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Posts Tagged ‘2000s’

Not for the first time recently, we went on holiday only to find our arrival coincided with regrettably unseasonal weather conditions: ‘WINTER STORM EXPECTED SUNDAY PM/MONDAY AM’ flashed every roadside information board all the way from JFK into Manhattan. Probably just a coincidence, and I suppose it could have been worse: it was only the first day or so of the trip, when we were taking it fairly easy and trying to get over the jet lag.

The prospect of spending the evening in the hotel room was brightened a bit when Travelling Companion spotted that the movie on BBC America was King Kong. This seemed (potentially, at least) a very appropriate film for the situation – it’s one of the great, iconic New York movies, and we were staying just round the corner from the Empire State Building. The only slight cause for uncertainty was that there was no way of finding out which version of King Kong we were going to be treated to, because personally I find that my mileage differs radically (I have written in the past about my very unfashionable fondness for the reviled 1976 version). Well, we settled down in front of the TV, and I have to confess that my heart sank a bit when it became clear we would be going through the experience that is Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of this classic tale.

Surely everybody knows the basic plot of this archetypal fable: it is the early 1930s, and many Americans are struggling with the consequences of the Great Depression. Amongst them is vaudevillian Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), who is out of work and struggling to even eat. Hope glimmers when she encounters maverick film-maker Carl Denham (Jack Black, playing the part as Orson Welles at his most Machiavellian), who whisks her off to star in his new movie, to be filmed on location on an uncharted island. Also shanghaied for the trip is earnest young playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody). Soon enough (well, maybe not, but we shall return to this) everyone sets sail for Skull Island, little anticipating the unusual ecosystem that has survived there: arthropods of unusual size, relict dinosaurs, and a large gorilla population (there’s actually only one gorilla, but it is very large).

Well, the natives take a fancy to Ann and end up sacrificing her to the ape, known to them as Kong (Andy Serkis does the mocapping essentials). Even as her colleagues mount a desperate attempt to rescue her, Ann finds herself realising that Kong is not quite the savage beast he first appears to be, while Carl reaches the conclusion that the ape could be just what he needs to make his career – all he needs to do is get Kong back to New York. What could possibly go wrong with an idea like that…?

Peter Jackson is quite open about the fact that the original King Kong is his favourite film of all time – well, there’s nothing wrong with that, it is an essential classic and one of the foundation texts of the fantasy and monster movie genres. He initially wanted to make it in the late 1990s, when I seem to recall it had acquired the title The Legend of King Kong, but for various reasons the project got put on hold while he pushed ahead with his noted jewellery-related triptych.

Personally I would quite like to look into that parallel dimension where Jackson made King Kong before Lord of the Rings, as I think the version they have there would be very interesting and quite possibly better. For me the extant version feels very much like the movie equivalent of one of those brick-sized mid-to-late Harry Potter novels written when J.K. Rowling had become so successful she could do anything she wanted and nobody, it seems, was brave enough to suggest that more is sometimes less.

It’s hard to imagine that the pre-Rings Jackson would have been indulged in making a version of Kong that runs for over three hours, nearly twice the length of the original film. Certainly, the 1933 film moves along at a brisk clip and skimps a little bit when it comes to things like characterisation, but it’s a pulp monster movie and that is the source of most of its charm. Blowing the movie up to proportions even vaster than that of the title character changes it entirely, making it ponderous and a source more of bathos than genuine pathos.

It is, for example, an hour into the movie before they even arrive at Skull Island, and obviously more than that before we see any monsters: Jackson has cast a trio of hot young stars (Brody was relatively fresh from his Oscar win, making this a curious inversion of that phenomenon where successful young actresses are almost instantly cast in fantasy and superhero movies – cf. Halle Berry, Charlize Theron, Brie Larson, etc), but they struggle with a script that simply feels bloated – Peter Jackson and his collaborators clearly have their hearts set on making an epic movie, perhaps rather in the same vein as Titanic, but they struggle to find anything appropriately profound to say, and the film feels like it’s taking itself very seriously considering it is essentially about an island full of dinosaurs and a giant gorilla rampaging through Manhattan. It also feels like there’s an awful lot of filler (a subplot about Jamie Bell and Evan Parke’s characters doesn’t contribute much of anything and could easily be snipped entirely).

