thorold Dickinson’s Secret People. The Anglo-Dutch Hepburn had an aristocratic background in Holland and she had been a dancer and a photographic model in the UK before becoming known for her films. This background meant that Princess Ann was the perfect role for her but it is her sheer personality and winning smile that drives the film along. Wyler was a great filmmaker but I can’t remember any of his other films being so much fun. Roman Holiday hasn’t dated in any way and it’s not difficult to understand why Audrey Hepburn is still as popular as she ever was (perhaps more so). But what makes the film work most of all is that it seems to follow the neo-realist idea that the story emerges from the characters and locations and is not imposed on them as in so many subsequent American films.

Hugo 3D (US 2011)

Hugo (Asa Butterfield) and Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) with the mechanical automaton

I’m glad that I saw Hugo in 3D on a big screen and I enjoyed watching the film despite the effort of stopping those glasses sliding down my nose. On reflection, however, I’ve got mixed feelings about the enterprise. I was impressed by Martin Scorsese’s use of 3D as a medium and the ways in which he used the format to explore/promote the use of special effects in cinema – including the bizarre presentation of clips from the films of Georges Méliès in 3D! But I’m not sure that I like it as a format. It makes the cinema feel like a theatre with the over-dramatic sense of separation of characters in the depth of presentation. I much prefer the use of deep focus and staging in depth. This occurred to me in a scene which included an older man, a small boy and snowflakes – surely a reference to the famous ‘staging in depth’ scene in Citizen Kane?

Hugo is stuffed with references, making it an over-rich feast for cinephiles. But this is ostensibly a film for children (and their parents). We watched the film at the end of its run in a large multiplex auditorium with only a modest audience. The children were quiet throughout the film – which I take to mean that they were engrossed as I suspect that they would have complained if they were bored. At the end, eavesdropping on a couple of families, I understood that they had quietly enjoyed the film – but it wasn’t the film that they were expecting. I’m not competent to judge what makes a good children’s film but I think Hugo probably works best as a spectacle rather than as a story. I thought that the script was weak in places and some scenes lacked the spark that they might have had if there wasn’t so much focus on the beautiful matte paintings and 3D staging. I enjoyed all the performances, although Sacha Baron Cohen was irritating – but I can see why others found him entertaining. The promotional materials keep telling us that this is Scorsese’s ‘first family film’, but it does have several elements in common with Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), one of Marty’s lesser-known movies. And if Kundun is included, he has made three films with important younger characters – mercifully not treating them with the sugary confections of Spielberg. He also cast a young Jody Foster in a very different kind of film – Taxi Driver.

Hugo is a long film but it doesn’t deliver as much narrative as I expected. There seem to be three parts to the film. One is a story about Hugo himself and how as an orphan he needs to keep out of the clutches of the authorities in Paris in the late 1920s – personified by the ‘Station Inspector’ (Baron Cohen), a war veteran who was himself an orphan and who now seems obsessed with rounding up waifs and strays who stray onto his patch. The second is a mystery in which Hugo and a slightly older girl, Isabelle, eventually join forces to discover the secret of the automaton which Hugo’s father was attempting to repair when he died. These two narrative strands combine to provide the ‘action adventure’ material in the film. But a fair amount of the final third of the film is taken up with what is essentially a rather conventional, but brilliantly presented visual essay on early cinema delivered by Scorsese – chair of the World Cinema Foundation and prime conservator of great films. This offers a different kind of spectacle in 3D, didactic perhaps but I’m sure we are all pleased that future film audiences are shown clips from films up to 1930 in the correct ratio and colours (i.e. with all the correct tinting of prints).

