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Friday, April 26

Oz and Hitchcock

So, I saw Oz, the Great and Powerful. In 3D. I started off really enjoying myself during the opening black and white academy ratio scenes, and even some way into the colourful widescreen CGI vistas of the Land of Oz. But as the film started to become about battle preparations, my interest wandered, eventually to be replaced by embarrassment for poor Mila Kunis. Surprisingly, the film recovered from all the meandering to engage my interest for the climax. Overall however, I did leave the theatre pretty unimpressed, apart from an urge to watch The Wizard of Oz again.

Which I did last night. When Margaret Hamilton's wicked witch of the west is taken down by a splash of water, any pretense that Raimi's Oz might have to conceivably being emotionally connected to the events of the 1939 film has long since melted away. Hamilton has no doubt of her wickedness, or its capacity to bring her wicked delight, no room to believe that she was once little Mila Kunis with a broken heart. In contrast to the elaborate set-ups and payoffs which most often depict magical weapons or talismans to destroy evil - think of all those daggers passed from doomed character to doomed character in the Omen series, or countless forged or reforged swords, blades, or magical jewellery in most fantasy films - the method of her demise is introduced to the plot mere seconds before being employed, with an immediacy perhaps matched only by the 1922 Nosferatu turning into a puff of smoke at dawn. What follows is one of cinema's primal death scenes: in an uninterrupted shot, Hamilton's bright green mask and waving hands vanish into her collapsing gown, the surrounding guards lowering their spears to afford the camera a better view. "What a world", words of wonder and dread, "here I go". Surely for generations of western audiences, this is the first significant screen death most younger viewers encounter, a template for countless Dracula disintegrations to follow, Hamilton securing a place alongside Lugosi and Karloff in the pantheon of immortal screen monsters. We watch her melt away into nothingness without any illusion destroying cuts to other shots, a screen death for the ages.

No, Oz cannot possibly be compared to the brilliance of the 1939 film, but it must be remembered that the film makers had some strange restrictions to face. Whoever owns the 1939 film (I think it's Warner Bros. through their ownership of MGM) would not allow the use of visuals, elements, and styles that were unique to the Judy Garland film - so no ruby slippers, singing "Over the rainbow" and so on. The film makers were free to adapt the works of L. Frank Baum but not to use anything which had been invented by the film makers of the 1939 film.

That the end result should be culturally bankrupt is no surprise, and the audiences are the losers with a film that wants to trade on nostalgia while being free of copyright violations, with legal teams having approval over elements such as the precise shade of green Kunis' wicked witch could be, as well as the silhouette of her makeup. The film makers are stuck between a desire to homage the old film and a legal requirement to not directly copy it. So the opening scenes are black and white rather than the sepia tint of 1939.

But the new film is made by Disney, and they replace the nostalgic recollections they cannot use with their own. So the Emerald City at a distance resembles a glittering green Disney castle and the transformation of Mila Kunis into the closest the makeup and costume people could legally come to Margaret Hamilton is pilfered from Snow White, with its transformative apple. When James Franco's womanising Oz comes across a town of china teapots, it cannot help evoke the teacup ride at Disney. It starts to seem like the film is set in a theme park of itself. Raimi works 3D well and does produce some lovely imagery, but it's like there was another Oz film that could have been made which might have been much better.

A similar ghost of a film that didn't get made haunts Hitchcock. In this case, the film that didn't get made is a lively adaptation of "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho" by Stephen Rebello. As in Oz, we get some strange conflating of different images from pop cultural memories, most notably when Hitchcock's treatment of Janet Leigh in the shooting of the shower scene is re-invsioned to invoke the ordeal he put Tippi Hedren through on the set of The Birds. The creation of the film is once again hampered by copyright holders refusing to allow usage of material - in this case, the makers of Hitchcock were unable to directly recreate any footage from the film their film is supposed to be about the making of. So Psycho is represented by some offscreen snippets of Bernard Herrmann's score and a brief dialogue scene between some minor characters - again, offscreen, we watch an audience watching the film. So Scarlett Johansonn's spot on turn as Janet Leigh ends up being kind of wasted.

Similarly thrown away is Toni Collette, portraying Hitchcock's assistant Peggy Robertson. According to the book, Robertson had a sharp eye for material which would appeal to Hitchcock, and knew to ignore the studio notes advising against adapting Robert Bloch's novel "Psycho" for the screen. In the film, she is a secretary ready to pass on the material until Hitchcock leans over her and grabs the manuscript off her desk. Paul Schackman is well cast as Bernard Herrmann, but his single scene fails to make the most of Herrmann's infamous temperment. Hitchcock's editor George Tomasini is nowhere to be seen, the editing room represented by a flurry of un-named assistants with Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) and his wife Alma (Helen Mirren) bent over viewers, poring over footage.

So instead of a detailed account of how Psycho came to be written by Robert Bloch, acquired and filmed by Alfred Hitchcock, and released to transform the cinema/audience relationship, we get a biopic, which has - as a biopic must - a marriage on rocky ground, and explores - as a biopic must - the dark side of a creative genius. So we do not get treated to Anthony Hopkins showing us the gleeful sexual imp in Hitchcock, instead he plays a man tormented by the ghost of Ed Gein, which is about as barely explained as the plot of Psycho.

Of course, Hopkins and Mirren are terrific, and the film is beautifully made, with an especially exquisite homage to the music of Herrmann in Hitchcock in Danny Elfman's score, much better than his work for Sam Raimi in Oz. But unfortunately for me I know the source material for this movie very well, and this film kept hitting false notes.

Tuesday, April 6

Main characters in eccentric American art-house films have been raiding my video library...

I watched Napoleon Dynamite (Jared Jess, 2004) last night and enjoyed it immensely. My heart leapt when Napoleon briefly opened the door to his bedroom revealing an out of focus poster for Dragonslayer (Matthew Robbins, 1981) on his bedroom wall.

Similarly, the title character in Juno (Jason Reitman, 2007) regards Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977) as one of her favourite films.

Is this a trend? Are my favourite films (especially the slightly lesser known ones) to be mainly remembered as favourite films of precocious and/or alienated teens in quirky art-house films?

