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Sunday 27 April 2008

La Roue

I just heard that Abel Gance's monumental La Roue is to be released on DVD May 8th.

La Roue was Gance's major project before his five-and-a-half hour Napoleon. It's an epic Zola-esque love triangle set against the iron and steam imagery of the French railways. I've been wanting to see it ever since I read Kevin Brownlow's piece in The Parade's Gone By, near enough 30 years ago.

Made in 1923, four and a half digitally restored hours. I told my wife and somehow she didn't seem excited. Mustn't have sunk in yet.

Saturday 26 April 2008

Sound Effects and TV History

This link from Mark Ayres tells of plans to issue a CD box set celebrating the 50th anniversary of the BBC's now-defunct Radiophonic Workshop, pioneering in-house department responsible for themes and sound effects across a range of programmes.

Ah, that original version of the Doctor Who theme - described by my godson as "ghosts screaming on a rollercoaster".

Disbanded ten years ago, the Workshop's reputation is such that many people assume it's still in business. The Radiophonic Workshop is a reminder of the days when the BBC had an actual creative culture and wasn't just a services-buying bureaucracy. When Doctor Who finally returned to such resounding acclaim, what was one of the first things the BBC did?

They closed the Model Unit.

Wednesday 23 April 2008

Six Tales

Stephen Laws writes:

"Completely by accident, I was looking at the TV schedules last night - and the title Spectre caught my eye (like I have exclusive rights on the word, or something).

"Turns out that it's the first of a six part Spanish series called 6 Tales to Keep You Awake - very much in the Del Toro/Spanish/ghost/horror tradition.

"I watched it this morning, and thought that it was pretty damned good. Amazing that this has been buried away in the schedules! Definitely worth a look-see; one claim to its excellence being that the creative associate involved is Narciso Ibáñez Serrador (director of the excellent Who Can Kill a Child? and, of course, creator of that other great horror - the
321 TV series)."

I saw Spectre in the listings for yesterday where it was written-up as an American TV movie with Robert Culp and Gig Young. An odd scheduling choice for BBC4, I reckoned, and never gave it another thought. The Total TV Guide compilers must have just searched on the title and cribbed the details of the wrong film!

The series looks like a mixed bag, but well worth noting. Jaume Balagueró, co-writer and director of one of the films, made his feature debut with Los Sin Nombre, a well-realised adaptation of Ramsey Campbell's novel The Nameless.

Monday 21 April 2008

Crusoe Casting

The Hollywood Reporter's telling everyone, so it's safe for me to say that we have our leads.

Crusoe will be played by Montana-born, LAMDA-trained British citizen Philip Winchester. Susannah Crusoe is played by Anna Walton, fresh from Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy 2.

Yeah, I know that in The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe Defoe doesn't give Crusoe's wife a name. If that's bothering you already, you need to pick a different ride. We've got places to go and stuff to deliver.

Thursday 17 April 2008

The Fall of the Roman Empire

DVD Savant has an extensive review of the Miriam Collection special edition of the Samuel Bronston production, from the days when American dollars plus a European army gave you an epic.

I have an earlier no-frills DVD of the title, but this new release gives it the restored-to-glory treatment.

It's a film that planted two key sequences in my mind when I was a child, and which have held a permanent place there ever since; a fearsome chariot race along precipitious country roads (staged by the great Yakima Canutt and advancing the story not one jot, but wotthehell), and a final combat between mad emperor and disgraced general inside a wall of shields.

The latter isn't quite up there with the Kirk Douglas/Tony Curtis showdown at the end of The Vikings (actually atop the tower of Brittany's Fort La Latte), but it's close.

My trick with stuff like this is to stick it in my Amazon basket and leave it there. Every time I visit, Amazon flags up any price changes for items in the basket so if they cut the price to a bargain, I'll know.

Which is how I got Jack the Giant Killer for £1.26. Still overpriced. Not for the film, which as a sub-Harryhausen rip at least deserves credit for stealing from the best, but for its piss-poor worse-than-TV full-frame transfer.

Wednesday 16 April 2008

Dumping Miss Daisy

I saw the first Pushing Daisies when it was leaked pre-air in 2007. I thought it made a great mini-movie but couldn't see the long-running series potential in it. Series tend to follow formula and spread their invention, and this did neither.

