Friday, June 26, 2015

One Less Avenger to Make Life Worthwhile...

The world lost two great men yesterday: because Patrick Macnee was John Steed and John Steed was Patrick Macnee.

The “espionage craze” of the sixties gave us Spies high and Spies low. It gave us James Bond of course, but it also gave us the Mission: Impossible team, John Drake, Matt Helm, our man Flint, Kelly Robinson & Alexander Scott, Solo & Kuriaken, Maxwell Smart, Boris Badinov, and a host of others. It was deep and far-reaching in our culture in a way that it has never been since. Those of us born in that era grew up with spies in our blood. 

For some of us, the greatest among all of these were The Avengers. If the name evokes images of star-spangled costumes and green-skinned behemoths, you are thinking of the wrong Avengers. That group took their name from a small team of British spies made up of both professional and amateur operatives: most often it was a team of two, sometimes as many as three or (rarely) four, but from the mid-1960s through the early 80’s the pivotal member of that little team was John Steed.

Steed has been characterized “the perfect British gentleman,” but for me that description falls far wide of the mark. It’s true that Steed had the polish of an English gentlemen, but English gentlemen do not go around hitting people over the head with bowler hats lined in steel. English gentlemen are often stuffy and conservative; Steed was neither of those things. Rather, John Steed was a man of the world, who knew how to enjoy life and how to get right down into it and play without ever mussing up his suit. 

It was this playfulness of spirit that marked Macnee and Steed. Other actors have portrayed Steed over the years, but have always ended up embarrassing themselves in a role that was never meant for them. Ralph Fiennes infamously played Steed in a disastrous “major motion picture” (opposite an equally miscast Uma Thurman and Sean Connery, whose portrayal of the villain pretty much consisted of trotting out his own worst personality defects for the world to see) that captured the quirks of the beloved TV series but missed its heart. Fiennes emphasized the “English Gentleman” bit and came off a right twat: never smiling, never enjoying himself.

The John Steed I knew (and the man who created him) was generous with his smile. He had a great, warm smile and he shared it even with his enemies. Like Tom Baker’s Doctor Who, his smile was disarming, and it might proceed a generous serving of champagne or a blow across the face. Life’s a game, after all, and what’s the point in playing it if you can’t enjoy yourself — whether you’re fighting an Evil Genius or sharing some well-earned downtime with your stunning partner in Avenging? 

The Avengers was a shining moment in television history, especially for the two seasons that featured Diana Rigg as Mrs. Emma Peel; and Patrick Macnee was its heart.

As an actor, Macnee did not have a broad range and was the first person to admit this. He was more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it, and in fact had given up acting entirely when the role of John Steed in The Avengers came along. Perhaps he knew instinctively that it suited him. Perhaps he thought of it as a lark. Certainly when the equally playful Diana Rigg joined the cast, the show became something akin to the games of espionage that we played in the long summers when school was out. This was where John Steed and Patrick Macnee became one — and the two became the most wonderful role model that any young man could have. 

For in the face of Great Evil, John Steed paused and raised a glass. He took the time to let his partner know how very much he enjoyed their company. Then and only then, armed with grace and Good Feeling, would he plunge into the fray.

— Freder.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Enter Mister Borgman

This past month has made a believer out of me: if the Moon can control the tides, who knows what effects the other planets can have on this, that and the other thing — and I am all too happy to blame this rotten past month, and all of the ways in which it has failed me and I have failed myself on the combined retrograde of both Mercury and Pluto. 

It’s been a vampire month. It’s been bed enough that I’d have been better off to just crawl under a rock and pull it in after me; as it is, the best time I’ve spent during these weeks has been in front of the telly.

To call the Dutch film Borgman a “vampire movie” would be to set up unreasonable expectations in prospective viewers. There are no fangs, no bloodsucking, no capes, none of the Hollywood tropes that people expect when they hear the word. Indeed, going into Borgman without knowing anything, it would be reasonable to believe, at first, that you were watching a plain psychological thriller about an oddly charismatic type worming his way into a well-to-do Dutch family; but that wouldn’t explain some of the oddnesses that run throughout the movie… and most of the negative reviews (in the minority) that I’ve seen about the picture seemed to have been written by people who failed to make the connection, who saw these oddities as just being weird for the sake of being weird.

But once you have accepted the fact that Borgman is all about a strain of vampirism that we have not seen on the screen before, it all makes perfect, horrible sense. As the movie opens, the titular character — a wildly hairy yet fascinating hermit-type played by Jan Bijvoet (the resemblance to Charles Manson is no doubt intentional) — is being hunted by a priest with dogs and stakes. His lair is concealed in the forest, underground, with escape tunnels dug under the roots of trees. None of this is explained; nor is anything explained that follows, including the silent dogs that let themselves into people’s houses at night, or the mysterious scars on the backs of Borgman and his “family” of murderers. That Borgman possesses some overt supernatural ability is expressly stated: sitting nude astride a sleeping woman, he affects her dreams with the power of his thought. He moves silently, swiftly, and unseen when he wishes it. And yet when the time comes for murder, Borgman’s crew use altogether conventional methods. 

