Saturday, July 14, 2007

BFI Library Open Evening

A last-minute business meeting in London last Monday meant a quick, if somewhat last minute, trip back from Limerick in Ireland and the chance to attend an Open Evening at the British Film Institute Library, which was held for BFI Champions (BFI Champions are people who've taken out a tier of membership just above the standard level). One of the benefits of BFI membership is access to the organisation's Library, just off Tottenham Court Road in central London.

The library is a treasure trove of delights for movie buffs, providing access to pretty much all back issues of the different movie magazines almost back to the dawn of the silent era, together with numerous books, scripts and other movie memorabilia. If I were to stay in London for my retirement I can see where I'd be happy to spend a lot of my spare time! Not all the BFI's archive material is stored at the London site, which doesn't have the strict environmental requirements needed for older, more fragile material, but it seems most can be viewed if pre-booked some time in advance. There are microfiche viewers for some of the older material (I had to chuckle at the choice on one of the displays: an apologetic letter from Louis B Mayer, over which the unfortunate recipient had written the word 'Bullshit' in rather large letters), together with computer screens with access to not just the BFI's own resources, but others related to film and television too.

It's even possible to arrange viewing of archived television footage (there is a charge for this, based on running time) and I suspect that part of the reason behind this open evening was because the excellent facilities the BFI is able to offer with its library and archive are currently under-utilised because many of us haven't paid much attention to the flyer we get when we join.

The staff at the open evening, almost out-numbering those of us who attended - very disappointing given the effort they'd put in but I guess a few thunderstorms put some potential attendees off - did a wonderful job of explaining what the BFI Library does: everything from the sort of stuff you'd expect, outlined above, to writing the extensive credit notes for Sight and Sound magazine's film reviews, putting together the showcase displays at BFI SouthBank and answering general queries from the public and members alike. Their enthusiasm was contagious and all were generous with their time and knowledge in answering questions or just listening to those of us wanting to have a rant about the loss of the Museum of the Moving Image, or the possible diversion of government funding from the BFI to The Olympics!

Some examples of the sort of thing available from the archives were laid out for our perusal, and it was fun to see a copy of the script for "Brighton Rock" with sidenotes by the book's author Graham Greene, Dirk Bogarde's personally bound film scripts with his doodles and notes alongside, the continuity editor's personal book of endless polaroids and notes from the making of Oh! What a Lovely War!, or the quite astonishing Derek Jarman book which resembled more a scrapbook of clippings, pressed flowers, convention passes, letters and thoughts than the script it purported to be. Old promotional material for the industry, with advice to cinema owners on how to maximise ticket sales, from the early days of cinema in the 30's contrasted rather sharply with the modern, lavishly glossy but somewhat more superficial equivalent for Die Hard 4.0 that was on display.

Glasses of wine (or soft drinks for those who preferred) and snacks were provided and the evening had a mixture of formal talks and informal chats that helped make for a very pleasant evening, and one that reminded me that there are many perks available for those who live in London which we tend to take for granted until we find ourselves elsewhere. The evening also proved a great piece of marketing in persuading some of us whose annual membership was up for renewal to switch our BFI Champion membership to an annual direct debit! One thing's for sure - I'll be making several return visits to the library when my sojourn to Ireland is over later this year. It's hard to believe this wonderful resource has been just round the corner from all the electronics shops near the Tottenham Court Road tube station for all these years and I've only just become aware of it!

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Mini-Reviews: Ghost Rider on Blu-Ray and Blood Diamond on HD-DVD

After the disappointment of The Hitcher I was much happier with Ghost Rider - which came as a bit of a surprise given that the starting point for this movie is a comic book universally acknowledged to be one of the weakest in Marvel Comics' seemingly never-ending B-list canon of 'variations on a theme'. Nicolas Cage is also one of my least favourite actors, and the director, Mark Stephen Johnston doesn't exactly have a great previous track record, with critics everywhere panning his previous directorial debut, itself another Marvel comic book adaptation, Daredevil.

I had seen the trailer at a theatrical showing of Hot Fuzz, and like most in the cinema, been positively underwhelmed by it, to the extent that it was added to my list of 'films to avoid this Summer'. So the final movie comes as a pleasant surprise. It tells a story that's been told many times before, but as popcorn movies go it's well put together, well structured and written (no, really!) and features CGI work that doesn't keep drawing attention to itself in all the wrong ways.

This UK Blu-Ray version of the film is apparently more than 10 minutes longer than the theatrical cut, but still managed to keep me engrossed for pretty much all of its 2 hour running time, which is more than can be said for the much shorter The Hitcher. This is despite the extremely thin premise for the series which is based on Cage's 'Johnny Blaze' motorbike-riding character selling his soul to the devil to save his father from cancer and now having to pay the price by acting as his bounty hunter, tracking down those who've escaped from Hell.

Cage is much too old for the part that's been written, but apparently we have him to thank for keeping the script on track as he's an obsessive fan of the original comic book, and also for the inspired casting of Peter Fonda from Easy Rider as his evil boss Mephistopheles. Sam Eliott helps too by effortlessly channelling the spirit of Lee Marvin into his role as the grave-digging superhero side-kick of the main Ghost Rider character.

As comic-book movies go Ghost Rider is certainly a much more rewarding film experience than the execrable Fantastic Four or Pirates movies which have done such great business all over the country, if not in the same league as the first two X-Men films, Batman Begins or the Spider-Man franchise.

Against all expectations, given the source material, the film was a surprise box-office hit earlier this year, taking more than double its costs, which were hardly insignificant at over $100 million. Unlike the new Fantastic Four film (which cost more, but looked cheap and unconvincing a lot of the time) and Evan Almighty (which had a budget of $175 million - the world has officially gone mad when it comes to budgeting mediocre scripts!) ALL the money is clearly visible on screen. As a side note Evan Almighty, which I previewed in a blog entry last week, pulled in a pitiful $32 million in its American opening weekend so it needs to do some REALLY good business when it opens over here in August if it's to be regarded as anything other than an unmitigated financial disaster!

I've been generally unimpressed with the Blu-Ray discs I've bought so far - the quality control, especially on the picture transfer front, seems in general to be much lower than that for HD-DVD. Add region-encoding into the mix which means the best US titles from Sony and Fox aren't available to UK purchasers and the Blu-Ray story is pretty grim compared with HD-DVD. But this UK Sony release shows what the high definition format is capable of, and easily serves as a 'reference quality' disc for the Blu-Ray format. The extra's, which include an hour and a half of 'Making of' documentaries, albeit with frequently incorrect captions for different individuals, and several commentaries, are generous too.

If you want to see a film with subtlety and strong characterisation then Ghost Rider probably isn't for you. But if you like a good old-fashioned, roller-coaster ride movie with thrills, spills and a high standard of consistency then this is a 'must have' for any UK Region 2 Blu-Ray disc player owners - a disc to stick alongside the recent James Bond Casino Royale disc which, until now, has been the only 'must have' title that is exclusively available on the Blu-Ray format.

Ghost Rider Blu-Ray and Blood Diamond HD-DVD

If Nicolas Cage's name on a film normally has me turning away from the DVD shelf, Leonardo de Caprio's is enough to send me running out the shop door as fast as my legs can carry me. I guess the pudgy-faced actor can't help looking like an over-fed teenager, but for the viewer this makes it hard to invest any kind of believability in any 'fully grown man' roles he gets selected for.

However, I have to admit he's overcome his physical limitations in films like The Good Shepherd, Catch Me If You Can and The Aviator, proving he has real acting chutzpah beyond that which was on display in the disappointing Titanic. He seems to have genuine talent that many of his 'cult of celebrity' contemporaries at the Hollywood box office (Orloono Bland anyone?!) are sadly lacking.

Blood Diamond, released on the United Stated HD-DVD high definition format this week, shows that these previous surprises are no mere flash in the pan. The story may be somewhat clichéd and rather unsubtle in its political 'hit you over the head' message about the wrongs of the diamond trade, but DiCaprio and his co-star Djimon Hounsou lift it above the norm with performances that are never less than totally believable.

