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The 39 Steps (2008)
39 pointless steps
***SPOILER ALERT*** Hitchcock's 1935 version of 'The 39 Steps' played fast and loose with John Buchan's novel by introducing a plausible and intriguing love interest in a 1930s setting, a nerve-shredding escape on the Forth Rail Bridge and the quirky denouement of 'Mr Memory' at a Music Hall. These radical changes produced a fabulous movie, a pulsating chase thriller all played with great style and with real chemistry between the two leads, Robert Donat and Madeline Carroll.
This expensive, handsome looking TV production reverted to a plot rather closer to the book but retained little of Buchan's original spirit, pace or derring-do. It did, however, steal the love interest idea from Hitchcock but rather than a haughty bystander who gets caught up in events she turns out to be a spy who deliberately hooks up with the hero, Hannay... oh, and her uncle is the traitor... who she cannot shoot at the crucial moment... but an apparently dead German who couldn't shoot straight when conscious rises from the dead to deliver one excellent shot to kill her off just as the two leads finally kiss and she falls into the freezing loch.
But don't worry, folks! Feisty suffragette heroine spy woman inexplicably re-appears in a tacked-on coda, gazing enigmatically across at Hannay just as he sets off for the Western Front. Despite the fact they've both pledged undying love she doesn't bother she sends her dopey brother over rather than give her soul mate so much as a goodbye peck on the cheek. Then again, she's let him think she's dead for four months so why make a fuss now? Stiff upper lip and all that.
Also, the guy from 'Spooks' who played Hannay was charmless and wooden. The whole thing looked sumptuous - pretty high production values and wonderful Scottish scenery make that difficult to blow - but the direction was uninspired and the pacing leaden.
Drivel of the first order.
The Simpsons Movie (2007)
Hole in the D'oh-nut not too large to jump a shark!
'The Simpsons' TV show is best in the business for plot twists, outrageous reversals, whiplash satire and one-liners, making the best episodes as satisfying as many great films. Topping that - or even matching it - with the long awaited movie was always going to be a challenge.
I was entertained but, truthfully, no more than a middling episode of the series. The richness of the Springfield lore and background characters is sidelined to focus on the family itself, with too much Homer in particular - yes, I never thought I'd say that, but it's true.
We love 'The Simpsons' for its frenetic pace; it's clear here the writers struggled with the structure for a longer format. Possibly a Robert Altman / 'Nashville' approach would have worked better, or maybe something like "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World", allowing us to see the great range of characters and supporting a stronger, over-arching story.
The decision to focus almost exclusively on the family itself brought out the TV show's occasional tendency towards sentimentality - Colin & Lisa? Went nowhere. Flanders & Bart? Didn't buy it for a second. Oval Office scenes? Rainer Wolfcastle would have been funnier, or GWB passing the buck that bit edgier. This isn't meant to be The Waltons!
More playfulness with the film format itself would have been welcome too - the opening 'Itchy & Scratchy' sequence and Homer's response were great but, as it turned out, too little too early for the film seldom ventured from the straight & narrow thereafter. Maybe Terry Gilliam to direct Simpsons II?
Early rumours (some time ago, I know) suggested the Simpsons Movie would be the final word on the show, but the commitment to another couple of seasons meant the film lost that seat-of-the-pants, anything-could-happen edge. I really believe the team should have one last hurrah with a final movie. Just don't try to jump the shark - blast it out of the water!
Get radical, guys - that's when you're at your best!
Screen Two: Shadow on the Earth (1988)
Subtle and memorable
I saw this only once, on its original broadcast, but it has stayed with me. It's a beautiful, simple evocation of childhood set in 1950s working-class Scotland, particularly good on the strangeness of the grown-ups' world seen through the eyes of the little boy (main character). There are several outstanding sequences - the little boy listening to his Communist-supporting father decry the Royal family as "...parasites", and his teacher's horror when he innocently repeats this. Also when the mother and neighbours set up a show with the children on the back courts - wonderfully observed. The albino man does seem strange and alien to the boys and the paranoia evoked by the 'red menace', translated as 'invaders from outer space' by the wee boys, captures the period perfectly, as well as saying something about how our ideas and opinions get formed. Great performances all round too. Well worth seeing - I'd love to see this out on DVD.