One Film, Three versions: The Omega Man

In 1971, I went to see an unusual science fiction film starring Charlton Heston. It was about a man, Robert Neville, who thinks is the lone survivor of a biological warfare accident that has killed off human life on Earth. He spends his days driving around, going to watch the same film in a cinema, and helping himself to anything he needs from the deserted shops of Los Angeles. But he has to be back home by nightfall, as the city is also home to plague-affected survivors known as The Family. They cannot cope in daylight, but at night they constantly try to attack Neville, and he has fortified his home against them.

In his comfortable house, Neville plays chess against himself, and tries to keep his mind active, to prevent going insane with loneliness. He relies on generators for power, keeping his house well lit against attack, and has a large supply of weapons to use to defend himself against the marauding Family members. One day, he finds another person, a young woman unaffected by the plague, and she tells him of a group of others that live outside the city. He was one of the doctors who worked on the original vaccination against the contagion, so decides to replicate the drug, to help the group of young people survive.

This was imaginative and exciting, and despite Heston’s usual rather wooden style, he was ideally suited for the role, with his strong physique, and determined nature. The Family, led by Anthony Zerbe, are quite scary, and suitably obsessed with destroying Neville, as well as all the technology that they blame for the apocalyptic event. Set pieces are very good, but the star of the film is the deserted streets, empty shops, and the ghostly, eerie atmosphere that comes across so well.

I later found out that this was a remake. The second adaptation of the novel, ‘I am Legend’, published in 1954. The first film had been called ‘The Last Man On Earth’, released in 1964. and starring Vincent Price. But I hadn’t seen that film, and still haven’t.

In 2007, a second remake was released, now called ‘I Am Legend’, like the book, it starred Will Smith as Neville, the ‘last man’, and the story is much the same. Though Neville now lives in New York, has a dog, and The Family are known as ‘The Darkseekers’. Of course, it benefits from modern technology like green screens and CGI, so some very nice effects are delivered as a result. But that polish makes it feel flat, and less affecting as far as I am concerned. And Will Smith only ever plays Will Smith, so we knew what to expect.
I still like the 1971 film, and I am sticking with that, until I see the Vincent Price version.


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Jane Got A Gun (2015)

***No real spoilers***

Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregor, and Joel Egerton, all in a western film that I had never even heard of. When that popped up on a TV film channel, I thought it was worth a look.

The film gets right into the action, then slows down to tell the story in flashbacks. New Mexico, 1871, and Jane (Portman) is living with her husband and child on a remote farmstead. He returns home, and has been shot by the Bishop Gang. He brings the news that they are coming to finish off the family. Jane gets straight into gear. Dropping off her child with a neighbour, she heads out to seek help from her one-time fiance, Dan, (Egerton) but he initially refuses. So she goes into the nearby town to stock up on ammunition and weapons, where she is captured by a gang member, and saved at the last moment by Dan, who has changed his mind.

When they return to the farm to fortify it against the expected attack, flashbacks tell us the story of Jane and Dan during the Civil War, and how she first met Bishop, (McGregor) and Hammond, her husband. This works in informing the viewer, but I would have preferred a more linear construction, with the story told in two distinct halves. After Jane and Dan have made their preparations, the film turns into a predictable shoot-out, once the Bishop Gang arrives. After a tense fire-fight, another plot reveal leads Jane and Dan onto the final quest, ending the film is a satisfying-enough fashion.

Sadly, this film is forgettable. I only watched it last night, and the details are already sketchy in my mind. Portman does her best as the feisty Jane, but McGregor settles for being a ‘black-hat’ villain of no substance, and Egerton’s reliable Dan is a ‘seen it before’ character. There is little or no point to the tale; no message, real twist, or interesting conclusion. Just an excuse for a conventional western gunfight, with a woman in the lead role for a change.

I watched this so you don’t have to. Watch something else instead.

One film, two versions: The Fly

In the mid-1960s, I watched a 1958 science fiction film called ‘The Fly’. It starred David Hedison, Vincent Price, and Patrica Owens. Though touted as a ‘horror’ film, it wasn’t that scary, but it was interesting, and a little unnerving to imagine something like that happening. The story is told in flashback, after a scientist’s wife has been arrested for his murder.

