Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)

Another recommendation from Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinemathis time coming from his episode looking at the Sci fi genre. Not the best rated science fiction film I’ve ever seen but still if the countries best film critic recommends, who am I to argue. So a while later and I’ve finally seen this underrated film that transposes the plot of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe to the futuristic interplanetary setting of good old mars, the only other possible planet that could have supported life in our solar system. Now I’ve never read the book, my only recollection is a kid’s cartoon, even that’s stretching the memory to a spindly bearded man on an island. I know he’s deserted there, that’s about it. So I came into the film pretty much with no prior knowledge of that plot and the sketchy details of the classic Defoe novel.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) begins as just another day aboard the spaceship Mars Gravity Probe 1, turns out to be the last for the small crew if two and the pet monkey. With typical classic rocket-ship design, all before science fact influenced future production design, they’re met with the sudden appearance of an asteroid, leading to life changing decisions being taken, using almost all their fuel to avoid impact they move out of the way before ejecting into little pods. It’s a brief chance to see Adam Westpre Batman fame who has his little companion follow him. Maybe he shouldn’t have mentioned about the escape pods to him before they have to leave.

The first member of the crew to eject is Cmdr. Christopher ‘Kit’ Draper (Paul Mantee) who crashes onto the surface practically in tact. Thought to be alone he goes into survival mode before he can even venture out to find his crew mate. Spending time working out how to stay alive, oxygen and water, which for a while are hard to come by. Constantly looking at the pressure gauge on his tanks, suggesting he hasn’t long left. I was shocked to see him try to breathe on a the surface of another planet take off his helmet. I guess that comes from watching too much sci-fi. Once he’s got a rough system in place to get him going he’s on his way to search for crew-mate Col. Dan McReady (Adam West) dead amongst his own escape pod. But for some relief and comfort we find the monkey, Moana for company, the only person that Kit has for company for a longtime survival and sanity.

We go into an early version of The Martian (2015) without the Matt Damon charisma that carried the film. Instead of having a purpose built shelter Kit’s stuck in a cave with yellow rocks that somehow release oxygen. Just showing how Kit is starting to understand how this planet works. He’s still got a computer recording his logs…just in case. What follows is some quality time with Moana as he further explores and discovers how to make the best of life on the red planet. This feels like a nice translation of the book to the new setting as the sole survivor of a ship wreck adapts to his surrounds both physically and mentally. Not as extreme as Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) and his friend Wilson who doesn’t have the ability to respond at all. It’s a natural instinct to try and communicate with another, if we can’t we make compromises as we delve into our imagination. Thankfully Moana fits the bill and brings in the kids to the film.

Things take a twist when the remains of a skeleton are revealed, believed to be murdered sometime ago, Kit is rightly on edge now, could he be next for the kill, from creatures he never even knew existed. The first to encounter life away from the planet Earth. It soon becomes clear when spaceships that resembled Manta rays hover above and fire below, trying to hit something which we can’t work out. Each time we see these it doesn’t bother me that it’s the same shots used multiple times. Simply a budgetary issue, I am excited by their presence, finally some danger to spice things up and reveal another character for Kit to interact with. Friday (Victor Lundin), a clear reference to the source material (that much I do know) we learn is a slave that works with another race mining the planet. The spaceships above maybe the true inhabitants of the planet that have since left but still protect it from damage and pillaging.

Kit takes it upon himself to get to know Friday, try to communicate with him. It’s a case of the white man trying to communicate with the Native on his own terms. All this in a couple of scenes we see Friday learn to communicate and allows us to understand who he is. Before too long the spaceships are back, forcing them underground, where Friday’s eventually released from his chains that the aliens above use as a tracker. We see more of Mars than Mark Watney (Damon) ever saw. It’s a chance to blow the budget on some more rocks to climb, combined with some composite shots that really have dated, which I simply don’t care about, lost in the craft and the story as we reach the cold conclusion where finally hope is in sight for Kit and his new companion. I did wonder whether he would ever be rescued after his own ship finally crashed out of orbit. Is this how Robinson Crusoe ends? I don’t know. Kit’s own island is planet sized, far more to explore, more dangers to encounter and overcome. No wonder it was recommended viewing by the Kermode, just showing why we should listen to critics if not to broaden our minds to what is out there to watch. They’re indeed the taste makers of film, art, books etc, however we still make our own minds up as to what we want to watching. Sometimes they we should listen to what they are saying, you might be missing out on something.

The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)

I think it was just over a month ago I caught The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), which I knew I wanted to see because I knew there was a remake that was released a few years ago. Out of curiosity I sat down to see what it was all about. And I was really entertained by this clever thriller with, even if some of the actors were a little too old for the characters they were playing it was thoroughly entertaining and had me wondering what the hell was going to happen next. So again out of curiosity I wanted to seek out the remake The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) to see how the two compared. I’m kicking myself for not writing a review for the earlier film, if only to compare, which I couldn’t help but do here in this heartless remake.

As much as I respect Denzel Washington as an actor, who can act usually act the socks of anyone. Whenever he stars in a remake it seems to be bad news, or just a horrible coincidence. I’ll be spending this review going through why, this remake… again staring Washington really pales in comparison to a stone cold classic of a 1970’s thriller. It’s not that I’m opposed to the idea of remakes, but when they’re done badly you notice and long for the original and that’s always a bad thing.

First up as much as the premise needed to be updated to be more contemporary, at least you have guys working at the subway control centre look like they’ve still got more than a few more years in them before they retire. However you’ve lost the spark, that sense the team that work here, get on each others nerves occasionally, it felt more natural when Walter Matthau was leading the show. Maybe I enjoyed the toxicity of the all male workplace in the original that created some drama in the control centre, at least it meant there was some drama. I know I don’t miss the awful treatments of the Japanese guests who toured the original facility (who eventually showed Police Lt. Zachary Garber (Matthau) who really couldn’t be bothered with them. Instead the whole element of the Japanese was reworked cleverly into creating a past for Washington’s Garber who was facing an investigation into suspected bribery. This everyman was not the squeaky clean man that he usually plays, but a flawed man trying to do what’s best for his employers and his family.

Whilst on the subway train we have a gang of four men led by Ryder (John Travolta) who are wanted 10 times as much as the original gang led by the more sinister Bernard Ryder aka Blue (Robert Shaw) leading a team of men with coloured code names, that would later influence Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Travolta’s Ryder is more trigger happy and threatening to his hostages. He poses a real threat that even the audience can feel. Whilst Travolta’s is just hamming it up, effing and blinding every other word, which shows that he’s not got a vast vocabulary to work with. Maybe it’s down to acting approaches or me being a snob. Either way I couldn’t get over the overuse of swearing at times, He just looked bored at times. Whilst his predecessor enjoyed every line, making the part his own, even under his silly disguise.

