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Posts Tagged ‘1990s’

Quite a few years ago, I saw Shekhar Kapur’s adaptation of The Four Feathers, which was one of those films that almost dropped through the net completely – it didn’t get much of a release, received lukewarm reviews, and didn’t recover its budget. The reason why, I suspect, is that The Four Feathers is a stirring tale of imperial bravery, whereas Kapur’s movie was intended as a deconstruction and critique of colonial attitudes – almost a wilful subversion of the source material.

This sort of approach is very difficult to pull off. Unless you are Paul Verhoeven, apparently, for he does something very similar in his 1997 adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Over ten years earlier Verhoeven had made one of the best SF films of the 1980s in RoboCop, and while I’m not sure I’d make the same kind of claim about Starship Troopers, it’s still a typically provocative and accomplished piece of work.

Some time in the future, Earth has become a gleaming utopia; rather Americanised too, it seems, for even Buenos Aires looks like somewhere in California. Here we find Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), handsome high-school jock, his more academic girlfriend Carmen (Denise Richards), and Diz (Dina Meyer), a girl who has a bit of a thing for him. Carmen wants to fly spaceships, so she enlists in the military of the Terran Federation, as this is her best chance of doing so. Johnny follows her into the service, largely to impress her, and Diz joins up to stay close to him.

Carmen gets her wish and ends up in the space fleet, while Johnny and Diz become members of the infantry. Their training proceeds, with only a moderate level of maiming and crippling amongst the recruits, but events are progressing in the wider world, with tensions growing between the Terran Federation and the Arachnids, an arthropod race from the other side of the galaxy. A devastating Arachnid attack on Earth results in Johnny and the others going to war with the invertebrate menace…

Starship Troopers, the movie, has a very strange relationship with its source novel, but this becomes a bit more understandable once you learn that it started existence as a wholly separate entity entitled Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine. When various similarities with Heinlein’s book were noticed, the decision was made to buy the rights to it and retrofit the script to be even closer to the story.

If nothing else, this explains one of the most noticeable differences in the substance of the movie – the novel’s most lasting SF innovation was the invention of powered armour battle-suits, as worn by Rico and the others as they take on the Bugs. Power armour is completely absent from the film, which mainly concerns foot infantry carrying automatic rifles and rocket launchers.

The more significant change is subtler and arguably more interesting. Heinlein’s novel is largely a vehicle for the author’s political views, and as a result the book is very right-wing, to the point where some have accused it of open militarism (written as a piece of SF for younger readers, the original publisher refused to accept it for this reason). However, what is sincerely and seriously presented in the novel is outrageously satirised in the movie – the movie is to some extent parodying the book it is based on.

As a result, Verhoeven and his scriptwriter Ed Neumeier have been criticised for wilfully misrepresenting Heinlein. The movie depicts an implicitly totalitarian, arguably fascist society, where public executions are broadcast live on TV and having a child requires a license, and one of the key points of the book is that its world is still a democratic one. There’s something to this, but on the other hand the book does contain a sequence in which Heinlein argues the case for aggressive war as a moral imperative, on apparently racial grounds.

The important thing is that whatever political commentary Verhoeven is making, it’s entirely implicit: it’s possible to watch Starship Troopers and just come away thinking you’ve watched a lavish SF action-adventure with a somewhat hackneyed story, and this does in fact seem to be what happened on the film’s original release, given the extent to which it apparently baffled audiences and divided critics. Personally I find the nature of the film as another piece of stupendously violent SF satire impossible to miss, no matter how tongue-in-cheek it is (and it is extremely tongue-in-cheek in places) – I’ve even heard it argued that the casting of Denise Richards, an actress whose dramatic range means she is really best qualified to appear in shampoo commercials, is a flag to the audience that this is not meant to be taken seriously.

The difference between RoboCop and Starship Troopers, I suppose, is that at the heart of RoboCop is a genuine and powerful human story, which Verhoeven surrounds with various elements of topical satire, whereas the story of Starship Troopers is a deliberately superficial and corny tale, solely intended as a delivery system for the satire which is what the film is really about. One striking thing about Starship Troopers is the eerie way in which it seems to anticipate American politics and foreign policy, and media coverage of them, in the years immediately after the September 11th attacks. Watching the movie now, it seems resonant and relevant in a way it didn’t at the time it was released.

