By Chris Rogers, Feb 25 2017 2:26PM
A day later than advertised, apologies.... It is impossible to overstate the achievement represented by the conception, design and erection of Joseph Paxton’s great iron and glass building, the pop-up home of the 1851 Great Exhibition in London and the ancestor of today’s High-Tech movement.
McKean’s exceptional narrative – mostly, and wonderfully effectively, rendered in the present tense – covers every aspect of this cutting-edge work, beginning with Paxton’s famous blotting paper sketch during a business meeting, working through his relentless rationalisation of the pre-fabricated components and ending with the astonishingly efficient construction in Hyde Park itself, where the hoardings surrounding the site become the wooden floors of the hall and a third of a million panes of glass are installed by men on trolleys. Staggeringly, the building was finished less than eight months after that sketch was first scribbled; read this fabulous book and discover how, the make your own connections to what followed it.
'Crystal Palace' by John McKean (Phaidon Press Limited, 1994; also available compiled with other as Lost Masterpieces, 1999, from the same publisher)
By Chris Rogers, Feb 20 2017 2:42PM
The BBC’s period drama Taboo, which concludes next weekend, has been a revelation. Though set during the Regency in a London of lavish palaces, glamourous balls and inter-personal machinations, it is a very long way indeed from Jane Austen or the Brontes. Dark, twisted, grimy and grim, it is shot through with corruption, African witchcraft and violence, as James Keziah Delaney returns from a decade away to claim his inheritance. Tom Hardy, who co-created the series, is stunning in that role, an unstoppable spirit emerging from the heart of darkness to wreak havoc amongst the establishment, renew a sexual relationship with his half-sister and play the Crown, the rebellious American colonies and the commercial giant of the East India Company against each other. An exceptionally good supporting cast includes, arguably, by the stunning production design, which gives each place a character of its own.
The London of Taboo – which set in 1814 – includes many scenes along the Thames; indeed, with its nightmarish sequences of drowning, water torture and self-baptismal submergence, the river really does run through the entire drama. Its shelving foreshore is a bleak edge world of tough workers, shifting gravel and blackened timbers, these as broken and spiky as the characters who brood there. The atmosphere is part Turner, part Constable and all glowering. The real Thames at Tilbury was used as a location, with the walls and walkways of its famous coastal defence fortress, dating back to the 17th century, serving as the byways of Wapping.
The isolation of Tilbury is in contrast to the bustling tourism of today’s Southwark riverside in central London where a full-size, sea-going replica of Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hinde has been moored as an attraction since 1996. The vessel was used by the Taboo production team as Delaney’s own ship, as well as for a number of other maritime interiors. The Cornish port of Charlestown was also employed.
East London’s St Mary the Virgin church effectively played itself for the funeral of Delaney’s father; similarly, south London’s exquisite Palladian villa Danson House became Delaney’s sister’s marital home. The Charterhouse lent its intricate courtyards for a number of hospital scenes.
Importantly, some locations have also been chosen that are expansive enough to allow longer and more dynamic camera moves by directors (Kristoffer Nyholm and Anders Engström). The remarkably preserved enclave of Middle Temple was superbly suited as a stand-in for the bustling streets of Georgian London in this weekend’s penultimate episode, a character running at full tilt along a street, up some stairs and around a corner in a single shot.
Outside the capital, one historic country seat provided for multiple realities. The south front of Hatfield House in Hertfordshire, home of Jacobean statesman Robert Cecil, became the exterior of the Prince Regent’s palace, unnamed in the script but which must be John Nash’s Carlton House on what was to
become The Mall. The Long Gallery with its sumptuous gilded ceiling was used to represent the interior, in a number of extraordinary deep-focus shots. Appropriately, the chillier Marble Hall, with its black and white chequered floor and wooden panelling, was used for the interior of the other, secular palace in the series, the headquarters of the East India Company. Its exterior was played by the Livery Hall of the Goldsmiths Company, in the City of London.
Cinematographer Mark Patten’s gorgeous tonalities have also made the set dressings of tapestries, furniture and more come alive, whether in the boisterous scenes at a molly-house or the quieter moments. Add in such details as tattoos, make up, shoes, hats and posters, and Sonja Klaus’s production design has been the final element that makes this Taboo compulsory.
Taboo, written by Steven Knight, created by Steven Knight, Tom Hardy and Edward "Chips" Hardy and based on a story written by Tom Hardy, concludes Saturday 25 February on BBC One but is available on iPlayer afterwards.