The second episode surprised and convinced me. It was the second episode that made me a fan. Opening episodes get all the attention but it's second episodes that are vital in establishing whether a show's to develop a following. Every showrunner knows this and, trust me, they factor it into their global thinking about the series' design.

Today I learn that for its UK showings, ITV are skipping the second episode of Pushing Daisies for the usual reason - to privilege a sports fixture later in the schedule.

The BBC's clumsy re-edit of Rome's first three hours into two all but dissuaded me from staying with it. A friend talked me into giving the HBO cut a second chance, and I was hooked. There surely must be a lesson there.

Tuesday 15 April 2008

On Happy Endings

Well, there's happy endings and happy endings.

When Robin Williams was making Mrs Doubtfire there was studio pressure to conclude the story with a reconciliation of the divorced parents and a restoration of the broken family unit.

Which probably would have prevailed (as the same reconciliation fantasy did in both versions of The Parent Trap) were it not for the star's resistance and support for the argument that it offered a dishonest promise to any child in the same position.

It's more truthful - and therefore better art - to point to the kind of happiness that you can credibly look for in any dramatic situation. Despite the stage being littered with bodies I think that Hamlet has a happy ending - thanks to the hero taking action, bad stuff gets put right.

Sacrifice of the hero for positive effect has a long and distinguished history.

Plays hell with the prospects for a sequel, though.

Saturday 12 April 2008

Bob Shaw

I once asked Bob how he'd managed the switch in technique from short fiction to novels, and his response was a typically wry and self-deprecating one along the lines that he hadn't... he said that he tackled his novels as if they were short stories, rather like a sprinter who sails up to the hundred-metre mark and then realises with dismay that he has to maintain that pace for the distance.

The problem for anyone who knew Bob, of course, was that he was such a convivial person and quintessential fan that you had to step away from the man to appreciate just how good a writer he could be.

Sunday 6 April 2008

Tarzan the Silent

A heads-up regarding the dirt-cheap DVDs available from Alpha Video, a company whose output I can best describe as 'glorious tat'; a lot of public domain stuff and many titles that would be below most commercial distributors' radar, but I wish they'd been around when my dad was alive so I could have bought him their Ken Maynard westerns.

I came across their product when a Google search for something else threw up a couple of Tarzan titles that I didn't even know existed in any available form... the silent Tarzan and the Golden Lion with James Pierce, and the silent/sound serial Tarzan the Tiger with Frank Merrill. I ordered both through Amazon for what felt like small change, and had low expectations.

But when I watched Tarzan and the Golden Lion, I was pleasantly surprised... it follows the book and has an authentic Burroughsian feel. The production is far more lavish than many a later Tarzan and Pierce makes a decent hero, although his legs are a bit comically skinny for the role. Some nice sets, well shot, although Pierce later complained that poor production and direction wrecked his chances of a film career. The disc quality is decent enough considering what I was expecting. Apparently the only surviving print was discovered in Germany; Alpha appear to have added their own English titles, distressed to match the age of the film. The titles get a few of the details wrong... Jad Bal Ja the lion becomes Jab, Tarzan acquires a sister... but that's a quibble at the price.

Pierce later married Joan Burroughs and became ERB's son-in-law, and the pair played Tarzan and Jane on the radio. Pierce and Joan, I mean, not... oh, you know what I'm saying.

The Frank Merrill title is more of a curiosity and less of a pleasure than Tarzan and the Golden Lion, I have to say. It's a 15-part serial based on Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar , made two years after the introduction of sound and here carrying its original music-and-effects track. On the value side, you get all fifteen chapters. Merrill makes a credible-looking jungle lord most of the time and, as with Pierce's portrayal, it's the articulate, cultured Tarzan of Burroughs' imagination.

On the downside, I'm never gonna make it through all fifteen episodes - the story isn't up to much and the storytelling is barely coherent and involves a lot of loooooong dialogue-bearing title cards. Maybe it's just the way it seemed to me, but it felt as if they took up a full third of the running time.