That said, of course, while the movie may only superficially be an SF action movie, it’s still an extremely accomplished one – Verhoeven knows when to play it straight and pull out a superb set-piece action sequence, and does so at various points in the movie – the Them!-meets-Zulu battle at the outpost is as good as anything in Aliens. He’s helped, of course, by a score from Basil Poledouris, the best composer in the Hollywood if you want to make bombast sound fun (also the only one to play a redshirt in Star Trek), and special effects which still stand up well today. In terms of the casting, Verhoeven seems to have been actively searching for blandly good-looking young actors (see comments on Denise Richards above), but he also finds a chunky role for veteran genre actor Michael Ironside, who delivers a perfectly-pitched performance – I can’t imagine anyone else delivering a line like ‘His brain has been sucked out!’ with quite the same degree of ambiguity – is he playing it absolutely straight or engaged in a deadpan send-up of the whole thing? It’s impossible to tell. Perhaps he’s doing both.

Then again, the same is true of all of Starship Troopers – it’s both an exploitation movie and a vicious parody of exploitation movies, a lavish war film and a parody of war films – apparently hugely excessive and dumb, but at the same time very subtle and clever. The one thing it’s not, except on the most superficial level, is a genuine attempt at an adaptation of Heinlein’s novel. No-one else has made SF movies with the same level of wit and sense of gleeful mischief than Paul Verhoeven, and few people have matched his level of technical ability as a storyteller. Starship Troopers requires you to engage your brain in a way that few other Hollywood SF action movies do, but that’s hardly a criticism, especially when this is what makes it such a rewarding piece of entertainment.

 

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In the Earth Year 1994, the Godzilla movie series was in fairly robust health – after fifteen years or so in the wilderness, with only one movie released between 1975 and 1989, they were back to cranking out a new sequel every year, and it didn’t hurt that the most recent movies had actually been pretty good, mostly. This is the situation into which Kensho Yamashita’s Godzilla Vs Spacegodzilla, sixth film in the then-current continuity and twenty-first overall, was released.

As the movie gets underway, the Japanese establishment seems to have dissolved into a (rather counter-intuitive) alphabet soup of different agencies and initiatives: we hear of the Counter-G Committee, Project M, and Project T. Naturally, most of these things are concerned with the ongoing Godzilla problem. Project M is a new weapon developed to fight giant monsters, a piloted robot called Mogera. Project T, on the other hand, is a scheme to telepathically take control of Godzilla using the psychic powers of series regular Miki (Megumi Odaka). Yeah, like that’s going to work.

However, what nearly everyone is ignoring is the approach of a hostile extra-terrestrial organism, which to begin with looks rather like Superman’s spaceship from the 1978 movie with an even grumpier version of Godzilla sticking out of the bottom of it. This, of course, is Spacegodzilla, a mutant clone of the Big G created after some of his cells ended up in space, fell through a black hole, absorbed crystalline alien life-forms, and so on. As happens all the time in Japanese monster movies. The only one who notices Spacegodzilla is on the way is Mothra (not in the movie enough) who throughout proceedings is off in space doing the stuff that a giant mystic lepidoptera has gotta do.

Mothra’s spokesfairies, the Shobijin, tell Miki what’s going on, but before Spacegodzilla arrives, there’s some other stuff to cover, namely the attempts of Project T to take psychic control of Godzilla. This happens off on a desert island somewhere, and is hampered by the presence of traumatised army veteran Yuki (Akira Emoto), who comes across as a deranged survivalist: one of his buds was killed in a Godzilla attack, and now he plans on killing the big guy with a special hand-made bullet. Yeah, like that’s going to work.

Well, the execution of Project T is a qualified success, but interrupted by the arrival of Spacegodzilla, who starts harassing both Godzilla and his offspring Little Godzilla (an irksomely twee character who’s been hanging around the movie since the start). Spacegodzilla beats the crap out of Godzilla and drives him off, traps Little Godzilla in a crystal prison, and sets off to devastate Japan, with seemingly only Mogera left to stop his rampage. Yeah, like that’s going to work…

Prior to watching Godzilla Vs Spacegodzilla, I would have confidently said that the Heisei sequence of Godzilla films (the 1984-1995 run) was absolutely your best bet in terms of your chances of finding a fun movie which was competently made and not too egregiously daft. My confidence has taken a bit of a knock, to be honest, for Godzilla Vs Spacegodzilla is in many ways a throwback to the dodgier films of the early 1970s. And in a way the 70s feel is entirely appropriate: Spacegodzilla looks like a glam rock version of Godzilla, Mogera looks like a disco version of Mechagodzilla.

The main problem is that the story is simply not very good. The first act sets up the action, reasonably competently, and includes all the messing about on the island with Little Godzilla, Project T, and Yuki’s Godzilla revenge plan. The final act is a (very) extended battle between Godzilla, Spacegodzilla, and Mogera, which basically consists of the three of them zapping each other with ray blasts and Godzilla falling over a lot.