Jennifer Connelly as a humanitarian journalist, playing against DiCaprio's gung-ho smuggler, isn't given much to do, but makes the most of what she's given, even if I never for one moment felt there was any real chemistry between her character and DiCaprio's. In some ways the whole romance thing comes across as a repeat performance of that between DiCaprio and Kate Wynslett in Titanic - an annoyance that distracts from the main story and is never believable in any real sense of the word.

There's been rather a glut of South African movies just lately and this one doesn't pretend to be 'based on a true story', the way others have done. That being said much of what is shown is based on the experience of a campaigning journalist, and the film has a realistic feel to it (including much violence that will put the rom-com brigade off) and some background history that I hadn't been aware of before. The film was nominated for five oscars, but so far as I'm aware didn't win any of them - I guess Hollywood is all Africa'd out after Hotel Rwanda, Shooting Dogs and The Last King of Scotland because there's plenty in this film that impresses and it's not hard to see why it was nominated.

Beautifully shot with an excellent cast this is well worth two and a half hours of your time (yes, it's a bit of an epic!), and was released on standard DVD in the UK a couple of weeks ago, so you have no excuse for not checking it out, even if only as a rental.

Extra's wise the HD-DVD has a 'worthy but rather dull' hour long documentary on the 'conflict diamond' trade, with just three short five-10 minute featurettes on the film itself, although a commentary track from writer/director Edward Zwick, perhaps best known for The Last Samurai, is also included.

There is also the much-hyped HD-DVD 'In Movie Experience' but anybody who is prepared to sit through a two and a half hour film for a second time just for the odd snippet of 'in picture' video has far more patience than me. This is also the first HD-DVD to include Warner Brother's 'interactive web feature' - a deadly dull, and unbelievably slow-to-download web site that invites you to take part in an online poll or play trailers for other HD-DVD movies, inbetween asking you if you are happy to accept a Warner Brothers cookie every 15 seconds!

But it's the film that's important here, and Blood Diamond is a corker of a film for those that like their films to have some depth.

Mini-Reviews: Doctor Who on TV/The O.C. Season 4 DVD Set/The Hitcher HD-DVD

This was supposed to be the weekend that I returned from Ireland solely to attend the Microsoft developer community event Developer! Developer! Developer!.

Alas, a delayed flight (again!) followed by an hour long queue for the privilege of being able to pay £70 for a black cab home because the tube was no longer running meant that I got to bed shortly before 3am. When the alarm went off at 6.30am to advise it was time I caught the train to Reading I decided sleep was more important, especially with a 3.30am start ahead of me again on Monday. Of course if I'd known the flights would be such a mess I'd have stayed in Ireland for the weekend instead of rushing home, but...

I haven't posted much about Ireland, and probably won't until my contract's over in mid-September and I get a chance to breathe again (the time schedules are crazy). What I can say is that circumstances on the flat front are not great - I seem to be paying twice what everybody else is paying for a flat that's an hour instead of 5 minutes away from work, with not so much as an iron, bedside table or chair in the place and circumstances mean that I don't get to watch the TV I'm being charged 25 Euro's a month for on top of the basic rent when I'm over there.

So Saturday in the UK was a chance to play catch up on the 'relax in front of the telly' front and watch the Doctor Who season finale, as well as the first part of a repeat of The 100 Greatest War Movies which I missed the first time round (but which was so good I wish I could catch the second part next week).

I didn't think Who could get much worse after the last couple of episodes, which admittedly suffered badly by being scheduled after the superb Blink episode written by Stephen Moffat. But I was proved wrong and even die-hard fans are blogging about how dire it was. It's hard to remember the last time I saw such a bad example of television writing: Appalling narrative structure, dreadful dialogue and 'hit the reset button to resolve the cliff-hangers you keep introducing' nonsense were featured throughout in an episode that was a great steaming turd of incompetence in the writing department. It leaves me wondering if the franchise can ever recover from 'the Billy Bunter effect' that has plagued the new series (and Torchwood too) since it started. At least I won't have to worry about trying to watch the Christmas episode, as there is absolutely no reason why anybody would want to watch such infantile drivel unless paid great wads of cash for doing so. Billy Bunter, who insists on writing the Christmas episode himself every year, has shown that any writing skills he may have shown with his excellent Queer as Folk and Casanova series disappeared a long time ago. The man is way past his 'sell by' date on the creative front. It can surely only be a matter of time before all the fawning 'But it's a British institution and a national treasure' newspaper critics and David Tennant fangirls finally wake up and realise the emperor really has got no clothes. I'd rant more, but really it's not good for my blood pressure and there seem to be a lot of very good out-of-work professional writers doing a much better job on their blogs of explaining why Davies should have been fired for gross incompetence a long time ago.