Despite being essentially a homage, the movie seems to have a curious and by no means uncritical attitude towards the 1933 film. There are, of course, a number of in-jokes and references scattered throughout it, but one gets a general sense of Jackson and his writers attempting to update and ‘fix’ the original story. This is fair enough: the 1933 Kong‘s presentation of the islanders is horribly awkward and dated, which the newer film acknowledges by modelling Denham’s ugly and garish stage extravaganza on these scenes. But again, this is hardly done with the lightest of touches.

The really successful element of the 2005 film, at the heart of the sequences where it genuinely feels as if it’s coming to life, is its handling of Skull Island itself: what’s a fairly generic ‘Lost World’ backdrop in the original has obviously been the source of much (maybe even too much) thought and imagination, with new species of dinosaur and creepy-crawly developed to populate it. The bits of the film where Jackson genuinely feels like he’s enjoying himself all derive from this, and diverge considerably from the source: the sauropod stampede, the nightmarish chasm scene, and the fight between Kong and the vastatosaurs.

The special effects are, of course, state of the art, but again one has to wonder about some of the creative decisions involved – it’s shorthand to describe King Kong as a gorilla movie, but the makers of most films involving this character have played it a little fast and loose when it comes to presenting the giant ape – the most recent Kong movie, for instance, opted to make him more bipedal and humanoid, simply because this suited the feel they were going for. The Jackson-Serkis Kong, on the other hand, is the most authentically gorilla-ish Kong in movie history, but it’s not really clear what dividend this pays.

What does feel like a definite misstep, motivated perhaps by that decision to go for a Titanic kind of vibe, is the choice to make Kong an almost entirely sympathetic character from much earlier in the film. It’s only comparatively late in the 1933 version, when it becomes obvious he is doomed, that Kong becomes the icon of pathos and tragedy he is best remembered as – prior to this, he is an ambiguous and often frightening figure. Jackson and company clearly want us on his side all the way through, one of their main tactics being to get Naomi Watts to do her sad-open-mouth face whenever Kong is in trouble (which she ends up doing a lot). The problem is that by trying to solicit pathos rather than thrills, the film usually ends up generating neither.

Despite all of this negative talk, I would still have to agree that King Kong is a case of a great director producing a magnificent folly more than an outright failure. There is all the material here for a potentially great fantasy film, but there’s just too much of it, along with plenty of other stuff which wouldn’t ever normally appear in a conventional monster movie. In the end, this is a lavish, impressively-assembled film, but it’s saddled with an inappropriate tone and a misconceived sense of its own significance that makes it a tough slog to get through.

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It is one of those inevitable, slightly regrettable truths that the overwhelming majority of people sitting down to watch Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 movie The Room these days are doing so with a pretty good idea of what they are in for, for it is only famous because of its astonishing shortcomings as a piece of art. They know they are leaving the sunlit slopes behind and entering the valley of the shadow: watching The Room is a bit like taking a combined hitch-hiking and camping trip through Afghanistan. It’s going to be a mind-expanding, gruelling, and probably interminable experience, but you can’t say you weren’t warned.

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One can only imagine what it must be like to stumble upon The Room unawares and start to watch it with no knowledge of exactly what awaits. I almost envy that tiny group of initial viewers who benefited from that state of grace – although, on the other hand, settling into one’s seat in expectation of a conventional movie and then being exposed to Wiseau’s opus must have felt rather like going out for a country walk, bending over to look at a wild flower, and then receiving the impact of a charging bull in the nether regions of the person.

The thing is that the opening moments of The Room are, well, surprisingly competent, given the film’s notorious reputation. Credits play, background shots of San Francisco appear; one wonders if the film can really be quite as bad as it is supposed to be. Friends, it is.