Hugo is adapted (by John Logan) from a book by Brian Selznick, The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2008). Selznick is a designer and illustrator as well as an author and there is a link on this website that shows some of the book’s many illustrations. This demonstrates very well that many of what might be assumed to be Scorsese’s ideas for framings and compositions are taken directly from the book. This doesn’t detract from Scorsese’s artistic achievement but it does tend to reinforce the idea that the whole project is driven by a desire to recreate a Parisian environment of the late 1920s, possibly at the expense of a coherent narrative. I’ll have to watch it again, but there were aspects of the chronology of the story that didn’t make sense to me and there are weaknesses of characterisation. Chloë Grace Moretz as Isabelleis rather wasted I think as the character is given little to do. I just wonder if Marty was so entranced by the excitement generated by 3D and the enormous sets, real and virtual, he had to play with that he forgot about the story. This is surprising since he must have thought about some of the other films that aspects of the story were likely to provoke in his imagination. Two that struck me were the boy’s constant observation of the station crowds which reminded me of the boy looking at the ‘forbidden’ in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (UK 1959) (one of Scorsese’s favourites) and the ‘underworld’ existence in Paris which reminded me of The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Hugo is a children’s film but that doesn’t mean it has to lose the possibility of a complex and intriguing story.

There are some very polarised reviews of Hugo, especially in North America. I don’t think it is the masterpiece that deserves to win awards but neither is it the flop that commits the sin of boredom. I think that Scorsese spent too much money ($150 million plus?) but at least you can see it on screen. I’d urge any doubters to see the film in 3D in a big screen cinema if you can still find it. It’s perhaps the first production to really explore what 3D in modern cinema can do.

In Time (US 2011)

Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried 'on the run' – a reminder of 'The Adjustment Bureau' (but without hats!)?

In Time seemed to come out of nowhere. That’s what happens when you don’t watch American films or TV on a regular basis. The plot sounded interesting but when I heard that it was  an Andrew Niccol movie I was determined to see it. Niccol is the closest filmmaker I know to aspects of 1950s/60s science fiction literature. His script for The Truman Show was quasi-Dickian. Gattaca is a favourite film for many reasons – not least its production design and cinematography. (Niccol, a New Zealander, worked in the advertising films business in London and he seems to have good contacts.) S1mone was, if nothing else, an original idea that satirised Hollywood and celebrity (simulacra and celebrity – another Dickian theme). I haven’t seen Lord of War – a satire of a different kind – but it has many supporters. In Time is said to be very similar in its narrative ideas to a Harlan Ellison short story ”Repent Harlequin! said the Ticktock Man’ written in 1965. Ellison appears to have filed a plagiarism suit against 20th Century Fox but there doesn’t seem to be any injunction against the film’s release.

In Time finds Niccol back in potentially Dickian territory. It has elements of Minority Report (a dogged policeman chasing the hero through an alternative future/present landscape), some design ideas that at least remind us of the intelligence of Gattaca, an underclass borrowed from Soylent Green and The Matrix and it ends like Bonnie and Clyde. What’s not to like? Best of all it offers the most sustained critique of a capitalist system (in which time is literally money and is accumulated by the few to oppress the many) that you are likely to see in mainstream cinema. Perhaps this is why the film has been deemed something of a flop in North America, but a hit in the rest of the world. With plenty more openings to come the ‘International Box Office’ is nearly twice North America. According to Box Office Mojo it has taken $13 million in Russia, but only $30 million in North America. In the UK, audiences have made it into a successful release despite only moderately good reviews. In some ways I think that the film is working like The Adjustment Bureau – which it resembles in narrative ideas and overall feel. With senses dulled by a succession of clunky action pictures, I imagine some mainstream audiences have been surprised to find a film that has intelligence, a romance of sorts and some good performances in amongst the obligatory car chases.

Cillian Murphy as the 'Time Keeper' – the display behind him lists 'time as money'.