By Chris Rogers, Feb 6 2017 3:30PM
Cast your mind back 22 years. Bill Clinton was President and John Major occupied Downing Street; both were trying to address the continuing Balkans conflict. The Tokyo subway Sarin attack, collapse of Barings Bank and Oklahoma City bombing also took place, whilst more encouragingly advances in consumer technology saw the invention of the DVD, appearance of the first widely-available web browsers and release of the first computer-generated feature film, Toy Story. All these events suggested to many that the looming Millennium might bring about a profound change in world society. Two acclaimed film-makers, both with careers in the ascendant, agreed, and the result was Strange Days, written by James Cameron (with Jay Cocks) and directed by Kathryn Bigelow.
Cameron and Bigelow had begun their Hollywood rise with successful, medium-budget entries in the speculative fiction genre (The Terminator and Near Dark, respectively) released within a few years of each other, and indeed found their paths sufficiently aligned to marry soon after. That they then divorced long before production of Strange Days began seems in retrospect significant for a film that explored divisions, tensions and oppositions in a fictionalised Los Angeles over the last two days of the year 1999. That aside, a combination of Cameron’s interest in the extrapolation of real-world technology and its impact on humanity and Bigelow’s focus on marginalised individuals and groups yielded an intense focus that also addressed wider issues.
Taken together, Strange Days appeared to be a timely and original take on an imminent future. Viewing it from the perspective of today, with the turn of the Millennium forgotten, a fresh set of socio-political challenges in America, Britain, continental Europe and the Middle East to face and the descendants of those digital pioneers embedded in everyone’s daily lives, is thus doubly instructive.
Depicting in a believable manner a city getting ready for fireworks of both kinds is no easy thing, but perhaps the single most impressive aspect of the film on first re-viewing is exactly that. The film takes place almost entirely at night, as former cop Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes in an early role) goes about his business peddling Squid clips of sensory experience and trying to reconnect with his ex, singer Faith (Juliette Lewis). Since he quickly finds himself linking up with friend Mace (Angela Bassett) in her new job as a limousine driver, these journeys through the contested streets of LA become a mechanism by which vignettes of the world Bigelow and Cameron created are revealed to the characters and viewers alike.
Fires, flares, scuffles, arrests, hustlers…. All are tightly framed by the car’s windows and never completely seen, each showing instead just a fragment of an edgy urban landscape. Crucially, they convince utterly – none feels staged or artificial, a not inconsiderable achievement in any film let alone one shot at night and set in the near future. Cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti shares the credit for this, and in fact only the sublime Blade Runner (1982) impresses more in this regard. Interestingly both films are set in the same city, and both also take place over just a handful of days. The swoozy, ambient score by the underrated Graeme Revell reinforces the comparison with Ridley Scott’s masterpiece even further.
As the canvas expands, the same verisimilitude is carried through to more complex settings such as the club in which Faith works. A credible atmosphere is managed here too, forming a perfect backdrop for Lewis’s storming performance of P.J. Harvey’s 'Hardly Wait'. The New Millennium party which forms the climax of the film is the ultimate iteration of this rigorous approach, and is as authentic as the rest. It was achieved in the pragmatic manner that came to hallmark Cameron’s work, here by the production company simply marketing and staging an actual party on the streets of Los Angeles. Ten thousand attended and real bands performed, all to be incorporated into the film. Leonard Cohen is also heard in the film, presumably on the basis that if anyone could soundtrack such a tense time, he could.
The film’s other great achievement is the visualisation of the first-person point-of-view that derives from the Squid clips. Presented as a single shot, they are hugely impressive even today, particularly the famous early chase scene that ends in a fatal roof jump. The later rape scene, involving the victim being forced to wear a Squid headset that receives the input of her attacker, was extremely – and perhaps deservedly – controversial, yet few critics seemed to recognise the near-exact precedent seen in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom of 1960.
Bigelow has cited the centrality of both the O.J. Simpson and Rodney King trial verdicts to the concept of Strange Days. In truth, and in retrospect for me, the results of this element too have their parallels in many previous films. Certainly plotlines involving the state-sanctioned murder of agitators and a fleeing prostitute’s evidence are somewhat pedestrian. They do though have an undeniably propulsive effect on the narrative’s progress. Aided by on-screen captions indicating a timeline, there is a palpable sense of conversion as the end approaches, making Strange Days a kind of pre-apocalyptic drama.
Throughout, the principal secondary characters engage. Mace is superb, assisted greatly by Bassett’s performance. Continually dragging Lenny out of the fire, her true feelings are clear when she delivers the best line in the film – “Pussy-whipped sorry-assed motherfucker” – with affection underlying her contempt. Lewis is similarly perfect as the ballsy, slightly wired Faith, channelling – as does much of the film’s look – the emerging grunge culture. And did I mention how good her singing was?