In between… well, the thing is that there isn’t really a second act. All that’s there is a frankly ludicrous subplot about the Yakuza kidnapping Miki so that they can use her to telepathically take control of Godzilla. This plotline comes out of nowhere. It goes nowhere. It’s just a lump of weirdness plopped down in the middle of the movie. However, there are lots of elements of this movie which just pop up from nowhere or disappear to the same place (not that this is always necessarily a bad thing: Little Godzilla is basically forgotten about after the first act).

My understanding is that the aim for this movie was to create something with a more light-hearted tone than the preceding movies, and also include more character development. How they got from this to a movie about a traumatised army veteran being put in charge of flying a robot, I’m not sure; I suppose Megumi Odaka gets slightly better scenes than usual, but you can’t go overboard on things like characterisation when it comes to a Godzilla movie: I was sitting there thinking ‘Yes, this is all very nice, but can we have some monsters, now, please.’

Of course, you should be careful what you wish for, because the actual monster battle at the end of the movie goes on forever and is repetitive to the point of being boring: it nearly put me into a coma. I glanced at my watch at one point and was dismayed to see the movie still had another twenty minutes left to run. This is quite long, for a Japanese Godzilla film – it could easily stand to lose at least ten or fifteen minutes of its running time. Many – perhaps even most – of the special effects shots are arguably sub-par too.

As I said, the Godzilla franchise was in pretty good shape in 1994, but the decision was nevertheless taken to put the series on hold after the very next film, Godzilla Vs Destroyer. Am I suggesting that Godzilla Vs Spacegodzilla is so bad that it effectively killed off the franchise, or at least put it into suspended animation? Hmmm, well, maybe I am – not that I have any evidence for this, and this movie seems to have done pretty well at the box office. Nevertheless, I stand by my opinion: this is a poor movie, short on new ideas, seemingly without the imagination or affection for the Godzilla series that the best of the Heisei series have in buckets. A lowlight of the genre’s 1990s output.

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Not many people can claim to have a movie genre with their name on it, especially if they work across a whole range of styles and tones. If you make a serious gangster film, then people say you’ve made a crime drama, not something that’s essentially a Martin Scorsese film; if you make a giant monster movie, then they call it a monster movie (if they’re feeling charitable), not an Ishiro Honda-type picture. But if you make a comedy-drama about the lives of New Yorkers, fairly understated in tone, probably focused on their relationships, and very likely in black and white, it’s probably going to be suggested that you’ve made a Woody Allen movie, no matter whether you’re Noah Baumbach (a director who seems to visit Allenesque territory more than most) or whoever.

One of the things which has come to characterise Allen’s movies in recent years is that the director himself has made fewer and fewer appearances in front of the camera – he’s only been in one of his own films in the last ten years, narration duties aside – and this has led to the slightly odd phenomenon of the Proxy Allen, whereby another performer comes in and plays the character whom Allen would clearly have taken on were he still in his thirties or forties. Sometimes the actor involved is such an obvious substitute for Allen that the results are more or less seamless – for example, Jesse Eisenberg often seems to be doing his take on Allen’s schtick even when he’s appearing in other movies, so for him to do it in, say, Cafe Society, is hardly unexpected. John Cusack’s attempt at the same thing in Bullets over Broadway is likewise not a particular stretch.

However, we are here to talk about Allen’s 1998 film, Celebrity, made during one of the periods where his touch and instinct generally seem to have deserted him a little. The film concerns a couple of characters and their various encounters with celebrity culture of the period. As as not unusual for an Allen movie, there is a not-especially-subtle structure to the story: Lee (Kenneth Branagh) is a writer and journalist, who – perhaps almost despite himself – really aspires to fame and everything associated with it, but finds it always just out of reach as he blunders through a series of farcical encounters with models, actresses, and celebrity authors. Judy Davis plays Lee’s ex-wife Robin, whom he leaves at the start of the film – Judy has no desire to be famous whatsoever, which means she inevitably ends up rising without trace to a genuine degree of prominence (though her own experiences along the way are also fairly absurd).

The Proxy Allen character in this movie, in case you haven’t figured it out, is played by Kenneth Branagh, who in the late 90s seemed to be making a genuine attempt to become a proper Hollywood star (he turned up in Wild Wild West the following year). Now, I like Kenneth Branagh, and enjoy his work as both an actor and a director very much, but I have to say he is not someone who naturally comes to mind as a substitute for Woody Allen. Nevertheless, Branagh shows his quality by turning in a performance which is frequently very funny indeed, hitting just enough of the Allen beats to work, despite the obvious differences in appearance and performing style. The biggest difference, for me, was that Lee is slightly shabby and sleazy in a way that Allen characters generally aren’t – lots of Allen characters behave pretty badly towards women whom they’re involved with, but it’s almost as if the director gives himself a pass. Branagh seems more willing to acknowledge the unpleasantness of the character he’s playing, possibly because it isn’t on some level a version of himself.

