Rob Pearson’s Film Picks of the Week
Police Academy – Saturday, 10pm, ITV2
The six (count ‘em!) sequels may be uniformly rubbish, but this first one is at least vaguely entertaining. In a brainless way, of course. Who said we had to have brains, anyway? That guy makes noises with his voice! Oh, man! You’d gladly commission six sequels off the back of quality like that, wouldn’t you?
Young Frankenstein – Saturday, 12.15am, BBC2
After Airplane! last week, we’re served up with more spoof excellence, this time from coming from genre godfather Mel Brooks. Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) is the reluctant grandson to everyone’s favourite mad scientist: ‘it’s pronounced Fron-ken-steen!’
After inheriting the family estate, he scoots over to Transylvania, discovers his grandpa’s lost journals, and resumes the god-playing experiments. The monster is created and later dances a gigglesome version of Putting On The Ritz. It’s all a highly astute spoof of 30s horror films, complete with grainy black and white photography, pitchfork-waving angry townsfolk and ominous foggy graveyards. Very silly, enduringly funny.
Gattaca – Sunday, 5pm, Five US
Slow to begin with, this film is a slight discussion of genetic determinism (yes – bring on the popcorn). In the future, genetic tampering and DNA testing have led to two kinds of people – valids (people with little predisposition to health problems) and invalids (everyone else).
Ethan Hawke plays Vincent, an invalid who will die at the age of 30.2, and who has S-Club 7 style dreams of reaching the stars. He gets a cleaning job at a space centre – but thanks to his genetic frailties, will never be allowed to amount to anything, let alone become an astronaut. Sure enough, he’s involved in a dodgy deal to assume the perfect identity – Jerome Morrow’s (Jude Law). Morrow is paralysed, so his genes are ripe for exploitation. Stowing away illicit bodily fluids (pouches of piss, vials of blood) Vincent passes his ‘interview’ (a urine sample) with flying colours, and can set to work on becoming an astronaut. When his boss is murdered, however, and his invalid DNA is found at the scene, the manhunt is on.
It all sounded like typical smartypants sci-fi, worried about genetic determinism, fate, free will, and other weighty topics. But then comes that murder, and the film turns in to a (well staged) detective story, albeit one clad in a few shiny sci-fi clothes. Unlike Blade Runner, however, there are no great profundities to be pondered about here. It’s triumph of the human spirit stuff, a story that might have been more at home in Nazi Germany than this functional-yet-nostalgic vision of the future.
Falling into a traditional sci-fi trap, the film often feels as sanitised as the world it takes place in, characters are left feeling humourless, staid and stilted (Uma Thurman is particularly cold as the obligatory love interest) – there’s little emotional connection to be had. Law fares much the best, a real splash of colour in a bland film. The point is clear (people can do anything! people rule, dude!), and the ideas are intelligent, well considered – but the effect is a film of resounding indifference, rather than an intriguing discussion of humanity.
Grizzly Man – Tuesday, 10pm, More4
A documentary about a man who, after living among them and filming them for thirteen summers, was eaten by a grizzly bear.
Timothy Treadwell, a floppy haired, surfer-dude looking chap, might well have been the textbook example of an environmentalist, from the outside at least. On the inside lay a tortured soul – either that or a bit of a nutter, depending on your point of view. Up in Alaska, for thirteen summers, he spent time filming brown grizzly bears, slowly crossing the boundary between man and beast.
Treadwell’s naïve enthusiasm for grizzlies is infectious, and he has followers to this day (grizzlypeople.com). He taught at schools, at home with the children’s innocent mindset. He constantly talked about his love for the bears, his love for the foxes, his love for everything wild! But he’s not the warrior environmentalist he wanted to be, even though he harboured feelings of ‘protecting’ these, erm, already protected animals (they live on a nature reserve). It soon becomes clear that the Grizzly Man wanted to be a bear, and was receding from the human world. Thirteen summers among bears, never with a gun. He got closer to them than anyone had been before, and his footage is occasionally stunning.
He shot hundreds of hours of grizzly videos – and tellingly, videos of himself. In take after take, he fiddles with his hair, worries about his bandanna, and cultivates his action man persona. The real tragedy is that Treadwell didn’t die alone. His girlfriend was with him. She is seen only fleetingly – Treadwell constantly insisted to camera that he was ‘all alone’ in the wilderness, nurturing his heroic image.
His footage often feels like a strange confessional, Steve Irwin doing a soap opera video diary. There is a highly disturbed core to Treadwell, and once the facts of the case are put aside (including scenes with an unforgettable coroner) the film starts to profile the protagonist’s mind. He grew up as the All-American kid in Florida, before finding drink, drugs, and heading out to LA to become an actor. Bizarrely, what may have tipped him over the edge was, well… Cheers. Yes, that Cheers. Treadwell was supposedly second choice to Woody Harrelson, and the show’s subsequent success got to him.
The film is directed – aptly – by Werner Herzog, himself seen as a slightly unhinged filmmaker (who legendarily once threatened to shoot his lead actor – seriously). Herzog is a good fit for documentaries, he knows that nature has its own beauty, and so is a good ‘watcher’. He is at once one of the film’s highlights and also its weakest point – he narrates, and isn’t exactly an invisible guiding hand. The tradition of documentary-making values truth over opinion, but Herzog gives insights that only he could give – about the plight of the director, about frustrations of film shoots, and about the daring, transcendental nature of Treadwell’s filmmaking. Friends say this is what he would have wanted, it’s how he would have liked to die. Rarely has bear food been so strange, so fascinating.
The Deer Hunter – Thursday, 11.05pm, ITV4
Like an uncompromising, long, serious version of Rambo: First Blood, The Deer Hunter won Best Picture back in 1978, and quality pulses through the film. A story of 6 Russian-American steelworkers (De Niro and Walken among them), who sign up to fight in ‘Nam, only to have their lives torn apart by the conflict. This is important stuff, yes, but is essentially punishing to watch, and certainly isn’t helped by being shown on commercial TV, where a 3 hour film becomes 3 hours 40.
If you stick it out, though, you’ll be rewarded by a film of tremendous depth and texture, possibly the best dissection of the Vietnam vet, and the country that welcomed them home. Or, rather, didn’t. The Vietnam scenes are absolutely indelible, the American scenes less compelling, but absolutely necessary: the film’s front end is an hour of character development. And as for the Russian roulette (recently parodied by that awesome Revels advert), well… Best. Scenes. Ever?
Dog Day Afternoon – Friday, 10pm, ITV3
While you may hear the title and expect a film starring a labrador, a poodle and Owen Wilson, Dog Day Afternoon is actually one of the best films of the 70s, and centres around a bank robbery. Not a loveable pooch in sight. The predictably superb Al Pacino delivers yet another acting masterclass (yeesh, give it a rest, Al) in this great film from 1975. Sonny Wortzik (Pacino) and his friend Sal (John Cazale, aka. Fredo from The Godfather, who’s also in The Deer Hunter this week) hold up a bank in Brooklyn.
There’s no money there, though. Whoops. So a hostage siege starts instead, as does a media circus, and the wonderful drama of putting interesting people in enclosed spaces. And Sonny is interesting. He’s robbing the bank to raise money for his transsexual wife’s gender reassignment surgery, for one thing. The police have them surrounded, and the only way out is seemingly an elaborate escape plan – a deal to get them onto a plane and out of the country. Exciting, dramatic, engaging – you know, all the good stuff.