A scientist (Hedison) is experimenting with matter transfer, and decides to try to transport himself between two chambers. One will disintegrate him, and he will reassemble in the other. But as he enters the chamber, a fly also gets in there. As the particles are merged, parts of the fly transfer onto the scientist, and vice versa. Once reassembled, he is left with the head and arm of a fly, and his own head and arm have transferred onto the tiny insect.

To be honest, I thought it was a bit silly. Hedison is obviously wearing a rubber fly head and arm, and when the big ‘reveal’ is shown to his wife, it is more funny than scary. We also see the ‘other’ fly, with the tiny head and arm of the scientist, as his wife searches desperately for him. It’s far from being a classic in any genre, though it has its fans. The trailer is almost as good as the film.

In 1986, American film-maker David Cronenberg made a remake. Starring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis, this had all the benefits of decades of improvements in special effects, as well as Croneberg’s penchant for what became known as ‘body horror’. He also (very wisely) ditched the secondary plot of the tiny fly having the man’s head and arm, instead concentrating on how the infected scientist slowly but surely develops into a terrifying hybrid of man and insect. This was the real deal. Often quite scary, occasionally downright repulsive, and the perfect casting of Goldblum and Davis in the leads. This is a rare example of a remake not only being 100% better than the original, but pretty much obliterating it from the annals of cinema. It’s the one to watch, undoubtedly.

One film, two versions: True Grit

In 1969, I went to see John Wayne in a new western film. He was 62 at the time, but looked older and craggier than ever. The film was called ‘True Grit’, and starred Wayne as a grumpy drunken sheriff, Rooster Cogburn. He has a great reputation in the territory, and always brings in the hardest and toughest criminals. When Frank Ross is murdered by his hired hand, Frank’s daughter Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) travels to find Rooster, wishing to hire him to find and arrest her father’s killer, Tom Chaney. She has chosen Rooster, as she believes him to be a man who has ‘true grit’.

Chaney is hiding out with the gang of outlaw Ned Pepper, (Robert Duvall) and Mattie insists on accompanying Rooster on the search. The pair are joined by the affable LaBouef, (Glen Campbell) a Texas Ranger who is also hunting Chaney. They head out to look for the gang, but as they close in on them, Mattie is captured by Ned Pepper, and Rooster and LaBouef must save her.

This was a lot of fun. Wayne doesn’t take himself seriously as Rooster, and we are all in on the jokes. Kim Darby is perfectly cast as the feisty Mattie, prim and proper, and full of fight. Glen Campbell is surprisingly good too, considering he was best known as a country and western singer. Then there is the flawless supporting cast, including the already mentioned Duvall, as well as Strother Martin, Dennis Hopper, and Jeff Corey. The ending is not pat and comfortable, and the action is believable. This was an immensely satisfying film, in every respect. And John Wayne won an Oscar for his performance too.

Anyone who reads and writes about films will tell you that you are not allowed to say anything bad about the Coen brothers. They are lauded from ocean to ocean as the modern-day wonders of American cinema. I like a lot of their films, and agree that some are excellent indeed. But I am about to say something bad about them, so look away.

In 2010, they made their version of ‘True Grit’. Not a remake, it was claimed at the time, but a different adaptation of the original book. It starred Jeff Bridges as Rooster, Matt Damon as LaBouef, and Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross. Josh Brolin was Tom Chaney, and Barry Pepper played Ned Pepper. (No relation) It is a darker film, with a few slight changes to the original, and a slightly extended end sequence. The cast play their parts well, but much of the humour is lost in the process, and Hailee is no Kim Darby when it comes to playing Mattie Ross, as well as looking too child-like. So, it was a remake, and a pointless one at that.
In my opinion, The Coens should have stuck to what they do best.
Being original.

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Atomic Blonde (2017)

***No plot spoilers***

I got this DVD for my birthday in March, and the first rainy day of this summer gave me time to watch it today. I don’t usually care for such ‘action blockbusters’, and rarely watch ‘spy’ films such as those featuring a certain Mr Bond. But Charlize Theron looked so good in the trailer, I couldn’t resist.

She plays a British agent, Lorraine Broughton, sent to Berlin by MI6 to recover a list of double agents. (Her British accent is somewhat hit and miss, to be honest, but there is a reason for that.) This is Berlin in 1989, a short time before unification, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. The film is told in flashback, as Lorraine is being debriefed by her superiors. Berlin is full of spies, agents, and double agents. There are Russians, Stasi operatives, French spies, British spies, and CIA agents too. There is also the East German underground, happy to help the foreigners bring down the DDR.