The basic premise is that this alternative society has evolved to the point where genetics and medicine are able to keep the population alive indefinitely. But to maintain control, the rich have developed a system which decrees that when anyone reaches the age of 25 they must ‘buy’ extra years of life in order to stay alive. The ‘life bank balance’ is displayed on the forearm and paying for anything is like giving up blood or receiving a transfusion of new funds when payments are received. When your time runs out, you die immediately. The elite have thousands of years available but the poor live, like the working classes have always done since the start of the industrial revolution, ‘on the edge’, borrowing time or pawning goods. The ‘inciting incident’ sees the hero, Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) ‘receive’ over a 100 years of time unexpectedly. This young man from the ‘ghetto’, who is used to living with only a day or so ‘in the bank’, determines to visit the rich gated enclave in order to make a statement of some kind. He is driven by personal grief and an overall belief in living on the edge  but also a genuine sense of sharing whatever he has – the nearest Hollywood gets to a socialist hero. (I don’t want to spoil the narrative, suffice to say that there are many interesting inferences about past insurrections, including perhaps actions by Will’s dead father.) Inevitably, Will ends up seducing/abducting Sylvia Weis the daughter of the richest man in town, a genuine ‘time lord’, and being pursued by a determined cop – a ‘timekeeper’ (played wonderfully by Cillian Murphy). The cop, of course, is from the ghetto himself and attempts to keep a ‘professional attitude’ towards his job even if his sympathies might be with the poor rather than the rich. Each day he works with only a limited number of hours on his arm so as not to attract too many time thieves, the piranhas of the poor communities. Alex Pettyfor plays a gangster with a British accent straight out of a Guy Ritchie film leading a group of time thieves known as ‘Minutemen’. This seems like a good bit of satire. As well as the pun on ‘time thieves’, ‘minutemen’ were American militia groups fighting the British in the War of Independence and subsequently the name of the US silo-launched missile defences against the Soviets. The cynical amongst us might see them as agents of the American ruling class – personified by in the film by Sylvia’s father (played by the curiously soft but vampiric Vincent Kartheiser).

Alex Pettyfor as Fortis, leader of the 'Minutemen'.

Amanda Seyfried as Sylvia, playing the Patty Hearst role. This image is so fetishised (the gun, the dress, the shoes) that it refers to Faye Dunaway in 'Bonnie and Clyde' as well as 'Nikita'.

The film looks great photographed by Roger Deakins in various shades of blue and sepia-gold. Production designer Alex McDowell worked on Minority Report and Costume Designer Colleen Atwood has a very long list of credits including Gattaca and most of Tim Burton’s films. However, I guess she was partly resonsible for my one niggle with the film. The rich girl hero is played by Amanda Seyfried who spends most of her time in the action sequences running and climbing/jumping in various short skirts and vertiginous heels, both stiletto and more substantial but all designed to ruin her feet. I wondered if this was some kind of hommage to the Anne Parillaud character in Luc Besson’s Nikita. (Ms Seyfried also sports an Anna Karina bob.) The first time we meet her, the little black dress and heels are appropriate for the setting but after that I was almost wishing for some product placement that would allow her to don skinny jeans and trainers. The rich girl with the poor boy is a genre staple of course but in this case a reference to heiress Patty Hearst, abducted by the ‘Symbionese Liberation Army’ in 1974, seems appropriate. There have been many sniffy reviews about Timberlake and Seyfried and their acting abilities but I thought that they were both fine in their roles and exactly what this kind of material required.

The main sensible criticism of the film focuses on the difference between the ideas heavy first half and the action-packed second half. The first half certainly has a very clever script – possibly with too many ideas. I’ve seen some reviews that suggest that the writer has not thought about the ideas at all. Perhaps this isn’t surprising as the promotion of the film has followed the same misguided route as that for The Adjustment Bureau. The trailers we sat through before the film were all for violent action films.  I’m not an action fan but the sequences in In Time seemed OK to me. There are some interesting twists in the closing stages and the final shot is terrific. Take this as a genre film which makes satirical points about greed and inequalities in capitalist society (while simultaneously fetishising youth and the promise of sexual excitement – not actually shown) and you have an entertaining night out. The more I think about the film, the more the ideas come. The central premise means that no-one looks over 25 and the actress playing Justin Timberlake’s mum (Olivia Wilde) is actually younger than he is. This is a neat comment on Hollywood and roles for older women – cf Cary Grant and Jessie Royce Landis, the actress playing his mother in North by Northwest who was actually a few months his junior.

Super 8 (US 2011)

"Look to the skies!" A Spielbergian moment for Kyle Chandler, Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning and Ron Eldard. © Paramount Pictures

When the closing credits began to roll on this film, my main thought was “Why go to all this trouble not to say anything?”. The short film that actually appears in the credits is in some ways more interesting than what precedes it. J.J. Abrams appears to have made a Spielberg tribute film. It’s well-made and engaging most of the time with good performances by the young actors at the core of the narrative – but it doesn’t add up to anything. On reflection the final third of the film is a bit of a mess as the plot doesn’t make much sense and I didn’t really understand why some things were happening. But by then I didn’t really care.