Staying with the train there didn’t seem to be as much danger on that coach, the threat of death amongst the passengers was only felt at times, it wasn’t that same sense of constant dread that filled the earlier train. The off-duty cop was replaced with a guy chatting to his girlfriend via webcam, a modern update that now is very dated 10 years later. Today we’d being using a phone to let us see into the train that becomes streamed to the city if New York.

Moving above ground we have the mayor (James Gandolfini) whose got nothing really at stake beyond how he can project it to the public. Unlike the more fleshed out Lee Wallace whose rudely pulled out of bed with the flu, whilst fighting reelection. We have also lost the authority that Garber once had, probably reflecting the current structure of the New York Police Department, that power goes to the redundant Camonetti (John Turturro) who has to the power to run the show but has to default to Garber whose the only one that Ryder will talk to. It’s the only way we can see these two coming together at the end.

We do retain the one hour deadline, but it’s not so meticulously mentioned in the film. For every minute that the money is not with the gang a passenger will be killed. That threat still doesn’t seem real, and is easily quelled after one black passenger sacrifices himself to save a young child. Even the reason for the hijack is not explained well enough for the audience to understand, something about paying off a massive debt on the markets. Unlike the previous gang just wanting a fresh start the only way they know how for a bunch of old timers not willing to go straight. None of them really get enough screen time, we don’t see how they react to the developing situation. The passengers just react instead of being properly humanised so you feel for them.

The final act sees a blend of farce and clever rewriting of the original film to give us both something new and distinct from the original whilst still relying on old action clichés before the close of the film. Director Tony Scott trying to outdo Joseph Sargent who had a few crashes involving the police’s blown out of the water with the theatrics here as one squad car is literally pushed off a bridge to the road below. We don’t even know which car the ransom money’s in at any point, all we know is that it’s on route with any one of them. What I did found refreshing here was the meeting of Garber and Ryder under the latter’s invitation, using his skills to his advantage before he ultimately knows the game is up.

Stylistically it’s a standard Tony Scott film, with all the graphics and clever editing that was synonymous with his films aesthetic. However this time I was left cold and bored, I didn’t really care for the characters. I wasn’t filled with dread and uncertainty for Ryder and his men. If anything Scott did a better job on the trains a year later with Unstoppable (2010), which was a paired back thriller that focused on character and situation to you have something to really invest in, without having to find a new approach to a classic film that would be in the back of some of the audiences minds. I just hope now that Washington doesn’t do anymore remakes anytime soon.

The Killing (1956)

Usually I would steer clear of trying to review a film by Stanley Kubrickhowever I’m going to give this a good shot. It’s not one of his later films where he had since gained complete creative freedom, something that most directors dream of gaining when working in the machine that is Hollywood. Yet even inside that machine you can still try and bend the rules to create something that’s got the signature of an auteur stamped on. The Killing is a prime example of being able to produce a film that looks on the surface very much like a traditional film noir, however when you scratch beneath the surface you have a voice unique voice trying to get through to his audience.

Another reason for watching The Killing (1956) was to see the structure of the heist movie being played out. With the help in-depth help from Mark Kermode, part of his Secrets of Cinema series, with an episode dedicated to deconstructing this genre of film, that sits nicely in the realm of film noir. I’ve already touched on this series when I looked at American Animals (2018). The Killing was used as a prime example of how the team of carefully chosen men are brought together in hopes of pulling off a big robbery by the close of the film. Naturally as we have all learned, that plan never goes to plan for one reason or another. When it comes to Johnny Clay’s (Sterling Hayden) team they are no different.

Usually with the documentary strand I usually switch off from the film, finding the narration to be too distracting, being more descriptive than is necessary. However here it proves vital to understand the structure of the film as it unfolds. Instead of relying on a single member of the gang to reflect on how they failed to the audience or to two detectives in an interview room. There’s no time for any of that. Instead Art Gilmore is a vital element of the film, acting as the films social conscience, you can blame censorship for the need for the voice of reason, so we never make this mistake ourselves. Why would we when we see this group of men fail so miserably. The unusual structure allows us to see how all the men come together without the need for titles to place us back in time, they have to be used carefully and sparingly, any overuse can only lead to confusion for an audience that wants to see a group take on the system and win big in a short space of time.

Where most heist films rely on a team of highly skilled people, these lot aren’t so much gifted but perfectly placed in their jobs. Marvin Unger (Jay C. Flippen) an old friend of Clay’s whose willing to put up some of the supporting funds. Alcoholic Patrolman Randy Kennan (Ted de Corsia) is so deep in debt he’s willing break the law to see the back of the loan sharks. Whilst the rest of the men George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr.) and Mike O’Reilly (Joe Sawyer) work at the racetrack where the heists being planned for. Two inside men who can no longer work around the public getting rich in an instant, making gamble after gamble that pays off. They all come together to see if they can finally win big themselves in a gamble that could potentially change their lives forever.

Of course with every team of characters not everyone can get equal screen time or enough development to see that they we understand their motives. Of all the men we focus mostly on the weakest link – George Peatty whose scheming wife Sherry (Marie Windsor), unhappy with her life with the mouse of a husband will jump at the chance of a better life. When George pressured into spilling the plan to her, that’s the first of many mistakes that are made through the course of the film. Sherry wants her cut of the money, devising her own plan with her lover Val Cannon (Vince Edwards) so they can run off into the sunset. The film’s femme fatale is right under the mens noses but are too busy to notice for all the night-time planning and threats.

Another major hole in the plan, as airtight as it might seem is farming some of the work out to hired hands who know nothing about the job. With a job as big as robbing a racetrack this team have underestimated what’s involved. All the scheming and planning in the world can’t compensate for the human error and outside variables that even they can’t foresee. There are times when I see slight kinks in the plan as they finally get underway, a sign of how it all begins to unravel. These men who have come together with only one aim to get rich quick is too much for some to control in the taut film that delivers tension at every turn. Leading to an ending that just shows how pointless the whole scheme really was Just as it looks so hopeful for Clay as he makes his final getaway, even that is a struggle to pull off without any issues. Every detail here has its place and purpose, a carefully composed early work by Kubrick who was a master of all the genre he worked out. Now I’ve only got a heap more heist films to track down.


A Star is Born (1937)

The original intent of this review was to compare two of the A Star is Born films. Beginning with the original 1937 version. I wanted to see where the latest versions roots came from to see what we have in the Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga version released last year. After reviewing the original my intention was to look at the Barbra Streisand 1976 version, which I attempted to watch last night. Now I can be cut-throat with some films, If I don’t like it I’m off. Sadly that happened near the half way point. It would be unfair to review part of a film, it’s not something I’ll begin now. So instead of throwing away a half decent review you can checkout my thoughts on the original. You can see where I wanted to carry on with the next film, probably the weakest of the series critically (not sure why it’s so popular). If anything I’ve seen a forgotten film from Hollywood’s golden age, now that is always something to enjoy. 