It is at this point, though, that the film’s weaker elements must be considered, and here the writing of the lead character remains a problem for me. Nero simply isn’t credible as a former police officer, let alone one with the heavily militarised and apparently competent LAPD depicted in the film. The scene in which he wields a pistol for a considerable period without realising it isn’t loaded grates as much now as it did first time around, and his continual inability to outfight or even outfox his opponents irritates to a point that is surely unhelpful in such a film. This may of course be deliberate, in that Mace and Faith are obviously intended to be stronger mirrors of Lenny, but it still feels a miss-step, and that conceivably might have contributed to the film’s commercial failure. That said, Fiennes is actually excellent as the man Nero has become, the sleazy “Santa Claus of the subconscious” at the margins of society. A little additional writing and, perhaps, direction might have bridged the gap between the two Nero more effectively.
The other major failing remains the depiction of the Squid technology itself. The size and crudeness of the headsets needed to record and play back – large, plastic crab-like devices – is at odds with technology at the time the film was made, let alone when that was projected five years into the future. And given they require the wearer to don an elaborate wig for one to remain undetected, the idea that the Squid was developed as a more discreet version of the old ‘wire’ microphone, as the screenplay solemnly tells us, is of course risible.
I was also aggrieved first time around that no acknowledgement was made to the novels of William Gibson, since an obvious debt is owed to SimStim, Gibson’s equivalent, conceived way back in the early 1980s (it is also far more elegantly envisaged). There is in fact considerable crossover between the two Canadians’ work even beyond this one point; the Strange Days promotor Milo Gant and his two female bodyguards are dead ringers for Lonny Zone and his henchwomen in Neuromancer (1984), characters in both talk of being “jacked in”, using “trodes” that connect to a “deck”, and a casual reference to America gaining its second woman President seems almost designed to follow Gibson’s Virtual Light, published in 1993, in whose world the same office is also filled by a woman.
But overall, this new look at an old view of a possible future was pleasingly positive. Given how far the world has moved in two decades, the film’s advertising tagline of ‘You Know You want It’ suggests we really did.
By Chris Rogers, Jan 30 2017 3:04PM
The continued popularity of the post-apocalyptic film is no surprise. There is always a fresh fear to be mined for its one fundamental necessity, The Thing That Happened, whether that be war, natural disaster, man-made accident or alien invasion. With three broad formats available (road movie, revolutionary struggle or simply survival) atop this, the scope for intimate character drama or epic action is wide and deep. And, finally, the continual and rapid evolution in the capability and affordability of digital technologies allows more and more to be accomplished with less and less when it comes to realising such an idea. This, then, is the context in which The White King, made by joint writer/directors (and spouses) Alex Helfrecht and Jörg Tittel after a novel by György Dragomán, arrives and has to operate.
The setting is a small rural community in the Homeland, a repressive state whose propaganda – delivered through the trident icon on posters and billboards, the words of its national anthem and, most inescapably, a great statue on a nearby hill personifying the founder figure of Hank Lumber – stresses the collective, agrarian nature of this new post-conflict society. However, young Djata Fitz (Lorenzo Allchurch) is forced to stand by as his father Peter (Ross Partridge) is taken away by black-clad officials, supposedly to help with an important project but, it becomes clear, actually as a traitor. Djata and his mother Hannah (Agyness Deyn) survive in the face of neighbours’ scorn, bullying and a complete lack of information. Peter’s father, a colonel (Jonathan Pryce), and his wife Kathrin (Fiona Shaw), meanwhile, tempt Djata to his own dark side. Finally, determining to find answers, Hannah and Djata set out to confront another senior regime officer on the far side of their settlement.
The initial impression here is encouraging. An animated film under the opening credits tells the stylised story of the nation’s founding, the tools of control are subtly and effectively introduced and wide-eyed Allchurch and fragile Deyn look the part. And yet, already, problems arise. Djata’s school has several dozen pupils but appears only as a wooden shack and a patch of open ground. The structure holding his home and those of his neighbours seems to be a loading dock rather than anything recognisably domestic, and the only other spaces we see are scrubby clearings in a forest. That events occur in the thirtieth year of the new state is stressed, but no explanation of the significance of this is given.
True, things perk up with the journey to the estate of General Meade (Greta Scacchi) – we see open country dotted with apartment blocks emblazoned with vast entreaties to think of DUTY or FAMILY, then reach a Modernist dwelling with armed guards and fitted out with clearly advanced technology – and the confrontation that occurs therein, but instead of presenting a convincing contrast to the no-doubt-enforced backwards/backwoods existence of the masses, the entire sequence is awkward and unfocused, something that proves to affect the remainder of the film.