The story rehashes bits of Close Encounters and ET with elements of Alien and Poltergeist, Minority Report and probably several other Spielberg-related films. Set in the Summer of 1979 (three Mile Island is mentioned on a news report) it places a group of young teens making a zombie picture (referencing George Romero’s early Living Dead films) who witness a train crash close to an isolated town. But this is more than just a crash and soon the US Air Force are in town cleaning up the mess and starting to behave suspiciously. You can pretty much invent the rest of the plot from there. The boy and girl at the centre have both lost their mothers and have to live with inadequate fathers. The boys ride round on chopper bikes as in ET etc. I stress that it is well done and Abrams seems to have gone as far as selecting the most appropriate filmstock and colour grading to mimic the 1970s/80s films set in small towns. Unfortunately he is as sentimental as Spielberg so it doesn’t get beyond a film for 12 year-olds and those who wish they were 12 again – nothing wrong with that and I hope they enjoy it. It’s also much longer than it needs to be. Pruning the action sequences would make a tighter leaner film.

Of course, there is no reason why a genre film shouldn’t aim for being simply entertaining but it does need a twist or a new element to create ‘difference’ with the ‘repetition’. I couldn’t find the difference here and after all the hype (and the big budget spend) I was hoping for something more. While I was watching Super 8 it occurred to me that there was another film set around this period with a pair of protagonists of about this age. Let the Right One In has quite a few strengths that J.J. Abrams could learn from. I also thought about Monsters with its beautiful gas station scene on a budget of peanuts. Abrams also has a gas station scene that works pretty well but I’m guessing he spent a lot more. The Korean movie The Host borrows some of the same tropes as Super 8 but also offers a critique of the family and of Korean domestic politics and foreign policy. Super 8 is being touted as the ‘intelligent’ blockbuster of the year which doesn’t bode well for Hollywood.

Cutter's Way (US 1981)

John Heard and Lisa Eichhorn

I’m delighted that Cutter’s Way was re-released in the UK by Park Circus on 24 June in ‘Key Cities’. This is a ‘limited release’ but if it’s on anywhere near you, I recommend a trip.If you don’t know the film, DVDs are available.

Background

Cutter’s Way is an adaptation by the Czech New Wave director Ivan Passer of the highly acclaimed 1976 novel Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg. The dates here are important because Thornburg’s story is about an angry Vietnam veteran Alex Cutter (John Heard) and 1976 was a year after the last American helicopters left Saigon. Five years on and Passer’s film finally reached cinemas during the first year of Reagan’s presidency when the political mood in America had changed. Cutter’s Way appeared as a film seemingly twice out of place since it more resembled the intelligent downbeat films of the ‘New Hollywood’ of the 1970s than the entertainment films of the new era of Spielberg/Lucas et al. As a result, Cutter’s Way had a difficult release and eventually came out as something akin to an independent film. Since its original release it has become something of a ‘cult film’.

This re-release has been promoted by the BFI which is screening the film on an extended run at the NFT with a feature by Michael Atkinson in Sight and Sound (July 2011). The re-release has been timed to be part of the BFI’s Jeff Bridges Retrospective. This is interesting for several reasons. It’s John Heard who in some ways steals the show in the film and the Bridges on view is the young man who was so beautiful rather than the post-Dude Bridges who is now a cult figure. Audiences who might be drawn to the film by Bridges’ presence may be surprised by what they find. Lisa Eichhorn is mesmerising as an alcoholic. She never got another major role of this quality and the American Film Institute reckoned her performance to be the most under-rated of the era.

Outline (no spoilers)

Santa Barbara, Southern California. Part-time yacht salesman and occasional gigolo Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) witnesses an odd incident on a rain-swept backstreet when his car breaks down. He only realises later that a murder has been committed and that since he was at the crime scene, he is a suspect. Bone spends much of his time at the home of disabled and often drunk Vietnam vet Alex Cutter and his wife Mo (Lisa Eichhorn). Alex is quick to persuade Bone that he has seen the murderer – local business leader J. J. Cord. Alex wants revenge on the people who have caused all the trouble in the world, not least the useless war, and Cord fits the bill. Can Cutter and Bone finger Cord?