Wednesday, October 14

Oz horror

This article on the website for The Age newspaper includes the following list:

Top 10 Aussie horror movies rated by researcher Dr Mark Ryan:

Wolf Creek (2005)
Dying Breed (2008)
Black Water (2007)
Rogue (2007)
Undead (2003)
Razorback (1984)
Patrick (1978)
Howling III (1987)
Body Melt (1993)
Night of Fear (1972)

We obviously don't make enough horror films down here, if Howling III: The Marsupials (1987, Philippe Mora) can make a top ten horror movies list. The only top ten list that film belongs on is Top ten third films in a werewolf series. Or possibly Top ten films featuring a cameo by Bill Collins.

Saturday, September 12

I saw 'District 9' and was like "meh..."

Neill Blomkamp's feature film District 9, an expansion of his 2005 short Alive in Joburg, has been much anticipated for some time by sci-fi fans. The 29 year old Blomkamp has become a protege of sorts to Lord of the Rings producer/director Peter Jackson, with the two of them set to collaborate on Halo, a long in development - and currently in limbo - adaptation of a popular video game. When the Halo production collapsed, Jackson helped Blomkamp move ahead with District 9. The finished film was well received by film critics, and enthusiastically embraced by the fans who had been looking forward to it.

In the world the film depicts, it has been 20 years since a massive alien spacecraft stalled in the sky above Johannesburg in South Africa. The surviving aliens on board - an insectoid species who lost their commanding class through circumstances the film is vague on, leaving only the less advanced drone class - have been relocated to the district of the title, a sprawling shanty town where over time these interstellar visitors have been reduced to the status of third world refugees.

The basic setup is not unlike that of Alien Nation (1988, Graham Baker), but where the earlier film was pretty much a formulaic buddy cop film given an alien twist, District 9 presents an allegory for apartheid, problematically set in the same area where apartheid occurred. I say problematically because District 9 unfolds in documentary style, striving to present a realistic view of this world while conveniently ignoring the notion that international governments and institutions would be likely to become involved in the welfare of the "prawns" - as they have come to be known - rather than leaving their management to a callous combination of big business, a corrupt local government, and the military.

There is no indication in the film that anyone is aware of the irony of history repeating, nor that there is anyone on the planet who has responded to the aliens with anything other than contempt, disgust, or - at best - a desire to exploit them. The only people in the film shown to have any sort of relationship with the aliens are Nigerian crime gangs, who sell the aliens tinned cat food (a favourite food of theirs, recalling the aliens getting drunk on sour milk in Alien Nation) in exchange for highly advanced weaponry which cannot be operated by humans, being coded to only respond to the aliens' genetic imprint.

Evil corporation MNU has spent twenty years studying these weapons and slicing up aliens in a laboratory that looks like an abattoir, seemingly without actually learning anything about them. With unease growing in the nearby human population, the decision is made to relocate the aliens to District 10, a more isolated encampment. Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is the inept executive put in charge of the relocation. He is the one character in the film who is given any development. A lot of crazy things happen to him, but his progression is a simple one from racist idiot to simply idiot, with one or two unlikely detours into action man territory. Nearly all the other human characters in the film are xenophobic arseholes with no shades of grey whatsoever, which if nothing else is consistent with the uncharitable view of humanity as a whole.

The film uses the documentary form cleverly to convey a great deal of information efficiently, but then occasionally stoops to insulting the audience - the use of subtitles when a character is speaking heavily accented but still fairly intelligible English is a pet hate of mine. Elsewhere, the viewer is required to use imagination to breach vast gaps in logic - the MacGuffin which drives much of the action is a canister of fluid which seems to be either fuel or a power source but is then revealed to have DNA altering properties if a person is exposed to it, and a thwarted escape attempt in a long buried drop ship is rendered meaningless when, five minutes later, the drop ship is lifted up by a tractor beam from the mothership, activated by remote control from on board the drop ship.

It ended up feeling to me like a lot of really "cool" shots or moments linked together with ropey logic and contrivance: at one point Wikus, in a tight spot with a Nigerian crime lord, conveniently finds a powerful weapon lying on the ground within his reach. It has to be said that what Blomkamp has achieved technically with his 30 million dollar budget shows up how ridiculous it is to be spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a Transformers film. The aliens are never less than completely convincing, whether in a wide shot of dozens of them, or an expressive single close up of one of their faces, and Weta Digital's photorealistic spacecraft is always shown with loose hand held camerawork so we can admire how rock steady motion tracking software has become. Clinton Shorter's score throws Wailing Ethnic Woman (TM) at us when we're supposed to feel sad, but the drama the film presents is not compelling enough to smooth over the gaps in logic, let alone earn our tears.

Friday, July 31


I rented Iron Man (2008, Jon Favreau) on Blu-ray this week. Now, there is no way that I'm in the target audience for a film like this. I suffer from an extreme case of superhero fatigue - tales of men with secret identities who dress in gadget laden outfits to fight crime and take vengeance don't interest me at all. Sometimes an individual film in the genre will take my fancy, but as a whole, superheroes just don't do it for me. I think Spiderman 2 (2004, Sam Raimi) is the contemporary high water mark for the form, much as Richard Donner's 1978 Superman was at the time.

Iron Man is a much loved and hugely successful film. Of course, so are Christopher Nolan's Batman films - Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008) -  and they both left me cold. So let's just say superhero films generally face an uphill battle when it comes to me liking them. It's a battle Iron Man struggled with for the first forty or so minutes, before I grudgingly came around to admitting that I was finding it quite enjoyable.

One of the things that was so great about Iron Man, I was breathlessly assured in blogs and conversations with aficionados of the genre, was how the main character, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is an arrogant prick who discovers compassion along the way. All very well and good, and the choice of Downey - a man who has been to hell and back with his own demons and never been boring onscreen - was promising. However, the film is not brave enough to challenge the audience to like the man - yes, he's never far from a whiskey on the rocks, even when being driven through a war zone in the Middle East, he treats his staff like dirt, and ignores the affections of the ever loyal Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), but he's really a likeable rogue, the kind of lovable bad boy that the film really just wants us to adore from the outset. He'd take a private jet to get milk and seduce the stewardess on the way, and every teenage male in the audience wants to be him.