The film kicks off with action, and keeps the momentum going, except when it returns to the present as she tells her story. Some great set pieces (and Charlize) kept my attention, and Lorraine soon establishes that she is not a woman to be messed with. She can fight, and fight really well. She can shoot a gun, use a knife, apply any handy utensil as a weapon, and drive any car like a rally driver. Her toughness is driven home, so we are in no doubt.

When she has a bath, she fills it with ice cubes first.
She smokes a lot of cigarettes.
She drinks a lot of vodka. Stolichnaya, of course.
She doesn’t trust anyone, not even her ‘own side’.
She can defeat any enemies, no matter how many of them appear at the same time.
And she looks good, really good in fact. (Charlize is 43, and looks better than ever)
She looks good in trousers.
She looks good in a trench coat.
She looks good almost drowning in a submerged car.
She looks good in a T-shirt.
She looks good in a short skirt.
She looks good in stockings and suspenders.
She looks good in a cocktail dress.
She looks good during her short lesbian affair with the French female agent.
She even looks good when she has been beaten up, and is covered in bruises.
(And she has a lot of outfits, considering her luggage)

Her contact in Berlin is British agent David Percival. (James McAvoy) He is unreliable, untrustworthy, and appears to have gone ‘rogue’, dabbling in Black Market goods. But he might know how to get the desired ‘list’, as he has a Stasi agent in his confidence. (Eddie Marsan, with a German accent) Of course, he is also tough.
He smokes a lot of cigarettes.
He drinks a lot of whiskey. Jack Daniels, of course.
He can fight too, but not as well as Lorraine.
He doesn’t trust anyone, not even his ‘own side’.
(He is badly-dressed and scruffy, but he claims it is to ‘blend in’.)

So the scene is set. Everyone wants the ‘list’, and will do anything to get it. No plot spoilers, but it won’t surprise you that nobody is quite what they appear to be. It is a ‘spy’ film, after all. It even has what I generally call a ‘double-quadruple-double-bluff’ twist ending. But if you have seen more than one similar film in your life, you should have guessed that reveal by half way through, if not sooner. The atmosphere is good, and the period well handled by using old cars, fashions from the 1980s, and some great contemporary pop music on the soundtrack. For me, the overrated McAvoy was perhaps the weak link in an otherwise solid cast. There is the estimable Toby Jones, John Goodman with a white beard, Bill Skarsgard as the DDR dissident, and the previously mentioned Eddie Marsan.

Then there is Charlize of course. She is nothing short of magnificent to look at throughout. (Did I mention how good she looks, wearing anything?) Her physical antics in the film are outstanding, even though obviously well-choreographed. I didn’t really care what else happened, as when she was on screen (in almost every scene) she was the only thing I wanted to watch. It is her film so completely, I also really didn’t care who else was in it. This was adapted from a graphic novel, and at times that shows. But it doesn’t matter. Charlize rules. She is just great.
I loved her in this film, so nothing else mattered.

One film, two versions: Ringu

When I watch a scary film, I like it to actually scare me. Seeing a horror film or supposedly scary thriller, and not being horrified or scared is ultimately very disappointing. In 1998, I heard about a new Japanese horror film that was receiving rave reviews, so went to see it. I confess that I was expecting to see the same old predictable shocks, and well-telegraphed ‘scare’ moments.
I was wrong.

‘Ringu’ really scared me. It was creepy, effective, and just on the right side of making me almost cover my eyes. Bear in mind that I was a 46 year-old seasoned film-goer at the time, and that gives some idea just how good it is. The plot is simple, yet very effective. A VHS tape bears a curse. watch it, and you will be killed by something terrible, within seven days. If this sounds to you like a typical ‘teen horror’ film, I can understand why. But you would be wrong. The atmosphere is all in this film, with its sense of dread and impending doom all-pervasive. Not knowing any of the actors worked so well, as I was able to believe in all the characters. This is what a scary film should be. Scary.

In 2002, the film was remade in the USA as ‘The Ring’. It starred Naomi Watts, and British actor Brian Cox. It’s a straight remake, with few changes except the location. For those who had never seen (nor heard of) the Japanese original, it was well-received, and liked as a horror film. I reluctantly decided to watch it, if only to confirm my worst fears. They were confirmed of course. Familiar actors, and a reasonably familiar American setting, (Seattle) all contrived to lessen the scares, and make it feel a little too cosy. If you like to be scared occasionally, stick with the original.