Over in Ireland the main source of 'out of hours' entertainment, a team bowling match and meals out aside, has been watching DVDs on the laptop. The small 'ultra-portable screen' has meant my avoiding 'big screen' blockbusters better seen on the plasma at home, and concentrating on the numerous TV box sets that have been piling up.

The O.C. is a bit of a guilty pleasure, although I've always thought that this particular 'teen soap' was somewhat over-rated by the critics, and wasn't surprised that this fourth season, just issued on DVD after finishing its run on American TV in February, was cancelled prematurely and short of its normal full season run. When the show started the critics were all over it for its 'cool' factor, invariably pointing out how much better it was than what had apparently suddenly become an embarrassment - Dawson's Creek. It's amazing what a marriage to Tom Cruise will do for an actress's previously highly-lauded TV show! I've never understood this constant 'rewriting of history' from the critics, and sure enough The O.C. itself suddenly became victim of this trait when actress Mischa Burton left at the end of the third series, just as Dawson's Creek before it had done. In truth Dawson's Creek was a far better show, if only because the writing, albeit featuring teens speaking deep, meaningful lines that only adults over the age of 30 would be likely to use in the real world, was so much better. The O.C. stole all the best bits, including most of the plot lines, from Creek and recycled them in an inferior way, trying to add a dose of Desperate Housewives over-the-topness to the mix which only served to show how inferior it really was.

So it's somewhat ironic that the show should get cancelled just as it seemed to be getting into its stride, after a particularly poor third season. If you're a fan of the show then the Season 4 DVD features some of the best episodes of the entire run, although the extra's are appallingly thin and certainly don't warrant a disk of their own as presented here. For a show that went out on a bang you'd expect at least a retrospective rather than a few 10 minute 'making of' featurettes on a couple of the show's central themes.

The OC. Series 4 DVD and The Hitcher DVD

The Hitcher only entered UK cinemas two or three weeks ago, so its availability on High Definition DVD disc on import, for about the cost of a West End cinema ticket, seemed too good an opportunity to resist, despite the universally bad reviews. Sean Bean is a fine actor so surely the film couldn't be as bad as most critics were insisting?

Unfortunately this remake of a film that's apparently a late 80's classic (I haven't seen the original) is even worse than most of the reviewers have indicated, and even with a short running time of around 88 minutes it seems way too long. Somewhat surprisingly the problem here is not with the direction (which is slick) or even the acting (which is more than OK, especially from Bean - who plays a character very different from his Boromir role in The Lord of the Rings films), but with the totally unsympathetic central characters. I suspect most viewers will just wish the irritating American brat couple at the centre of this piece had been killed within minutes of their first appearance.

A much bigger problem than the annoying 'American brat' leads though is, yet again, a truly dreadful script. How on earth did this get green lit?!! It's become an expected norm in the horror genre that the central characters lose any of the basic vestiges of common sense, but here we're asked to follow a film that has as its basic premise the assumption that police would automatically assume any innocents anywhere near the scene of a murder were the people who committed the murder, no matter what the evidence around them might indicate to the contrary. At one point, barely two minutes after arresting our two 'heroes' on a road trip a long way from home, the police have miraculously got hold of professionally taken colour photographic prints of the couple, complete with potted versions of their life histories! I could go on with more examples of the silliness on display here, but suffice to say the plot is unbelievable and downright laughable it's hard to understand what on earth the producers were thinking of. Actually scratch that - Michael Bay is a co-producer - enough said!

Despite an interesting turn from Sean Bean I found myself continually wanting to just hit the stop button and go do something more interesting. The Hitcher is 88 minutes of my life that I'll never get back, and although the high definition transfer is exemplary, featuring some frankly stunning pictures of the Californian countryside that are at times almost 3D-like in quality, overall this is a disc to be avoided by anybody other than HD-DVD collector completists.