I know, of all the things to complain about, I choose to complain about a character being likeable. For me, watching Iron Man was akin to sitting down to what is expected to be a spicy dish and instead being served vanilla ice-cream. The terrific cast acquit themselves well, and Jon Favreau proves himself a competent and workman-like director, certainly no visionary, but not a hack, either. The film improves as it goes along, with composer Ramin Djawadi dropping the annoying "hey kids, isn't this bit cool?" guitars when the film has to settle down to dramatic business in the climax - the score improves to the point of not being noticeable. How's that for damning with faint praise?

The film schizophrenically creates a character arc around Tony Stark's realisation that weapons manufacture may not be the best use for his talents, while celebrating and fetishising his increasingly sophisticated suit and fire power. A particularly troubling moment has Stark jetting into a Middle Eastern hotbed of terrorism and kicking butt, until he's faced with a multiple hostage situation - the hostages being a group of women and children (of course). He pauses for a moment, and we wonder how the situation will be resolved. Cut to the interior heads up display in Stark's helmet, a bunch of CGI target trackers isolating the bad guys, who are then all taken out by an array of weapons which appear from the shoulders of the suit, leaving the bewildered hostages standing while their aggressors drop dead around them. Within the space of one minute, the film has raised the notion of how complicated these real world situations can be and then solved it with a piece of simplistic wish fulfillment. Am I reading too much into this? I thought we might have left this stuff behind when James Cameron combined Islamic terrorism and comedy relief in his 1994 film True Lies, but apparently not.

Finally, I was pretty surprised by the number of gags the film lifts wholesale from older films, especially RoboCop (1987, Paul Verhoeven) and Rocketeer (1991, Joe Johnston). At least Favreau shows good taste in the films he steals from.

Tuesday, June 30

'Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen'

I know what you're thinking. You read the headline and thought "this is what Vader's kept me waiting six weeks for? His thoughts on Michael Bay's latest Spectacular Spectacular?"

Transformers began as a cheaply produced animated television show in 1984, devised to sell the new range of toys created by Hasbro. The basic premise - a race of robotic beings bring their eons old war to Earth, where they indulge their fetish for imitating human tech (cars, trucks, the odd fighter plane or portable CD player) - is so mind bogglingly moronic that bringing any expectations of sense or drama to a movie adaptation can only lead to disappointment. What was truly depressing about Michael Bay's Transformers (2007) was not what a poor effort the film was, but rather the fact that the movie-going public embraced it as the best that the contemporary Hollywood action film had to offer. Everyone drank the Kool-Aid and made the film a tremendous hit at the box office, as though we'd all made an unspoken pact to forget about films like Die Hard (1988, John McTiernan).

Most film critics, I felt, were too kind to Bay's film. The general feeling seemed to be that decrying the films lack of quality would be a waste of time in the face of a multi-million dollar marketing onslaught and rabid fan expectations. Conversely, reviews of the new sequel - the just released Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen - are a bit harsh for what, to my eyes, is essentially a larger helping of the same dish Michael Bay served up in the first film.

Michael Bay is regularly given ridiculous amounts of money to make films with, and yet his films look like the work of a director who desperately needs to go to film school. His grasp of visual grammar is so poor that his action sequences are usually incoherent messes. The first Transformers was actually a better experience on home video - Michael Bay's restless cameras and ADD editing become more comprehensible on a smaller screen.

The new film has all the exact same problems and virtues as the first - an opening action sequence set in Shanghai is spectacularly staged, but had me confused at times as to which of the robotic machines on screen were good guys or bad guys. The only time the poor editors are permitted to linger on a shot for longer than 2 seconds is when the visual effects team have come up with a particularly spectacular shot involving complex particle animation. In fact, visual effects buffs - fans of rotoscoping, rendering, and compositing - will find much to enjoy during the excessive running time.

Elsewhere, it can be said that Shia LeBeouf once again demonstrates how fortunate the franchise is to have such a charismatic and capable actor to hang all the silliness from - as in the previous film, he is always believable, even when given the most ridiculous of scenarios to enact. John Turturro seems more comfortable here than in the first outing, and finds a better screen rapport with LeBeouf. Megan Fox - so fresh in the first film - is starting to resemble a Transformer herself from a misguided devotion to cosmetic work. She enters the film backlit and draped across a motorcycle, as though Bay forgot for a moment he was shooting a film instead of a pin-up calendar. Kevin Dunn and Julie White return as LeBeouf's parents, and again we are given a pair of capable and naturally funny actors wasted in thankless roles - the sequence where White, as Judy Witwicky, gets high on brownies during a visit to her son's college is a prime example of the type of "humour" we can find in a Transformers film. The audience I saw the film with was laughing, which is a little depressing.

The film is top notch technically, but is that really saying much when the budget is in the realm of $200 million? Composer Steve Jablonsky is no hack, but he's provided the film with another identikit, one-size-fits-all score (much as he did for the first film), aided by several credited additional composers, a team of orchestrators, with a prominent "thank you" to Hans Zimmer in the end credits. The film has made something like $200 million in five days, so it's unlikely that Hollywood will learn any lessons or attempt to make any improvements when the franchise makes the inevitable third outing.

Saturday, May 16

No way to kick-start a franchise - 'Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan'

This one's for Vance...

Popping Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982, Nicholas Meyer) into the PS3 the other day was an enjoyable reminder of what a truly terrific film this is. The phenomenon that is Star Trek has an interesting history - the original television series ran for three seasons before being cancelled due to poor ratings, despite a hardcore fanbase. It promptly rose from the dead as a huge hit in syndicated re-runs around the globe, leading to the production of an animated television series (with most of the cast from the live action show returning) which ran for a couple of seasons in the early 70s. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was involved in an attempt to launch a second television series in the late 70s. The project - called Star Trek: Phase II - was abandoned after the huge success of Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977), with Paramount (the studio who own the property) deciding the time was right for a big screen version.

Many elements that were devised for the television project ended up being adapted for the first feature film, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979, Robert Wise). At the time the most expensive motion picture ever produced, the film - which is ponderous, humourless, and dull - became one of the notable box office disasters of its time. Despite the poor reception of the film, Paramount were willing to give the franchise another shot. The makers of The Wrath of Khan were fully aware that they were being given one final spin of the wheel, and were determined to go out with a bang.

The bang was big enough to re-ignite the franchise, which is actually kind of unfortunate: Khan is a great space opera/revenge story, but also a wistful meditation on growing old and facing mortality. Which didn't really leave the story much place to go over further films: the age of the main cast, having already been used for maximum emotional impact, is reduced to increasingly cheap gags in the following sequels.