You could say A Star is Born (1937) is short and sweet, but all the essential elements of future versions are there. I found myself naturally comparing it with the celebrated Judy Garland remake nearly 20 years later. I must see each film as a product of its time of production within the industry and the politics that surrounds them. Made during the depression, when money was literally poured onto the screen to take audiences on a much needed escape from the dreariness of their reality. The original doesn’t fail on that score, going straight to the dreams of Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor) who dreams of making a success of herself in Hollywood, her parents dismiss the ideas as pure fantasy. Immediately we are on the side on Esther, as the audience, we want her to join all those in the land of the stars and make her own American dream a reality. Only her grandma encourages her to leave and pursue her dream away from the snowy hills of the midwest.

Her arrival in Hollywood is begins just how it should do, grounded in reality, told that no new extras has been held for months. How long can she really stay there with the money, she’s been given? Of course, accidental connections in the form of assistant director Danny McGuire (Andy Devine) who finally leads her to meeting her future husband Norman Maine (Fredric March) whose at the height of his fame and an alcoholic, not the best depiction I’ve seen of a struggle with the substance, which was mastered by James Mason in the George Cukor remake, given more time to show more depth and the real struggles with the addiction. We see here a man who likes a drink and gets a little carried away at times.

It feels a little too easy, the rise of Blodgett, later renamed Vicki Lester being cast in a small part that she doesn’t even start before she’s catapulted into an Oscar acknowledged role. However future performances in cinema have proven that art predict reality, promoting the power of the Hollywood and American dream. Her transformation from average woman to overnight sensation is given only two scenes, once with the studio’s loyal yet fickle publicist Matt Libby (Lionel Stander) and the make-up department who discuss her image without her involvement, she’s given herself over to any potential treatments or operations to ensure she projects the right image, from plastic to dental surgery and anything else in-between.

To this point the film acts as one big promotional advert to draw in more hopeful talent to the machine of the studio system that makes, creates and churns them out before dumping them on the scrap-heap just as the next young talent arrives. We are still a long way off Sunset Boulevard (1950) that shows a more sinister side to tinsel town. For now we have a Technicolor dream that reinforces the image that Hollywood wants to maintain alongside the promotional machine that creates and maintains the images of the stars that the public admire.

We do get a little look into this world as Lester’s dream’s being realised at the cost of Maine’s whose own films have begun to flop in recent times. Soon dropped from his contract and into the bottom a glass where he remains for the remainder of the picture. The biggest insult comes on Oscar night when Lester receives her special award for a her debut performance, which today seems excessive and premature. It speeds up the trajectory from nobody to somebody over the course of a film. The night’s soured by the intrusion of Maine who ruins the moment and hits her, accidental or not, it’s not really addressed, seen more as the drink and not him as the cause. Could there have been some violence in the home they share together? It’s never raised, instead the doting wife wants to look after him, sending him off to rehab (sanatorium) to clean up.

The addiction proves too for Maine, trying to stay on the wagon is too hard for him to maintain, his addiction is too hard to fight, bringing a rare sad ending to Hollywood film during its golden age. His walk to the ocean is kept to a minimum and treated as farewell, not a tragic suicide brought on by a combination of depression and alcoholism that is built on by Mason. Could this been seen as a cautionary tale of trying to seek out the American dream in a modern world? Or a combination of dream fulfilment with romance heavily shadowed in the downfall another’s. A Star is Born depicts the rise to fame, mirrored by the negative impact on another, even those in Hollywood can suffer through no fault of their own. I now look forward to the Rock star reworking of the formula that truly modernises the classic for a contemporary audience, who has become more aware of the pitfalls of Hollywood.

The Magnificent Seven (1960) Revisited & Magnificent Seven (2016)


A few years ago I had decided not to catch the reboot of The Magnificent Seven which received mixed to poor reviews. Knowing that I would surely find it on TV somehow in the coming years. There wasn’t a great need to go out and waste my money on the film. Now that time has come almost 3 years after it’s release I can finally say I have caught the Antoine Fuqua remake. Below you can find my thoughts on the original film, which itself is essentially a remake of an even better film – The Seven Samurai which inspired a whole sub-genre of Westerns during the 1960s, which culminated in The Wild Bunch at the close of the decade. Now I have come full circle. 

I decided a few weeks ago not to catch the reboot of The Magnificent Seven which has had mixed to poor reviews. I’m sure that I’ll catch it in a year or so, however I feel I don’t want to waste my money on potentially a poor film. However I still wanted to catch the original, which itself is the Western take of Akira Kurosawa ‘s samurai epic The Seven Samurai (1954) that is a film that mixes pathos, legend and great character dynamic. It’s a lot to live up even for a western 6 years later across the Pacific. It had also been a good few years since I caught this film, all I could really remember was the final shoot-out and the deaths that hit me hard, even today they still have the same effect.  A part of me is wondering how the modern take on the film has worked, I read it allegories the current climate in America, looking at Donald Trump for instance, there’s a lot more going on than him thankfully to inspire the themes of the film.

Looking back to the 1960 take of the film the reading I get is one of support for the invasion of Vietnam, which was at the time the right thing to do. Stopping the spread of communism in the East which already had a negative result in Korea creating two new countries after the intervention. Now the threat had moved to mainland Asia which would have made Russia’s grip on more vulnerable countries. America had already proven itself a superpower during and after WWII so why not continue to flex those muscles. Of course all of that is now history and forms the background for this film that has practically left them in the dust.

So moving that into a wild west context where do you take this politics. We have a group of gunfighter’s who’re requested by a Mexican village to help them fight off bandito’s who routinely take the lions share of their harvest. Pretty similar to the original film, just repositioning to the basic elements. I vaguely remembered any of that until the film opened in the village where the actions going to be centred when Calvera (Eli Wallach) and his men ride in, warning that on his return he wants their harvest. These farmers have never picked up a gun, only had a violent thoughts which they have never acted upon until they’re forced to reconsider. I’ve recently been reading Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation which is again widening my understanding of the genre, which in turn is helping me when it comes to this and other films. Here the Mexican farmers are clearly the Vietnamese who are incapable of saving themselves, needing the U.S. to ride in and save them. Mexican’s in the genre have mostly been seen as little better than savages, just above Native American’s. Of course it takes a three Mexican’s to cross the border to America to seek that help.

Over in America we haven’t even started to look at the seven heroes who are yet to be assembled. We do however meet the first three before any mention of a call to arms by the farmers. A funeral has just been refused, leaving the traveling salesmen who paid confused until he’s told that the dead man is a Native American, leaving the funeral directors hands tied. It’s only until an enlightened gunfighter Chris Larabee Adams (Yul Brynner) Vin Tanner (Steve McQueen) who starts a fight for scenes with the more experienced actor, take over the funeral, picking up their guns, using force to see that a man, Native American or not is given a decent burial. Showing that America has since made its peace, an internal Wild West problem resolved, with a few against equal rights, which can translate to the beginning of the civil rights movements.