It’s fairly clear that Allen believes he is making a sophisticated and insightful statement about the nature of fame and our society’s relationship with it, rather than just making a knockabout comedy. This probably explains why the film is in black and white, because nothing projects significant artiness like making a movie in black and white (to Allen’s credit, there is a neat gag about the pretentiousness of directors who still insist on making black-and-white films). On the whole, though, I’m not sure the director succeeds in achieving his ambition.

This is a fairly picaresque movie, and as usual with this sort of project, it stands or falls by the quality of the individual episodes along the way – and, I have to say, it’s a pretty mixed bag. There’s a very funny sequence where Lee is dragged along on a debauched weekend away by a self-absorbed young star (Leonardo DiCaprio) whom he’s trying to sell a script to – at one point Lee tries to hold a script conference in the middle of an orgy – but too often the satire is just too broad to be really effective, or Allen just seems to be indulging himself in the usual themes of how socially awkward guys who can write are sexually irresistible to attractive young women. Some of the comedy is rather broader and coarser than you normally find in an Allen movie, too – there’s a scene in which Bebe Neuwith nearly chokes to death on a banana while giving tips on how to perform oral sex, for instance. Then again, it was the late 90s, and this may just be a sign of the director attempting to adapt his style to a cinematic landscape he was now sharing with people like the Farrelly brothers.

It is terribly late 90s, too – quite apart from Leonardo Dicaprio, whose career was just post-boat at this point, there are also people like Winona Ryder in the cast. There’s probably something slightly ironic about the fact that so many people in minor and supporting roles in this film have since gone on to be genuine celebrities themselves – Debra Messing, Charlize Theron, Jeffrey Wright, JK Simmons, and so on.

However the film’s biggest, blackest joke for modern audiences comes towards the end, when Robin finds herself interviewing a succession of prominent New Yorkers in a chic restaurant. The film is about the general worthlessness and corrosive toxicity of celebrity, and its negative effects on society. So it seems somehow utterly appropriate that the only famous person who appears in this movie as himself is the Insane Clown President, Donald Trump, who turns up for an entirely unfunny cameo. On some level, I suppose, we have to concede Allen’s overall point, even if in this case the joke is on the entire world. On the whole, though, a fairly insubstantial and inconsistent movie.

 

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The late Gerry Anderson was quite unapologetic about the fact that his TV shows and movies, made by a British producer, using mostly-British writers and crews, in British studios and locations, almost always concerned American characters and settings, portrayed by American lead actors. If international sales are really that important to you, was his thinking, better to go down that route than to make an ostensibly British show with a single imported American star (he was particularly dismissive of Dempsey and Makepeace, as I recall). Not sure I see the distinction myself, but anyway.

Now, when it comes to the giant monster movie genre, there is a long and distinguished (well, about as distinguished as you can get when making traditionally cheap-assed movies about silly-looking monsters treading on toy tanks) tradition of the International Version, where a whole new alternate version of a movie is assembled for foreign sales purposes. This goes back, effectively, to the very birth of the genre – the version of the original Godzilla which went on release in the USA featured new scenes in which an American journalist (played by Raymond Burr, of all people) basically looks out of the window and relates what’s going on down a phone line. (Imported American stars are also quite common in the original version of a lot of 60s Toho movies, too.)

But at what point does this sort of sales-related re-editing produce something which is essentially a whole new movie? The thought occurred to me after watching Shim Hyung-Rae’s Yonggary, which is ostensibly a South Korean kaiju movie from 1999. The thing is, however, that Yonggary apparently underwent extensive re-editing and re-shoots in order to be released in the USA in 2001, under the title Reptilian, and this is the only version of the film which is widely available.

yonggary

The story goes as follows: hostile aliens, who appear to be played by glove puppets, turn up aboard a so-so looking spaceship, intent on conquering the world. Nobody notices this at first, and the story instead concerns the palaeontological dig of the sinister and arrogant Dr Campbell (Richard B Livingston). It’s never actually referred to as a palaeontological site, by the way (and it does indeed resemble a building site more than anything else), but this may be because none of the writers knew how to spell it. Also hanging around is a photojournalist (Brad Sergi) and the doc’s comely young assistant Holly (Donna Philipson). Campbell is intent on digging up a giant dinosaur skeleton, ‘fifty times bigger than a t-rex’, and isn’t about to let a string of mysterious deaths stop him.