Khan also boldly left the world of Star Trek in disarray - Kirk (William Shatner) is re-united with an old flame, Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch), as well as meeting for the first time her son by him, David (Merritt Butrick), now a grown man who despises everything Kirk stands for. Not to mention having his closest friend Spock (Leonard Nimoy) sacrificing himself to save the USS Enterprise and her crew.

The following two films (which, with Khan, comprise a loose trilogy) are stuck attempting to create drama whilst restoring the status quo. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984, Leonard Nimoy) takes everything back, with Spock resurrected via plot devices which had been planted in Khan (you know, just in case), Carol Marcus inexplicably vanishing between films, and David killed off by the Klingons - his death would be promptly forgotten until it resurfaces in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991, Nicholas Meyer) to motivate Kirk's deeply felt hatred of the Klingons, here manifesting as resistance to the failing Klingon Empire's attempts to make peace with the Federation.

Search for Spock does destroy the starship Enterprise - surely the most fetishised spaceship in all science fiction cinema. The ship is regularly showcased in indulgent effects sequences, the camera lovingly gliding across its lines and curves as it leaves spacedock. Composers Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner even create passable orchestral renditions of the sound of the ship zooming off at warp speed. The destruction of the ship in Search for Spock promisingly turns her crew into a group of vagabonds cruising the galaxy in a stolen Klingon warship, but again, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986, Leonard Nimoy) demonstrates that no-one's playing for keeps.

The final scene of The Voyage Home has the crew (with Kirk demoted from Admiral to Captain, another step towards ensuring the status quo) presented with a brand new, identical Enterprise, this one with the letter A appended to the registration number. Similarly, potential romantic interest Gillian Taylor (Catherine Hicks) - who travels with Kirk and co to the 23rd century from her native 1986 at the end of The Voyage Home - did not appear in any further films. Which is probably a good thing - my recent re-viewing of The Voyage Home revealed her to be a remarkably unhinged character, valuing her captive humpback whales over human relationships, offering Kirk and Spock a ride when all the evidence she's seen of them so far points to them being a pair of possibly dangerous lunatics, and finally abandoning her entire life to travel three centuries into the future at the drop of a hat.

The Voyage Home was the one true box-office smash out of the films featuring the original cast, but it seemed nothing could make Paramount executives forget the amount of money they had lost on the first film, as they kept applying pressure to keep costs on the films down - Khan reuses several visual effects sequences from the first film, and The Voyage Home keeps the Klingon warship cloaked (and hence cheaply invisible) for most of the running time.

The confident teaser poster for The Final Frontier had
people talking. Of course, no-one had yet seen the film.

Or perhaps their tight fist on the budget of the 1989 Star Trek V: The Final Frontier was down to a lack of faith in debutante film director William Shatner. The completed film - an unmitigated disaster - is not helped by substandard visual effects work, the result of an unwise decision to look at more cost effective alternatives than Industrial Light & Magic, who had provided visual effects for the previous three films. In terms of narrative, The Final Frontier is the most negligible of the films - the series had jumped through hoops to essentially hit a huge RESET button on the story, and Shatner's film never even vaguely threatens to end in any manner other than the whole crew back together and sailing off in the Enterprise. More than any of the other films, it resembles a poor episode of the original show - it remains the only film which never even has aspirations to do anything grander for the big screen. Which in a strange way is kind of charming: the film may be shite, but it's affectionately made shite. With one blow the franchise had lost all the goodwill generated by The Voyage Home, which remained the only one of the films to appeal to an audience broader than the Star Trek fanbase.

By this time, the franchise had returned more successfully to television in the form of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), which would be followed by Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999), Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001) and finally (so far) Enterprise (2001-2005). The cinematic franchise, however, resembled a pull start motor that just wouldn't ignite - Khan was a reboot of sorts, throwing out most new elements that had been introduced in The Motion Picture, and the sixth film, The Undiscovered Country, was devised to give the cast a decent send-off and wash out the after-taste of The Final Frontier.

Khan director Nicholas Meyer returned for this film. Again, the studio applied downward pressure on the budget, forcing set pieces to be scaled back and mandating the use of existing sets from the then in production television shows. The character of Saavik - a Vulcan cadet introduced in Khan and played in that film by Kirstie Alley (Robin Curtis played the role in the following two films when Paramount was unwilling to meet Alley's asking price, and the character was left behind on Vulcan at the beginning of The Voyage Home) - was originally included in the script in an attempt to lure Alley back to the role. Alley was unwilling to return to the role, and the character was re-written as Valeris (Kim Cattrall), which made it pretty obvious that she was a member of a conspiracy to prevent the Federation and the Klingons making peace - anyone who appears on the bridge of the Enterprise and is not part of the main cast ultimately exists to die, or be a bad guy, or both. Had the character been Saavik, her betrayal would have perhaps carried more emotional weight - in any case, Nimoy and Cattrall make the most of the situation. Cattrall - who was a livewire presence in many films in the 80s (many of them silly comedies) before belatedly coming to superstardom as Samantha Jones in Sex and the City - certainly demonstrates a greater commitment to the idea of playing a Vulcan than Kirstie Alley ever did. Where Alley was unwilling to sacrifice glamour and feminine allure, retaining her own Brooke Shields eyebrows and long flowing hair, Cattrall presents with shaved temples, angled Vulcan eyebrows and a dark bob.

Kirstie Alley as Saavik in The Wrath of Khan
- unwilling to lose her glamour to play a Vulcan.

Kim Cattrall as Valeris in The Undiscovered Country
- showing a bit more commitment.

It was safe to break some things for good by this time - Hikaru Sulu (George Takei) is finally given the command of his own starship, an idea which had been considered as early as the third film but abandoned when William Shatner protested, wanting to remain Captain to the entire crew. It was, after all, intended as the final film to feature the original cast, and anyway the drama of the Klingons wanting to become part of the Federation was preempted by The Next Generation, which is set some 70 years after the original show (but had been running for a few years when The Undiscovered Country was released) and has a Klingon officer serving on the Enterprise D. Nevertheless, rather than acknowledging that the crew of the Enterprise might have at some stage retired, lived the rest of their lives, and died, The Undiscovered Country wraps up with them sailing off into the blinding sunlight in the starship, before the signatures of the main cast are animated on screen (signing their own names rather than that of the characters) to the fanfares of Cliff Eidelmen's score. The suggestion seems to be that they sailed straight into myth.

