Wednesday 28 January 2009

Jamie Bell is Tintin?

That's the word from Spielberg central (currently Paramount Pictures and Sony Pictures Entertainment), which this week has announced the official beginning of production on The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn. And with the release date set for 2011, this long-gestating Steven Spielberg/Peter Jackson dream project looks finally to be on its way - hurrah! As a lifelong fan of the young Belgian reporter and his exploits - which have had a huge influence on many contemporary moviemakers, not least Spielberg himself - I am at once excited and deeply nervous about what the end product is going to be like. The press release that was released this week offers plenty more tidbits that offer room for immediate speculation...

The Look - Jackson and Spielberg made it known early on that they were planning to create their mooted Tintin trilogy using 3D Motion Capture technology, the same technique that has previously allowed Andy Serkis to play Gollum and King Kong. But does that mean it's going to end up looking like Beowulf? Or will it be shot on real sets with digital characters running around, a la Lord of the Rings?

The Story - Well they've announced it as Secret of the Unicorn, but there's a possibility that they may be condensing the book of the same name and its sequel, Red Rackham's Treasure, into the same film. There's several reasons why this might be the case: Secret of the Unicorn is largely a static mystery story, with lots of talking and puzzling that sets up the treasure-hunting adventure of the second book. Also, Professor Calculus, one of the series' key characters, is introduced in Red Rackham's Treasure, and since other regulars Captain Haddock and the Thompson Twins are already established in Secret of the Unicorn, there's a good chance he'll be brought into this movie. One other key piece of info from the press release has implications on the story - Daniel Craig has been cast as Red Rackham. Anyone who has read Secret of the Unicorn knows that the character of Red Rackham, while central to the story, only appears on 3 of its 62 pages, and even then only as a visualisation of a story that Captain Haddock is telling. So unless this is a cameo for Craig even briefer than his turn in The Golden Compass, some tinkering must have been done to expand his role. My guess is that, in the wake of Johnny Depp and pals' Pirates of the Caribbean successes, Spielberg and Jackson have decided to up the potential for piratical derring-do in flashbacks/fantasy sequences. Whether that's a good thing for Tintin fans remains to be seen.

The Cast - Aside from Craig as Red Rackham and Bell as Tintin (wouldn't have been my first choice, but I'll go with it), none of the other announced cast members' character roles have been revealed, although Andy Serkis has been rumoured as Captain Haddock from the moment Peter Jackson got involved with this project. Serkis is certainly a definite cast member, and in my view he's one of the finest actors working today, so if anyone could do justice to Herge's legendary comic character it's him. Then there's the rumour that Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, also confirmed as cast, will be playing clumsy detectives the Thompson Twins. Now usually I would say that any movie would be improved with some Pegg and Frost, but Tintin isn't just any movie, and I'm not convinced they'll be a good fit. Having said that, I trust Speilberg's instincts (as long as they don't involve creepers, monkeys and Shia LeBeouf) so... here's hoping! The other three cast members announced are Toby Jones, Gad Elmaleh and Mackenzie Crook (more Pirates of the Caribbean crossover...). Who they'll be playing is anyone's guess, but Gad Elmaleh showed himself to be a wonderful physical comedian in the otherwise forgettable Priceless, and I could definitely see him as Nestor, the butler who is first introduced in Unicorn and is henceforth Captain Haddock's ostensible babysitter. And Mackenzie Crook would make a funny Calculus...

The Writers - This is perhaps the most interesting element of the new press release. Steven Moffat, of Doctor Who fame, is the first named writer, and he's been attached to the project for ages, but the next two are new: Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish. The former is understandable, particularly given the involvement of his stalwart colaborators Pegg and Frost (although if they end up turning Tintin into a Hot Fuzz/Shaun of the Dead type comedy I'll kill 'em with my own bare hands), but Joe Cornish of Adam and Joe as a writer on a Spielberg movie? That's kind of out of the left field. In fact, it's easy to forget that this is a Steven Spielberg film, given the absence of any American stars or writers in the production.

Where this all leaves us certainly interesting territory. The creative team, including Peter Jackson as a producer, adds up to an incredibly wide pool of experience and past work, and this is probably just the kind of variety needed to do justice to the Tintin stories. With the studio release speaking confidently of a second film to be directed by Jackson, and a possible third film too, there's obviously huge potential here. I just hope they get it right.

Friday 16 January 2009

Title deeds

A film’s title has a decidedly vague responsibility. Most of the time movies are sold on their images – who’s in it, what exciting scenes can we expect to see in it, how cool is the poster and so on. But every so often a movie comes along whose title tells you everything you need to know. Such is the case with this week’s Beverly Hills Chihuahau (pictured). You know immediately from the name whether this is the film for you or not. You don’t need to know who’s in it, what it looks like or even how long it is; just that perfect mash-up of location and subject creates a title that clearly says “this is who I am. Take me or leave me”.