Once the plea for help was heard by Adams whose seen as a brave man, after being seen taking a dead man, with Tanner riding shotgun, they see a leader of men who can fight off Calvera. Is this Mexico aspiring to be America, looking up to their neighbours who fought off and won numerous conflicts? Now its time to advertise the position to all those who can make it and show themselves to be honourable gunfighter’s, or brave men of good character with a gun. I have to discuss each member of the, who get varying screen time (apart from McQueen). First to arrive is Harry Luck (Brad Dexter) who isn’t the most explored character, he has a history with Adams, possibly a card shark who has survived because of his ability with the gun. I just wish he was given more time, which is hard to do with so many actors to consider, vying for screen time, it looks like his scene were either cut or left on the page.

We have already been introduced to McQueen’s Tanner who is fighting for scenes with Brynner who gives his best to the rising star and epitome of cool. A man whose found wandering from job to job, is this one going to give him purpose, even if it’s for a meager $20, maybe the price of potential freedom is more valuable to him.

Next up we have Chico (Horst Buchholz) who isn’t actually considered a member of the group until they are off on their way. Being the youngest he has the most to prove, not just to himself but to the other more experienced men. He’s given a reaction test of sorts, which he breaks under the pressure to perform, possibly seeing a darker side he is afraid of. Possibly out of his depth to prove himself, is he about to mix with men more dangerous than he considers himself.

We turn to Britt (James Coburn) a cowboy who we finding proving he’s faster than another, ending up out of a job. He takes proving himself on his own terms and in his own time, his distinctive skill is knife throwing. It’s enough to distinguish him from the other men, but not really exploited enough in the film, becoming just a hired gun in some respects.

Charles Bronson’s Bernardo O’Reilly who we discover is a Mexican considers his skills to be unworthy of the fee on offer, until he’s persuaded. He’s the only one to win the adoration of the villages children, seen as a hero, braver than their own fathers. Until he corrects them, given his own definition of bravery, that which carries the responsibility of family and being a farmer. You don’t need to pick up a gun to be labelled brave, that’s something wrongly applied by society and myth.

Lastly we have the more interesting and laconic gunfighter’s whose all but lost his nerve, a life behind the gun for Lee (Robert Vaughn) may appear to be a gentlemen with all the airs and graces, yet they have come at a cost of his state of mind. He’s the only one to wear gloves, he sees/saw himself as a professional who wont get his hands truly dirty. We see him avoiding the action when they seven are surrounded. It’s only when the final showdown happens does he realise he has to retain some bravery to die with honour.

The small army come in and train the farmers to take up arms, which they take from the dead that pile up across the duration of the film. It’s a transformation from the meek to the brave for the Mexicans who eventually take control of their destiny. We feel uplifted to see the Mexicans taking ownership of their futures, after learning from the more confident Americans who have brought with them guns and violence. Of course that’s not what the average film viewer takes away, they see knights on horseback, wearing cowboy hats in to save the day, sharing their knowledge and skills. These gunfighter’s are all aware of what they have, but ultimately what they have lost, glory is not going to win back the lost lives in their past, no wives and children, it’s not a safe life to lead, however they weapon they have chosen is not just a tool of defence against danger it becomes a symbol of danger and death. We’re taught what is important in life and a gun isn’t one of them, a powerful symbol that helped to win the West is being discarded. However I take away the pain of seeing these characters fall to their deaths, after following them through the duration to fall under a few bullet, we realise that’s all it takes ultimately. After all the build up and there is a lot of it we have what we wanted, a bloody gunfight after forgetting the true cost of violence.

I just finished the remake and was throughly let down really, as with any remake, you always partly thinking about the original (American version) where they deviated, made it their own, which is what you want to do and not just do a scene for scene remake, which is a waste of everyone involved’s time and cheating the audience of a new spin on a successful plot. The first clear difference is that no longer are a town of helpless Mexicans in jeopardy, instead it the all white settlers of Rose Creek who are at the mercy of land hungry Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) shoots up the town with little regard for innocent life. So your standard villain really whose a little too trigger happy. It’s a change from the stereotype of the helpless Mexican who needs the strong white American male to save the day. Now they saving their neighbours, so no crossing the border this time.

The mix of the gunfighters I thought for a time was a little more varied, we have the standard main two leads Chisolm (Denzel Washington) and Faraday (Chris Pratt) who take on the McQueen and Brynner roles respectively. Followed up by the now cowardly Confederate sharp-shooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) taking on the Robert Wagner role quite well. Then the last which I can pin point to the original cast and the start of the diversity quota (which isn’t a bad thing) is Billy Rocks (Byung-Hun Lee) the knife thrower takes on Charles Coburn’s role, and partner to RobicheauxThen we have men who we meet along the way during quick recruitment process under the supervision of their employer Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) who is about the only one in Rose Creek whose shown any initiative to get some help, her gender is no barrier to getting help whilst all the men would rather she mourn her husbands death – she definitely doesn’t know or need a place to define her.

The remake does give agency not just at least one woman, whose allowed to fire a gun, but also another black lead, something Westerns are slowly accepting that black actors can take the lead and audience aren’t turning away from them. Helped in part by Jamie Fox and Samuel L Jackson in Quentin Tarantino’s last two films, he accepts that the past was not as white as the genre had once depicted it. If we ignore the blip that was Wild Wild West (1999) there have been very few black actors in decent support roles have been given the chance to paint a more true picture of the West. Washington’s Chisolm is not defined by his character’s ethnicity until the final scenes. Instead he’s seen as a naturally leader who can inspire, recruit and try and save a town from falling into the wrong hands.

When the team’s assembled they don’t gel as well as the original 1960 team that allowed the audience to get to know them, love them understand them as they interacted with the villagers. They do hang out together but there’s more jokes at the others expense. A lot of time is given to Robicheaux’s inability to fire a gun in battle, a symptom of his cowardice that comes as a result of PTSD from the civil war, which is brushed over before he rides off to the sidelines. Before making uncharacteristically 180 degree turn and come back all guns blazing, which makes no sense for his character.

A major criticism of the final half of the film is a drawn out final battle, when originally staged in The Seven Samurai (1954) there was a steady pacing, matched with tension as they sent wave after wave to attack the enemy. The 1960 remake saw a lot of time devoted to building up the characters, as did the original, which painfully pays off in the final 20 minutes as the majority fall to an honourable death, drawing a few tears from the audience. The majority of the time was given over to the final battle, we had a nice short and sweet, a taste of what is on offer from just seven men. Before going down an extended sequence of setting up concealed trenches  and traps for Bogue and his army to ride into. The final engagement is a drawn out protracted affair which really should have been edited down by at least 10 minutes for more character development to happen. Without it I just couldn’t care as much for these men from varying background, some brought in out of tokenism and others for box-office draw, so when they died there was nothing to feel for them.