The story is focuses on a saintly businessman named Johnny (played by Wiseau himself), who is an all-around great guy and beloved by nearly everyone who knows him. He is engaged to Lisa (Juliette Danielle), his long-term girlfriend, who is depicted as thorough-goingly manipulative, self-serving and callous. Despite affecting to love Johnny, Lisa commences an affair with Johnny’s best friend Mark (Greg Sestero); Mark is conflicted by this, but finds Lisa’s somewhat obscure charms to be utterly irresistible.

Will Johnny discover the affair? Will Mark decide to stop betraying his best friend and break it off with Lisa? Will Lisa leave Johnny, even though this will tear him apart? Meanwhile, Johnny’s youthful ward Denny (Philip Haldiman) has some problems with a drug-dealing gangster, which are never really explored or explained, Lisa’s mother is diagnosed with breast cancer, which does not impact the plot and is indeed only mentioned just the once, and there’s a moment where four of the main male characters decide to play American football in an alleyway dressed in tuxedos (this likewise does not advance the plot in any significant manner).

I suppose you can kind of just about make out the kind of film that Wiseau (who, in addition to starring and directing, also wrote, produced and financed the film himself) was trying to make: something vaguely akin to Reality Bites, a sort of ensemble piece about the lives and loves of a group of young people just starting out in life. To say the film is wide of the mark is a bit of an understatement: a lot of the time, it has that the-script-and-acting-isn’t-really-important feel of bad pornography, a resemblance which is only heightened by the fact that The Room features no fewer than five protracted and repetitive sex scenes.

If The Room is pornography, however, it’s pornography made by someone who is a bit unclear on the exact mechanics of the act and is too embarrassed to admit this (which I suppose is just another way of saying the sex scenes are actually fairly tame). Trying to work out why the film has five sex scenes, or indeed to discern the rationale behind many of its baffling creative choices, is the first step on a dangerous path, because trying to work out just what Tommy Wiseau was thinking when he came up with this sucker can only end in madness.

Wiseau has become a cult figure off the back of The Room, and a curiously cryptic and inscrutable one: in The Disaster Artist, a fictionalised account of the making of The Room (oh, yes, this is the state of modern culture), James Franco is content to just do a Wiseau impersonation, reproducing the man’s baffling hair, idiosyncratic mode of speech, and general air of being a human glove puppet remotely operated from another dimension – there’s no attempt to work out what actually makes him tick, or how anyone could have the necessary resources to make a film like The Room (it cost $6 million) but be so totally oblivious of their own shortcomings in terms of having any kind of talent.

I suppose this is why The Room exerts its strange power of baleful fascination over unsuspecting audiences. As I’ve said before, making any kind of movie is difficult, which is why the really, really good ones often feel like they have an almost-miraculous quality about them. Your chances of producing an absolute clunker also spike significantly if you start pushing the boat out in terms of your vision and the subject matter of your film – for example, the concept of alien invaders raising an army of zombies to conquer the world is one which is fraught with more pitfalls than most, which is possibly why it resulted in another famously bad movie. The thing is that Wiseau isn’t really trying to do anything that difficult, in terms of his actual story. He just gets almost every single important creative decision wrong.

The fact is that The Room doesn’t have many of the obvious flaws of other famously bad movies: there are no obvious continuity errors as such, or glaringly bad special effects. On a purely technical level it is actually fairly proficient (oh my God, I’m saying positive things about The Room: I’ve been doing this too long). But creatively… it is badly written, badly cast, badly directed, and badly acted, with ‘badly’ a huge understatement in each case. Characters and subplots appear and disappear almost at random, the main storyline is repetitive, the motivations of the people in the story remain baffling, and so on.

There’s not a lot of point in actually trying to review The Room objectively, for the fact that it is so very, very bad is intrinsically bound up with the fact that it has any kind of profile at all. Here at least the concept of consensus survives: The Room is not just terrible, it is famously, proverbially terrible. And obviously I would not disagree with this. But what I would add is that while The Room is never any good, it is also seldom boring (the sex scenes do drag on a bit), and the sheer nature of its badness also makes it quite mesmerising to watch. But not that often – if you have any sense, anyway.