However, who should turn up but Campbell’s old mentor Dr Hughes (Harrison Young), making wild claims that this will bring about the end of the world, for the beast (which he calls Yonggary) will soon come back to life and devastate the planet. His source for all this is some ancient hieroglyphics which he discovered in a rather confusing prologue (perhaps that should be ‘especially confusing prologue’, for – as you may have guessed – narrative coherence is not Yonggary‘s strong suit).

Naturally, everyone assumes Hughes has gone off the deep end, but then the aliens launch their scheme and the dinosaur skeleton transforms into a living, breathing Yonggary, who promptly treads on Dr Campbell. The aliens start teleporting Yonggary all over the place, attacking Los Angeles, a nuclear reactor, and so on, and making it quite tricky for the armed forces, who have finally figured out what’s going on, to send in the troops to fight him. So it goes sometimes…

The kaiju genre was in fairly rude good health in the late 90s, when Yonggary was originally conceived and produced: Toho were knocking out a not-bad Godzilla movie every year, Shusuke Kaneko’s awesome Gamera trilogy was coming to a conclusion, and the Sony-Centropolis American remake of Godzilla had been a pretty big hit the year before. I think you can detect the influence of all of these things on Yonggary to some degree or other – there’s a sequence where a squadron of helicopter gunships takes on Yonggary which seems particularly indebted to the Emmerich movie, for instance (not to mention a bit where someone says of Yonggary, ‘Godzilla is a pussy compared to this guy!’). And this is, by any rational assessment, a plot assembled from fairly classic kaiju movie tropes: alien invasion, alarmed and impotent military, monster with a heart of gold, third-act evil monster, and so on. The film even comes up with some innovations which sit quite comfortably in this kind of movie – at one point special forces soldiers with jetpacks and ray-guns are deployed to fight Yonggary, and it’s a fairly cool scene.

Of course, it would be a bit cooler if the special effects of the movie were better, because – for all that this was apparently the most expensive movie in South Korean history – it does look cheap compared to Godzilla 2000, very cheap compared to Gamera: Incomplete Struggle, and incredibly cheap compared to the Centropolis Godzilla. The CGI of Yonggary and Cycor (the enemy monster) looks only marginally competent, although to be fair the monster designs themselves are dull and unengaging.

I suspect many viewers may not even have made it to the monster fights in Yonggary, for the first third of the movie is also its weakest part. There is, as I mentioned, an unengagingly baffling prologue, followed by a long section in which the main characters are Campbell and the photographer. Neither of these people appear after the first act of the film, which suggests a script which was just being written as it went along. The shockingly poor standard of the writing and much of the acting doesn’t help much, either.

Perhaps the oddest thing about Yonggary is the fact that this was a huge production by South Korean standards, a remake of a 60s South Korean kaiju film (Yongary: Monster from the Deep, in case you were wondering), directed by a South Korean film-maker, and yet you could watch the whole thing and remain blissfully ignorant of any of this. There are no prominent Korean actors, the film has been made in English, and it is supposedly set in California. What gives?

Then again, I did watch the 2001 version of Yonggary (aka Reptilian), which – as noted – was extensively modified for its international release. How much of the original version has survived? Was the South Korean Yonggary a bit more accomplished? To be honest, I kind of doubt it: the CGI would still have been bad, the plot would still have been silly-verging-on-the-stupid. Director Shim Hyung-Rae seems to specialise in this sort of thing – a few years ago I came across his 2007 movie Dragon Wars, in which the CGI was actually quite impressive, but the plot still baffling gibberish – and that while that one did contain some distinctively Korean bits, they felt odd and incongruous given the American milieu of the film.

Anyway: hats off to South Korea for having a go at making a proper giant monster movie, even if they didn’t quite manage it in the end. This is a pretty bad movie by any reasonable standard – even if you are a very keen follower of kaiju movies, you may find it only really passes the time, at best.

 

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It seems like every time I go on t’internet these days, Twitter is aflame with news that some TV sensation or other of yesteryear is making a comeback: last week it was Twin Peaks, at the moment it’s X Files, a Babylon 5 movie is in the works – can a thirtysomething update of Buffy be very far off? I remember the 70s nostalgia boom of the early-to-mid 90s quite well; the prospect of a 90s nostalgia boom just makes me feel dispiritingly old.

I had an oddly similar sensation while watching Michael Winterbottom’s 1995 movie Butterfly Kiss the other day, which was slightly odd given that I’d never seen it before. But some combination of factors means that it just reeks of a particular time and place.

bkiss

The lead is Amanda Plummer, who at the time was fairly fresh from Pulp Fiction (if there’s a bigger mid-90s zeitgeist touchstone, I can’t think of it). In time-honoured style, the American Plummer has been imported to give some kind of cachet to a modest British film. She plays Eunice, whom I can only describe as a wandering lunatic, following the motorways of Lancashire in pursuit of her (probably non-existent) partner Judith, leaving a trail of slaughtered checkout workers in her wake.