Three years later, The Next Generation also made the transition to the cinema - Star Trek: Generations (1994, David Carson) was the first of four films which went through a familiar cycle of destroying and promptly replacing the Enterprise, making empty promises to develop character relationships, giving the Captain - this time around, Jean Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) - one-film-only special guest love interests, and giving cast members the chance to direct. The films played to an increasingly disinterested public and disappointed fanbase, with only one box office hit - Star Trek: First Contact (1996, Jonathan Frakes), another time travel story directed by a cast member which matches Jean Luc Picard with the appealing Lily Sloane (Alfre Woodard, another potentially good addition to the cast who gets left behind at the end of the film). The advertising material kept promising that each film was bigger, better, and more action packed than the previous one, but the truth is Paramount was always a bit timid with the marketing of a new Trek film, at least until the currently screening J.J. Abrams reboot of the franchise, simply titled Star Trek (2009).

It is easy to imagine Paramount's marketing department breathing a huge sigh of relief that they are no longer saddled with trying to sell a cast mainly aged in their sixties to the much coveted youth demographic. This time around, those form fitting Starfleet uniforms adorn the hot young bodies of the likes of Chris Pine (Kirk), Zachary Quinto (Spock), and Zoe Saldana (replacing Nichelle Nichols as Uhura). As a reboot, it's a step in a promising direction, although it remains to be seen if the inevitable sequels will attain the sort of storytelling boldness which eluded the previous run of films.

Monday, May 4

On the bookshelf: The Stand, by Stephen King

I know some people who insist that Stephen King is a poor writer. I've often heard his work talked about as being the literary equivalent of a meal from McDonald's. It's a description the disarming author would probably not mind, indeed it's possible he may have used it himself in one of his hugely entertaining pieces of non-fiction. In many cases, these impressions have been based on the many cinematic adaptations of his work rather than from any first hand reading of the novels. Which is a shame, as the cinematic adaptations cross a wide spectrum, from low budget trash to glossy Oscar winners made by directors ranging from auteurs like Stanley Kubrick to journeyman-for-hire Lewis Teague.

But I think King has penned a few masterpieces in his time. For me, he even has a Holy Trinity of sorts in his work - 'Salem's Lot (1975), The Shining (1977), and The Stand (1978). The Stand was re-issued in 1990, this time with King being able to re-instate material that was edited out of the original publication to bring the hardcover price down to one the market could bear. It is this expanded edition that I recently finished reading. I had forgotten - until I came across the first one - that it had illustrations by long-time Stephen King collaborator Bernie Wrightson, so that was a pleasant surprise.

I love seeing how different film-makers have tackled the challenge of successfully translating a Stephen King novel to the screen. I've read a lot of the books and seen most of the adaptations, and it's fascinating to see the variations in fidelity to the source text, budget, director, and format - feature film or tv mini-series? - and how examples that have both worked and failed can be found across the whole spectrum of variables. And the fact that several novels have been adapted more than once, often in different formats, makes if even more informative.

I'm gonna digress for a moment here. I've just paused to wonder who would find this stuff informative, and why I find this stuff interesting. Which takes me to the purpose of this blog - an attempt to kickstart my own thought processes and get the rusty mental machinery of actually writing to work. So maybe it's the wanna-be-screenwriter like myself who could be interested. Or not, let's see where the hell I'm going with this...

Carrie was adapted into a feature film by director Brian DePalma and screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen in 1976. It was fairly faithful to the novel and captured the spirit of Stephen King's nasty schoolyard - if anything the film gave the material an even harsher edge. The film was a huge success, launching several careers - even Stephen King's, arguably - with Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie both receiving Oscar nominations for their performances, no mean feat for a cheap horror movie in one of Hollywood's best ever decades. The novel was adapted again in 2002, this time as a 132 minute telemovie. It has an interesting cast and hews much closer to the novel than the DePalma version, yet is much less effective.

And even bigger contrast is demonstrated by the two versions of The Shining. Stanley Kubrick's film absolutely guts the source text - the shell of the narrative remains, turning Stephen King's crazy spookshow into an intimate look at three people cracking up. And the film is an all-time great, undervalued at the time of release but now receiving due recognition. It's an unsettling film, right down to its very form, with the opening titles scrolling up the screen in a manner usually used for end credits - nothing has happened yet and we're already thrown, not quite knowing what to make of the film.

In 1997, The Shining was adapted again as a three part television mini-series directed by Mick Garris from a teleplay - Christ, how I hate that word, it's still a screen, why can't they use screenplay or just written by - a teleplay, I say, by Stephen King. This one was slavishly faithful to the novel and fumbled every ball on the way to the screen, not helped by silly things like rocking chairs gently rocking by themselves to lead into commercial breaks, as if to remind the audience - before the messages from the sponsors - that something spooky is going on in the Overlook Hotel. Big set pieces like little Danny Torrence being stalked by the hedge animals (a large lion, rabbit, and dog) - which Kubrick wisely avoided completely in 1980, but could have been realised wonderfully in 1997 - are ineffective and flat. Stephen King writes in vivid images and contrasts the total silence of the sunny late Autumn day with the soft clump of snow falling off the animals as they move, unseen. It's all there - the pictures (and even the soundtrack) are so clear, and work so wonderfully. Yet the mini-series smothers the whole scene with "hey guys, this is a spooky bit" music, and is too eager to get to the (not that great) CGI hedge animals, leeching everything effective from the scene. If the money to write and record the music had gone into a smaller number of CG shots (which would be more effective for the extra budget per shot), the scene would have been terrific. A similar "less is more" approach would have improved the entire mini-series, which has a good cast and is technically proficient but misses King's moods and tones completely.

'Salem's Lot became an effective television mini-series in 1979, directed by Tobe Hooper from the teleplay - there's that word again - by Paul Monash. Monash, who had previously adapted Peyton Place (one of Stephen King's admitted influences on 'Salem's Lot) for television, plays fast and loose with King's narrative and characters, yet the end result is much more memorable than the more faithful 2004 mini-series.