Throughout, then, scenes are stilted and fragmented, but not in a way that suggests this is deliberate. Too much happens in isolation, with too little organic linkage to what came before or after. Incidents occur but are promptly forgotten. Thus one character is stabbed, but the injury is ignored and invisible in subsequent appearances. Djata and his friends live in fear of two local thugs, both significantly older, yet nevertheless play with them. A chess-playing automaton in Meade’s house captivates the chess-playing Djata, but the importance of either the game or the machine (or the film’s title) is not clear. Djata dares to meet a hulking watchman living in a fenced-off wood at the foot of the hill, but all that follows is an impenetrable conversation that ends – bafflingly – in a hug, and the grim contents of a fabled cave are explained only as “not for children”. The significance of a dragonfly hovering in the opening scene is not established. There is little sense of how much time has passed. Nothing, in essence, hangs together, making it difficult to invest in the story. The lack of any real emotion in the performances hardly helps, though Deyn does moderately well and Pryce convinces as a bullish, intimidating veteran. The eclecticism of the casting – often a plus in such films – seems a barrier too, with a mix of nationalities, accents and approaches failing to gel.
The penultimate scene, in a crematorium, and the closing shots – intended, quite plainly, as the impassioned climax to the journeys of two heroes – unfortunately left me astonished and amused in equal measure as opposed to moved.
What comes as real surprise is that the source novel is by a writer brought up in Ceaușescu’s Romania, surely a background ripe with potential. Yes, that blighted country’s socio-political landscape is clearly borrowed from in part, but that the overall result of this adaptation is so uninspiring is baffling. It also seems odd that a dystopian film shot in Hungary could end up being quite so starved of visual richness, but that indeed is the case. That the film is evidently of modest budget is not, regrettably, an excuse – imagination creates opportunity and both Gareth Edwards’ Monsters (2010) and Colm McCathy’s Girl with all the Gifts (2016), to take two obvious recent precedents, demonstrate this. Ultimately though the real fault and disappointment is that too much of the content is opaque, uninvolving or just plain unconvincing, with neither plot nor characters really worth spending any time with. Sadly, then, this White King made me feel like resigning from the game.
By Chris Rogers, Jan 27 2017 9:47AM
Today I’m starting something new; on the last Friday of each month throughout this year, I’ll be choosing and saying a few words around a book about or involving architecture, cities or the built environment that I’ve found compelling, useful, beautiful or thought-provoking over the last couple of decades or so. They’re a real mix, including fiction, works with a political slant, populist publications and conventional monographs – the mosaic below gives a few hints. Not all are in print, but they can all be tracked down easily enough through second hand book shops, online resellers or specialised public reference collections. Each is well worth the effort. We start with…
No single invention has had a greater impact on this green and pleasant land than the car. A century of building, selling, keeping, using, parking and scrapping the automobile has left a fascinating legacy of structures associated with each of those stages in its life cycle, and this superb book, accessible but thoroughly researched, tells the complete story. It records powerful, amusing and workaday examples of what one could call ‘carchitecture’ from across the nation, from destination restaurants overlooking motorways and hotels perched on top of multi-storey car parks to Art Deco showrooms and filling stations that look like cottages. You can also explore the country’s last surviving mechanical car park, included thanks to a tip off from yours truly. The book grew out of an in-depth thematic survey of the subject, and it will open your eyes to the myriad of buildings that we have designed solely because of the presence of the car. I guarantee it will change the way you look at the next drive you take.
By Chris Rogers, Jan 23 2017 4:49PM
The weekend brought me to the new Design Museum for the first time. Relocation from its ‘white box’ home on the riverside just along from Tower Bridge to the former Commonwealth Institute in Holland Park has been a controversial process, with questions asked over the changes needed to make this famous piece of post-war architecture suitable for its second life, the gleaming cubes of luxury apartments erected right next door that were deemed necessary to fund the scheme and the then culture secretary’s perceived willingness to de-list a heritage asset to make it all possible. Politics aside, the question now is simple – does the resulting building actually work?
Opened in 1962 and designed by RMJM, the Commonwealth Institute was known for its concrete hyperbolic paraboloid roof suspended from massive but delicate angled columns like a tent, the whole sheathed in 25 tonnes of copper donated by Northern Rhodesia. Engineered by Harris & Sutherland, the roof covered a single exhibition space dedicated to promoting the Commonwealth. This was broken up by a raised circular central platform, curved mezzanines and various flying staircases, with much of the display – by James Gardner – placed on freestanding structures. Glazed walls gave onto an approach landscaped by Sylvia Crowe with a stylised canal, causeway and statuary. Siting such a building just yards from the Blitzed remains of the Jacobean Holland House, whose grounds form the park, was a bold statement of post-war optimism and intent.
