I hate to be
judgemental but I
hated this film.
After about an
hour, I was
thinking ‘this is
the worst film I
have ever seen.’
Not worst as in
Mrs Henderson
Presents (2005),
or that other one
my late Mum
asked me to take
her to, or
Matthew
Vaughan’s
Kingsman: The
Secret Service
(2014), but just
really bad when I
had such high
hopes.
It seems
appropriate to
note here that
many
commentators
consider this to
be some kind of
masterpiece. The
trailer, included
as part of the
extras package,
includes a
selection of
quotations ripe
with fulsome
praise: ‘jawdropping’
comes
to mind. Peter
Bradshaw in The
Guardian gave it
five stars, made it
his film of the
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week, and
awarded epithets
such as ‘aweinspiring’
and
“beautiful,
brilliant and
bizarre.” When I
watched it I
thought, ‘this has
all the shit from
Jabberwocky and
none of the jokes.’
Shit is the least of
it. There’s shit,
piss, snot, blood,
puke, and
entrails. If we
needed
confirmation of
the noisome
nature of the
medieval world of
Hard To Be A
God (aka:
Trudno byt
bogom), the cast
are perpetually
smelling things –
food, mud, faeces,
clothes, each
other, and then
announcing them
to be ‘stinky’.
After about two
hours I was
pleading for the
film to ‘just end’,
beyond that I
passed into the
sort of quiescent
state Daniel
Craig’s James
Bond achieves in
Casino Royale
(2006), after
having his
testicles lashed to
a pulp. I had
finally become
immersed in what
we are told was
director Aleksei
German’s
ambition, to
provide an
immersive
experience. Then
I watched the
extras.
I have a problem
visiting art
galleries. I
consider myself
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to be visually
literate, I can
respond to
pictures and
images on their
own terms, but I
come from a print
culture; I have to
read the label.
Some images I
can enjoy for
their own sake, I
responded
immediately the
first time I saw
works by Dali,
Miro, Magritte,
Max Ernst, and
Kazimir
Malevich; other
times I have had
to read the label.
That always
bothered me;
shouldn’t an
image, as art,
work on its own
terms? If you
have to read the
label, to have that
‘ah, now I see’
moment, hasn’t
the art and the
artist failed? I
didn’t anticipate
an epiphanic
revelation
watching the
extras package to
Hard To Be A
God, and I’m
pleased to say I
didn’t have one,
but I did feel I
had a better
understanding of
what German was
attempting to
achieve, even if I
remained
sceptical about
the merit of the
enterprise or its
realisation.
The kingdom of
Arkaner exists on
a planet not
unlike Earth, but
while Earth
society has
advanced,
Arkaner is stuck
in the middleages,
a
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renaissance has
been stalled, and
an oppressive
regime is
interring and
slaughtering
intellectuals or
‘smartarses’. The
medieval society
depicted is not
contained within
a Hollywood
image of ‘Merrie
England’, bosky
parkland
interrupted by
thriving market
towns and
dominated by
noble castles, it
exists in a rainsoaked
mire
where the
grotesque
inhabitants wade
through shit,
inflicting various
degrees of
violence upon
each other. A
couple of dozen
Earth scientists
are in situ,
observing the lack
of progress and
reporting back to
their home
planet, an early
image viewed
through a circular
lens suggests that
what we see is
being filmed, and
presumably
broadcast back to
Earth. Embedded
within this
society, and
posing as a local
feudal baron, is
Don Rumata
(Leonid
Yarmolnik), an
Earthman who
has gone native.
Unassailable, due
to his fighting
skills and his
adopted status as
the descendent of
a god, he
attempts to
assuage some of
the perse
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and brutality
within Arkaner by
protecting
scholars and
offering them
sanctuary. A brief
narrated
exposition, which
director German
was reluctant to
include, sets the
scene, but, it has
to be stressed,
nothing which
occurs on screen
is clear or
obvious,
relationships are
obscure and
narrative
progression
excursive to say
the least.
Hard To Be A
God is based on
Arkady and Boris
Strugatsky’s 1964
novel, set in their
‘Noon Universe’,
a utopian society
which imagines
the victory of
communism on
Earth and the
elimination of
most social evils
through
technology and
moral evolution.
Less-enlightened
worlds are
‘progressed’
through gentle
intervention,
although such
intervention is
seen as highly
controversial.
Iain M. Banks’
‘Culture’ novels
seem an obvious
successor. The
Strugatskys,
along with the
Polish author
Stanislaw Lem,
are probably the
best known of
Soviet bloc
science fiction
writers, thanks to
their
championing in
the west by the
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likes of Theodore
Sturgeon,
influential film
versions of their
famous works,
and the sheer
quality of their
output.
Soviet science
fiction has always
had a certain
cachet, perhaps
derived from the
reasonable
assumption in the
west that it was a
literature of
resistance,
smuggling
libertarian ideals
and oppositional
politics, under
the guise of
fantasy, within a
society marked by
oppression and
curtailments on
free speech.
Russian literature
has a history of
influence in the
west, the ‘Golden
Age’ in the 19th
century saw the
likes of Turgenev,
Chekhov,
Dostoyevsky, and
others, having a
profound effect
on nascent
literary
modernism in
England and
Europe (although
the exiled Ezra
Pound apparently
admitted to
Hemingway in
Paris that he had
never read the
‘Rooshians’).
Russian literature
seems to fully
embrace the
speculation and
fantasy that
typifies romance
writing, “fiction
that owes no
allegiance to The
God of Things as
They Are” as
Ambrose Bierce
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defined it in his
Devil’s
Dictionary in
1911. The whole
Russian
experience seems
to have entranced
the European
intelligentsia, an
image of Russia
and the Russian
people as
somehow in tune
with a spiritual
mystical world
denied to the
materialistic
west. Of course
one can be overly
romantic, “if you
are going to tell
me that any
aspect of Russia
psychological,
mystical,
practical, or
commercial seen
through an
English medium
is either Russia as
she really is or
Russia as
Russians see her,
I say to you,
without
hesitation, that
you don’t know of
what you are
talking”, as Hugh
Walpole put it in
his novel The
Secret City
(1919).
The Strugatsky
brothers’
Roadside Picnic
is my favourite SF
novel. It appealed
to me because it
seemed to deal
with the concept
of the ‘alien’ in a
new way. An
awful lot of
science fiction
takes the ‘man in
a reptile suit’
approach to
presenting alien
life, that’s
understandable,
how do you
imagine, let alone
describe,
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something which
is unfamiliar or
unknown?
Roadside Picnic
postulated the
impact on our
society of the
casual discovery
of alien artefacts,
explained
throu
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beauty, a
particular scene
in Stalker used to
pop into my head
like an oneiric
flashback
whenever I
jogged up a lane
which regularly
flooded with runoff
water from
surrounding
fields.
Tarkovsky and
German shared a
mutual respect,
although
German’s hyperrealism
seems a
world away from
Tarkovsky’s
romanticism.
German’s early
films, pre-Hard
To Be A God,
were set in the
Stalinist era. An
earlier attempt to
film Hard To Be
A God was
stalled, as it
coincided with
the Soviet
invasion of
Czechoslovakia.
In fact, the
depiction of a
society in which a
hoped for
renaissance has
been replaced by
state terror, and
the internment of
intellectuals,
seems pertinent
to the early
decades of postrevolutionary
Russia.
Tarkovsky’s
Mirror (1975)
also deals with
incidents of
Stalinist terror
but in an elliptical
way. While
Tarkovsky was
clearly an
influence on
German, the
latter’s debt to
Fellini is clear in
his busy mise en
scene.
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In the first film in
the extras
package,
German’s wife
and collaborator
Svetlana
Karmalita
explains
something of his
technique. She
concedes that it is
hard to follow
which characters
are talking in
Hard To Be A
God, a deliberate
policy derived
from an edit on
Trial On The
Road (1971), in
which the camera
focuses on the
non-speaker in
order for the
viewer to gauge
his reaction to
off-screen
dialogue. In fact
this technique, in
which the speaker
is obscured, and
the mise en scene
is fouled by
obstructions,
hands, weapons,
serving-vessels,
and flowers, and
we struggle to
attach the
random names
we hear to
particular
characters, has an
alienating effect
which evokes
Brecht, except
that German’s
avowed intent is
to immerse the
viewer in the
hyperrealism of
the world of
Arkaner, not to
emphasise the
theatrical
unreality of the
staging. Bizarrely,
I was reminded at
times of John
Boorman’s
attempt at a late
British nouvelle
vague, in his film
Leo The Last
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(1970).
German’s filming
of Hard To Be A
God took six
years, from 2000
to 2006, the
lengthy editing
and postproduction
outlasted the
director, and the
film was
completed by his
widow Carmelita,
and their son
Aleksei German
Jr, a noted
director in his
own right. The
extras package
includes an
interview with
German Jr about
his father’s work,
and Hard To Be
A God in
particular.
Michael Brooke
reviews German’s
career in The
Unknown Genius
as part of the
extras package on
the blu-ray.
In The History Of
The Arkaner
Massacre, again
among the extras,
Daniel Bird
provides an
explanation of the
film which, it has
to be said, owes
more to a
familiarity with
the source
material than
anything which
could be derived
from a viewing of
the film itself.
Bird also provides
an introduction
to science fiction
for SF virgins, in
which he
distinguishes
between ‘hard’,
physics-based
science fiction, a
term he doesn’t
actually use, and
sociological or
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psychological
‘soft’ science
fiction. Bizarrely,
he cites Carl
Sagan as an
exemplar of a
hard science
fiction writer.
Bird sees
German’s film as
fulfilling
Bakhtin’s notion
of ‘carnival’
whereby the
established order
is overturned; in
fact I think Bird
misinterprets
Bakhtin in
relation to Hard
To Be A God,
there is little in
the way of satire
or anarchy,
although there is
a Rabelaisian
emphasis on
scatology. The
irony within the
Strugatskys novel
is that the avatars
of the
communistic
state of the Noon
Universe must
become members
of a bourgeois
hierarchy to
function in the
primitive worlds
they investigate.
Driven to
distraction by the
cruelty he
witnesses Don
Rumata
eventually
interferes in the
world of Arkaner.
He quotes Boris
Pasternak’s poem
Hamlet, and
Hamlet is clearly
a reference point.
The Prince of
Denmark,
informed by the
ghost of his dead
father that his
uncle is guilty of
his murder, is set
on a process of
revenge, but he
hesitates. The
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hesitation in
Shakespeare’s
Hamlet provides
the drama. In
Hard To Be A
God, Don Rumata
hesitates,
hamstrung by the
non-interference
policy of his
Earth culture.
Unfortunately
there is little or
no drama, the
only signifier of
tension is in the
verbalisation of
the dilemma; the
quandary of nonintervention
in
the face of
atrocity and
injustice has been
better portrayed
in episodes of
Star Trek dealing
with the
Federation’s
Prime Directive.
In Hard To Be A
God, a force
known as the
Greys commit
atrocities until
they are replaced
by an invading
force known as
the Blacks, who
are equally cruel.
Rumata explains
that any
intervention he
makes will, by
removing one
generation of
tyrants, simply
clear the way for
another set of
despots.
Ultimately,
Rumata does act,
although we are
denied witnessing
the massacre of
Arkaner we see
its aftermath.
Overlong and
ultimately
pretentious; I’m
reluctant to fall
into a trap of
hating what I
don’t understand;
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my late Mother,
confronted by
something on
television that
disturbed her,
would respond by
condemning
these ‘so-called
intellectuals’. I’m
not averse to
witnessing the
messy underbelly
of life, and I’m all
for challenges to
traditional
narrative, but this
film left me cold.
An earlier version
from 1989 is
described as a
poor man’s Dune,
although the
screenplay was by
the great JeanClaude
Carriere;
I’d quite like to
see it. Although I
bridled having to
sit through the
extras, I found
them informative,
and German’s
1998 film
Khrustalyov, My
Car! sounds like
something I’d like
to see; so not a
complete waste of
time.

As Masayuki
Suzuki’s
comedic/
fantastical
adventure Nin
Nin (aka: Nin x
Nin: Ninja
Hattori-kun,
2004) reminded
us, contemporary
heroic-assassin
movies are,
basically,
superhero
cinema – just
imperfectly
adjusted to the
current phases of
Marvel and DC
franchises,
perhaps until the
Iron Fist and/ or
Shang-Chi
movies emerge
somewhere/
whenever from a
comics
continuum.
Featuring Sho
Kosugi, The
Ninja trilogy
begins with
Menahem
Golan’s Enter
The Ninja
(1981). This once
popular VHS
rental stars
Franco Nero and
Susan George,
and the movie
appears to be
inspired partly by
Enter The
Dragon (1973),
and TV series
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Kung Fu (1972-
5).
Veteran gaijin
Cole (Franco
Nero) graduates
from Japanese
combat school,
and leaves to visit
his old friend
Landers, who has
settled down in
the Philippines.
His stranger-intown
presence
evokes western
formulas with
martial arts a
novelty
ingredient. The
flashbacks, to our
heroes’ past as
soldiering
buddies in
Angola and
Congo, are a
clear precedent
of Rambo heroics
in First Blood
(1982). A typical
high-campy
antagonist is
capitalist villain
and Manila
mogul, Venarius
(Christopher
George), the local
kingpin of sleazy
decadence whose
parades of hired
goons don’t
survive very long.
Ultimately, the
real henchman to
watch out for is
Hasegawa (Sho
Kosugi), Cole’s
former rival, who
is recruited by
Venarius for door-die
problemsolving
as a
stealthy assassin.
It eventually
becomes the
violent cliché of a
one-man army
versus army of
one. There’s
vengeance of
merciless zen as
whiplash kicks
sound like
sneezes, punches
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are played on a
cardboard drum
kit, and a local
cockfighting
arena is a wellchosen
venue for
the decisive
showdown.
Sam
Firstenberg’s
sequel Revenge
Of The Ninja
(1983) is not too
dissimilar to be a
jarring follow-up.
Despite getting
his head chopped
off in Enter The
Ninja, Kosugi is
back in action
playing an
entirely different
character – ex-pat
Cho, living in the
USA – whose able
sprog Kane is a
little schoolboy
who takes care of
big bullies,
predating the
Karate Kid
series. Cho
imports Japanese
dolls for a new
art gallery, but
remains quite
unaware at first
that his corrupt
business-partner
is smuggling
heroin.
Whenever plot
continuity or
development
misfires, or
lapses into hokey
dialogue, the
director throws
in another dojo
display of martial
artistry.
Familiar crime
story beats of
robbery, car
chase, and street
fighting –
featuring a
Village People
assortment
undermining the
supposed
individuality of
various stunt
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punks in gang
rumbles. Cho’s
relentless pursuit
of thieves is a
minor classic
sequence of lowbudget
1980s
action cinema.
However, some
unintentional
farce results from
the ninja-granny
murder and most
of the death
scenes have a
melodramatic
flourish. A
rooftop tennis
court’s chickenwire
cage-fight is
only the starting
point for the duel
of good against
evil ninjas.
Notable cult flick
Ninja III: The
Domination
(1984) delves
deep into occult
weirdness and
the supernatural
than previous
movies. Lucinda
Dickey plays
Christie, a
telephone
engineer working
on overhead
lines, and her
hobbies include
cheesy stuff like
pastel leotards
and leggings for
gratuitous
aerobics – so her
character is
obviously
composed of
welder Alex
(Jennifer Beals),
from Flashdance,
and Regan
(Linda Blair),
from The
Exorcist.
Christie’s
romance with a
policeman soon
gives way to the
curse of
possession from
a haunted
samurai sword.
There are smoke
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effects and
strobe-lights that
verge on a
psychedelic laser
show as the
archetypal
American nice
girl turns into a
remorseless
psycho-killer.
James Hong is
good fun as the
Chinese magician
trying to help our
distraught
heroine who only
wants to have fun
dancing in her
bedroom despite
the intrusions of
seemingly
demonic forces
attached to ninja
weaponry. The
eye-patched hero
Yamada (Kosugi,
of course) tackles
the spooky ninja
ghost fiend in a
climactic fest of
mystic fu.
Recently,
bloodthirsty
shocker Ninja
Assassin (2009)
updated this
movie’s horrorshow
antics with
Kosugi in the
supporting cast

In the film
Gigi (1958),
directed by
Vincente
Minnelli, and
based upon
Colette’s
novella, the
title character
played by
Leslie Caron
sees through
her grooming
for society and
confronts the
rich flaneur
Gaston played
by Louis
Jourdan.
“They’ve
pounded into
my head I’m
backward for
my age… but I
know what all
this means. To
‘take care of
me beautifully’
means I shall
go away with
you… and that
I shall sleep in
your bed.” Gigi
is a young girl
pimped out by
her
grandmothers
to Gaston,
although the
film tried to
sidestep the
issue. All ends
happily of
course in the
inevitable
acceptable
marriage,
although much
that was
thought
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charming and
delicately
risqué in a
1958 musical
leaves a bad
taste now, not
least of which
is Maurice
Chevalier’s
signature song
Thank
Heavens For
Little Girls.
Confused and
ultimately
decent as
Gaston, Louis
Jourdan seems
an unlikely
villain,
although he
would become
one as Anton
Arcane in the
Swamp Thing
movies, and as
Kamal Khan in
Octopussy.
Before those
career peaks,
however, he
effectively
transformed
the suave
amorist from
his romantic
leads, into the
sensualist
monster
lurking
beneath, to
play Count
Dracula in this
fairly faithful
BBC
adaptation
from the late1970s.
Adaptor
Gerald Savory
was head of
serials at the
BBC in the
mid-1960s,
and earned his
genre stripes
saving William
Hartnell from
being written
out of Doctor
Who in the
Celestial
Toymaker
serial, and
pushing for
the Dalek
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Master Plan to
be an epic 12
episodes.
For Count
Dracula,
Savory made a
few changes to
Bram Stoker’s
original. Mina
Murray and
her best friend
Lucy Westenra
are now the
Westenra
sisters. The
character of
Arthur
Holmwood is
lost; of Lucy
Westenra’s
three suitors,
Dr Seward, the
aristocrat
Holmwood
whose
proposal in the
novel she
accepts, and
the American
Quincey
Morris, only
Seward and
Quincey (now
Quincy
Holmwood)
remain. Lucy
is engaged to
Quincey.
Whether this
move was to
tempt sales of
the production
in the USA is a
possibility;
Quincey dies
of gunshot
wounds in the
book, here he
survives. The
other more
obvious
change, other
than editing
for pace and
concision, is
that Dracula
does not begin
the narrative
as an old man,
only regaining
youth and
vigour as he
sates his foul
appetites in
England; he
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starts as he
means to go
on, urbane and
in his prime.
The
compression
of the book,
for narrative
pace, means
we are spared
much of Van
Helsing’s
pious
glorification of
the character
of Mina.
Women, for
the Professor,
and the three
younger men,
John, Arthur,
and Quincey,
are there to be
worshipped
and protected.
Dracula views
them in a
different light;
they are his
nourishment
but potentially
his equals in a
companionate
marriage
lasting
centuries. It is
unsurprising
that academic
analysis of the
novel has
highlighted the
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mother and
domestic
paragon. Mina
is clearly
talented and
resourceful,
she teaches
herself
shorthand, she
sets out to be
archivist and
recording
angel for the
fellowship of
vampire
hunters,
despite Van
Helsing’s best
efforts to
sideline her,
both for her
protection and
because once
initiated into
the cult of
blood-letting
she is herself
already of the
vampire’s
party.
The
stereotypical
personification
of women as
either
Madonna or
whore is
exemplified in
Dracula;
contamination
as a vampire
brings out all
the repressed
sensuality in
Lucy as she
comes on to
her fiancé. Van
Helsing
repeatedly
refers to Mina
as ‘Miss’ Mina,
despite the
fact of her
marriage to
Jonathan, she
is Mrs Harker
and one
presumes no
longer a virgin,
but it is in the
Professor’s
interests to
maintain a
conceit of
perceived
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purity as a
bulwark
against the
attractions of
the Count.
While this TV
film spares us
much of Van
Helsing’s
fussing and
fawning, little
of the
psychological
power of the
original is lost.
Jonathan
Harker travels
to Eastern
Europe to the
home of Count
Dracula to
fulfil the
latter’s interest
in a property
in England.
Forewarned by
the
unspecified
concern of
fearful locals
Jonathan finds
himself a
prisoner in the
Count’s castle.
The Count
does not eat or
drink, he casts
no reflection
in Jonathan’s
looking glass
and, strangest
of all, he leaves
the castle at
night by
climbing headfirst
down the
castle walls.
Almost
becoming a
victim of the
Count’s
beautiful evil
‘brides’,
Harker
realises it is
his fate to
become their
victim. Having
been coerced
into writing a
letter to his
employer
claiming he is
returning to
England,
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Harker risks
all in an
escape
attempt. He
manages to
climb down
from his
bedroom
window, and
then makes
the
horrendous
discovery of
the Count and
the brides
sated and
lethargic in
their coffins in
the crypt of the
castle. Harker
attempts to kill
the Count with
a blow from a
shovel but,
instead of
decapitating
him, he only
gashes him
across the
forehead
before
continuing to
make his
escape.
Back in
England, filled
with
foreboding by
the lack of
news from
Jonathan,
Mina attempts
to enjoy her
sister Lucy’s
good fortune
in her
engagement.
Enjoying the
sea-air at
Whitby, the
girls are
witness to the
grounding of a
vessel after a
horrific storm.
Shortly
afterwards,
Mina discovers
her sister out
of bed,
apparently
sleep-walking,
where she sees
her in the
embrace of a
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tall dark
figure. Later,
pinning a
shawl around
Lucy, Mina
believes she
has pricked
her sister’s
neck for there
on the white
flesh are two
puncture
marks. Over
the coming
days, Lucy
sickens and
fails in health
causing Dr
Seward to call
in his old
Professor, Van
Helsing who,
after some
research,
proposes an
unusual cure
decorating the
girl’s bedroom
with garlic
flowers.
Unfortunately,
while this
action seems
to offer the girl
some
protection, her
mother’s
intervention
results in
tragedy when
they are
attacked by a
large dog
causing Mrs
Westenra to
die from a
heart attack.
With news
that Jonathan
has returned
following some
form of
nervous
breakdown,
Mina has
travelled to
join him and
she is absent
when Lucy
finally
succumbs to
the
debilitating
illness that has
left her so
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weak. Mina
returns,
married to
Jonathan, and
Van Helsing
confides in Dr
Seward and
also to
Quincey his
suspicions that
Lucy has been
preyed upon
by one of the
Nosferatu, and
that she
herself has
joined the
ranks of the
undead.
With the death
of Lucy, and
Van Helsing,
Seward and
Quincey’s
intervention to
save the dead
girl’s soul,
Dracula turns
his attention
to Mina,
consummating
their blood
pact while
Jonathan lies
in a hypnotic
sleep beside
them. Van
Helsing
proposes that
they must
destroy the
vampire to
save Mina,
isolating the
coffins he
brought with
him to
England and
sterilising
them with
sacramental
wafers, and
leaving the
Count with no
refuge in the
hours of
daylight.
Having done
so, the four
men and Mina
pursue
Dracula to his
homeland to
attempt to
destroy him
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forever.
A fairly
faithful
adaptation,
then, with
some 1970s
camera
trickery and
effects, the
screen goes to
negative,
blood-red
filters are used
to emphasise
Dracula’s
bloodlust. One
of the most
effective
scenes is
where Van
Helsing
confronts
Dracula with a
crucifix, the
shape of the
cross glowing
on the
vampire’s face.
The rubbery
bats flapping
against the
girls’ bedroom
windows are
pretty ropy but
you can’t have
everything.
The cast is
excellent, the
thoroughly
upright and
dependable
fraternity of
Seward,
Jonathan, and
Quincey are
somewhat
forgettable but
then the
characters
themselves are
merely ciphers
of decency.
Bosco Hogan
is Jonathan,
his first film
role was
George in
John
Boorman’s
terrific
Zardoz. Mark
Burns who
plays Dr
Seward had
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quite an
eclectic TV and
film career
before his
death, making
a final
appearance in
Matthew
Vaughn’s
Stardust.
Susan
Penhaligon
had made her
name the
previous year
playing the
doomed spoilt
daughter of
Frank Finlay,
in ITV’s
controversial
A Bouquet Of
Barbed Wire;
she already
had some
genre
experience
playing
alongside
droll-faced
American
actor Doug
McClure in the
Amicus
production
The Land That
Time Forgot.
The luminous
Judi Bowker
made her
name in kids’
TV playing
opposite a
horse in the
Sunday
afternoon telly
version of
Black Beauty,
but perhaps
she is most
famous for
being rescued
from the
Kraken by
Harry Hamlin
in Clash Of
The Titans
(1981).
Finlay himself
is excellent,
down-playing
Van Helsing’s
foreign
fussiness, and
Louis Jourdan
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is
commanding
as Dracula.
Perhaps the
outstanding
piece of acting
is from Jack
Shepherd as,
the lunatic
would-bedisciple
of
Dracula,
Renfield.
Believing that,
by consuming
the lives of
other
creatures he
can extend his
own life,
Renfield has
started small;
“Flies, spiders,
birds!” When
he is offered
Mina by
Dracula,
Renfield
resists and is
murdered by
the Count. A
tour-de-force
of sulks and
sudden mood
changes
Shepherd
makes
Renfield both
hideous and
pitiful.
Dramatic, and
quite
effectively
scary at times,
and gory in
parts, this
production
still makes
entertaining
viewing some
35 years after
its first
appearance

“Great
scientific
advances are
oftentimes
sudden
accomplished
facts before
most of us are
even dimly
aware of them.
Breathtakingly
unexpected,
for example,
was the
searing flash
that
announced the
atomic age.
Equally
unexpected
was the next
gigantic stride
when Man
moved out of
his very orbit
to a point more
than 20 million
miles to
Earth…” (voiceover
introduction)
Movies are the
art of the
impossible. Since
the very first
faltering
experiments at
projecting images
made of light and
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01
2015 2016 2017
3 captures
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1 Jan 2016 – 17 Mar 2017 ▾ About this capture
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shadow, it has
been a medium
of miracle. If the
photo doesn’t lie,
then the cinecamera
has
always
specialised in
fooling the eye.
Twenty-first
century
blockbusters take
spectacle to
places it’s never
been before. We
take its sense of
wonder for
granted. But long
before CGI there
were visual feasts
to tease your
credulity. Here, a
monster
dinosaur-lizard
from Venus
grapples with an
elephant from
the Rome zoo.
Which is real,
and which
animation? The
alien reptile – the
‘Ymir’, must
obviously be
special effects,
but the
elephant..?
Where does stopframe
end and
reality take over?
It momentarily
fools even the
experienced eye.
And this is 1957.
But first, there’s a
dramatic
narration over
galactic spirals
and star-clusters,
as the title-words
hurl in from left
and right. Before
the film opens
onto the
picturesque
fishing village of
Commune di
Gerra in
southern Sicily,
where local
women in
headscarves
wash their
laundry in the
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river like 1950s’
third-world and
folksy Neapolitan
strings pluck and
swirl. Swarthy
fishermen with
comic accents
pause as an earsplitting
sound
precedes a
planetary rocketship
nose-diving
into the sea. As
other ships flee,
challenged with
“what are we,
children or men
of the sea?” two
men, and a boy in
a small boat,
cautiously
investigate the
ship projecting
from the
bubbling sea.
They climb in
through a hullbreach
to the
steaming
interior. Two
men in U.S. Air
Force helmets,
strapped into
their seats, are
retrieved before
the ‘ship of the
air’ submerges.
Meanwhile, in
the far-off
Pentagon, Major
General
McIntosh
(Thomas Browne
Henry) has a
moving orrery of
spinning worlds
to demonstrate
what’s going on.
His concern is
the XY21, a
single-stage
astro-propelled
ship, initially
with a 17-man
complement,
which was hit by
meteorites on its
return journey
from the planet
Venus. That ship
is now “20,000
leagues under the
sea,” right down
there with the
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fish. So McIntosh
prepares to go to
Sicily by U.S.
flying boat.
On the beach the
boy, Pepe –
convincingly
played by
American Bart
Braverman,
discovers a U.S.
capsule, and
hides it in the
rocks. When he
screws it open, it
reveals a jellylike
slug. He tries
to sell ‘the animal
specimen’ for
200 pre-Euro
Lira to marine
zoologist Dr
Leonardo (Frank
Puglia) who
happens to be
camping in a
caravan ‘houseon-the-wheels’
with his medical
student
granddaughter
Marisa (Joan
Taylor). He
makes the trade
despite calling
Pepe a ‘Sicilian
bandit’, and the
boy uses the
proceeds to buy a
bang-bang
cowboy outfit
from “the great
country of
Texas.” While
Marisa – ‘almost
a doctor’, helps
nurse the two
surviving
astronauts.
Although blond
uniformed pilot
Bob Calder
(William
Hopper)
recovers, his
companion Dr
Sharman (Arthur
Space) soon dies
from warty facial
growths.
Arriving in Italy,
McIntosh is
taken to meet
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Calder, as police
divers prepare to
descend and
search the wreck.
There’s some
amusing
confusion with
the local
authorities about
where the
submerged ship
had returned
from – “Venus –
not Venice!” But
by now events
are well under
way. In the
zoological
caravan, a
twitching claw
emerges from the
jelly-sample, and
a tiny lizard
hatches, hiding
its eyes from the
light. Placed
overnight in a
specimen cage it
rapidly grows to
three times its
original size.
Their work done,
the pair hitch the
caravan – “the
house that
follows like a
goat,” and head
back for Rome
via Messina.
En route,
inevitably, the
creature
wrenches the
cage-bars apart
and escapes,
scares the horses
and stampedes
the sheep,
although a dog
distracts its
attention from a
cutesy-cute lamb!
Alerted by Pepe,
Calder and
McIntosh speed
to the scene in
time for a
dramatic
showdown.
There’s another
encounter with a
dog when the
now man-sized
beast is
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discovered hiding
out in a barn.
Despite being
warned that it’s
“not ferocious
unless provoked”
the farmer does
some unwise
pitchfork
provocation, and
is severely
injured as a
result. Calder
jousts with the
beast, using a
pole in some
impressive liveaction
and
animation
interaction. But it
escapes into the
Italian
countryside,
taking time out to
bask at a scenic
waterfall close by
some volcanic
lava-beds.
William Hopper –
who had already
featured in the
1955 sci-fi movie
Conquest Of
Space, as well as
playing Natalie
Wood’s father in
James Dean’s
classic Rebel
Without A Cause
(1955), is now
Calder, using a
huge brick-like
walkie-talkie
radio to
coordinate
operations. The
creature eats
sulphur, so they
lure it out with
sacks of its
mineral of
choice. In uneasy
alliance with
suspicious Italian
authorities, he
uses two Marine
helicopters with
an electrified net
to capture the
fugitive beast. As
it’s carried off to
the Rome
‘Giardino
Zoologico’,
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strapped down
and controlled by
a continual
voltage charge,
Calder shoves his
cap back on his
head and slots a
cigarette into his
mouth in a jobwell-done
gesture.
Then he gets on
with his
bantering
flirtation with
Marisa,
reconciled with
the promise of a
tryst for two in a
dark café with
candles on the
table. Joan
Taylor –
American, but
with dark
Italianate
features
inherited from
her conveniently
Sicilian descent,
was familiar to
audiences
through
appearances in
TV westerns
Wagon Train
and Gunsmoke,
but could also be
seen in Ray
Harryhausen’s
box-office hit
Earth vs. The
Flying Saucers
(1956).
She’s now
working in the
Zoo labs,
“cooking over a
hot creature all
day.” She decides
the Venusian
beast is “a
mutation, but of
what species?” It
has no heart, no
lungs, and
gunfire has no
effect on it.
However, Earth’s
atmosphere has
accelerated its
growth to ‘King
Kong’
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proportions. And
like Kong, it’s an
unfortunate
victim of human
exploitation.
Retrieved as a
sample of
Venusian fauna,
it’s an unwilling
exile on Earth.
Until, taking
advantage of a
falling arc-light
accident that
interrupts the
anaesthetising
electrical supply,
it wakes, and
bursts free
through the wall
into the adjoining
elephant
compound.
Here,
Harryhausen
himself can
briefly be
glimpsed feeding
the elephants.
And this is where
his beautifully
choreographed
elephant versus
monster battle
occurs. With the
fight spilling over
into the Roman
streets, “loose
and on the
rampage”
causing
predictable
shrieks and
panic, and Calder
hot on its trail.
Both creaturecombatants,
of
course, are stopmotion
animated
and split-screen
integrated into
action-sequences
that define 1950s
state-of-the-art
visual effects.
In the next
century, as a
knowing tribute,
in 2002’s
Monsters, Inc the
CGI beasties
frequent a
Monstropolis
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sushi bar called
‘Harryhausens’.
Because Ray
himself – born 29
June 1920, is
both a
continuity-link,
and an
accelerator in the
evolution of the
movie special
effects that made
it all possible. As
a member of the
‘Los Angeles
Science Fiction
League’ Forrest J
Ackerman
introduced Ray
Harryhausen to
Ray Bradbury,
the three
‘tweenagers’
becoming firm
fan-friends.
According to
Ackerman,
Harryhausen was
inspired, and
encouraged by
Willis O’Brien’s
innovative work
on King Kong
(1933). After
“seeing ‘Kong’
upwards of 80
times in the
intervening
interval, and
always
experimenting to
find improved
methods of
creating and
animating
monsters,” he
advanced the
cinematic art,
devising what he
termed his own
‘Dynamation’
techniques.
He got to work as
O’Brien’s
assistant on
Mighty Joe
Young (1949),
performing much
of the actual
frame-by-frame
animation, but
emphatically
came into his
own with the
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spectacular
creature-feature
The Beast From
20,000 Fathoms
(1953), based on
a story by his
friend, Ray
Bradbury. Caught
up in Cold War
paranoia, a
hibernating
dinosaur is
revived and
unleashed on
New York by an
experimental
nuclear testing
programme. It
was followed by
the even more
impressive It
Came From
Beneath The Sea
(1955), this time
set on America’s
west-coast, with
a giant octopus
attacking San
Francisco.
By now,
Harryhausen had
the ability to
transform his
films into a
medium of
spectacle,
exerting a degree
of technical
control that
enabled unique
integrations of
live-action with
miniaturised
elements. His
increasingly
bankable
reputation also
meant he was
able to take
advantage of new
opportunities. So
that, despite
producer-credit
going to his longtime
collaborator
Charles H.
Schneer, 20
Million Miles
To Earth is very
much his own
project, selecting
Italian shooting
locations because
they offer the
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chance of travel
to exotic corners
of Europe.
The gift of
O’Brien’s ability
with ‘Kong’…
carried over into
Pixar’s Monsters,
is to establish
emotional
characterisation
in their creations.
And the Ymir is a
fully-realised
cast-member in
its own right,
walking upright T
Rex-style on its
hind legs while
constantly
flicking its
reptilian tail to
convey an
expressive range
from curiosity to
frustration. Its
upper jaw-line
even resembles a
kind of
moustache!
Subsequently
colourised – with
Harryhausen’s
active
participation, the
film still works
best in its
original
atmospherically
crisp black-andwhite
print.
To critics David
Miller and Mark
Gatiss, it
“remains a
fantastic sci-fi
fairy tale and
Harryhausen
deserves more
than a fortnight
in Sicily for his
pains” (They
Came From
Outer Space!,
Visual
Imagination,
1996). Among his
subsequent
movie-magic was
visualising the
mythic
masterwork
Jason And The
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Argonauts
(1963), including
perhaps his most
memorably
admired
sequence, the
sword-wielding
seven-skeleton
army; setting
standards that
would, in turn,
inspire later
generations of
fantastic filmmakers.
Meanwhile, with
an eye to the
tourist dollar,
and with the
Empire State
Building not
available, the
monster first
emerges from the
Tiber, smashing
the iconic Ponte
Sant’ Angelo
bridge to rubble
fragments, then
detours to
Rome’s most
famous location,
the Colosseum,
wrecking Roman
columns with
scant
consideration for
their historic
value. In
Ackerman’s
phrase “ruining
what wasn’t
already ruined in
Rome” (in
Nebula #23,
August 1957).
And Calder is
there. Cameras
take panoramic
pans around the
vast ruined
interior of the
empty arena.
Where is the
monster? Calder
bazooka’s it as it
climbs to the
highest point of
the outer walls
where it hurls
stone blocks
down at the
assembling
marines. It
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stumbles, but
hangs on, until
tank-fire brings
the wall down.
And it plummets
to its death.
As curious people
gather around its
mighty corpse,
and Marisa falls
into Calder’s
embrace, the
Professor
laments “why is it
always, always so
costly for man to
move from the
present to the
future..?” The
film itself
constitutes a step
forward towards
new movie
futures

It is interesting to
revisit this classic
of English
horror. Dead Of
Night is so
influential that
its elements have
become genre
tropes, and at
times the viewer
has to remind
themselves that
they are seeing
them here for the
first time.
The film has a
gentle beginning,
an architect
Walter Craig
(Mervyn Johns)
drives up a
country lane,
halts, and seeing
a cottage shakes
his head in
apparent
bemusement. His
aesthetic sense
has not been
outraged at this
example of
English
vernacular; he
believes he has
been here before.
Welcomed in by
the homeowner
Foley (Roland
Culver), who has
commissioned
him to make
some alterations,
Craig soon
indicates that he
knows his way
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around the
property. And, on
his introduction
to the other
house guests,
reveals that he
believes himself
to have met them
all before in a
recurrent dream,
the details of
which resurface
during his stay,
and lead him to
believe some
tragedy or great
‘evil’ is destined
to engulf him.
A sceptical voice
is raised in the
person of the
psychologist Dr
van Straaten, but
the other guests
believe Craig’s
story, and in his
defence recount
incidents from
their own
experience that
supports the
credo that ‘there
are more things
in heaven and
earth than are
dreamt of in your
philosophy.’ This
then is the
framing narrative
within which a
portmanteau of
stories of
hauntings and
possession are
presented. In the
first story, a
racing driver
recovering from a
crash has an
inexplicable
vision of a hearse
outside of the
room in which he
is convalescent.
The driver of the
hearse, the
character actor
Miles Malleson,
with a jocular
wink indicates
that there is
“Room for one
inside.” On his
release from
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hospital, the
patient is about
to board a bus
when the
conductor,
Malleson again,
tells him there is
“Room for one
inside.”
Shrinking back,
the reluctant
passenger then
watches in horror
as the bus
ploughs through
the parapet of a
bridge and
crashes into the
river.
In the second
story a young
girl, Sally Ann
Howes (Chitty
Chitty Bang
Bang’s ‘Truly
Scrumptious’),
recalls a
Christmas party
in which the
young guests play
the frankly
creepy game of
Sardines. Having
been told that a
ghastly murder
once took place
in the house, and
escaping from an
over-affectionate
young beau, the
girl discovers a
tearful young boy
distraught
because his
bullying elder
sister has
threatened to kill
him. After
comforting the
child and
returning to the
party, the girl
discovers that the
child, Francis
Kent, was the
victim of a
murder that took
place some
decades before.
The child, and his
sister Constance,
were the real
players in a
notorious murder
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case; in fact
Constance Kent
had died in
Australia the year
before Dead Of
Night appeared.
In the third story
Joan (Googie
Withers) buys
her fiancé Peter a
mirror as a
present. Most
men, one would
imagine,
wouldn’t be overenamoured
of
this but the
dandyish Peter is
delighted. Peter
begins to see
another room
reflected in the
mirror, a room
from another era,
in stark contrast
to his modern
minimalist
bedroom. Joan
cannot see the
room, and Peter
cannot see Joan
in the mirror.
The room in the
haunted mirror
begins to terrify
Peter but, with
an effort of will,
and Joan’s help
and support, he
manages to
banish the vision.
While Joan is
away visiting her
mother, Peter
sees the room
again. Returning
to the shop where
she bought the
mirror, Joan is
told that it
belonged to a
man who, when
crippled and
confined to his
bedroom,
became
consumed with
jealousy at his
wife’s imagined
infidelity,
eventually
murdering her.
Returning to
Peter, Joan finds
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him transformed
and accusing of
her of being
unfaithful with
an old admirer.
Almost strangled
by Peter, Joan
only frees him
from his
obsession by
destroying the
mirror.
The next episode,
the ‘golfing
story’, features a
classic double-act
of British cinema,
Naunton Wayne
and Basil
Radford who,
firstly as
Caldicott and
Charters the
cricket-obsessed
duo from
Hitchcock’s The
Lady Vanishes,
featured in a
range of films
throughout the
1940s. Here they
are golfing
buddies who fall
out over a girl.
They decide to
settle the suit by
playing their
favourite game;
the Radford
character cheats,
and his rival
commits suicide
in a particularly
eerie scene by
walking out into
the lake water
hazard.
Subsequently,
Radford finds his
golf plagued by
the ghost of his
rival who, while
invisible to
others, threatens
to haunt him
unless he gives
up the game or
the girl. Having
decided to
sacrifice sex for
the links,
Radford is
dismayed that
Wayne cannot
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remember the
elaborate
contortions
required to
dematerialise,
and the haunting
continues right
up to the night of
the honeymoon.
Attempting to
help his erstwhile
friend and rival
Radford only
succeeds in
vanishing
himself. Left
alone with the
new bride in the
next room,
Wayne ponders
whether “To
pass, or not to
pass,” decides to
play-through and
rushes into the
nuptial chamber.
Not only is this
story a bit more
lightweight, it
features definite
supernatural
activity as
opposed to the
ambiguity of the
other stories, and
ultimately it is
revealed, in the
linking frame
narrative, to be a
bit of ribbing by
its narrator
(Culver). It is a
piece of
humorous ‘timeout’
before the
heavy business of
the most famous
sequence, the
ventriloquist’s
dummy starring
Michael
Redgrave and the
repulsive Hugo.
Dr van Straaten
tells a story
concerning his
own experience
of the uncanny.
He is brought in
to assess the
mental state of a
ventriloquist
accused of the
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attempted
murder of a
showbiz
colleague.
American
ventriloquist
Maurice Olcott
visits the night
club run by
Beulah (famous
singing star
Elisabeth Welch)
to take in the act
of Maxwell Frere.
Using his own
‘vent’ ability,
Olcott interacts
with Frere’s
dummy Hugo,
upsetting Frere
and causing the
act to stutter to a
bit of a shambolic
close. Hugo
invites Olcott to
visit backstage.
Hugo seems to be
the dominant
partner in the act
with Frere often
sidelined;
amused Olcott
addresses his
remarks to the
dummy but is
surprised when
Frere intervenes
as if he is not in
control of Hugo’s
remarks. When
Frere jams his
hand over Hugo’s
mouth to prevent
some outburst,
the dummy
appears to bite
his owner. Frere
turns down work
and Olcott
encounters him
in a bar in a state
of inebriation.
When a young
woman asks to
handle the
dummy Hugo
insults her and
her boyfriend
punches Frere
out. Olcott helps
Frere and Hugo
to their room, but
Frere seems
convinced that
Olcott has plans
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to take Hugo for
himself.
Later, Frere
bursts into
Olcott’s room
accusing him of
stealing the
dummy, when he
finds Hugo in the
room he shoots
Olcott who
miraculously
survives. In an
attempt to break
through to Frere,
van Straaten asks
for Hugo to be
placed in the
former’s cell.
Frere suffers a
trauma and
pounds the
dummy’s head
under his foot.
Frere relapses
into a catatonic
state which van
Straaten
attempts to
relieve by
confronting him
with Olcott who
has made a
partial recovery.
The plan works
but Frere has
suffered an
alarming
transformation.
All through the
telling of the tales
Walter Craig has
predicted events
in the cottage,
the arrival or
departure of
some of the
guests, Dr van
Straaten
breaking his
glasses, a powercut.
He is fearful
of the evil climax
suggested by his
recurrent
nightmare, and
now, left alone
with van
Straaten, he
succumbs,
strangling the
Doctor and then,
attempting to
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escape,
stumbling into a
maelstrom of
scenes revisiting
the tales told by
the other guests.
Finally, finding
himself in Frere’s
cell, with the
guests baying
through the bars
of the prison, he
has a fatal
confrontation
with Hugo the
ventriloquist’s
dummy. The film
ends with Walter
Craig waking
after his
nightmare, only
to receive a call
from Foley,
Culver’s
character, asking
him down to his
country cottage
to discuss a
proposed
renovation. Craig
thinks he has
heard the name
before but cannot
place it; the film
ends with him
driving up in his
car, halting and
gazing at the
cottage in
bemused
recognition. The
horror begins
again.
The
ventriloquist’s
dummy is
justifiably the
most famous
sequence in the
film and has
spawned its
imitators.
Redgrave’s
performance is
astonishing, and
it’s true, the eyes
have it. Matthew
Sweet suggests
that his
performance may
have had
something to do
with his anxiety
over his personal
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life, as he had
three children by
that point and
work was
impinging on
family life. As is
pointed out, the
dummy story has
clear homoerotic
overtones, with a
bizarre love
triangle between
Frere, Hugo, and
the potential
usurper Olcott,
so it seems more
likely that
Redgrave’s
absorption in the
role sprang from
his own
misgivings about
his bisexuality
and the double
life that
engendered.
The portmanteau
film became a
staple of British
horror with
Amicus
Productions,
some good, some
bad. My own
favourite is Dr
Terror’s House
Of Horrors
(1965), in which
DJ-turned-actor
Alan ‘Fluff’
Freeman,
terrorised by a
murderous
sentient shrub,
utters the
immortal line
“I’m no stranger
to garden tools.”
The blu-ray
restoration of
this film is
excellent and a
comparison of
footage is
provided as part
of the extras. A
75-minute
consideration of
the film’s themes,
history, and
influence is
provided by a
team of
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commentators
including the
ubiquitous Kim
Newman, actor
and writer Reece
Shearsmith, and
director John
Landis. The
circular conceit
of Dead Of Night
is revealed to
have inspired
Fred Hoyle’s
theory of a steady
state universe.
The analysts are
so thorough in
their
consideration of
the film I can
hardly dissect it
myself with any
originality; I
would rather
watch informed
and informative
talking heads like
these than have
to wade through
outtakes,
makings-of, and
blooper reels.

If you can first
wade through all
the dystopianfuture,
worldbuilding
details
of a pre-title,
info-dump intro,
Pacific Rim
fulfils its trailer’s
worth of
promises to
provide us with
the ultimate, so
far, in CGI
entertainment
about mecha
(massive robots)
battling kaiju
(giant monsters).
Delightfully
fantastical, the
story’s oversized
‘Jaeger’ war
machines are
essentially
boxing droids
with pilotjockeys,
acting in
mind-linked
pairs for shared
control of
towering suits of
armour, pitted
against invading
alien creatures
that emerge from
an interdimensional
breach (a murky
portal that
effectively serves
as a watery
equivalent of the
New York sky
wormhole
gateway in
Avengers
Assemble)
located on the
Pacific Ocean
floor.
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Artificial
telepathy called
the ‘drift’ evokes
quantum physics,
while the heroes’
science team of
half-crazy xenobiologist
Newton
(Charlie Day),
and
mathematician
Gottlieb (Burn
Gorman,
Torchwood),
figure out how to
extract intel
memories from
pieces of kaiju
brain, and
predict exactly
when attacks
from the vaguely
Lovecraftian and
otherworldly
underworld
realm will
escalate.
However, that’s
about all you get
for the weird scifi
content of this
movie, as it’s
primarily about
the formidable
leadership of
Stacker Pentecost
(Idris Elba;
thankfully, that
Tom Cruise
didn’t get his
role!) who is
responsible to
bringing war
hero Raleigh
(Charlie
Hunnam), whose
brother Yancy is
killed in the
opening
sequence, out of
retirement in
Alaska to join a
beleaguered force
no longer trusted
by their political
masters to save
the planet.
Raleigh finds his
new fighting
partner in
heroine Mako
Mori (Rinko
Kikuchi, Assault
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Girls, The
Brothers Bloom),
and so the
world’s superteam
are
assembled under
high pressure
circumstances to
combat a multimonster
strike.
Meanwhile, the
great Ron
Perlman (star of
del Toro’s
Hellboy) plays
Tokyo black
marketeer
‘Hannibal Chau’ –
a nod to Blade
Runner. He’s
important to the
development of
Newt’s project,
gathering
actionable info
via the drift linkup.
The dialogue
is often corny,
and the
sentimental
attributes of the
main characters
are blatantly
clichéd but, in
each and every
aspect of its
artistry and
sincere dramatic
intentions, this
offers astute
pacifism – not
passivity (as seen
in the story’s
coastal wallbuilding
exercises), and is
engagingly
respectful of
many subgenre
traditions.
Although we
have often seen
giant mecha in
anime (Japanese
animation), and
also in US
blockbuster
movies before,
like Michael
Bay’s
Transformers
series, Pacific
Rim is an epic
that goes much
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further than
being just a
simplistic,
fandom-friendly,
revision of
Godzilla vs.
MechaGodzilla
(1974). Director
Guillermo del
Toro shapes the
meagre plot of
monster movie
menace and
international
efforts of gungho
heroics into
an adventure
with
unprecedented
scale and
spectacular
visuals. From the
defenders’
Shatter-dome
hanger decks in
Hong Kong, the
giant-robot
launches of
Jaeger tech
embody a photoreal
kind of
tribute to
Thunderbirds,
just as the
gigantic citywrecking
beasts
dubbed kaiju pay
homage to the
life’s work of
career-animator
Ray
Harryhausen, the
late king of stopmotion
effects in
genre cinema.
The movie disc
has audio
commentary
tracks, and extras
disc’s
comprehensive
bonus package
includes: the
back-story of
Jaegers and
kaiju, featurettes
about robot
design, kaiju lore,
character
sketches, motion
capture, the drift
mind-meld,
gothic style, alien
sound effects,

cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist, and Austin Stowell

director: Damien Chazelle

106 minutes (15) 2014
widescreen ratio 2.40:1
Sony DVD Region 2

RATING: 6/10
review by Andrew Darlington

Whiplash

Albert Ayler called music “the healing force of the universe.” That it can be destructive to individual lives is also part of its mythic lure. This is a jazz film. There haven’t been too many great jazz films recently, not since maybe Clint Eastwood’s Bird (1988). The TV series Fame (1982-7) follows the rise of students at the fictional ‘New York City High School For The Performing Arts’. This film, following the fall semester of jazz music students, is set in the ‘Shaffer Conservatory Of Music’ supposedly in New York, but actually filmed in Los Angeles, with some financial support from the Sundance Institute. Although set in the ballet world, Black Swan (2010) shows how Natalie Portman’s character Nina is driven to the physical and psychological limits in the quest for an impossible ideal of artistic perfection. Whiplash is all these things, sometimes more and sometimes less. And it’s a beautifully intense study of extremes.

It’s both jazz-smart, and cine-literate. When 19-year-old aspirant drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) goes to the movies with his Pennington High School writer/ teacher father (Paul Reiser) there’s Rififi on the hoarding, the 1955 French noir film directed by blacklisted émigré filmmaker Jules Dassin. When the Conservatory band takes the stage to play the Overbrook jazz competition they feature Duke Ellington’s 1936 standard Caravan (also featured in two Woody Allen films!). There’s Stan Getz on the soundtrack too. But Andrew’s particular hero is Buddy Rich, he has his inspirational monochrome Birdland photo tacked to his wall. Plus the drummer’s adage “If you don’t have ability you wind up playing in a rock band.” Rich didn’t have much time for rock ‘n’ roll. Jazz is the superior art form. It demands an intimidating level of dexterity.

When his father advises “When you get to my age you get perspective,” Andrew responds “I don’t want perspective.” Perspective is for wimps. He’s intent on taking it all the way. He fancies Nicole (Melissa Benoist) who works the cinema popcorn concession. But when he takes her out for a pizza he’s concentrating more on the jazz background music than he is on her. And when their dating threatens to detract from his rehearsals he ‘breaks it off clean’ to better concentrate on his drums. He has a path. He’s going to be great. He has bigger things to pursue.

But the real axis of the film pivots on Neiman and charismatic hard-line tutor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). The teacher-conductor humiliates and bullies, using racist and homophobic jibes to provoke and antagonise, he hurls a chair at Neiman’s head, and slaps his face. “This is not your boyfriend’s dick,” he taunts, “don’t come early.” He reduces an out-of-tune horn-player to tears, calling him ‘Elmer Fudd’. Neiman practices until his hands are raw and the tympani is blood-spattered, plunging bleeding hands into an ice-bucket. Then, when Fletcher’s former protégé dies – supposedly in an auto-accident, it later emerges that no, it was due to “anxiety and depression driven to suicide,” caused by Fletcher’s extreme methods. There’s a hearing in which Neiman gives supposedly confidential evidence.

Dismissed from Shaffer for physically attacking Fletcher, he dumps his Buddy Rich poster, and neglects his drums. Should he phone Nicole? When he does it’s too late, she’s got a new boyfriend. Then by chance he sees that ‘Nowells Live Jazz Bar’ is featuring Terence Fletcher’s piano trio. He sneaks in to watch the set. Afterwards, they talk, in a seeming human reconciliation. Fletcher admits to “pushing people beyond what’s expected,” but tells an anecdote about drummer Jo Jones hurling a cymbal at a teenage Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, galvanising him to genius. “The truth is, I never had a Charlie Parker. But I tried. I actually fucking tried. And I will never apologise for how I tried.” And, as a parting shot, Fletcher offers him the drum-chair of his group at the upcoming JVC festival. But there are more twists, betrayals, and treachery to come in the climatic performance, with an extended drum solo to ignite it all.

This is a jazz film. There are solid music sequences, a three-cornered drum-duel taken ‘faster-faster-faster.’ It helps if you’re into that kind of thing. Jazz bible Downbeat didn’t like it, tearing apart its ‘unrealistic depiction,’ its historical and technical inaccuracies. I suspect they were being a mite too partisan, for Teller’s Neiman is convincing, and Simmons is impressively intense as the driven Fletcher. And even as a low-key indie project this film works as a beautifully intense study of extremes.

During a new American
depression created by
overly industrialised
farming in the mid-west,
the US heartland has
become an increasingly
poisonous dust-bowl
environment, with an
impending famine that
devastates the ability of
planet Earth to sustain
life, never mind help feed
the struggling fragile
societies forming a global
population of six billion.
Engineer turned robottractor
wrangler Cooper
(Matthew McConaughey)
eventually teams up with
NASA biologist Dr Brand
(Anne Hathaway) for an
exploratory mission to
Saturn, where a wormhole
might provide easy access
to other inhabitable
worlds.
Interstellar is, more
accurately, a science
fictional drama about
inter-galactic travel. There
is a cool realism to
depictions of hardware,
including designs for
spacecraft like the
‘Endurance’, so that
everything from the
technical gear of ship
interiors to various
weightless sequences and
orbital action scenes is
remarkably convincing,
comparing favourably to
such recent movies as
Gravity. In addition to the
hard-SF concepts that
inform the plot, this genre
production also
rationalises some
paranormal/ apparently
supernatural phenomena,
like ghostly poltergeist
activity, as initially
misunderstood attempts
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to communicate via
gravity waves across
space-time.
But even more compelling
is the drama that accepts
the socio-political failures
of late 20th century
education systems that
have produced generations
of workers lacking much
ambition greater than
finding regular
employment, a situation
that resulted in school’s
teaching bogus history
lessons, including such
nonsense that Apollo
missions where faked as
Cold War propaganda to
bankrupt the Soviet
Union.
Far beyond the Earth, the
spectacular landscapes of
strange alien planets
almost fulfil the cinematic
promise suggested by the
possibilities of an
imaginative combination
of location filming and
cutting-edge digital imageenhancement.
Surfing a
landing-craft on
mountainous waves, and
the hero’s climactic
docking manoeuvre with a
spinning orbiter are the
main highlights of this
movie’s traditional space
opera appeal.
The blocky slab-like robots
(named TARS and CASE)
here are the picture’s
foremost witty allusion to
Stanley Kubrick’s classic,
2001: A Space Odyssey, a
creative conceit
particularly inspired by
Arthur C. Clarke’s notion
that 2001’s mysterious
monolith is an alien-tech
version of a useful Swiss
army knife. And so the
shape-shifting droids of
Interstellar have
functional appendages
which are not unlike flickout
blades to affect a
versatile utility.
Marooned light-years from
home, Dr Mann (Matt
Damon) livens up the sci-fi
movie’s third-act
Robinson Crusoe-like
confrontation that results
from his survey mission on
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one of the prospective
habitable worlds. Cooper
and Brand end up
suffering from the
isolation and social
distancing of time-dilation
effects caused by the
colonial plans for their
expedition to visit an
extra-solar planet that’s
affected by the pull of a
black hole amusingly
nicknamed Gargantua.
Hans Zimmer’s polished
and ultimately stirring
score underlines the
movie’s sincerity and
support its epic qualities
as a multi-generational
mystery-adventure, but
Nolan’s usually astute
direction has a tendency to
slip off-course, so the
latter half is prone to
lapses into some crudely
sentimental episodes.
Refusal to accept the
obvious fact that any longterm
Earth-bound survival
of a massive population is
doomed weakens the
rationality of its SF
premise. The burden of
cartoonish quasi-religious
beliefs in love and the
necessity of the hero’s
pioneering will-power do
weigh the narrative down
a lot, but without crippling
it.
The biggest problem with
Interstellar is that its
ideas-based plot is such a
tightly wound timepiece
that it’s a clockwork
mechanism without much
room for human quirks
beyond the obvious fears,
betrayals, and familial
bonding clichés. Even the
accomplished supporting
cast of Michael Caine,
John Lithgow, and Jessica
Chastain have precious
little to do except react to
over-emotional beats and
unexpected blips of the
futuristic storyline.
Disc extras: a featurette
The Science Of Interstellar
(50 minutes), is somewhat
lazily narrated by
McConaughey, but
successfully examines
some of the basic
astrophysics (the Big
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Bang, cosmology, and
entropy, etc.) that
supports the speculative
fictions of this movie, with
vague input from scientist
Kip Thorne, although
watching Cosmos – the
original or its remake –
would probably be more
helpful to many viewers.
There’s also a batch of five
short behind-the-scenes
items.
BACK

Gravity is a
‘space movie’…
The Space Movie!
It certainly
makes Sandra
Bullock space
woman of the
year, and it
showcases the
most visually
stunning use of
virtual camera
effects for years.
It’s probably the
best work of this
sort ever created.
Gravity is a film
that harks back
to John Sturges’
Marooned
(1969), and it has
key scenes
reminiscent of
Carrie-Anne
Moss’ rescue
sequence in Red
Planet (2000),
but, most of all, it
is the best movie
about a troubled
journey home
down to planet
Earth since Ron
Howard’s
excellent
docudrama
Apollo 13 (1995).
Alfonso Cuaron’s
Gravity starts
boldly with a
single-take in
real-time of the
fictional space
shuttle Explorer
drifting into
view, while a
specialist is
working on the
Hubble
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telescope. As the
astronauts,
Sandra Bullock
and George
Clooney are
convincing – but
only ciphers if
compared to the
stronger
characterisation
of orbital space
as a perilous
working
environment
where sudden
death lurks in
each second of
every minute;
and this disaster
movie runs for an
hour and a half.
Gary Westfahl’s
book The
Spacesuit Film:
A History
(McFarland,
2012) explored
this subgenre,
from its earliest
silent movies to
post-war classic
Destination
Moon (1950),
and Kubrick’s
masterpiece
2001: A Space
Odyssey (1968),
but he closed that
study of the
book’s neglected
historical subject
with the televised
coverage with the
first Moon
landing, after
which space
cinema was never
quite the same, at
least in terms of
sci-fi wishfulfilment,
again.
Of course, there
were several
other spacesuit
movies produced
later on – most
notably The
Right Stuff
(1983) – and the
casting Ed Harris
as the ‘voice of
Mission Control’
in Gravity
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provides a
welcome link
back to that
classic movie
about space age
pioneers. But,
increasingly,
spacesuits as
expensive props
that were too
cumbersome for
actors to wear
comfortably
meant that fewer
realistic space
movies were
produced, and it
is quite
understandable
that Hollywood
blockbusters
could hardly
match the
genuinely
awesome
spectacle of real
astronauts flying
shuttles or
working aboard
space stations, so
the spacsuit
movie became
the province of
documentary
features like For
All Mankind.
And yet there
was TV movie
Starflight One
(1983), about a
suborbital rescue
mission, and
Harry Winder’s
rocket-launch as
industrialaccident,
kids
adventure
SpaceCamp
(1986),
developed as a
technological
display, typically
filmed with
NASA’s
assistance, much
like Clint
Eastwood’s later
Space Cowboys.
What Gravity
does, and does so
brilliantly that it
establishes a new
benchmark for its
subgenre, is
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reinvent the
spacesuit movie
for moviegoers
who are not keen
fans of SF, while
at the same time
appealing to any
lifelong followers
of space opera
cinema who have
sorely missed
seeing realistic
drama of this
sort, and I think
they could not
wish for anything
much better than
Gravity.
William Eubank’s
low-budget arthouse
movie,
Love (2011),
about a lonely
astronaut
stranded aboard
the International
Space Station,
tends to wallow
in its depiction of
a man’s
crumbling sanity,
and favours
abstraction above
all else, even over
subjectivity in a
viewpoint
character’s
performance. To
its detriment,
Eubank’s indie
venture feels like
a student’s shortfilm
project
extended to a
feature length of
80 minutes, so it
far outstays its
welcome, and
what it offers is
mostly long
tedious scenes
between just a
few impressive
visual effects.
Gravity is also a
character study,
not of astronauts
or scientists, but
of space itself as
the most
indifferent
antagonist in
tomorrow’s
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world. This is a
scenario of a sort
that’s familiar to
hard-SF fans of
books and
movies like The
Cold Equations.
While facing
apparently
certain death, Dr
Ryan Stone
(Sandra Bullock),
the mission
specialist on a
space shuttle
flight to maintain
the Hubble
telescope,
overcomes all
obstacles to find
her way home.
Gravity is a
magnificent piece
of action cinema
that places the
viewer firmly in
Earth orbit,
where challenges
to our perception
mean a complete
lack of any sense
of up or down in
conditions of
weightless.
The movie’s
lengthy scenes of
tethered or
detached freefall
EVA, where
momentum and
trajectory can be
enemy or ally,
and the
numerous scenes
of weightless
drifting or
relentless
tumbling switch
between the
serenity and
panic of
spacewalks in
2001 and its
sequel 2010
(1984). When she
reaches the ISS,
Bullock’s
shipwrecked
spacer does a
fetching
Barbarella
spacesuit stripoff
in zero-gee,
floating
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momentarily into
a foetal position
but, even though
she’s made it so
far, it’s not her
lucky day and
further troubles
arrive promptly.
The drama is
almost
overloaded with
many stunning
CG-images and
sublime camera
direction, as the
astronauts’
lifelines of
technological
mastery are just
hacked away, in
heart-stopping
moments, by the
space age
equivalent of an
industrial
accident. Action
is fast-moving as
hypersonic debris
fields shatter
everything in a
catastrophic
fashion. If you
want an
expansive, and
yet paradoxically
claustrophobic,
sci-fi thriller
where it all goes
horribly wrong at
once, and the
lone heroine is
totally isolated
from any hope of
rescue, here it is –
packaged with
auteurist skills
and a peerless
visual design that
is a close match
for the stillpersuasive
realism of
Kubrick’s 2001.
Similar to that
artistic
masterpiece and
the story of
Apollo 13, the
alternative future
of Gravity
(where the
shuttle
programme
continued, and a
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Chinese space
station is already
built) is
concerned with
the human spirit
caught in
adversity on a
desperate flight
homewards. It’s
not as significant
as Kubrick’s
‘ultimate trip’, or
as well acted as
Howard’s
docudrama, but
it might well be
the greatest and
purest ‘ride’
movie so far
produced.
However, beyond
the praise for this
ecstatic drama of
isolation,
survival, and
flukes of good
luck which seem
like divine
intervention,
there is almost
no philosophical
depth in this
picture. It
embraces the
easy narrative of
a Hollywood
thrill-ride with a
simple disaster
movie affect and
refuses to let go
of your attention
for a busy 90
minutes, but
that’s all it does.
In 3D, I would
assume its
vertiginous
aspects are yet
more dizzyingly
pronounced. I
would imagine
that Gravity is
likely to
overwhelm an
IMAX audience;
as the movie
creates a
compelling sense
of space as both a
workplace and a
dangerous
environment for
the fragility of
human life.
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There are a
couple of quite
forgivable lapses
of the drama into
bathetic
sentimentality
but, for most of
the engaging
movie’s running
time, it is a
gripping thriller.
As a piece of
hard-SF, this has
a somewhat
unpalatable
adherence to
religious
intimations of
the afterlife, but,
that annoying bit
of woolly
thought,
notwithstanding,
I would really
like to imagine
that Arthur C.
Clarke would
have enjoyed this
very much.
Give it four stars?
Roger that,
Houston… no
problem!

Doesn’t every
American actor
want to ‘rule’ the
supposedly free
world and
portray the US
President in a
movie or TV
show? To keep
this top 10
listing more
interesting than
just critical
assessment of
how accurately
Hollywood can
imitate top
historical
figures (which
actor achieved
the best
portrayal of
Abraham
Lincoln?), or
any recent
modern icon,
like JFK or
Nixon, this
article considers
only fictional
presidents. So
what makes a
great movie
POTUS? Is it the
charisma of
ultimate power;
one rousing
speech about
freedom, social
progress, and
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tolerance
(something
often absent
from the real
politics of
today); a
characterisation
of astute
intellectual and
philosophical
savvy, or
perhaps some
other
exceptional
human quality
that is much
harder to
identify or
define? And,
consider this:
why do actual
politicians
rarely match up
to their fictional
substitutes?
Henry
Fonda
Just after the
Cuban missile
crisis –
dramatised by
Roger
Donaldson’s
excellent movie
Thirteen Days
(2000) – Sidney
Lumet directed
Henry Fonda in
a nuclear chiller
titled Fail-Safe
(1964), based on
a thriller novel
that was first
published in
1962. Fonda was
the
quintessential
American actor
of his era, a
genuine
thespian for a
time dominated
by movie stars
like John
Wayne, Fonda’s
political
opposite. As the
nameless
president in
Fail-Safe, there
can be no doubt
of the sincerity
that Fonda
brings to his
iconic role as
the statesman
and
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commander-inchief
who must
overcome
conflicting
emotions in a
desperate crisis,
to drop atomic
bombs on his
own country,
appease the
accidentally
nuked Russians,
and so avoid the
global
catastrophe of
WW3. It’s a
highly
memorable
performance in
such an
extraordinarily
intense drama,
and Fonda
wrings every
ounce of
credibility from
the picture’s scifi
scenario and
its antiwar
propaganda.
Fonda also
played another
un-named US
president in
Ronald Neame’s
disaster movie
Meteor (1979).
Richard
Dreyfuss took
the same
nameless and
thankless role in
the TV remake
Fail Safe
(2000), a
tribute movie
and period
drama that
maintains the
original’s
appealing
speculativefiction
affect.
Peter
Sellers
The book, FailSafe,
was,
reportedly, partplagiarised
from
Peter George’s
1958 novel Red
Alert (aka: Two
Hours To Doom
by Peter
Bryant), and
alongside
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Lumet’s sombre
movie version –
it also formed
the basis for
Stanley
Kubrick’s black
comedy of
absurd
madness, Dr
Strangelove
(1964).
Concerned with
expressing the
Cold War’s
hilarious
insanities of the
MAD (mutually
assured
destruction)
idea, Kubrick’s
distinctive views
upon otherwise
grim antiwar
themes become
a celebration of
eccentricity and
nuclear
mayhem, as the
talented Peter
Sellers gets to
grips with three
roles, including
that of Merkin
Muffley –
uncrowned king
of comedic
presidents:
“Gentlemen,
you can’t fight in
here! This is the
War Room” – a
perfect
characterisation
of the US
president as the
world’s top
figurehead with
an empty head,
whose stuttering
and one-sided
telephone
conversation
with his Russian
counterpart still
remains very
funny – like an
unofficial Monty
Python sketch.
A notable
variation of Dr
Strangelove is
the British
movie Whoops
Apocalypse
(1988), which
featured Loretta
Swit as the
spoofy
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president.
Curiously, the
spooky Dr
Strangelove was
matched in its
wry
amusements by
the quirkily
eerie prophesy
made during In
Like Flint
(1967), a spy-fi
comedy
adventure in
which James
Coburn’s hero
remarks upon
the absurdity of
‘an actor in the
White House’, a
farce that was
realised in the
1980s when
Ronald Reagan
became the 40th
president.
Coburn was also
great in The
President’s
Analyst (1967),
and its fun to
speculate what
kind of harsh
satire a movie
based on
Reagan’s final
year in office
would be like.
As Oliver Stone
has noted, in his
epic
documentary
series The
Untold History
Of The United
States, Reagan
left the White
House behaving
– very sadly –
like “a
befuddled old
man.”
Hal
Holbrook
After presidents
played by Fonda
and Sellers each
struggled with a
global crisis that
spiralled beyond
their control,
Hal Holbrook’s
Adam Scott
finds himself
under direct
personal threat
in The
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Kidnapping
Of The
President
(1980), a
sensational
thriller set in
Canada, which
sees the US
secret service
(led by William
Shatner) failing
to protect their
primary. The
troubling
situation is all
the more
embarrassing
for security
agents and the
president
because the
American leader
is held captive
in plain sight,
locked in an
armoured van
that is wired to
explosives. An
audacious
terrorist act is
complicated
further by US
tactical efforts
by Shatner’s
men that
compromise the
rescue attempts.
Holbrook’s
performance is
excellent
throughout the
movie.
Donald
Pleasence
From a
president who’s
captured by
daring enemies
to one that’s just
lost… POTUS in
John
Carpenter’s scifi
thriller
Escape From
New York
(1981) is
portrayed by
Donald
Pleasence, an
ultimately
cynical politico
who presides
over a fractured
country almost
ruined by
escalating
crime. While
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attempting a
rescue, the lone
hero (Kurt
Russell) is faced
with the
president’s true
nature: a man
who shoots and
mocks his black
enemy, the selfstyled
‘Duke of
New York’
(Isaac Hayes).
This slick
adventure
movie presents
a pessimistic
future that’s on
the verge of a
complete global
dystopia, and
Pleasence’s
desperate
president seems
unable to resist
an impending
American
catastrophe. In
a world where
one man could
really make a
difference, this
actioner shows
that it’s not ‘the
most powerful
man in the
world’ who can –
or will – do the
right thing.
In the
comicbook style
sequel, Escape
From L.A.
(1996), Cliff
Robertson plays
the president
who’s cursed
with a very
rebellious
daughter named
Utopia.
Michael
Douglas
Ronny Cox has
played different
presidents in
three movies;
sci-fi comedy
Martians Go
Home (1989),
comicbook style
adventure
Captain
America (1990),
and crime
drama Murder
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At 1600 (1997)
about a
homicide at the
White House.
Each of these
roles was just
background or
supporting
character, but
popular
Hollywood
superstar
Michael Douglas
managed a
screen first by
playing his lead
role of Andrew
Shepherd as
very much the
central
character in
witty rom-com
drama The
American
President
(1995).
Shepherd is a
widower who
falls in love with
a lobbyist
(Annette
Bening). This is
an entertaining
movie about the
problems of a
charming man
who is viewed as
the most
powerful person
in the world but
the daily
responsibilities
his job, always
in the public
eye, causes a
peculiar and
very often
amusing set of
difficulties for
him when it
comes to
wanting a
change in his
private life.
Bill
Pullman
Although
Independence
Day (1996) is
basically just an
unofficial War
Of The Worlds
remake, it’s a
lively sci-fi
blockbuster with
a leading
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performance by
Bill Pullman
who centres his
role as President
Tom Whitmore
on his defiant
4th of July
speech, happily
misquoting and
paraphrasing
Dylan Thomas:
“We will not go
quietly into the
night! We will
not vanish
without a fight!”
This speech is
more than just a
glorified pep
talk for the
American
counter-strike
forces preparing
to launch from
Area 51. It’s not
simply a
statement of
vengeful intent,
echoing Gulf
War veteran
Whitmore’s
earlier
comment: “Let’s
nuke the
bastards.” And,
even in
summary, the
dramatic
monologue is
far better than
just a call to
arms for
mankind as the
whole planet
under attack by
aliens. Most
importantly, the
President
asserts: “We
can’t be
consumed by
our petty
differences
anymore. We
will be united in
our common
interests.” It’s a
humanitarian
message that is
more relevant in
today’s world
(and never mind
tomorrow’s hell)
than ever.
Harrison
Ford
As President
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Jim Marshall in
Air Force One
(1997), Harrison
Ford scores a
big screen first
by playing
POTUS as a
typical action
hero, one
fighting Russian
terrorists (led by
Gary Oldman in
ultra-scary
mode) that hijack
the
presidential jet.
This is a
standard plot
for a crowdpleasing
thriller,
but the likeable
Ford is a
compelling
performer as a
‘President
Hollywood’
character. A
Vietnam
veteran, Jim
kills only
reluctantly, but
he can do so
with his bare
hands, yet he
talks like a
pacifist hardliner
who
inspires great
loyalty from his
supporters, such
as Vice
President
Kathryn Bennett
(Glenn Close).
Ford plays an
all-American
superhero who
manages to
facilitate the
escape of many
hostages from
the customised
Boeing 747
aircraft,
although the
finale’s rescue of
the First Family
is achieved by a
military team
using another
plane. A pilot
himself, Ford is
also convincing
in his combat
flying scenes for
the movie’s
climax.
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Morgan
Freeman
Although he’s by
no means the
first to portray a
black president
(that was James
Earl Jones in
The Man, 1972),
Morgan
Freeman’s Tom
Beck, in sci-fi
disaster movie
Deep Impact
(1998), is a
source of
wisdom, and
winningly
sympathetic as
the world leader
facing the
possible
destruction of
planet Earth
from a collision
with a comet.
Released
alongside
Michael Bay’s
action-packed
Armageddon,
Mimi Leder’s
sombre SF
drama is rather
more intriguing
than its
swaggeringly
populist rival.
This is partly
due to the TV
journalist (a
character
sympathetically
played by Téa
Leoni), who
uncovers official
secrets about
the comet, but
it’s Freeman’s
President Beck
who holds the
main cast of this
doomsday
scenario
together. His
distinctive voice
and quiet
mannerisms can
and have been
wholly misused
in other movies,
but Freeman’s
performance
here is superb
and perfectly in
keeping with the
realistic
treatment of
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such a
sensational scifi
plot.
Dennis
Haysbert
I have not seen
TV drama series
The West Wing
(1999-2006),
which starred
Martin Sheen as
President ‘Jed’
Bartlet, but with
over 150
episodes
spanning seven
years, it must
have seemed
like its carefully
crafted insiders’
story of the
White House
would never
end. Of course,
long-running TV
shows have the
benefit of
drawing viewers
in with
extremely
detailed
character
studies, created
by talented
actors, but
Sheen was
already a
Hollywood star
when he was
cast in The West
Wing, so that
show was in a
safe pair of
hands right
from the start.
Far more
impressive, I
think, is when a
comparatively
unknown actor
manages to
make his mark
on a TV series
with such a
strong
character-arc,
and
commitment to
an engaging
performance,
that he
apparently
influences realworld
politics.
It’s impossible
to say whether
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Dennis
Haysbert’s
likeable
portrayal of
David Palmer in
TV show 24
(2001-7)
actually did
increase Barack
Obama’s
election chances
before he
entered the
White House in
2009 but, as
mechanisms of
social change
were obviously
ticking away in
the media
background, we
saw Palmer rise
from senator to
president – for
season two of 24
(and he stayed
in office for a
two-year term),
so many
Americans
might have
thought about
the possibility of
life imitating
Hollywood.
I must admit
that I was
somewhat
dubious about
the intentions of
writers and
producers on
24. Having a
black president
on the show just
seemed like a
gimmick, at
first. But
Haysbert had
already
established
Palmer as a
powerful
character, in the
first season, so
his election win
was a natural
progression for
the ongoing
storyline, and he
returned as a
welcome guest
in several
episodes of later
seasons, often
helping our TV
action hero Jack
Bauer (Kiefer
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Sutherland)
with political
contacts, or
other problems.
Geena
Davis
Last, but
certainly not
least, awardwinner
Geena
Davis plays
Mackenzie ‘Mac’
Allen, in
Commander
In Chief
(2005-6). While
feminist movie
The Contender
(2000) was a
drama about a
senator
(superbly
portrayed by
Joan Allen)
running for vice
president (with
a laidback but
likeable Jeff
Bridges as the
President), this
excellent TV
series is the very
first serious
attempt to
depict a female
president, and
Davis is an
example of
perfect
Hollywood
casting for such
a
groundbreaking
role. Created by
Rod Lurie, who
wrote and
directed The
Contender, this
is a greatly
underestimated
showcase.
Named by a
dying President
as his successor,
Vice President
Allen gets a
crash course in
realpolitik and
vote/ veto
wrangling when
her quick
unelected
ascension to the
White House is
hampered by
the Speaker of
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the House
(Donald
Sutherland),
who is an
ambitious
backstabber and
quite intolerant
of President’s
Allen’s
independence.
Her leadership
faces moments
of humility but
she also shows
outstanding
courage as many
sexist enemies
and
untrustworthy
staffers
surround her,
testing Allen’s
defiant strength
for any
weaknesses to
exploit. There is
wry humour
found in a
unique set of
social etiquette
and media PR
problems faced
by Allen’s
husband (well
played by Kyle
Secor), as the
first ‘First
Gentleman’.
Cramming a lot
of crisis
management
and
entertainment
values into a
mere 19
episodes (before
it was unfairly
and abruptly
cancelled)
Commander In
Chief is a rare
phenomenon in
US television,
an earnest
character study
of a powerful
woman.