However, for some reason she makes a connection with one of these women, Miriam (Saskia Reeves), and opts not to beat her to death. Attracted to this mysterious stranger, despite the fact she is clearly unhinged, Miriam takes her home and the two of them hook up and set out on a blood-spattered odyssey up and down the M6…

Now, on paper, the names involved in this film suggest it must be interesting – Michael Winterbottom has carved out a niche as one of those wild talents who is always worth following, while the film is written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, who also has something of a reputation (even if that thing he did on telly with the trees and fairies wasn’t much cop). If nothing else, then, Butterfly Kiss shows us that everyone had to start somewhere, because this movie is not especially distinguished in any department.

Having said that, I suppose any lesbian serial killer road movie has a certain degree of originality going for it (there’s a dash of sado-masochism thrown in, too, just in case the movie didn’t seem niche enough already). There is sex and death aplenty, if either of those things are your bag, but apart from them nothing in the film really makes an impression. If the more provocative content is intended to counterpoint the central relationship between Eunice and Miriam, it doesn’t work, mainly because neither character is remotely believeable.

You can’t really blame either actress, both of whom do the best they can with the material. Well – I say that, but I rapidly found Amanda Plummer impossible to take seriously, and actually rather annoying, simply because her accent is literally all over the place: it roams from country to country and region to region throughout the film. Was this an intentional choice or is this simply how English people sound to her? I’ve no idea: apart from this her performance is okay, but then she does rather specialise in playing characters with, shall we say, atypical pathologies.

Saskia Reeves has the benefit of playing a less-outlandish character, but the script demands she behave in a wholly incredible way: Miriam may be sheltered, naive, and just a little bit thick, but that still doesn’t explain why she decides to invite a certifiable loon back to the house she shares with her infirm mother. You could probably argue they are both lost souls drawn together by mutual need, but the script doesn’t sell this idea and it just comes across as melodramatic. I have to say the treatment of Reeves and her mother seems just a little bit patronising to me: they are both working class and poorly educated, and the film treats them primarily as pitiful, victims in the making.

Then again, finding any sort of deeper theme to Butterfly Kiss is challenging: the characters are wont to talk about things like good and evil, God and sin, but not in any really consistent way. It’s all a bit teenage poetry-ish, or perhaps like a very bad episode of Cracker; I may be getting old, but lines of dialogue like ‘It’s never easy to kill someone, especially if you love them’ seem to me to be more trite than profound. The conclusion of the film is, I suspect, intended to be a poignant moment of love and loss – my reaction was more along the lines of ‘one down, one to go’.

To be honest, watching this film I was repeatedly reminded of Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers, and on one level the two films have basically the same plot: serial killer acquires new partner and takes them on quasi-romantic road trip. However, Sightseers is – if you ask me – vastly superior. Not only is it a very effective black comedy, but the characters actually make a bit more sense, too. But much of Butterfly Kiss feels either derivative – some reviews inevitably compare it with Thelma and Louise – or vaguely like other films which have been made since, especially Pawel Pawlikowski’s My Summer of Love, which also focuses on an intense, somewhat twisted relationship between young women from different backgrounds. Mostly it just feels very much of its time, though, partly due to the 90s-tastic soundtrack: Shampoo, Shakespear’s Sister and Bjork all feature, though most prominent are the Cranberries.

In the end I can’t say I enjoyed this film much – it feels like it’s straining too hard to be gritty and provocative, but it just ends up being pretentious and melodramatic. This is one of those slightly strange examples of a film where a lot of people turn up and do something sub-par by any of their standards.

 

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I don’t know about you, but I often come across things that look toweringly silly and almost indisputably a Bad Idea, and the question that inevitably comes to mind is ‘How on earth did this ever happen? Who thought this was in any way a good idea?’ All this shows, of course, is the strangeness that hindsight sometimes lends. Right now, at this moment in time, the idea of an $85m, all-star retelling of of the story of Joan of Arc, starring Milla Jovovich, co-written by the screenwriter of Slade in Flame, and directed by Luc Besson, sounds like an unstoppable disaster in the making. But people clearly thought otherwise in 1999, when such a film was made.

messenger

The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc is… well, I’m tempted to say that it’s exactly what you’d expect from a Besson-helmed historical drama, but one of the things I’ve found myself coming back to again and again recently is how frequently your expectations of Luc Besson turn out to be misguided. This is the film which effectively put a stop to Besson’s late-90s career as someone with serious clout in Hollywood, and was indeed followed by a five-year gap in his directorial career, and – possibly this is hindsight again – neither of these things is really a total surprise.