Whilst I personally will be choosing the latter option, it’s refreshing to be presented with such a clear statement of intent, especially at this time of year when awards season movies, with their oh-so-important one word titles, are all around (worst culprit: Milk. Like, the drink?). One glance through the titles coming our way over the year ahead suggests that it’s only the occasional maverick director or producer who has the guts to be so straightforward when labelling their creation. So in the spirit of the Oscars, here’s Screen Fever’s hastily assembled awards for titles in 2009:

Best Anticipation Builder - Monsters Vs. Aliens (3 April) Who wouldn’t want to see this movie? And it’s also gonna be available in 3D!

Most Unnecessarily Pretentious - Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (26 June) Trying to make a popcorn sequel sound important by using biblical imagery? No thanks.

Least Inspired Fighting (24 July) There’s a thin line between winningly simple and just plain lazy. This is the latter.

Least PronounceableSynecdoche, New York (15 May) Apparently it’s sin-eck-duh-key, but that doesn’t really make things any clearer does it? Still, I wouldn’t expect anything less from Charlie Kaufman, the man who previously befuddled us at the title stage with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Best Rip-off of a ClassicAll About Steve (24 April) This Sandra Bullock comedy doesn’t seem to have much going for it, but the evocation of multi-Oscar winning legend All About Eve is gutsy, and more than a little bit funny too.

Most Oddly-titled Awards Bait - Men Who Stare at Goats (Late 2009) It sounds like it should be the tagline for Borat 2, but the cast list includes George Clooney, Kevin Spacey, Jeff Bridges, Ewan McGregor and the T1000 himself, Robert Patrick. But what the heckers is it about?

The Trying Too Hard AwardLesbian Vampire Killers (20 March) They might as well just call it Oh Please Come and See Our Movie. It’s Really Funny, Honest.

Worst Punning - Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel (26 Dec) I love a good pun, but that’s just wrong.

The ‘Beverly Hills Chihuahua’ Award For StraightforwardnessHotel For Dogs (13 Feb) Says it all really.

Thursday 8 January 2009

In praise of the fantastic

In a webchat earlier this week, Danny Boyle responded to the question of whether he would consider directing a superhero movie with this comment:

"Not a great fan of superhero movies. We need those extremes of storytelling, but are reluctant to use them in anything other than fantasy movies. I think that's a bit sad."

Although I wouldn't dismiss superhero movies as quickly as Boyle, he's right in his main point - most mainstream directors shy away from using fantasy elements when telling stories based in the real world. If you think about it, there's no good reason for this tendency apart from accepted convention. But film is an imaginative medium, a place where the flights of impossible fantasy that we all go on every day, in our minds, can be made real, so why don't more filmmakers explore this? I can think of a handful of directors who blur this real/imaginary line, and I count them all among my favourites.

Boyle himself uses "extremes of storytelling" all the time, and not just in his sci-fi films. His excellent new movie Slumdog Millionaire (pictured) is firmly based in the teeming slums of Mumbai, but it's also shot through with a vein of magical realism that allows characters to fall off a train in the middle of nowhere and come to their senses in the grounds of the Taj Mahal. It's reminiscent of the tone which pervaded his equally lovely 2004 film Millions, which similarly had a child as its central character; perhaps it's a childlike sensibility that allows Boyle to easily step out of the bounds of reality in his screen creations.

Another director who has a healthy understanding of the fantastic and its place in everyday life is Michel Gondry, who continually lets his real world characters have impossible experiences. Whether it's Gael Garcia Bernal in The Science of Sleep discovering a musical note that keeps cotton-wool clouds suspended in mid-air when played or Jack Black and Mos Def in Be Kind Rewind, impossibly making a whole series of elaborate movie homages using only a camcorder and some cardboard and sticky-tape, the point is that these flights of fantasy connect with us on an emotional level. The experience of being human is often inexplicable in 'real' terms, and Gondry understands this, using his films to explore the often fantastical places that our internal lives take us.

And in much darker ways, Paul Thomas Anderson does a very similar thing in his under-appreciated 2002 film Punch-Drunk Love. In fact, considering that Boyle's quote above is specifically about superhero movies, it may be this film that most effectively uses "storytelling extremes" in a way that Boyle would approve of. While on the surface it's a story of two rather odd characters finding each other, the film is also about the extreme sensation of falling in love, and how it's comparable to the empowering transformations that overcome Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk et al. Falling in love fills Adam Sandler's character with a superhuman strength that threatens at moments to go completely out of control, and haven't we all felt that kind of emotion? Anderson makes the experience physical, visual and 'unreal', but it's in this unreality that he gets to the truth of our common experience.

So I'm with Danny Boyle - why should superhero movies have the monopoly on the fantastic when it's such a powerful way of communicating about reality?