The institute as a body survived until the Millennium, when the end of its status as a statutory body and transfer of its operations and assets to a private company to be funded by the Commonwealth nations took place. Faced with changed political and economic climates this eventually failed and was liquidated. The old building became surplus to requirements. Threatened by costly maintenance combined with a highly specialised architectural envelope, its Grade II* listing appeared a barrier to a change of use or, more darkly, demolition to realise the value of its plot. When news that this might be lifted emerged, heritage groups and locals protested loudly, especially after culture secretary Tessa Jowell appeared to support such a move even as she confirmed it was legally impossible and when news later leaked of a potential private members bill targeting the building.
Ultimately only the attached administration block, more conventional in form, was permitted to be demolished. Sale to developer Chelsfield led to a plan for three mid-rise blocks of flats as well as the radical restructuring of the RMJM building. Reading the development brochure from about five years ago is amusing, its rather pretentious and self-justifying text tending to highlight the murky nature of the journey from there to here rather than the architecture.
This transformation, then, by Rem Koolhaas’s OMA with John Pawson providing the interior fit-out, has in fact seen the complete replacement of the existing building’s façades and plinth and removal of much of its interior, whilst with protection for Crowe’s garden having also been removed, this too has been lost. The original esplanade off of Kensington High Street, with its forest of flagpoles, has also been replaced, by a straightforward piazza that now leads to the southernmost of the three residential blocks. My initial impressions here were however positive, in that these last crowd the Museum far less than I had been led to believe; indeed, clustered as they are to its west, they appear only as a ghostly white background and do not impinge on the drama of its folded roof planes.
Nevertheless, and reflective of today’s other concerns, a forceful line of railings now demarcates the Museum’s much smaller domain, a hefty gate separating it from the park proper after hours. Once through this the land slopes down as a result of the remodelling and continues as a rather apologetic-looking area of hard and soft landscaping (admittedly the Museum only opened in November and thus immediately hit its first winter) complete with dull small water feature before reaching the entrance.
Inside, it naturally takes a while to orientate, not helped by some exceptional crowds and the perhaps unfortunate decision to place the ticket desk right inside the inner door of the draught lobby. Ahead lies another problem on such busy days: Pawson’s main stair, which is wide but has built-in seats taking up more than half the width of the treads, a strange move given this is the only obvious method of ascending to the exhibition floors by foot.
That said, it must be admitted that this stair is excellent from an aesthetic point of view and indeed forms the core of the scheme. Each flight starts on the opposite side of the floor to the last as the building rises and each storey is itself wider, thus creating a rectilinear spiral that has obvious echoes of Lasdun at the sublime Royal College of Physicians. Impressive too is the manner in which Pawson has fitted new, rational floors into the unwelcoming shape of RMJM’s original volume. Yes the delights of the roof and, more notably, its supporting walls are far less visible than they were, but they are not INvisible. The rough, grey concrete undersides of the original structure now peek above the restful, straw-coloured wood of the new spaces and the big concrete support columns dive through the new floors in plain sight, though they have been painted to match the new and partly clad in stainless steel.
As with the Switch House at Tate Modern, a floor or so of private spaces – members’ room, education room, offices – sits between the main public floors, leading to some further circulation pressures, but the restaurant seems to enjoy a good view and small pocket atriums supply much-needed breathing space.
The workmanship throughout is excellent, whether in the brushed stainless steel stair handrails with lighting concealed in their undersides or the simple, slightly sloped tops of the balustrading overlooking the main space – just right for leaning on. In the basement toilets a run of wash basins appears to have been made from a single slab of Corian, and the more conventional secondary stair – though somewhat hidden – is light and elegant in white and stainless steel, is provided with neat timber window seats and has good views over the park, even if the applied sunshade proves able to fox digital camera exposures.
Exploration of the permanent collection galleries was rather less rewarding, accepting the large crowds. Seemingly crammed into a succession of spaces that are too small for the exhibits let alone those who wish to see them, progress is slow and confusing. The presentation is bitty and too in thrall to the current ethos of short captions and random placement. Where a good array of objects is encountered, such as a display showing the evolution of media formats from pens to iPods, the arrangement is scattered across a wall in no discernible order and leaving lots of wasted space, whilst locating the relevant caption is impossible thanks to the baffling lack of numbers linking both.
Clearly a short visit on a busy day is clearly not ideal to assess such a complex project. A return visit would be useful to explore the remaining spaces in the building and its relationship with the park and the new apartment blocks in more detail, but certainly there is much to like in this new space for cultural review. Crucially the intimate changes to and immediate setting of the Commonwealth Institute seem coherent and convivial in many ways, even if they are source of some dismay intellectually and frustration practically. Crowd management and display quality are firmly for the management to address. Whether the venue will prove as amenable to the demands of a museum needing to display everything from cars to computers as the old venue was – itself a converted banana warehouse, it should be remembered – remains to be seen.