Then comes the real killer – Bogue’s secret weapon, a Howitzer which is revealed to finally mow down the resistance. Just its presence is too much for the battle, we know his army should in theory should have won in terms of numbers. Underestimating the resistance of the village who fight to the last. The Howitzer is just too extreme in a game of one sided one-up-manship, literally overkill and unfair. Maybe this is coming from watching a lot of classic Westerns, that sense of fair play, a man should only be shot with a gun in his hand, a chance to defend himself, never shot in the back. Another rule that is broken here. Fuqua could be argued to depicting a Wild West that was more unfair than previously seen, so maybe more true to the violence that went on in short bursts around the country. However the early machine gun was a little too much overkill.

There’s too many negative points in this film for me really like or care about this film. It’s forgotten what made the other films work, the characters, without them, the film is just a bunch of scenes which join up to make a plot. If you don’t care about the characters who are putting their lives on the line, what’s the point really. Even the star power wasn’t enough to pull me along. Usually I switch off from the film if I just don’t care, but I wanted to see how the much belated film holds up. Even with the modern updates which are positives, it’s not enough for me to come back for more. The last few years have seen some middle of the road to poor Westerns being released, some rightly straight to DVD, some just boring. Hopefully The Sisters Brothers (2018) will be a return to form for a genre which has bursts of energy before falling on a tired classic formula that has a place, but not so much for new releases unless it’s done right and The Magnificent Seven (2016) should really have been left at the pre-production stage.

THX 1138 (1970)

With the 9th instalment to the Star Wars saga, bringing to a close the 3rd trilogy that began in the mind of George Lucas in what seems like a time long ago and a galaxy far, far away being released as this Christmas.  I wanted to see where it all began, not American Graffiti (1973) which is a world away from anything he has made before or since. THX 1138 (1970) is a chance to see where it all began. Based on his short film we see his first opportunity to expand and explore his ideas on a blank canvas (pun might be intended), beginning to really flex his film making muscles. With the help of his friend and colleague Francis Ford Coppola at American Zoetrope he was allowed to go play at great expense in this curious sci-fi oddity.

I caught the “George Lucas directors edition” just to remind us that he wrote, directed, produced and edited by the guy. As with his original Star Wars trilogy that’s been updated with his unnecessary special effects. He has done pretty much the same with his debut film. Rereleased a year before he was bogged down in the appalling and boring prequel trilogy that I prefer to blank from my memory. I found hints of CGI over early scenes that help establish the cold dystopian future where humanity are reduced to designations and being drugged up to ensure we behave ourselves. Those modern touches detract minimally from the overall look of the film. There are times I was feeling cheated, wanting to find a worn out original version that was simply remastered for me to enjoy. The directors cut has clearly seen scenes updated and inserted, where they were re-used in his later work. To Lucas’s credit they do show a more complete version of a world limited by technology at the time of the films production. Here he knows when to put down his tools more instead of inserting whole scenes that were left incomplete.

Moving away from Lucas getting less carried away than usual I was caught up with THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) another member of the masses in a carefully ordered society. We meet him as he’s operating on the construction of another robot that will be available for sale or even police this underground society. This world is one of surveillance and bureaucracy that maintains order in this clinical world. We notice that THX is a little more human than the others around him as he makes a mistake at work. Is this society a precursor to the storm trooper clones that serve in the Imperial army, all dressed in casual clinical white uniforms, shaved heads and an ID tag to differentiate themselves from the crowd. We hear a computer voice talking about sedation among other important aspects of this world that must be maintained. You have to be drugged up to comply with those in the control centres that overlook every aspect of life, hidden in every possible space to ensure strict compliance on and conformity.

THX shares lodgings with another member of this shaved heads – LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie) a woman who has been secretly changing his medication to wake him up to the reality that she has been experience, a taste of free-will. We see a slow change, even his confessions in a telephone booth reflect this awakening. Unsure of what is going on. It’s love that has driven her to share this state of mind with another human, as if she’s part of an underground organisation that has discovered that a chemical imbalance makes life exciting and worth living beyond the monotony of work. One night of passion is all that’s needed to wake him from his deep sleep. As he tries to keep up a cold front in public he’s disturbed by the presence of SEN 5421 (Donald Pleasence) someone who works higher up and has the uncanny ability to bend the rules so he can have what he wants. The threat of changing roommates with him is step too far. Is he one step ahead or just out for something we don’t yet know about.

It’s not long until THX is discovered to have a chemical imbalance that must be corrected, almost causing a radiation explosion in the process. He’s arrested and later detained indefinitely. Beginning a serious of probing experiments, tests and torture, all with the aim of correct him. We loose the ultra modern surroundings of this underground society for a brilliant white prison which creates a cold open space that holds him and a number of other prisoners inside. No bars, just beds. It’s also a way of keeping production costs down before moving out for the final act.

The eventual escape is one of cat and mouse as THX and SEN who after bumping into a hologram SRT (Don Pedro Colley) who can strangely eat food, whilst he naturally can’t feel pain joins them as they make a run for hit. Breaking through the factory that has held them prisoner. They discover a world that they have little understanding, similar Truman (Jim Carrey) on his realisation that the world he’s been living in is a facade. They push on though in the hopes of breaking free of the robotic cops (held back by the budget they have for this case). Clearly influential for Logan’s Run (1976) as two break through the barriers of another underground world to discover one, escaping another that wants to kill them at the age of 30.

THX 1138 maybe rough around the edges and very cold, we see a creative mind pushing the boundaries of social structure and conformity. The use of drugs to help enforce this culture, that at the time of production were rife in Hollywood, openly taken by most of his contemporaries. If they can appear to open minds, then surely then can dull the mind like anti-depressants but a higher dose and cocktail that could lead to this world. It’s a clear precursor to the decade of science fiction to come, one of fear and uncertainty in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam. Lucas has never been one to be overtly topical and reflexive of the world around him since THX. He has since dived into a world of legends, fantasy that allowed him to build up worlds that rely heavily legends and mythos that has inspired a strand of modern film ever since Star Wars. It’s a far from perfect film, but it has so much potential to be explored further. The cold clinical world is rich and has been built on since.

Anna and the King (1999) & The King and I (1956)

This double review comes purely out of curiosity. Originally I was drawn to just checking out The King and I (1956) however a chance to see Anna and the King (1999) also became available. I’ll be using this review to see how both time and genre can change the same basic plot. They’ll be a little bit of history involved as I begin to understand a classic of the musical genre and a more straightforward remake, that surprisingly has Jodie Foster in the lead. 

I think my approach to this review is completely wrong now. I felt during Anna and the King (1999) that was looking for the possible influences from The King and I (1956) which will always shadow over the later. Having only seen the odd clip in various programs and YouTube I can see some similarities, which I don’t think it would be fair to share until I catch the Musical.

Moving away from my initial regret I can see a matches the length of the original, not padded out with musical numbers written by Rodgers and Hammerstein we have a closer look at the relationship between English teacher Anna Leonowens (Jodie Foster) and the King of Siam King Mongkut of Siam (Yun-Fat Chow) who came on invitation to teach his dynasty of children and concubines, (a posh word for mistresses) English and the ways of the West. With an awareness of the Western world around him, with the British in Burma (Myanmar) and the French in Vietnam the developed world in imperial form was coming for them in the mid 1860’s.