The Stand made it to the screen as a four part mini-series for television in 1994, directed by Mick Garris from a script by King. It's a decent enough show, probably ranking as one of the better television adaptations of a Stephen King novel, and it had a sensational cast including Gary Sinise, Molly Ringwald, Miguel Ferrer, Laura San Giacomo, and Rob Lowe, but it fails to capture the epic scope and sense of doom of the novel. Reading the novel again, it's so hard to decide which sort of adaptation I would like to see more - a HBO series running over three years to get every little detail in there, or a stripped-to-the-bone and bigger-than-life cinemascope spectacular, leanly racing through the narrative with vivid imagery? Not that it matters now that the ultimate adaptation of the novel has arrived.

Marvel Comics have embarked on a large scale comic book (or shall I say 'graphic novel'?) adaptation of King's novel. It comprises six books, each made up of five issues, and is everything a fan of the novel could want. One of King's goals when writing The Stand was to create an epic story that would play like a dark Americana version of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. If there are other fans of The Stand like me out there - and I suspect there are many - King succeeded. The Stand is, for me, a beloved story that is always a joy to dive into, the beats of the story as familiar as the back of my hand and pleasurably anticipated whenever I read the book. And the Marvel Comics adaptation is - so far - absolutely nailing the story.

Thursday, April 30

New Blu-rays

It's common knowledge that the even numbered Star Trek films are - for the most part - superior to their odd numbered counterparts. Of these, I have three particular favourites - The Wrath of Khan (1982, Nicholas Meyer, #2), The Undiscovered Country (1991, Meyer, #6) and First Contact (1996, Jonathan Frakes, #8). It follows that these are the ones I got on DVD, although I recently caved and bought the first film, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Robert Wise, 1979).

All six films featuring the original series cast have been released as a Blu-ray box set (the individual films are being released next week), and when I saw it at JB Hi-fi with a price tag just under $200, I did the math and came out at a little over 30 bucks per film, thought 'what the hell', and picked it up.

Each of the films - even the poorer ones - has points of interest, either the scores (all six of them have terrific scores), the visual effects, the appearance of everyone from Miguel Ferrer to Christian Slater in bit parts, and main supporting cast including the likes of Kirstie Alley, Ricardo Montalban, Christopher Lloyd, Kim Cattrall, David Warner (who appeared in both #5 and #6, the second time under heavy Klingon makeup), and Christopher Plummer. Not to mention standout moments for the ageing main cast scattered throughout the films.

I haven't watched any of them yet, but I've done a bit of a chapter skip through Khan and The Search for Spock (1984, Leonard Nimoy, #3) and they look terrific. Those fabulous matte paintings of the underground Genesis Project in The Wrath of Khan just pop off the screen! This release also marks the debut - on a home digital format - of the theatrical versions of three of the films. The visual effects for the director's edition of the first film were only produced to NTSC video resolution, with an astounding lack of foresight, and The Undiscovered Country is presented for the first time ever in the correct aspect ratio on home video.

I'm gonna have to put my foot down in another month or so when the box set of the next four films - featuring the crew from the second show Star Trek: The Next Generation - comes out, as only one of them is worth watching. So I'll be waiting for the individual release of First Contact.

Monday, April 20

TVCs ripping off ideas

That expensive looking commercial for Cherry Ripe? The one where a sexy woman dazzles a sexy shaving man by shining reflections from the inside of her Cherry Ripe wrapper across a European looking courtyard into his bathroom?

Total rip-off of Brian DePalma's Femme Fatale (2002).

Tuesday, April 14

New Blu-rays

JB Hi-Fi (where I usually go shopping for DVDs and BDs) has an ongoing "buy 2 get 1 free" promotion for Blu-ray discs. Which is great if you want to buy The Transporter or Prince Caspian. However, if you're like me and hate the majority of Hollywood films these days, and what really gets you going is the release of 30 year old favourites in High Definition, then you're shit out of luck. That bright yellow sticker signaling a disc is part of the promotion never adorns the likes of The Thing or RoboCop.

And so it goes with my latest Blu-ray purchases, both old favourites that I was delighted to see appear on the format.

The stark one-sheet for Poltergeist.

Poltergeist (1982, Tobe Hooper) was never very well served on DVD, despite being released a couple of times. The first release - which I bought - had a good 16:9 transfer but seemed to have been sourced from inferior elements. It was re-released for its 25th anniversary, with a new transfer but still tellingly lacking any kind of special features which offer any real insight into the notoriously troubled production. The Blu-ray release also lacks any decent special features - the docos on the discs are about real life poltergeist phenomena rather than any behind the scenes looks at the making of the film. The HD transfers, however, are stunning.

The film is a top notch production all-round, never mind the ongoing dispute over who's responsible for directing it: the film clearly bears the strong stamp of co-writer/producer Steven Spielberg, who oversaw post-production (with his regular editor Michael Kahn) without Hooper's involvement. Nevertheless, I feel that Hooper's personality is evident in the film, partly in a couple of the more effective scare moments, but mainly in the heightened hysteria of the performances - Dominique Dunne's screams of 'what's happening? WHAT'S HAPPENING?!?' in the climax could only have been drawn out by the director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).

The film is a product of the very best Hollywood at the time had to offer. James H. Spencer's production design looks great in High Definition, as does Matthew F. Leonetti's rich anamorphic cinematography. The innovative visual effects by Industrial Light and Magic (under the supervision of Richard Edlund) are still striking today. And then there's the great sound-mix, put together by a talented team which included Alan Howarth, who was just beginning a fruitful collaboration writing scores with John Carpenter. And the sound on the Blu-ray disc makes the most of Jerry Goldsmith's Oscar nominated score. 1982 was a banner year for film scoring, with extraordinary works from James Horner (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), Basil Poledouris (Conan the Barbarian), and John Williams (E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, the Oscar winner that year), but Goldsmith's Poltergeist was a stand out even in this company. This is a score that can do anything - from evoking everyday suburbia to calling up forces from the other side that are wondrous, mystical, and terrifying by turns. It is strong both in melodic writing and jagged shocking rhythms. A truly wonderful score.