The added sound effects, the producers' answer to the coming of sound, give us Tarzan's first screen jungle call. It sounds like a man with hemorrhoids passing a stool full of broken peanuts. The general level of the production is such that you don't even wince at the sight of tigers roaming around Africa... by then you've pretty much come to expect it. Which makes it all the more surprising that Pierce's movie was panned the way it was, and Merrill's two serials were praised as much as they were.

What is worth remarking on is the care that Alpha Home Entertainment take over these bargain-bin releases. We're not talking Criterion Collection, here, but they take what they've got and present it as well as they can. They're great for the money if you've an interest in the subjects.

Thursday 3 April 2008

Friday Night Crusoe

Forwarded to me by Avrum Jacobson:

At its first of several upfront presentations to advertisers today at 30 Rockefeller Center in New York, NBC outlined its 2008-2009 season based on a 52-week schedule. The network will introduce the 52-week lineup this fall with a slate of new original programs and continually add other new originals throughout the year, with some timed to coincide with major events such as Super Bowl XLIII.

Fall 2008:

Monday: Chuck, Heroes, My Own Worst Enemy
Tuesday: The Biggest Loser: Families, Kath & Kim, Law & Order: SVU
Wednesday: Knight Rider, Deal or No Deal, Lipstick Jungle
Thursday: My Name is Earl, 30 Rock, The Office, The Office, ER
Friday: Crusoe, Deal or No Deal, Life
Saturday: Dateline, Knight Rider [r], L&O: SVU [r]
Sunday: Football Night in America, NFL Sunday Night Football

Wednesday 2 April 2008

The Brimstone Boys

More from The Hollywood Reporter on developments in the US version of Eleventh Hour.

I have to tell you, the trade press is where most of my information is coming from. Any direct involvement I might have had in the production was precluded by the exclusivity clause in my Crusoe deal, made within a couple of days of the WGA strike's end; all progress on 11thH had been suspended during the strike period and when the Bruckheimer TV people called ICM to check my availability... well, unfortunately, I wasn't.

I have heard that the pilot show has been shooting and that it's going well.

And I've been told that I get a decent show credit, despite the press coverage that continues to position me lower in the food chain than that 'unnamed Granada executive'.

Anyway, the latest coverage suggests that the creator/producers of the short-lived but influential series Brimstone are being brought in to serve as series showrunners.

Brimstone starred Peter Horton as a dead cop earning his ticket out of Hell by hunting down each of 113 escaped souls. It had texture and energy and was probably too dark for US mainstream TV. Reaper pretty much steals the premise and, being more lightweight fare, has survived better. But Brimstone was the superior show.

Here's what the Reporter says:

In an indication that CBS' pilot Eleventh Hour is headed to series, Sleeper Cell creators Cyrus Voris and Ethan Reiff have been tapped as executive producers/showrunners of the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced drama.

"Hour," from Bruckheimer TV, Warner Bros. TV and Granada TV, is based on the British limited sci-fi series and stars Rufus Sewell as a special science adviser to the government who, with his feisty female bodyguard Rachel (Marley Shelton) in tow, saves people from the worst abuses of science.

CSI visual mastermind Danny Cannon is directing the pilot from a script by feature scribe Mick Davis.

"Hour" has been rumored to go to series since September, when CBS picked up the pilot with a penalty said to amount to a 13-episode production commitment. On the potential series, Voris and Reiff will serve as exec producers alongside Davis, Cannon, Bruckheimer, Jonathan Littman and a Granada executive.

"Hour" falls under Voris and Reiff's overall deal with WBTV. It also extends their relationship with Bruckheimer and CBS. Earlier this development season, the duo penned a treasure-hunting drama for WBTV and Bruckheimer TV, which landed at CBS with a put pilot commitment (HR 8/16).

On the feature side, Voris and Reiff recently penned the spec Nottingham, which sold last year in a seven-figure deal to Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment and has Ridley Scott attached to direct and Russell Crowe attached to star. The two also wrote DreamWorks Animation's upcoming Kung Fu Panda.

Voris and Reiff, who also created and executive produced the series Brimstone, are repped by WMA, Field Entertainment and attorney Dave Feldman.

My understanding was that the series would be getting a new title. But I'm not sure how much longer they can leave it before the old one sticks.