Another major difference is the loss of the soundstage where the 1950’s musical would have been shot. Instead we are on location, which for me gives the film a firmer foundation in reality. You have less control over the locations, making even the possibility of breaking out into a musical number. We’re allowed to focus on the relationship between foreigner and king.

Moving away from the obvious differences it’s time to focus on the film itself. Told from the perspective of the oldest prince Prince Chowfa (Kay Siu Lim) whose looking back on the time when Anna came to visit, well her extended stay in his fathers employment. At first I thought it was the king himself, only to be cleverly revealed to be delivered as an extended diary entry. We first meet Leonowens as bereaved single mum traveling with her son Louis (a very young Tom Felton) who are eventually leaving the boat they arrived on with entourage in-tow as they make their way through the harbour in hopes of reaching the palace. So far we have a woman whose determined to make the most of her opportunity, a lone English woman with only son and servants for company. Bringing with her, the Western ideals that have brought her up.

Essentially it’s a culture clash of East meeting West and whose culture shall survive. Even at the King invitation he’s really unaware of the teachers influence on his family, not so much the country as a whole who are not really seen beyond being extra’s. All played with actors of Asian origin, bringing some extra authenticity. Updating what the original is plainly guilty of for one the leads, there’s no white washing or caricatures here. Instead the main cast are more rounded, admittedly the accent sounds a stereotyped, or am I just ignorant to the Taiwanese accent?

In the background we have the scent of war coming from the Burmese with villages being massacred, with the finger being pointed at the British. conveniently making things difficult for Anna who after getting off to a rough start in a sticky situation. Thankfully her unique approach has won his favour during her stay. It’s not quite feminine persuasion we are used to. It’s her will that doesn’t grind him down, it softens him to see her perspective that does cause trouble for him.

Just looking Anna and the King the expanded world of Siam with a war in the background, allows the film stand apart from the musical that focus on the teacher/king relationship. The war adds another dimension, the politics of the time to show how his position can easily be effected both emotionally and politically. With the classic culture clash running straight through it all. It’s not a stand out film for me, that makes me want to catch the original version to compare. The more serious and thoughtful tone is welcome for me placing it in a more real and historical setting. I’ll probably be bringing more thoughts to the review than just now.

It’s been almost a months since I watched the remake, admittedly in the wrong order. The Musical far less intense to absorb as a film. Being able to enjoy it as a classic Hollywood musical, without the heavy trappings of historical fact weighing it down. I did still however come to it, comparing it to the remake released 43 years later. Both are indeed visually sumptuous with close attention to the sets and the use of local designs to create a lost world of Eastern Asia. The original film follows the same basic structure from her arrival in Siam. The presence of the king is felt in the opening scene, when a boat’s sent to collect her from the port she has arrived in. There’s no sense of independence in her to make her own way with her servants through the town. Anna’s (Deborah Kerr) wanted in the palace far soon.

Her ability to make herself known to the king (Yul Brynner) shows she’s wasting no time, that even after the first number that demonstrates to the audience she’s as frightened as everyone else in the world. Her entrances to scenes are pretty much the same, her arrival from the side rear to a wide open stage to be greet the camera and her king who has requested her presence.

With the staging’s confined to the large expensive sets we lose the expansive wide open spaces of the court yards and location scenes that we find with Foster exploring the world around her more. Giving her time to see where she has come to, get to know the king beyond the role of monarch and father to his many children.

However one important element has remained here, the Tuptim (Rita Moreno) character was still given a sub-plot, still given as a gift to her king. When all she wanted was to be with her lover Kralahome (Martin Benson). The later version sees him give up and becoming a monk, enough for Tuptim escape her life of essentially being a sex-slave to her king. It’s her education with Leonowens, It’s the influence of a western education that opens her mind to follow her heart at any cost. Playing up the will of the heart, whilst her part on the staging of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which explores the ideas of slavery even under a Taiwanese translation the idea of emancipation is not lost on her.

I can’t ignore the racial stereotyping that is all over this film, more so with the passing of time. From the “etcetera” line being milked to death, a phrase that’s used to suggest more of the same is a novelty to the king who bouncing it around like a toy with every other line. Using it to create a sense of intelligence and the Westernisation that he longs for his country. His children and many mistresses/wives play up the ignorance of the culture as it’s portrayed, willing to learn, but falling back on the comfort of the myths that the King has constructed for them. The introduction of an improved map in the classroom’s mocked almost immediately, on learning that Taiwan is far smaller than they once believed it to be.

The whole sub-plot of Burma and the potential invasion of the British is brushed over in a few scenes. Presenting an image to visiting dignitaries and the ambassador he seems to soothe the whole issue completely. Whilst the theme of death’s treated with kid gloves, instead of a child dying, which is always more emotive, they go straight for the our King whose heart seems to give out after an argument with Anna from the previous scene. It’s his way of keeping her in the country long after his death. He may not be able to marry her out of her cultural refusal. It becomes an obligation to the future of the country to carry on her work. Whilst the new king lays out down the first laws to help modernise the country, which Leonowens has helped shape through her teachings. By the close of the film the country is slowly changing in her image, that of the West that has caused the industrial revolution.

It’s not too long before it will be creeping into this still very untouched nation that’s steeped in Buddhist tradition. It’s her stubbornness to not give in and conform that sees the country slowly change in her image. Foster’s Anna doesn’t stick around, instead she knows when to leave and move on with her life, it becomes just another chapter in her career, but that doesn’t make for the classic Hollywood ending that endures. One that last far longer than that of a ship sailing off into the horizon.




Rudderless (2014)

I’ve been looking forward to Rudderless (2014), if anything just to see the chilled out cooler than cool Billy Crudup after seeing him in the Jackie and 20th Century Women (2016), in both films he wasn’t playing the lead, but you know your in safe hands when he’s on the scene. The concept for Rudderless is rather deceiving really, without giving away the dark twist right now we’re thrown into what could be just another film dealing with parental grief. Something that no parents wants to experience, burying your own child goes against the rules of nature, it should be the other away around, but life has a cruel way of twisting things for some people in life.

For hot shot businessman father Sam whose just sealed an amazing deal at work he wants to celebrate with his son, now studying at the local university. We meet Josh (Miles Heizer) first, recording another track, you get the feeling he’s done this a lot, with all the kit he has in his dorm. He wants to be left on his own, something we should have picked up on much earlier than the we do. We don’t expect Josh to not turn up, even after his reaction to the request, just putting it down to a strained relationship.