But what really makes Poltergeist endure is the cast. Everyone is great - from Spielbergian moppets Heather O'Rourke and Oliver Robins to Zelda Rubinstein's medium and Beatrice Straight's warm portrayal of the kindly Dr. Lesh. Holding the film together though are the gorgeous Craig T. Nelson and the beautiful JoBeth Williams, both delivering career best performances as Steve Freeling and his wife Diane. They bring credibility to even the most outlandish sequences with their thoroughly believable characterisations, completely selling every single moment. The (to my mind) unfairly maligned Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986, Brian Gibson) retained some of the spirit of this film by bringing back most of the cast and such key behind the scenes players as Richard Edlund (now heading up his own effects firm, Boss Film) and Jerry Goldsmith.

The one-sheet for Escape From New York - iconic.

Escape From New York (1981, John Carpenter) continued Carpenter's run of commercial hits which started with Halloween in 1978 and would screech to a halt in 1982 when he made The Thing, his first film for a major studio. It's a genuine "high concept" thriller - in the future world of 1997, Manhattan Island has been walled off to create the world's largest prison, and when the United States president (Donald Pleasence) is forced to make an emergency exit from Air Force One due to a hijacking and is trapped in New York, the authorities send in notorious vigilante Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell, in a role that would define his action film persona) in a desperate rescue attempt.

The film starts off strongly and then kind of runs out of steam once Russell (at his hottest in this film) lands in the streets of Manhattan. Here the main menace is provided by a pack of Mad Max cast-offs, the same kind of crazies in leather with punked up hair that would also appear - with a similar lack of effectiveness - in later Carpenter films such as Ghosts of Mars (2001). However, with a cast including Lee Van Cleef (throwing every bit of Kurt Russell's cynicism right back at him) Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton, Ernest Borgnine (at his hammiest), and Adrienne Barbeau (Carpenter's then wife, providing a splash of busty B-movie sleaze) and rounded out by Carpenter regulars like Tom Atkins and Charles Cyphers, it never gets boring.

As usual for an early John Carpenter film, the small budget is belied by the technical ingenuity, with ace production designer Joe Alves creating the dystopian world of 1997 New York in the then fire ravaged streets of St. Louis, aided by the typically bold widescreen camerawork of cinematographer Dean Cundey. The electronic score was the first collaboration between John Carpenter and Alan Howarth - a working relationship which would see a significant increase in the musical and technical sophistication of Carpenter's scores - and the inventive low budget visual effects were created by a team which included future uber-director James Cameron.

The towers of the World Trade Center were indeed still standing in 1997, when the film is set, and one can forgive Carpenter for failing to predict - in 1980 - that New York councils would take an increasingly effective zero tolerance policy towards crime. It's tricky stuff, this future speculation business - there are dozens and dozens of science fiction films which have, over the years, been transformed from amazing visions of the future to catalogues of anachronisms and wrong-headed speculations. Of course, the great films remain great films - 2001 wasn't how Stanley Kubrick saw it, and it's looking pretty likely that 2019 won't be how Ridley Scott saw it, but the issues touched upon in their films - Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Scott's Blade Runner (1982) - remain relevant and potent, no matter how many logos of now extinct businesses are featured. Sadly, that cannot really be said of Escape From New York, but it remains an entertaining and effective action film.

TVCs ripping off ideas

I'm sick and tired of seeing commercials blatantly stealing ideas from movies and music videos, and have decided to start running a column which I will add to whenever I see something that offends me on the television...

ANZ Bank is currently running a TVC advertising 'putting more ATMs in more convenient places'. The commercial features a couple of workers having problems with a vending machine (which has money in place of the usual chocolate bars and packs of chips), and end up being helped by a would-be cute ATM, which comes up and kicks the vending machine with its stumpy legs.

I'm gonna say the agency either showed the client or the production company clips from Douglas Trumball's 1972 science fiction film Silent Running.

Saturday, March 28

It was all leading up to this: 'No Country For Old Men'

No Country For Old Men (2007, Joel and Ethan Coen) is a brilliant film with one of those maddening non-endings that can go either way with me: when John Sayles abruptly cut to black in Limbo (1999) it took my breath away, but the final scene of No Country felt unsatisfying. Perhaps I just didn't "get it". No matter - I love the film to bits, it's not like the ending ruined it for me. What I adored so much about the film was that, for the first time in what seemed liked forever, I was sitting in the theatre excitedly wondering "what happens next?" - happily twisted around the Coens' little fingers. After years of "plot developments" eliciting bored moans it was delightful to feel like I was really being told a story. The other thing I loved about the film was that it seemed the perfect distillation of everything that was once great about the Coen brothers before they really went Hollywood and started making films like Intolerable Cruelty (2003) and The Ladykillers (2004). Truth be told, I think the rot was setting in before these sell-out low points - I enjoy The Big Lebowski (1998) enough but certainly not as much as its fans do, and found the highly acclaimed The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) to be an empty experience.

No for me, the Coens are all about their first six films, each one perfect in its own way: Blood Simple (1984), Raising Arizona (1987), Miller's Crossing (1990), Barton Fink (1991), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), and Fargo (1996). I know I am a rare Coens fan who will put Hudsucker on the good list over Lebowski, but so be it. I've just always really dug The Hudsucker Proxy.

And so No Country For Old Men really felt like a return to form for me. It was like they'd made a new Blood Simple, only this time with the best technical team given enough money and a dream cast. Like Blood Simple, No Country For Old Men is a twisty thriller set in the wastelands of Texas, and the films have almost identical openings, with a world weary voice over (M. Emmet Walsh in Blood Simple, Tommy Lee Jones in No Country) speaking over desolate shots of Texan plains. The critical difference - one which is not immediately apparent to the viewer - is who is behind the laconic voice over. Walsh is a sleazy private investigator out to double cross his employer, Jones is a morally upstanding lawman who looks on with increasing disbelief at the violent crime scenes he is faced with. Both films concern bungled crimes, red herrings, and vital clues hidden away in cheap motel rooms. But where Blood Simple is an intricate clockwork mechanism that invites the audience to watch the characters scurry around like rats in a maze, No Country eschews explanations and takes the senseless violence of its world as a given. A deputy examining the aftermath of a drug deal turned shootout remarks "they even shot the dog!" and then a few scenes later we are shown Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) - at that stage the main audience identification figure - put into a situation where he has to do exactly that, in a climax of a terrific chase sequence which begins with him being pursued across the plains in the dead of night by two armed men in a truck and ends with the wounded Moss desperately swimming down a swiftly running stream by the pre-dawn light, the soon to be dead hound in hot pursuit.