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(How’s About This For Unfinished Business Dept.: No word of a lie – while getting ready for the current odyssey I unearthed from a dark corner of my luggage two sheets of aged, crinkled paper. They turned out to be a review actually written in Kyrgyzstan at some point in the spring of 2009, which I never got around to typing up and submitting to h2g2 (many possible reasons for this, none of which I care to dwell on). So here we are, better late than never – and it’s oddly reassuring to see that the core focus of my film criticism has remained unchanged in the last nine years…)

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column which proves that the words ‘unmissable release’ have become sadly devalued. As with our previous instalment, caveat lector – I’m talking about a movie I saw in a language I only have an elementary grasp of. That said…

In terms of being a tough movie to get a sequel out of, I suspect Beneath the Planet of the Apes still leads the field, concluding as it does with said planet vaporised along with every single character (or so it appears). I would have put 2006’s Crank somewhere on the same list, though, due to the ending featuring the fatally-poisoned main character falling two miles out of a helicopter into the centre of Los Angeles (thoughtfully phoning up his girlfriend to apologise on the way down).

There were of course three further sequels to Beneath the Planet of the Apes, along with two TV series and various other ephemera. The prospect of Crank becoming a similar multi-media institution strikes me as rather unlikely (not to mention deeply disturbing), but a sequel has duly appeared in the form of Crank: High Voltage, directed as before by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor.

Crank 2

Straight after hitting the ground, crazed psychotic Chev Chelios (perennial favourite hereabouts and Greatest Living Englishman candidate Lord Jason of Statham) is scraped off the pavement and slung in the back of a van by some Chinese gangsters. Impressed by his resistance to the adrenaline poison (the plot device driving the first film), they have decided to harvest his organs. Upon learning this, Chev responds in typically forthright style, but it’s too late: his heart has already been extracted for transplant into an ageing crime lord (David Carradine) and replaced with a battery-powered artificial one. The battery is wont to run low at the most inopportune moments, which only makes Chev’s quest to retrieve his heart even trickier…

By any even moderately civilised standards, the Crank movies are jaw-droppingly horrible – not actually badly made, just amoral, obscene, hugely violent, tasteless, profane, and thoroughly offensive. Crank: High Voltage is very much in the same vein as the original in that it is largely one headlong display of carnage and depravity on the streets of Los Angeles.

Any hopes of increased maturity this time round were dispelled by an early sequence in which Chev interrogates a somewhat-obese bad guy by inserting a lubricated shotgun barrel where the sun don’t shine. I am on record in these pages as disliking the Kill Bill films, in particular, for exactly this sort of thing, which makes my (guilty) enjoyment of Crank rather embarrassing.

So, how to defend it? Well, in addition to all the things previously mentioned, Crank: High Voltage is frenetic, ludicrous and bizarre (it’s even got Geri Halliwell in it), but it’s also frequently very funny (the great man shows signs of a comic touch that could probably be rewardingly utilised in the right role) and never, ever pretentious or under the illusion it’s anything other than junk entertainment. It’s consistently inventive and surprising in its storytelling, which is never confused (I particularly enjoyed the sequence in which Jason Statham turns into Godzilla. Honestly).

The directors deftly handle what turns into a fairly complicated story – the main thread concerns Chev and the increasingly improbable methods he uses to keep his heart going, but whirling around it like demented satellites are subplots featuring Chev’s girlfriend Eve (Amy Smart) who’s now a pole dancer, a rather excitable Chinese prostitute who’s also in love with him (Bai Ling), the twin of Chev’s original sidekick, who is also transsexual but, additionally, suffers from whole-body Tourette’s syndrome (Efren Ramirez)… you get the general idea.

As you may have surmised, this isn’t really a venue for nuanced acting, but everyone seems to do what’s required of them (well, I have my doubts about Ginger Spice, but that’s a matter of principle) and the great man does a nice job of making Chev distinct from his other franchise character, Frank Martin. (Though an in-joke where an old woman complains that she’s been molested by someone who looks like the guy from The Transporter had me rolling my eyes a bit.)

I couldn’t honestly recommend either of the Crank movies to anyone I didn’t know very well, but I hope I’ve given you some idea of what to expect should you decide to take the plunge. It will almost certainly exceed your expectations, though probably not in a good way. I wait with some trepidation the next sequel, which I note the film-makers’ have made much easier to arrange, though quite how they can sustain the concept for another full movie I shudder to think.

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There was a time, nearly fifteen years ago, when I basically just got burned out as far as going to the cinema was concerned: catching every significant new release started to feel like a burden, I was acutely aware of the demands I was making on the people close to me in terms of constantly asking for lifts to and from the multiplex, and there were some other changes to the cinemas themselves which made it all seem rather less appealing. So I cut back drastically for the best part of a year, only seeing things I was really interested in. As a result there are some films which I recall seeing the trailers for multiple times, and remembering thinking ‘hmmm, that looks like it has potential’ about, which I never ended up going to see.

Another cutback looms, though for slightly different reasons: I am off to where the films are all dubbed into a foreign language for a couple of months, and long experience has taught me this is never the best way to meet a new movie. Needless to say I will be taking with me (ahem) a large trunk filled with DVDs to while away the quiet moments, and when I asked for suggestions as to what to put in the trunk, one of the suggestions was Wolfgang Becker’s 2003 film Good Bye Lenin! (even though, given my destination, a film entitled Hello Again Putin! might be slightly more appropriate) – this was one of the films that just missed the cut back in 2004, mainly due to it only getting a very limited release in my area (subtitled films always had a hard time in Lancashire – at one point, if you rang up to book tickets for one, the person on the other end would ask you if you were sure you knew what you were doing).

(Lest you be wondering, yes, it apparently is definitely called Good Bye Lenin!, rather than the Goodbye Lenin! or even Good-bye Lenin! you might expect. Just another sign of a film made by non-native speakers of English, I suppose, along with the fact that the subtitles on the DVD had rather more spelling mistakes than you might expect. What can I say, I’m never off-duty.)

So, anyway, I decided to watch this particular film before my actual foreign trip got started (eight days and counting). Mostly set in 1989 and 1990, it concerns a young man named Alex (Daniel Bruhl) and his family, who as the film opens are resident in East Berlin. Alex’s father apparently abandoned them and fled to the west some years earlier, and as a reaction to this his mother (Katrin Sass) has become a zealous true believer in the communist system. His sister (Maria Simon) is more pragmatic.

Alex himself is no fan of communism and opts to take part in a public protest one night, with two very significant consequences: firstly, he meets a rather nice young Russian nurse (Chulpan Khamatova) with whom he goes on to have a relationship, and secondly (and perhaps more importantly) the sight of him being arrested by the police and bundled into the back of a truck is enough to give his mother a severe heart attack. Poor medical attention results in her being in a coma for eight months, during which time the Wall comes down and the communist government collapses. Alex is warned by the doctors that his mother’s health is fragile and she should be spared any shocks or excitement – which will be tricky, in the circumstances.

So Alex embarks on a systematic programme of benevolent deception, getting rid of all the post-communist things that are cluttering their apartment and doing everything he can to maintain the illusion that nothing has changed in East Germany. Initially this just takes the form of transferring new food into old packaging, but it inevitably becomes more and more elaborate as time goes on. Can Alex keep his mother in the dark, even as the reunification of Germany approaches? And is he really acting for the best in deceiving her like this?

For a long time I was aware of Good Bye Lenin! and eventually came to think of it as ‘the Daniel Bruhl movie’, this being the film that really brought the actor to international attention: he has gone on to make contributions of various sizes to films as diverse as The Bourne Ultimatum, Rush, Captain America: Civil War and Alone in Berlin, to name only a handful. I’ve always found him to be an extremely watchable actor, and that’s the case here, too – he carries the movie with great aplomb, without ever doing anything too flashy or otherwise being caught acting.