The film is, obviously, set during the Hundred Years War, when the English were doing their best to take over France (I don’t see the problem with this, but Besson clearly feels differently), with things not going too well for the home team. The opens by introducing us to the young Joan (Jane Valentine, who’s actually pretty good), a young girl who is clearly in the grip of some kind of religious obsession, going to church several times a day and claiming to hear voices.

An attack on the village by marauding English soldiers results in the death of Joan’s sister, who gives up her hiding place for Joan, and she is understandably left traumatised, struggling to understand why God would permit this to happen, and why she should be spared and not her sister.

Some years pass before Joan, now in her late teens, presents herself at the court of the French Dauphin (John Malkovich), asking to be given an army so she can carry out God’s will and give the English the kicking they so clearly deserve. The court are, understandably, dubious, but they’re out of other ideas and Joan does seem to have a strange, otherworldly quality. And so she is given an army, and sent off to lift the siege of Orleans, not yet suspecting that she is an idealist in a deeply political world…

This is a long film (though not, perhaps, quite as long as it sometimes feels while you’re actually watching it) and almost Kubrickian in the way it naturally falls into a number of episodes, each with its own tone and style. Some of them are, needless to say, better than others, and none of them are really what you could call great. The opening sequence, with the young Joan having her first visions, is one of the best, with Besson conjuring up a real impression of ecstatic religious mania, as well as suggesting some serious issues such as survivor’s guilt.

Of course, the thing which sets the opening apart is that it doesn’t feature Milla Jovovich, and if you had to identify one thing that really scuppers The Messenger it’s the casting of Jovovich in the lead role. Joan of Arc runs a very broad gamut of emotions in the course of the film, at various points appearing as an innocent warrior, a holy fool, someone who experiences the heights of joy and the depths of horror and self-doubt. Jovovich’s performance largely consists of rolling her eyes a lot and squeaking. A goldfish at the bottom of the Mariana Trench would be less out of its depth than Milla Jovovich is here.

This is a bit of a shame, as – while you could hardly describe The Messenger as a completely coherent film – there are a lot of other things to enjoy here. Parts of the film are recognisably Bessonian in their stylish excess – the English soldiers are presented as enjoying a spot of casual necrophilia – and when the lengthy battle scenes get under way, you do get a sense of a director back in his comfort zone. There is a lot of mud, and crunch, and gore, and what they perhaps lack in scale they make up for in viscera. Even here, though, there’s a thin line between grisly, authentic spectacle, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and the film is often closer to the latter than is perhaps comfortable.

Here and elsewhere, many fine actors from many different countries do their best to try and make up for the Jovovich deficit: Vincent Cassel, Tcheky Karyo, Richard Ridings, Timothy West, Faye Dunaway, and many other familiar faces. There is an authentic touch of the medieval grotesque about much of the film, and this extends to the performances too. John Malkovich, on the other hand, is at his most John Malkovichy as the aspiring king of France, who isn’t exactly sympathetically presented by the film (I suppose French film-makers will obviously have a different attitude to their royals than British ones).

Then again, it’s very hard to sympathise with Joan herself, though this is largely down to the Jovovich effect. What really doesn’t help is a conceit where Joan’s growing self-doubts manifest in the form of a shadowy figure with whom she engages in deep philosophical discussions about her beliefs and motives. He is played by Dustin Hoffman, who is obviously pretty good, but given all the eye-rolling and squeaking he’s acting against, an idea which could have seemed bold and imaginative just comes across as bizarre and even silly.

This is a slight shame, as Joan’s wrestling with her self-doubt (realised through the metaphor of the Hoffman character) really makes up the climax of the film – the concluding bonfire isn’t really dwelt upon, possibly wisely, but this does rob the film of a strong finish. One is left with a sense of a very odd film. In many ways this is a film which was ahead of its time – it anticipates the historical-combat-movie revival spawned by Gladiator only a year or so later, and attempts to say things about the uneasy alliance of politics and religious zealotry in wartime (topical indeed). It may ultimately be a failure, but you can’t fault its ambition.

 

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I like cheese. I just had a pizza covered in cheese. Mmm mmm mmm. Cheese cheese cheese. Give me some more of that cheese, please – on a pizza or a burger, as you wish, either will suit me fine. Yes, cheese is great. You may feel I am labouring a point here, but sometimes I think cheese gets a bad rap which it doesn’t entirely deserve. I bet you have never referred to something as ‘cheesy’ and meant it in a good way.