Commentary

When I began to think about the film I realised that there is a great deal to explore – possibly too much for a single post. Let’s begin with the background to the adaptation. The Sight and Sound coverage of the film by David Thomson (Spring 1982) is an excellent read. Thomson reveals that the rights to the book were bought by an independent producer, Paul Gurian, who first interested EMI (which at this time was seeking to distribute films in North America as well as the UK). At this point, Robert Mulligan was to direct with Dustin Hoffman as Cutter and John Heard as Bone. But this didn’t happen. Mark Rydell was then going to direct before the script (by Jeffrey Alan Fiskin) was picked up by United Artists. This was at the time that Heaven’s Gate was in production and UA decided to go with Cutter and Bone if they could persuade Jeff Bridges – one of the younger players in Heaven’s Gate to play Bone, allowing Heard to become Cutter. Passer came on board at this stage. Unfortunately, when Heaven’s Gate crashed, nearly closing UA down, a $3 million production like Cutter and Bone was not a priority. The film was released and withdrawn almost immediately in March 1981. Only spirited critical responses could persuade UA to reconsider and it was passed to the new ‘UA Classics’ division (with a name change to the less helpful title of Cutter’s Way). Gradually the film began to pick up fans and festival appearances and it was released in the UK in early 1982.

Jeff Bridges in beach boy mode

I’ve introduced Cutter’s Way as in some way the a late entry into the ‘New Hollywood’ of the 1970s. I need to explain the term. The period between 1965 (the date of the last major success of the traditional Hollywood studio musical, The Sound of Music) and 1975 (the appearance of the first modern ‘blockbuster’, Jaws) was a time when the studios to some extent lost control of American filmmaking. They still made films – or at least acquired them for distribution, but the nature of the films changed and many of the conventions of Hollywood production fell away – like the Production Code, the tedious happy ending, the genre certainties. The new films attempted to engage with the counter-culture and with politics – ‘personal’ and ‘hard political’ – and social issues. This period is often confused with the rise of the ‘Movie Brats’ and indeed Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Peter Bogdanovich and William Friedkin did initially make films which seemed to challenge ‘Old Hollywood’, but Lucas soon followed Spielberg into making the new form of blockbuster – essentially in homage to 1940s Hollywood. Coppola followed later. For me the interesting purveyors of 1970s Hollywood were older, wiser or more embittered and had histories in television and theatre. They weren’t Hollywood at all: Arthur Penn, Sam Peckinpah, Alan J. Pakula and Robert Altman. (I’ve read somewhere recently that Pakula was judged to be a nouvelle vague follower.)

Passer has an affinity towards this group but he properly belongs to the European émigré group of the period – Passer’s old colleague from the Czech New Wave, Milos Forman plus Roman Polanski and the Brits, Karel Reisz, John Boorman and John Schlesinger. All of these directors made films in the 1970s which explored American genres. The other two films that share some elements with Cutter’s Way are Polanski’s Chinatown (1975) and Karel Reisz’s Dog Soldiers (Who’ll Stop the Rain?) (1978). Cutter’s Way has a similar trio of characters to the Reisz film with the aggressive Vietnam vet Cutter, the indecisive commitment phobe Bone and the depressive Mo. In a sense this trio represent three responses to the craziness of America in the post Vietnam era. Andrew Britton put it very well in a 1980 piece in Movie 27/28. His argument includes the observation that the Vietnam War cannot be ‘explained’ satisfactorily within American ideology. It’s no use just assuming that the war is morally wrong since the war was inevitable given the American commitment to imperialism and fighting communism. For that position to be tenable would mean endorsing socialism in an American context which Hollywood can’t do. I haven’t space to go into the full analysis but it means that the normal ‘heroic’ role for the ‘US male’ is not available in a Vietnam film. Thus the hero is forced either to be ‘passive’ (‘acted upon’ rather than acting) or psychotic – there is no available way of being heroic. Cutter and Bone are in effect psychotic and passive. So does this then mean that the woman in the threesome must be depressive since neither man can offer her a fulfilling relationship?

Inevitably perhaps Cutters Way has to be carried by the performances and it is here that Passer’s direction works so well. The film is engrossing because the characters are believable and all three actors grasp their roles and deliver. This is a film you can keep on watching.

The opening sequence to Cutter’s Way featuring Jack Nitzsche’s wonderful score: