I have a soft spot for undertakings that involve an intrepid writer or filmmaker recording at the last minute memories that would otherwise go forever unchronicled, whether they involve Mississippi juke joints or the trenches of the Somme.
The most heroic of these undertakings, I feel, are the ones where nobody else has yet realised the value of these anecdotes, where the author doggedly clings to a notion that, if these stories mean something to them, they will someday have the same effect on others. Matthew Sweet’s Shepperton Babylon is, in these terms, unmistakably heroic. Continue reading Mostly Film Book Club: Shepperton Babylon by Matthew Sweet→
“Next time you see a Spitfire in a museum, run your fingers over its skin… you might be touching a vanished masterpiece.”
When producer Cecil Hepworth went bankrupt in 1924, his entire stock of film negatives was melted down and turned into waterproof resin for military aircraft. Many of these negatives were unique, and some 80% of all British films from 1901 to 1929 were lost forever as a result. Shepperton Babylon: The Lost Worlds of British Cinemais Matthew Sweet’s attempt to reconstruct this forgotten history, and the other forgotten histories of British cinema: the artistic, industrial and folkloric achievements that always seem to get overshadowed by those in Hollywood. Continue reading CAMERA OBSCURER: The Return of the Mostly Film Book Club→
NOTE: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE HARRY POTTER SERIES
This is the end. Of course, it’s not the end, what with Pottermore and the inevitable afterlife any cult fantasy endures, but it’s the end of something, a cycle of, without wishing to sound like too much of a wanker, mythology. What started with a novel entitled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 1997 has finally ended with a film called Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2. As the books grew darker and less whimsical, so the films have found their palette drained of the flat Technicolor and daylit hi-jinks of Chris Columbus’s first two efforts. Even by the end of Chamber of Secrets, Columbus was struggling with the tone. One dreads to think how he would have coped with the grim tortures, doomy politics and centaur gang-bangers of the fifth book. Maybe he’d fling in a bit where Ron gets hit with a bucket of paint and that would lighten the mood for everyone.
I came to Potter at book two, just as the fever was building. I knew nothing about it – a friend of a friend of my flatmate had written a book and it was sitting on our bookshelves looking short and fun. I read it in a day and immediately went out and bought the first one, and the newly-published third. Never looking back, I bought each successive book at launch (but not, like, at midnight the first day or anything; I’m not a weirdo, I promise). I’ve loved them all, even the overlong and undereventful Order of the Phoenix, which has its own ponderous charm.
I saw the first film at a public preview screening in a packed Odeon in Oxford. The atmosphere was unlike any I’ve experienced before or since in a cinema, the auditorium humming with excitement, grown men dressed as wizards brushing past tiny children dressed as slightly less convincing (though much cuter) witches. The film, it’s fair to say, was a slight disappointment, but the sheer goodwill of the crowd was enough to lift my opinion of it. Since then we’ve had bad (Chamber of Secrets, Goblet of Fire), passable (Half-Blood Prince, Order of the Phoenix) and genuinely great (Prisoner of Azkaban, Deathly Hallows – Part 1) films. Deathly Hallows – Part 2 has a huge weight on it, not just the expectation of rounding off the film series in triumph, but of closing the book on the creation of Harry Potter’s world.
WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE ENTIRE SERIES OF GAME OF THRONES
“What you suggest is treason.” “Only if we lose.”
Ten hours of TV from an 800-page book. Put like that, it doesn’t sound so arduous. Allowing for credits and an average episode length of 55 minutes, that’s about a page and a half per minute. Sure, you’d have to keep the pace up, but it’s doable, right? But adapting George RR Martin’s A Game of Thrones sounded like a daunting task. The epic scope, the long history, the complicated politics, the vast geography, the cast of hundreds. And yet, after a flawed but promising start, HBO’s first series of Game of Thrones turned out to be a remarkable achievement in storytelling and adaptation. A lot happens on a George RR Martin page, but it doesn’t feel like the book’s been filleted, and the result was a show that appealed to newcomers and aficionados alike. It’s kept expanding its world and scope, and it’s managed to do it without feeling rushed. So how did they pull it off? Continue reading GAME OF THRONES: THE VERDICT→
“You’ve got to be a genius to make a movie this bad”
The Devil’s Candy is like no other book on film I’ve read. A former financial journalist, Julie Salamon was film critic for the Wall Street Journal when she gained access to Brian De Palma’s production of Tom Wolfe’s satirical novel. Her first idea was to give an industrial view of the filmmaking process and show the complexity of the contemporary cinema industry, and she does that, but she also wound up on the set of one of the most spectacular commercial and critical flops in the history of Hollywood.
There are plenty of books – great books – about the art of film. There are books about the politics of the industry and the studio systems. And there are books of gossip about the ludicrous egos of everyone involved. The Devil’s Candy touches on all those areas, but where Salamon really excels is at showing the sheer number of different processes involved in a blockbuster movie. Detailed but never dry, she gives you a view of everything from the costume shop to the ever-expanding budget.
Salamon follows the process from the first deals to the public reception of the film. She spends time with everyone from the location scouts to the director as they embark and then continue into disaster. That disaster shadows the book from its cover on, but Salamon never pre-empts her story: it’s only in the final third that you start to understand the sheer scale of it, and begin to feel something of the pain that might result from devoting two years of your life to a film that becomes an international punchline.
Mostly Film is taking a short break for a UK bank holiday, but we’ll be back on Tuesday with a new feature: the Mostly Film Book Club. The idea is simple. Every two months we choose a book about film, we give it a brief introduction, and over the course of the two months we discuss it here. Then we do it again with a different book.
First up is Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy, her soup-to-nuts account of the making of Brian De Palma’s titanically unsuccessful “The Bonfire of the Vanities”. Shudder as Bruce Willis is cast instead of John Cleese! Wonder why Alan Arkin is ditched in favour of Morgan Freeman! Boggle at a ten-second clip of a runway that took five cameras and $80,000 to shoot!
We have other books lined up for future months, but we’re hoping Mostly Film readers will have ideas of their own and can step up with suggestions. The brief is as plain as can be: it can be any sort of book as long as it’s centrally about film and film-making. Biography, tutorial, novel, criticism – anything. Let us know your ideas in the comments section.
Also coming up next week, pieces on why Michael Bay is like Osama bin Laden (only alive), the life and work of the jailed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, and the usual helping of much, much more.
What do people want from Marvel superhero movies? (Sorry, DC fans –there’s only room in this blog post for one superhero universe). Looking beyond the obvious answers (super-powered fight scenes, spell-binding visual effects, compelling characters and entertaining stories) the makers of a superhero movie about a lesser-known character like Thor (or a pre Iron Man Iron Man) have to perform a complex juggling act. On the one hand they have to appease the existing (though in Thor‘s case, relatively few) fans of the comics, bearing in mind that with characters like Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America, Spider-Man, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, there’s almost 50 years of backstory to draw on (this isn’t the place to go into the Ultimate Marvel Universe but it’s worth noting that film-makers have so far steered clear of its rebooted and updated versions of the properties). On the other hand they have to introduce the character to a whole new audience (usually by way of an origin story) and hopefully launch a new money-making and sequel-generating franchise – basically, everyone wants another Iron Man, the enormous success of which has led directly to the upcoming Thor, Captain America and Avengers movies. Speaking of which, Thor director Kenneth Branagh had a third ball to juggle, in that he had to lay the groundwork for the upcoming The Avengers and provide significant crossover with both the Iron Man series and Captain America, establishing a Marvel universe continuity that isn’t wholly reliant on post-credits cameos from Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury.
2012 will see the release of a film I’ve been anticipating for over a quarter of a century. Directed by Pixar regular Andrew Stanton, and with a screenplay by Michael Chabon, John Carter of Mars is not the first attempt to film Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian novels – it’s not even the first to make it into production – but it does stand a chance of being the first to fully realise Burroughs’ world the way it looked in my head when I was 12.
Burroughs has always been best known for the creation of Tarzan, partly due to that character’s popularity in other media. However, few of the many films to have featured the Lord of the Jungle are particularly faithful to the tone or detail of the novels. Tarzan’s Africa is a land packed with mysterious lost cities, tribes of great apes previously unknown to science (one group of which, the Mangani, are the creatures who raise Tarzan); it bears about as much resemblance to the real Africa as it does to Wigan.
The Tarzan films generally preferred to stick to a mix of hostile natives, evil hunters and the occasional bit of alligator wrestling. (The version closest to the books was actually the cheaply animated Filmation cartoon series of the 70s.) Hugh Hudson’s 1984 Greystoke also changes things but goes to a different extreme, treating the source novel with the kind of respect usually retained for great literature. Burroughs could certainly spin a yarn, but great literature he wasn’t, nor would he claim to be.
Though I read some of the Tarzan novels as a boy, it was the adventures of John Carter, the Virginian gentleman and adventurer transported to an alien world, that really hooked me. When I was 12, the books were available in editions with colourful, exciting cover paintings by Michael Whelan that accurately reflected the contents – the Whelan cover for the first novel, “Princess of Mars” heads up this piece. That novel, originally called “Under the Moons of Mars” and published in 1912, tells of how the former Civil War soldier turned gold prospector John Carter (presented as a great uncle of Burroughs) is transported to Mars (known to its inhabitants as Barsoom). Hiding in a cave from a group of murderous Apaches who have already killed his prospecting partner, Carter is incapacitated by a strange smoke. He undergoes an out of body experience that transports him to a world he instinctively recognises as Mars, a world that ‘for [him], the fighting man, had always held the power of irresistible enchantment’.