I feel moved to talk about this, having recently enjoyed (again) Roland Emmerich’s 1996 film Independence Day, which basks in the reputation of being one of the cheesiest films ever made. Maybe this is true. There are many moments in this movie which are impossible to take seriously. It is by no means a ‘serious’ SF or action movie. Nevertheless, the first time I saw it I thought it was a masterpiece of entertainment, and many subsequent viewings have done little to modify this opinion.

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The plot goes like this. Everyday life on planet Earth, which according to this film mainly consists of the USA, is disturbed by the arrival from deep space of yet another load of belligerent extraterrestrial gits, aboard a fleet of massive flying saucers. Said vehicles assume positions hovering over major cities around the world, causing global panic. Things only get worse as the aliens prove to be hostile, simultaneously obliterating population centres and sweeping aside the world’s attempts at a military response. The extermination of the human race is only a matter of days away – and, even worse, with the Fourth of July holiday weekend looming, all the shops have sold out of party essentials…

Emmerich and co-writer Dean Devlin tell the story from the perspective of a bunch of different characters, amongst them the US President (Bill Pullman), a quirky boffin (Jeff Goldblum), a fighter pilot (Will Smith), and an alcoholic former abductee (Randy Quaid) – as you can see, this is a bit of a boy’s film. It’s not that there aren’t women in it (Mary McDonnell, Margaret Colin and Vivica Fox appear) but they’re all cast as wives and girlfriends. This is really just the tip of the iceberg: this is a film with numerous plot strands going on, and a commensurately large cast of characters.

This is a clue to the type of film Emmerich and Devlin are looking to make. On the face of it, Independence Day is a straight-down-the-line alien invasion B-movie, albeit done with a massive budget and state-of-the-art special effects (there are considerable parallels with The War of the Worlds, in particular). Indeed, you could argue that in terms of the treatment of this particular theme, Independence Day is the definitive modern version – anyone else doing an alien invasion movie has had to come up with their own plot gimmick or else make a distinctive tonal choice just in order to differentiate it. (I suppose the dogfighting sequences owe a lot to Star Wars, too.)

But that’s not all that’s going on here. The multi-stranded narrative and the structure of the plot – the aliens remain an implacable, faceless force for much of the movie – also recall the 70s boom in all-star disaster movies, which this also sort of resembles. Both sci-fi B-pictures and disaster movies are essentially mainstream, schlock entertainment, and so it isn’t really a surprise that mashing them together on this scale works so well on a conceptual level.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt at all that the film is so well made. I’m not just talking about the special effects, which have aged well for the most part, but the deft and confident way in which Emmerich marshals a big and complex narrative with clarity and a sense of innocent fun (imagine the nightmare of an Independence Day directed by Michael Bay – or, alternatively, just watch one of his Transformers films). The overall pacing and structure are immaculate, as are the two big sequences of the film’s first act – the alien ships’ arrival over Washington DC, New York, and Los Angeles, and later their destruction by honest-to-goodness death ray. These are superbly assembled, but also helped immeasurably by David Arnold’s score (possibly the composer’s best work).

It’s still never really been cool to like Independence Day, though. At the time one friend complained to me that he didn’t like jingoistic American movies, and while it is true that the rest of the world is reduced to walk-on parts, it’s a little hard to argue that a film the money shot of which is the White House going boom is entirely rabid in its American nationalism. The whole film has its tongue in its cheek at least half the time, anyway.

Which brings us to those accusations of wilful and premeditated cheesiness. Well, maybe the critics have a point here, because there are a lot of outrageously hokey moments in this film. The much-derided climax in which the US President climbs into an F-15 and personally leads the final assault on the alien invaders is, perhaps, excusable from a cultural history point of view – this film was made at the height of the Clinton era, after all, and it’s rare for the occupant of the White House not to be depicted in a somewhat fawning manner in any film of this period. But a lot of the rest of it is just, well, cheesy. I still find it tremendously enjoyable, though – it seems to me to be deliberately and knowingly cheesy, which just adds to the fun (this is a notably funny film, especially given the subject matter).

And yet it remains less of a genre favourite than many films I find much less engaging – Emmerich and Devlin’s Stargate, for example, probably has more of a following (though this may be down to the TV franchise). Perhaps this is just down to the dairy-product factor, or perhaps it’s because the film is so grounded in the mid-90s zeitgeist, with not much sense of a wider mythos or universe going on. Whatever the reason, I was fairly cool with that – but I must admit that the news of a couple of pending sequels doesn’t fill me with joy. If ever a blockbuster was complete in and of itself, it’s Independence Day, and as any cholesterol specialist will tell you, too much of a good thing can only make you sick.

 

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