Pictured below, for comparison, is the Institute as I first saw it in late 2011:
By Chris Rogers, Jan 16 2017 10:57AM
There is far more to the City of London than skyscrapers and rampant commerce, as the Corporation of London itself is often at pains to point out, but you do have to look hard for small museums, churches and other cultural venues or even private spaces open to the public outside of the Big Three (the Barbican, Museum of London and Guildhall Art Gallery). True, the little City of London Police Museum opened at the Guildhall late last year, as did the new citizenM hotel on Tower Hill, but fresh offering are rare. This year, however, will be different, because by chance there are no fewer than three significant museums and two major hotels opening in the Square Mile for the first time in 2017. Here’s a summary, in order of launch date (as far as is known).
Charterhouse Square, London EC1M 6AN
Opens: 27 January
Ten Trinity Square, London, EC3N 4AJ.
27 Poultry, London EC2R 8AJ
By Chris Rogers, Jan 9 2017 4:11PM
We start not with the drama itself but a brief technical cue-in to a studio session that the period-correct ‘blackboard’ VTR clock tells us is occurring on 10 December 1977. A library film (and I do mean film) clip of a snowy alpine lodge overlaid by gaudy onscreen titles introduces us to the drama proper, which in a further nod to its era is clearly being shot via multiple cameras in a studio, and recorded on videotape. Bluff, middle-class, middle-aged Julian (Pemberton), his young, pregnant, second wife Kathy (Jessica Rain), haughty mother Celia (Rula Lenska) and small son Toby (George Bedford) all enter the lodge – against a background of studio snow glimpsed in the doorway – with Austrian guide Klaus (Shearsmith) at their heels. As they bustle around their new temporary home, each actor declaiming his or her lines slightly too theatrically, the cameras follow them or pointedly push in or linger on a significant detail or face. Any viewer familiar with the style being emulated so precisely simply IS transported back thirty-odd years to their own youth.
That curious voice-over does indeed pop up from time to time, cattily pointing out where the actress played by Lenska misses her mark or flubs her line; occasionally a second off-screen voice joins in, and as things progress we also see other instances of the curtain being twitched aside, metaphorically – the crew and the studio come into view, Pemberton is asked by a floor manager to “try the [dinner] plate please”, and a laugh continues – awkwardly – for far too long, until ‘cut’ is called. What is going on?
As the family settle in, poo-poohing Klaus’s story of the fearsome local legend that is the Krampus, things start to warm up, but saying more would spoilt the surprises and the triple twist ending. Suffice it to say that this is a glorious piece of entertainment, both knowing and affectionate, that works – as with so many other such tributes – thanks to slavish attention to detail, both technical and artistic. So watch out for the notorious ‘comet tailing’ of the candle flames, the slap to the wrong side of the face, and the subtlety of the entire thing being presented in (almost) 4:3 aspect ratio. Of the performances Pemberton’s is the most noteworthy, simply because his voice is EXACTLY what you would expect to hear in this place and this time – plummy, strong, and with that very slight sense of patronising the material that was common to mature British thespians forced to work in genre television. Raine’s stridency, rising to hysteria at times, along with her strawberry blonde wig , very clearly channels Jane Asher in Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape, whilst Bedford’s ability to copy a not-very-good child actor of the time is spooky. And whilst you might find the majority of the drama tongue in cheek and thus not especially frightening, that is likely to change when the macabre penultimate twist makes its appearance.
This gem could only have come from the current generation of 40-something creatives that find themselves able to make original work that harks back to their own influences; see also talents as varied as satirist Charlie Brooker, film-maker JJ Abrams and movie director Gareth Edwards. That Harper directed a slew of episodes of 1970s and 80s television drama but especially the classic Caves of Androzani story for Doctor Who simply confirms the point. It turns out that I managed to miss Inside No.9 entirely until now, something I’ll need to remedy soon. In the meantime, Inside No.9: The Devil of Christmas is available on iPlayer for another 17 days so that you too can find out who was good and who was very bad indeed this Christmas. Don’t miss it.
By Chris Rogers, Jan 2 2017 11:02AM
Yesterday the BBC launched a new series of idents for BBC One, replacing the ‘circles’ concept that has persisted for the last decade with photographs and footage of people from around the country (shot by Martin Parr, no less) that "capture an evolving portrait of modern Britain in all its diversity". Just to hammer the message home, the ‘ONE’ logo onscreen momentarily gets a scrolling, handwritten-style ‘-ness’ appended to it. Blimey.