Sam’s whole world is then turned upside down as the news broadcasts images of the latest school shooting, it’s his son’s University, and his worst fears are confirmed. Plunging him into a state of grief that ends his marriage and a complete change in life. We see him initially fall off the rails, drunken denial. Two years on when we find him again, starting a fresh in a yacht, having left his job, you could say he’s living the single man’s dream, but he’s broken, in a job that is just pin money to him, not caring if he rolls up drunk one day to the next. The grief for his son has effected him massively, to the point that for the last two years he’s been merely existing. He only begins to finally grieve when his ex-wife Emily (Felicity Huffman) drops off a few of Josh’s things from his room, complete with guitar and CD’s. Naturally bringing back memories for him that he soon starts to delve into, beginning to understand the son they both lost.

We learn that Josh had a notebook of songs, matching the recordings that Sam connects to, the recordings act as a way to keep his son’s memory alive. He begins to learn then, understand his son and his musical gift more, the grieving process is finally on the move once more. Taking him to a bar where he soon plucks up the courage to perform one of his songs. It’s a massive step, going from learning of his music to performing and sharing it with an audience that would not otherwise have known about him. Catching the attention of Quentin (Anton Yelchin) whose like a stray dog who won’t leave Sam alone. He wants to know more about this mysterious guy and his music. Just what Sam isn’t after right now.

Persistence finally pays off and they are soon performing together, this young guy is looking up to this stranger who has captured his imagination. Quentin is perfectly played by the late Yelchin whose a ball of nervous energy and anxiousness. He needs to perform and focus his energy to get his life moving in a new direction. Even becoming a pest to local music shop owner Del (Laurence Fishburne) whose more than happy to see him keeping occupied. The duo soon expands into a full-blown band called Rudderless that learn all of these songs, not knowing their origins, taking them as being Sam’s work. Even we are unaware of the truth behind them.

It’s only when ex-girlfriend Anna/Kate (Selena Gomez) reappears to confront Sam for using these songs, revealing the twist that changes the tone of the film from one of celebrating a dead son to that of yet another disturbed young killer on a mass-shooting. Josh it turns out was the gun-man who killed 6 before he eventually died/was killed (that’s never explained. Things become more complicated when the band are offered a slot at a festival, the first outside of the bar after months of performing where they had been growing in popularity and confidence.

The idea of splitting the art from the artist is one that is as old as art history. Can we appreciate the art of someone with a dark past, one that’s seen to be unacceptable today or during their lifetime. The past few years we have learned of revelations in Hollywood of sexual harassment from high-profile personalities, their careers in ruins or just on hold (it’s still too early to tell). How do we now the work of these people, the accusations of what went on behind the scenes. I personally find dilemma a lot with Kevin Spacey’s work; was he mis-behaving on all his films, or just a few? Who really knows, they have become tainted. So does the music of Josh’s when the truths learned, does it take on a new meaning or just bring a different context to it. Is the context of the work or even the author/creator/writer/performer separate from the finished piece? For the musicians, it’s too much, the relationship has been based on a lie, one that we are let in on earlier then the band, we’ve had time to process what Sam has been going through, his position and reasons. The band have no choice but to back off and start again, leaving him with the music and the memory of his son.

Rudderless begins as a journey through grief set against the backdrop of being another mass-shooting, which continue to shake America. There’s a conscious decision to steer away from such a loaded subject to focus on the individual, bravely focusing on the killer, who himself was a victim that day in the events of the film. With-holding that fact allows us to see Sam as just a grieving parents, not a parent of a killer which would not attract even investors to eve make the film. The decision allows us to see the human cost to the forgotten and the emotions they go through are just as valid. It’s a decent film that’s not afraid to push that boundary, with some nice acoustic tracks to understand the deceased. Ultimately the question of artist and artwork is one that can only be answered by the individual, how do you perceive the work, can you make the leap from one to the other and still enjoy the work.

Christine (2016)

Originally I was considering reviewing Christine (2016) in connection with Network (1976), which is indeed strongly linked to, or even the Anchorman films which all explore pushing the boundaries of news broadcasting in a changing landscape of chasing ratings. A modern of  American culture, a portion helped elect and is doing it’s best to keep Donald Trump in the White House. However if I was to cloud all those films into a review a much smaller film it wouldn’t being doing it justice. At the end of Network the media messiah that is Howard Beale (Peter Finch) who helped save a news channel from going off the air, whilst losing his own grip on reality to the media hungry Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) and the board was killed live before a studio and far larger home audience. Not in the name of saving face, but in the name of ratings, pure and simple. After months of being manipulated and abused for his rantings he had become a loose cannon that had to be stopped and in style so those that love him would see that he didn’t die in vein.

That was only a film, that predicted the extremes to which news broadcasters would go in seeking out an audience at any cost. For Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) she was a reporter working in a climate of broadcasting that was about to change in the early 1970’s. Did Network’s writer Paddy Chayefsky draw influence from this tragic event that was Chubbuck’s suicide that was broadcast to the Sarasota area of Florida. For a moment creating a wave of sensation surrounding her suicide. I like many other would have come to the film with this knowledge, knowing that she would eventually take her own life. We waiting tentatively, not out of a morbid fascination like when people slow down in traffic to gawk at traffic accident. It was to understand how she came to that point, that extreme low in her life leading to her final moments being broadcast live.

We find her working on her latest piece in what looks like a clunky edit suit, working with the tape hours before it’s broadcast. Concerned about the edit, the look and her own approach to her interviews. Clearly taking her job seriously and passionately. Working closely with Jean (Maria Dizzia) for most of her work, the only close friend she really has. They are team that captures the more serious side of the community, the stories that really matter, not the latest car crash or fire to happen in the neighbourhood. Hall creates a character this is not someone you can really warm to, but definitely one to be concerned about.

Like many news stations of the time there’s a need to increase ratings, their position (something you only hear about in this sub-genre of films), currently 8th, which is of great concern for station boss Michael (Tracy Letts) whose concerned that they are months away from being taken off the air. He’s not in the same league as the executives in Network (1976) who have more at stake, a bigger share, more money to be made or lost. This is a small-fry local operation that wouldn’t be missed. Christine is rightly concerned by the phrase – “if it bleeds, it leads” which doesn’t take too much imagination to work out their new motivation. The rest of the on-air talent are equally concerned. Not like the chauvinist buffoons in San Diego where Ron Burgundy runs the show, instead the revel in the guts and gore.

For a while she tries to carry on at work, eventually getting a ham-radio in the hopes of picking up something worth jumping in on for a big scoop. Away from work her life is falling apart, she needs an ovary removing, before she’s even had the chance to meet someone and have a child. Made worse by her virginal status and alienating ability of self-deprecation that pushes her away from any real human contact. Her home life isn’t much, better ling at home with her mother who doesn’t understand her own daughter. A mother daughter relationship that is very fraught at times, unable to communicate for being under each others feet. Combined with what it now known to be suffering from bi-polar disorder, if diagnosed she could have lived a longer, hopefully happier life.

Back at work the arrival of station owner Bob Anderson (John Cullum) hanging around to nab some talent for another station he’s just bought tips her over the edge. The combination of ratings grabbing stories that would compromise her own journalistic integrity and the potential of a career move that could bring happiness and a brighter future. All this begins to crumble as it culminates in her inability to open up to others. A victim of her own circumstances that had slowly been devouring her with no light at the end to hold on to.