No Country even manages to recall Raising Arizona - the famous scene where the murderous Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) challenges a gas station proprietor to a high stakes coin toss resembles the black flip side of the scene in Arizona where two bumbling prison escapees turned kidnappers hold up a small grocery store, with the classic dialogue exchange:

(re: balloons) 
These blow up into funny shapes at all?

Well no. Unless round is funny.

But if No Country For Old Men has a true sibling in the Coens' body of work, it must surely be Fargo. Both films feature a canny, moral law enforcement officer tracking criminals across desolate landscapes by the frequently bloody aftermath of their crimes. The snowbound Minnesota of Fargo is as harsh and unforgiving as the dusty plains of No Country - Fargo discovers a beautiful contrast between the vast landscape and the warm places humans huddle inside, as well as making maximum usage of the clue concealing properties of snow. But the real connection between the films are the police officers played by Frances McDormand (Fargo's Marge Gunderson) and Tommy Lee Jones (No Country's Sheriff Bell). Marge and Sherrif Bell are not the focus at the beginning of the films, which both set up other protagonists and conflicts, allowing McDormand and Jones to slowly creep into the story (Marge Gunderson doesn't appear until about half an hour into Fargo) before they eventually become the emotional core of their respective films. The characters are also an interesting study in contrasts, from the most obvious difference (that of gender) to the fact that Marge eventually finds and overcomes her quarry, whereas Bell never comes face to face with Chigurh, and the film makes it pretty clear that he would be unlikely to emerge the victor from such a confrontation: Chigurh is as unknowable and implacable a force of evil as Michael Myers in Halloween (1978, John Carpenter).  Marge Gunderson also has a more optimistic outlook than Sheriff Bell - No Country ends with Bell looking forward (at least subconsciously) to being released from this world, where the heavily pregnant Marge is in the process of creating a new life herself.

The remarkable thing about how heavily No Country For Old Men draws from the Coens' earlier work is that it is adapted with extraordinary fidelity (to a fault - the last page of the novel is a great ending to a book, but I'd argue it doesn't work as the final scene to a film) from Cormac McCarthy's novel. All the elements discussed above come directly - and in many cases, just about word-for-word - from the novel. Was McCarthy watching Blood Simple and Raising Arizona when outlining his story, perhaps?

No Country For Old Men, I believe, marks the beginning of a true second wind for the Coens. They're no longer trying to fit in to Hollywood, rather Hollywood is giving them the resources to make films exactly how they want to, only now with the very best actors (and stars, even) and the sort of marketing campaigns which films like Miller's Crossing (still their most perfect film as far as I'm concerned) never got to benefit by. If No Country For Old Men is Blood Simple 2.0, I found that watching their next film, Burn After Reading (2008) expecting Raising Arizona 2.0 is a very good way to have expectations confounded. Which of course is what the Coens like to do best - confound expectations. I need to see Burn After Reading again, this time without looking for the patterns I saw in No Country For Old Men, to fully appreciate it, I think. And how heartening that the boys are still making films that are worth going back to see a second time - very rare these days.

Saturday, March 21

On the sequels to 'The Exorcist'

The Exorcist (1973, William Friedkin) was a huge sensation when released - it was banned in places, discussed in talk shows and the media, and walked out on. It came along at a time when big theological questions were in the public eye, and as such almost inadvertently became a sensationalist phenomenon that was concerned with Big Issues. It is of course an entirely fabulous film, still riveting after all this time. Hollywood wasn't as prone to sequels back then, but the huge success, both artistically and commercially, of The Godfather II in 1974 had proved that a sequel needn't mean cheapening the storyline. And so in due course along came Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977, John Boorman) with Linda Blair joined by great actor/ham combos such as Richard Burton and Louise Fletcher. It was a troubled production that was fitfully released, hauled back to the edit suite, and finally abandoned by both Warner Bros and the director and dumped into theatres to the jeering of the crowds. The Razzies hadn't been invented then but you can be sure Exorcist II would have been a contender.

1983 saw the publication of William Peter Blatty's follow up to his original novel, Legion. It's weighty, meditative, and theological, and when production company Morgan Creek allowed Blatty to write and direct an adaptation for them, it should have come as no surprise that he delivered a weighty, meditative, and theological film. Shocked to discover - after the film was completed - that Legion did not contain any sequences of exorcism, Morgan Creek insisted on having one shot for the film. Although Blatty disagreed, he was a good enough sport to shoot the new sequences, hoping to still do the best job possible. The film, The Exorcist III: Legion (1990) is creepy and well made and leaves an impression despite the completely visible join between Blatty's story and the studio imposed exorcism. And it has one of the best shock scare moments of the last couple of decades.

The final sequel to date had the most torturous post production of all - fearing Paul Schrader's film Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist would be unsuccessful, Morgan Creek hired director Renny Harlin to completely reshoot the film. Harlin's Exorcist: The Beginning was released to poor box office and negative reviews in 2004, and Schrader's film was eventually released as well in 2005, to a slightly better reaction.

Has there ever been a cinematic franchise with such a troubled production history? The fourth film especially being completely reshot, never mind Paul Schrader - a promising match for the material - being dumped in favour of Renny Harlin, of all people. A clear sign that the studio really had no idea what sort of film they really wanted.

Of course, the original film has not been without after the fact tinkering either. In this case, a long standing dispute between author/screenwriter William Peter Blatty and director William Friedkin was re-ignited when the film was re-released for a short theatrical run and then on DVD for its 25th anniversary. At that time Friedkin stood his ground, but a couple of years later he relented and the ridiculously yclept The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen was released in 2000. The new version re-instates some character material which Blatty had always missed, as well as the infamous "spider walk" scene which doesn't really fit - coming before the film has taken its shocks to that kind of level, it both steals the thunder from later scenes and disrupts the slow build of tension. Freidkin also adds a couple of ill-advised new visual effects, particularly an image of the demon's face appearing in the range-hood which is completely meaningless within the story. It ultimately doesn't matter, it's still pretty much the same film, and some of the extended sequences help what seem like big narrative leaps in the shorter version. My preference, however, is definitely for the original version, although truth be told, you can't even get that these days: the closest being the first (now out of circulation) DVD release, which replaces the startling and effective jump cut from Jason Miller playing Father Karras to the same actor in demon makeup with a more subtle digital morph, but is otherwise the same as the 1973 release.