It’s worth mentioning that this was one in a series of rather pointless remakes of some very good Japanese horror films. Other titles covered by the American film industry include ‘The Grudge’, ‘Dark Water’, ‘The Eye’, and ‘One Missed Call’. Seek out the films in their original format. You will be glad you did.

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The Martian. (2015)

I came late to this film. I have never read the best-selling book it was based on, but I was aware that most people loved the film, and at least 99% of the reviews I read praised it highly. Yesterday, I had time for watching films, and this was the second one in a day, following ‘Detroit’. After ‘Red Planet’, ‘Mission To Mars’, and the forgettable ‘Ghosts of Mars’, I was a little Marsed-out, to be honest. I am also not a huge fan of ‘space mission’ films, as they usually follow a well-worn formula.
And here is that formula.

Space films formula.
1) A mixed bag of a crew; one funny character, at least two women, and one very brave person.
2) Loved ones left worrying at home, usually seen via some video link, or waiting nervously around Mission Control.
3) A NASA boss who breaks the rules to save his crew.
4) Or a NASA boss who refuses to break those rules, but one of his rebellious employees does.
5) A techy nerd who saves the day with a plan that nobody thinks can work.
6) Lots of ‘oh no’ moments, disasters followed by last-minute relief as plans work.
7) Someone gets left behind, or dies on the mission, and everyone blames themselves.
8) Oxygen almost runs out.
9) Space suits get punctured.
10) Something mechanical goes wrong, or an explosion. That means someone has to go outside the craft.
11) Someone drifts away, perhaps to be saved at the last second, or not.
12) There has to be a lot of cheering and high-fiving in the huge control room, as everyone stands up from their screens in delight as something good happens. That has to happen a lot.

Given the 12 rules of Space Films, what about this one?

It’s basically Robinson Crusoe on Mars, absent a Man Friday companion. Someone (Matt Damon) gets left behind, believed dead, during a tense escape from the planet during a storm. Lots of sad faces and some tears, as the survivors make the long journey back to Earth. But wait! He isn’t dead, as we the viewers discover. He uses all his skills and technical know-how to survive alone on Mars. He grows food (well, potatoes), adapts vehicles, works everything out systematically and mathematically, and just refuses to lay down and die. For our benefit, he keeps a video log, filling us in on all the details so we know what’s going on.

Back in the control room, nobody is jumping up and down, not yet anyway. Then a dedicated young woman spots a clue on the satellite images. Matt is using solar panels, and his vehicle is moving around too. Yay! He must be alive! Cue lots of standing up and cheering, high-fives, and huge relief. But hang on, they have told everyone he is dead, and a nation is mourning his loss. Oops! They need to come up with a plan to save him, as he has only so many days of food left, and Mars is a very long way, let’s face it.

Then Matt has another great idea. He digs up an old communication satellite, and gets it working in no time. Communication is established, hooray! More jumping and cheering, even more high-fives.

OK, sarcasm over.

When the film is ‘on Mars’, it is entertaining indeed. Damon’s efforts to grow food, repair things, and simply survive are all very believable, given that he is a strong person, physically and mentally, as well as being a tech-savvy qualified astronaut, and a skilled botanist. He holds the screen in his one-handed role, and we are all rooting for him, undoubtedly. Moments of tension are not overplayed, and even those expected disasters are low-key, and plausible. And a nice touch is that the only music left for him to listen to is Disco, and he hates Disco. But the other half of the film just follows that 12-point formula, and cannot seem to shake those Space Film tropes. And once it comes to the climax, they throw in everything mentioned in points 1-12, leaving nothing out, not one.
And that cheering and high-fiving in the control, room? Oh yes, lots of that. Lots.

Mars looks good, and Damon is on top form as Watney, the lone survivor. The technical stuff is explained so well, even I understood it. More importantly, I believed it was possible, whether it is or not. But some strange casting decisions really made me edgy. Sean Bean as a crumpled-looking English mission controller at NASA, (why?) Jeff Daniels playing the head of NASA as if he is the President of The United States. Jessica Chastain looks uncomfortable as the commander of the original mission, and Michael Pena just didn’t work for me as an astronaut, maybe because he has played so many wise-cracking cops, soldiers, or crooks.

It’s a film of two halves, in every way imaginable. But I only liked one half.