Its most horrifying moments occur in the plain light of day, under dreamily sunny skies. Few words are spoken. By the time we realize that Borgman is not psychological suspense, but in fact a full-on Horror Movie, it’s too late: we are in the vampire’s spell right along with the doomed family. Gradually, we realize that he is not interested in the adults, but only working through them to get at the children of the house. Fresh blood is what his family seeks. The final scenes play out in almost complete silence, and are as quietly chilling as anything you will have ever seen onscreen.

As such I think it’s the best modern horror movie in many a moon; destined, if it can find its audience, to become a classic of the genre. It has both the sense of cunning playfulness and the visual restraint that all really good horror movies must have (its single most graphic moment occurs in a dream); and it presents a very old monster in a strikingly fresh and modern way; Borgman himself has the weight of a Great Cult Figure in the making.

Borgman is unrated in this country, but would probably be a soft R or a strong PG-13. It has some mild sexuality, more than one usage of the word “fuck,” some intense and unnerving scenes, and one very brief flash of bloody violence.

— Freder.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Brave New World

If you come around here often enough, you’ll know that I’ve already made a couple of posts about Peter Jackson’s trilogy of movies based on The Hobbit. Here’s one more, one last post, in which New Developments emerge from the corners of Fandom to change everything. Even if you don’t like Tolkien or movies based on his books, read on — something interesting is happening here.

I think of Jackson as a talented, driven, hard-working man who has no sense of self-control and never knows when to stop. For The Lord of The Rings, New Line was very hands-on with its investment and insisted on Jackson working with a team of producers who somehow kept his excesses under tight control. Since the success of those movies, he has been given carte blanche on every picture he’s made; and in all that time he has failed to produce a single movie that wasn’t bloated beyond the capacity of any sensible audience to endure.

Mister King Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the world, isn’t even introduced in Jackson’s movie about him until about nine hours into the runtime. He then spends about fifteen hours fighting dinosaurs, five hours trashing depression-era Manhattan, and I know he spent around three hours staring lovingly into Naomi Watts’s eyes before finally dropping from the Empire State Building. As I recall, it takes a half-hour for him to hit the ground. And that’s in the theatrical release! God only knows how many hours those bugs chomp on Andy Sirkis’s head in the extended version.

Well… I’d better cut to the chase myself.

Turns out there are other people out there who agree with me that three long movies are more than a little bit excessive to adapt Tolkien’s 300 page novel to the screen — and some of them are doing something about it.

For someone of my generation (mostly grown up before the VCR came along and began radically altering our culture), it’s nothing short of a revelation to learn that the technology we have today, available to everyone, is now so powerful that anyone with the Will and the time on their hands can make their own re-cut of Jackson’s movies — and post it online in full high-definition video and sound.

That’s right — there are a few fans out there who have re-cut Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy into a single three-hour movie. And they haven’t just shortened it: they have re-arranged some scenes, restructured others, and basically shaped their own unique movie out of the piles of footage that Jackson so thoughtfully provided them.

I’ve downloaded one of these versions, watched most of it — and am amazed at what one fan can accomplish. All the bloat is gone, all the sub-plots are gone, all the fart and belch jokes are gone; at last we have a movie that  can stand side-by-side with the Rings Trilogy, occupying its proper proportions to those films… and here’s what’s even more jaw-dropping: it looks and sounds just as good as the theatrical release! 

The first hour of Jackson’s An Unexpected Journey is compressed neatly into 25 minutes, with no sense that we as viewers are missing anything. Beyond that point, Underhill Editor has mainly lopped out all of Jackson’s CGI Action excesses: the barrel ride down the river, which lasts an eternity in Jackson’s version and features orcs and elves flying around shooting arrows all over the screen, now lasts a few seconds and plays out just as it does in the books: the dwarves simply float down the river to safety. It is an absolute joy to watch. 

A few transitions are slightly awkward, and in the final reels the editor is forced to get quite ruthless (he solves the problem of The Battle of Five Armies simply by having Bilbo unconscious for most of it) — but what’s amazing is that the thing isn’t choppier than it is: the editor has even worked on the music cues so that the soundtrack flows smoothly. 

It is brisk, and sometimes, it must be admitted, too brisk. If Jackson had followed his original plan and given us just two Hobbit movies it might not even have been necessary. I know that there will be times when I actually do want some extra flourishes, times when I actually will re-visit Jackson’s films in their entirety… but I now regard them as “The Extended Version;” while for me the Definitive Cut, the one that I will watch every other year in conjunction with the Rings trilogy, is the one created by the Masked Man (or woman) known as “Underhill Editor.”

Now as you might have guessed, all of this Highly Illegal. I just can’t even imagine how many copyright laws this violates. So I’m not going to give you any links, you’ll have to find it on your own. “Underhill Editor” is a kind of creative Robin Hood doing all of us fans a great service; it’s my hope that the Copyright Police of Nottingham never manage to pin him or her down.

In order to get my greedy hands on a copy, I had to learn about something that was completely new to me: Bit-Torrenting. 

The sound you hear is that of Doors Opening. And all I have to say is, “Oh, my.”

That, and perhaps the same thing that the recut Hobbit makes me say: “Ain’t technology wundafil?” 

Yeah, I’ll probably be commenting on more movies in the near future.

— Freder

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