The film tells a slightly different version of events, constructing a volunteering side to her that sees her performing socially conscious sock-puppet shows for children in hospital. If she can’t help herself, maybe she can save someone who has yet to fall into her depressive cage. Christine purchasing of a gun takes a lot of time, surrounded by so many pieces, she’s sold the story of being protected and made aware of the dangers around her. She has long protected herself mentally, this becomes just an excuse to being a step closer to taking her own life. One suicidal thought is all she needs and away she comes with a small gun before she’s finally ready.

Visually it’s a very sparse film, designed to take us back to the early 70’s. It’s very minimal design, with a focus on the news station, it’s cheap and nasty at time, not a part of America we are used to. Set against the back-drop of the close of Watergate, when the nation had finally seen the country leave Vietnam, their own president had been found out to be a liar who would go above the law and try and hide his crimes. It’s a bleak picture of a country that is drawn to the darker side of life, which news broadcasters are just tapping into. Christine is swallowed up in that moment in time. Why focus on such a dark moment on modern broadcasting? To highlight that suicide can happen to anyone if pushed to the brink. If we don’t listen to those in need. If you feel you are please don’t let this happen to you, it nearly has for me a few times. I won’t let that happen again, reach out and get some help, it’s the first, hardest step on your way to a better future.

Pleasantville (1998)

I was wondering when my first post or even film review of 2019 would be making it’s way to be shared with you all. Along with what would be the first film to be watched off the year, that title goes to an OK film noir, however my attention was consumed by Pleasantville (1998);a film that I was only aware of during the second half of last year. It was a combination of the technical wizardry and the concepts discussed in the film. You can’t quite call it science fiction or even a coming of age film. It a combination of the two with a nice dose of comedy. The lines between reality and fantasy are truly blurred here as two teenagers David and Jennifer (Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon) are transported to a classic TV show from the 1950’s – Pleasantville where everything is just cosy, safe and predictable, the very opposite of life even when it was produced in the realm of the film.

My first thoughts was a segment in The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror IX when Bart and Lisa are transported into the television (courtesy of a piece of uranium in place of the battery in the remote) sees them moving from channel to channel. Spending most of their time in the violent world of Itchy and Scratchy. Before the film even begins we are introduced to a channel dedicated to classic TV series, much like Talking Pictures TV here in the UK where I find a lot of great films to watch. A clip of the fictional show is even played before we enter the colour world of reality. The aesthetic is now a little dated but you get the feel of a different time being only a channel away of taking you back to a simpler time. It’s pure nostalgia really, able to take a look at a different era of TV or film, an escape from the present day or for me a chance to explore an untapped reserve of films that I have yet to watch.

In that respect you could say I’m like David except I did choose to escape to the past with my TV viewing, instead it was more likely an incarnation Star Trek to get me through my adolescent years. He knows the world of Pleasantville like the back of his hand, it’s his own personal world where everything makes sense, allowing him to shut off from the world outside. Unlike his sister Jennifer who is more extrovert shall we say, wanting to explore and take chances. Her increase in popularity has enabled her to get a date with the most popular boy – standard American high school nonsense really and she’s going with it. Unlike her introverted shy brother who can’t even talk to a girl.

They only enter Pleasantville after an argument that results in a broken remote being fixed by an old-timer TV repair guy Don Knotts who supplies with them a 50’s space age remote that transports them into the black and white world of Pleasantville where they assume the characters of the main families children. In order to escape, David believes they must play along and take his lead using his knowledge of the world to survive without effecting things. Like an away team in Star Trek trying not to interfere with the natural order or future of another race – the Prime Directive. However it’s not really that situation, it’s a constructed world by a television production company, with actors delivering lines by writers, completely a product of its time now with two massive changes from the future.

At first the interactions are harmless, we see how perfect this world is, luring David in for a time to stay, here he can shoot a basket ball in the net with little skill, presumable before he couldn’t. He can’t play along forever, we notice him telling his boss Bill Johnson (Jeff Daniels) that he can do more than one thing in Bud (David’s role in Pleasantville). He inadvertently teaches Bill that he has free will, a concept that goes beyond the writing of a family TV serial that didn’t promote such a value. He’s the first of a few characters to slowly change and embrace of world of colour.

Now here’s where things really get interesting. The changing of colour from monotone shades to full blown technicolor. The first people to change are a number of teenagers who are naturally and biologically more prone to change, first undergoing a sexual awakening that liberates them from the constraints of the monotone world. More open to learning and understanding more from both David and Jennifer who share their experiences. They have been beyond the two roads that make up this world, they know of their job prospects, the threat of global warming, unlike the teenagers here who know far less, they are children in comparison to these god-like beings from the future and colour. The only other adult to undergo this change is the mother – Joan (Joan Allen) who at first is ashamed and unsure about exploring what are ultimately very human and universal experience that you shouldn’t be ashamed to have. Placing her almost in the same world of Cathy Whittaker (Julianne Moore) in Far from Heaven (2002) in a world bathed in colour where a private life of of a housewife explodes in front of her in a respectful homage to Douglas Sirk. Where her emotions have to be bottled up and restrained against a backdrop of conformity.

Traditionally when colour and black and white photography are both used in a film, it’s a method of determining a different reality, one of the real and the fantasy. Never have the two really been combined like this. Filmed photochemically, each frame that shared both colour and monotone images had to be retouched by hand, a painstaking task, that today could easily being executed on a computer. The effect here is seamless as the images become more complex as the narrative progresses to a point where we are brought to a point where segregation in a white neighbourhood. Lead by Big Bob (J.T. Walsh) who wants to maintain the norm, escape the rain and have things just as they once were. The idea of change scares him, like a number of the white male neighbourhood who at first are curious but soon turns to fear and uncertainty. Their responses are laughable, a shirt that was burned on the iron due to human error, whilst another came home to have no dinner in the oven or on the table. The expectations of routine and stability are threatened by late 20th century progress that encourages everything they haven’t even thought of. They are a product of a very different time that’s only separated by only 40 years at the time of the film’s release.

Ultimately the town of Pleasantville is an extension of David’s fears in the real world to get stuck in and experience the life that his sister has done. OK not to same extremes but with more willingness to be in touch with your emotions, take chances and see where they take you. The black and white world here offers a security he once had as a child that no longer exists. They become a third parent to him, spending so much time with them that he can recite dialogue, recall facts about the show without knowing what’s going on around him. A final thought to all of those  films and TV shows from the past and attack them or see them as products of their time. They may no longer have the same values be them political or sexual. If we were to go back and correct or censor then we would learn nothing from them. There would be no way to track our progress of how we got to where we are today, how times change from the dawn of these popular forms of culture that reflect out times. Another danger as David discovered is that you can’t take all your values from the past, you have to make your own mind up in the present.