Well, after what seems to many like an especially divisive year for the country that might well be a good thing, but does the national broadcaster really need to spell out its worthy aim in such a clunky fashion? After all, the circles series made the point quite neatly already, whilst of course the Corporation’s original ‘revolving globe’ mark was arguably the ultimate indicator of that purpose and indeed ran in various forms from 1969 to 1997. And from a purely visual standpoint, the new identifications seem very far from ideal – without even the implied geometry of the circle to give the channel surfer a nudge, let
alone any overlaid graphics to enhance the effect, there is surely little that actually identifies the image quickly and easily as a start-of-programme warning rather than a bit of the programme itself.
Interestingly the same problem afflicts Channel 4’s current (and also relatively new) design for their own idents; its ‘deconstructed’ graphic element seldom appears, whilst Jonathan Glazer’s truly weird underground crystal mine/people in hazmat suits sequences confuse me even now…
Perhaps, then, the nation’s favourite broadcaster should have stuck to its understated motto – Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation – to signal its principles, and adopted something simpler, clearer and more direct for the vital onscreen task of alerting the audience that Strictly is about to start. Something like a globe, say…?
Happy new year!
By Chris Rogers, Dec 21 2016 4:28PM
A year ago almost to the day, I stumbled out of the Odeon Leicester Square in shock at how badly Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) had unreeled – indeed, unravelled – before my eyes over the preceding two hours or so. Its
And yet in many ways this is a surprise, since Rogue One also introduces a clutch of new characters, including the by-now compulsory spunky young female, visits more new planets and re-treads several motifs and even scenes from other instalments, just as did J.J. Abrams last year.
Why, then, is the result so different?
Taking its inspiration from a few words in the opening ‘crawl’ of Star Wars (1977), the new film explains how the Rebels acquire the plans of the Empire’s new super-weapon, the planet-killing Death Star, thus setting up the final attack of that first movie. As such Rogue One immediately benefits from our foreknowledge of success, a counter-intuitive reaction perhaps but one that has been proven time and time again to be an effective way forward in film-making. To take just one example, Fred Zimmerman’s adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal (1973) is no less gripping for knowing that de Gaulle was not assassinated. In contrast, The Force Awakens suffers from having to set a direction of travel that has to be meaningful and worth following, a hard ask when two entire trilogies have concluded an epic tale before it.
Here, then, a story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta has led to a screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy that takes this simple concept and develops a solid, reasonably tight script around that actually makes you care. Yes, the complexities of the initial, rapid exposition, involving three or four separate planets, those new characters and plenty of implied backstory between all of them take some work from the audience to resolve, not helped by strongly-accented actors and poor sound at last night’s screening, but this vital step is achieved easily enough. The idea of a defecting (with the use of that specific word an early pointer to the several references to contemporary real-world events and concerns) pilot as the trigger is a clever one, though it does result in some additional complications over who wants who for what and a double-location climax, a straight-line passing of the Death Star plans from him to the Rebels apparently being too easy. Despite all this, director Gareth Edwards marshals his forces well, keeping things moving and building the suspense necessary to drive the rest of the film.
Michael Giacchino's music helps tremendously. He scores highly from his very first note, a cleverly abbreviated introduction given – shorn of its traditional fanfare – this film starts with a single tone. There follows a series of cues that each step very closely indeed to the line of John Williams’s revered work yet always stop short, whilst simultaneously being distinctive on their own.
The opening shots are properly arresting, using the coal-like rock of Mýrdalssandur beach in Iceland with a (genuine) mountain tinged green behind as the background for a tense meeting between Imperial Director Krennic (a chilling Ben Mendelsohn) and Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). The new all-black Deathtroopers, Krannic’s personal guard, whilst clearly in the lineage of the classic Stormtrooper, owe more than a little to the Kerberos Panzer Cops anime and manga by Mamoru Oshii, Kamui Fujiwara and Yutaka Izubuchi, as well as the Nazi design style implied by the original, all-white Imperial footsoldiers’ name.
After, the sequences on the desert mining planet of Jedha, exquisitely filmed using Wadi Rum in Jordan as their core, properly open up the story and the film with an immersively atmospheric depiction of a souk-style market patrolled by occupying Stormtroopers. That this is a clear reference to Mos Eisley and Tatooine only now occurs to me, as the location has an identity of its own and acts as a base for one of the better new characters and a good action scene.
Forest Whitaker’s mannered but fabulous Saw Gerrera is a highlight of this first act, not least for its revelation of a factional Rebellion that has an official contingent but also Gerrera as an “extremist” leading a breakaway wing. With his scarred face, battered cyborg body – a superb, layered piece of costume design – and frequent use of an inhaler mask, it is not hard to see Gerrera as a parallel to or even prototype of Darth Vader, a man who, as my friend pointed out, is an extremist on the opposite side of the conflict. Introduced, too, is the suggestion of the sacrifices a Rebel might be forced to make, something that is developed through the character of Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) but which was made more explicit in an alternative version of this scene present in a trailer but excised from the final release. This had Gerrera asking of reluctant heroine Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) “What will you do when they catch you? What will you do when they break you? If you continue to fight… What will you become?”
A series of reshoots and rewrites – comprehensively and helpfully discussed here and here – affected this part of the film, and also reshaped Jyn to become more sympathetic. Whether that was entirely successful, I’m not sure; I found it hard to warm to her any more than her basic presentation demanded, and found her ‘journey’ throughout uneven.
Luckily, though, the intifada-style attack by Gerrera’s men on an Imperial squad and its tank-like armoured vehicle that follows is excellent, inevitably recalling more real-world events and adding another layer of political and emotional resonance. That Andor sees fit to deliberately gun down one of the anti-Empire fighters during the battle does the same for his character. The first example of Edwards’ ability to exploit the big screen, the possibilities of today’s visual effects and the world in which his story takes place comes when the just-completed Death Star is used to destroy the city in which this occurs. Edwards brilliantly conveys the terrifying power of the weapon and its ability to create a genuinely shattering, apocalyptic event, showing at length the horrifying impacts both from orbit aboard the Death Star and at ground level as our heroes flee. The scene ends as a prominence comprising millions of tonnes of firey rubble climbs slowly but inexorably kilometres into the atmosphere, reaching out for the weapon that sired it, drawn out like a cry and grimly fascinating, the equivalent of a mushroom cloud. It is a breathtaking moment.
New droid K-2SO is a near-genius level construct; a bitingly cynical, sarcastic personality that is as obviously indebted to C-3PO as his name alone suggests yet which feels very necessary for the new tone that is being set and not merely as an in-joke.
The night-time scenes on rainy Eadu form part of the (unnecessarily?) involved Erso plot, and do perhaps feel a little redundant; one might also question how it is that a Rebel air squadron can so easily stage an attack on Imperial research base. But again Edwards balanced pace and plot and incident well enough for it not to overly matter.
The final act occurs on yet another planet, the lush littoral world of Scarif (actually Laamu Atoll in the Maldives). Here another of Edwards’ skills, hinted as on Jedha earlier, asserts itself – the ability to hold shots long enough for the viewer to understand, accept and even enjoy what s/he is seeing. Smooth pans and sweeps establish the layout of the Imperial base, from landing pad via transit system to central tower, something that will be repeated at a faster yet still coherent pace in the later battles.
And, too, it is clear that the entire production this time around knows how to refer to the other films in the series with subtlety and whilst still, as Edwards has said, bringing something new to the party to make it worthwhile. Thus Scarif is shielded, yes, as was the Moon of Endor, but by a generator station-cum-gate sitting in the outer atmosphere that resembles a roulette wheel in its pleasingly circular shape. And, yes, it is also subject to a Rebel Wing fighter assault, but through the sheer quality of the visuals this feels fresh and exciting in a way that the tired re-tread in The Force Awakens did not. Make no mistake, the various ship designs in Rogue One are rendered with such a degree of detail, of resolution and conviction, that they appear real; the slashing combat around and above the shield generator is exceptional because of this as much as Edwards’ ability to direct the action. Similarly, the triple-level battle of which this is part – it continues on the ground, and in the tower – echoes the end of Return of the Jedi (1983) but is just as impressive and thrilling, even if much of the beach fighting was lost in the final edit.
Every viewer will however be thankful that a critical element of that ending did NOT get cast adrift; destined to be forever referred to as THAT Vader scene, the Dark Lord – announced only by his breathing and lightsabre activation in the smoke-filled darkness – scything his way through a corridor of Rebel troops by deploying almost casually each of his powers in turn is shocking, dark and astonishing.
The ending for those on the ground, when it comes, is inevitable given the stand-alone nature of the story, which clearly freed Edwards and team to be more bold than the canonical films allow. But every ending is a beginning, too, and the final shots are smart and satisfying.
There are flaws; of course there are. Vadar’s brutal combat would have been even more effective had that been the character’s only appearance in the film. The CGI resurrection of Governor Tarkin works well for a minute or two, but is repeated several times to far lesser effect. The decision to do the same to evoke a youthful Carrie Fisher is a mistake since the result is poor to the point of inducing laughter.
But these are quibbles. In its careful mining of unused or barely-glimpsed figures, machines and places from elsewhere in the canon, its treading of a sure path through a tangled plot and those extraordinary visuals, Rogue One is the very best Christmas present any fan could hope for.
“I'm one with the Force, and the Force is with me”.
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