That said, Good Bye Lenin! is a very accomplished film in many ways. The advertising for the film perhaps over-emphasises the comic elements of the plot, stressing the absurdist comedy of Alex trying to maintain the illusion of communism’s survival. There are indeed some very funny moments arising from this – at one point, Alex makes a cheery speech to his mother about time going by, but nothing really changing, totally oblivious to the Coca-Cola advert slowly unfurling in the window behind him – and there’s something quite fascinating about the alternate history he is forced to develop to explain all the changes happening in the city (Coca-Cola is finally acknowledged as an invention of socialism, while an economic crisis in the west has flooded the eastern bloc countries with refugees seeking a better life). Much of the humour is very understated and ironic, particularly Alex’s dry voice-over (at one point he explains how he embarked on his first mission to explore western culture, which plays over a scene of him visiting a sex shop in the west).

However, the film is never very far from a more serious moment, as perhaps befits this kind of subject matter. The film is really about the partition of Germany, and the consequences of its reunification, with the division of Alex’s own family and the heartbreak arising from this a metaphor for the divided country. And it’s very hard to escape the impression that the film is, on some level, motivated by nostalgia for some aspects of life in the old East Germany – it seems rather disdainful of the garish consumerism that filled the void left by the collapse of communism, especially famous brands like Coke and Burger King. Towards the end one of Alex’s faked TV broadcasts speaks of the westerners fleeing their materialistic lives, coming to eastern Europe in hope of something better, and you can almost imagine something like that happening.

I suppose you could argue that the film’s not-unsympathetic depiction of life under communism is part and parcel of the story, which hinges upon Alex’s mother and her love for the old system – the film views it with the same rose-tinted spectacles that she does. In the end the film stays ambivalent about the morality of the deception Alex perpetrates, as it does seem to keep his mother happy. Maybe the communist system was based on another deception, but it was not without its own kind of optimism.

In the end this is a thoughtful film, with moments of seriousness as well as humour, clearly made by people who know their cinema (there are a couple of cheerfully brazen raids on Kubrick, for instance). I wonder if perhaps you have to be German to really appreciate the emotional core of the picture, for it certainly feels like a film made in a country still trying to deal with its own recent history, but for everyone else this is still a well-made, entertaining, moving film.

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Recently discovered in the electronic equivalent of down the back of the sofa. I have no memory of writing this back in 2008. Anyway, how times change…

No-one, I think, would be terribly surprised to learn that someone has made another movie based on a Marvel Comics superhero, for this sort of thing has been going on for some years now and many of the movies have been rather impressive – the X-Men trilogy was consistently pretty good, the Blade trilogy had its moments, and while last year’s Spider-Man 3 met with a rather lukewarm reception, the first two films were also rather accomplished. No, if there’s anything unusual about Jon Favreau’s new movie Iron Man, it’s that this is a Marvel Comics movie actually made by Marvel themselves – the venerable company have put their money when their mouth is and launched their own film studio, presumably on the grounds that they know how to handle these characters better than anyone else.

I say ‘these characters’, but if there’s one factor that might lead one to doubt the wisdom of the Marvel Studios project, it’s that all the most marketable and popular characters have already been licensed out to other studios – thus, Sony have the rights to make films about Spider-Man and Ghost Rider, Fox own the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, and Universal have Sub-Mariner and the Hulk (though I understand some kind of deal has been struck allowing the production of the Louis Leterrier Hulk movie which is due in a couple of months time). This could be interpreted as meaning that Marvel’s new movie wing is stuck with a load of second-string, uninspiring characters. Iron Man is possibly their best bet to launch this new enterprise.

Playing Iron Man in the movie, or more specifically his human alter ego, is Robert Downey Jr. He is Tony Stark, who as the film opens is a swaggering, self-absorbed hedonist, having become an immensely wealthy man off the back of his genius for designing technology (usually weapons). His sheer irresponsibility is a pain in the collective neck of his PA (Gwyneth Paltrow), military buddy (Terrence Howard), and business partner (Jeff Bridges), but he remains an annoyingly charming rogue, despite his dissolute ways.

All this changes, however, when Stark is captured by terrorists while on a business trip to Afghanistan, getting badly riddled with shrapnel in the process. A friendly fellow-prisoner installs an electromagnet in his chest to keep him alive, while the boss terrorist decrees that henceforth Stark will put his genius for destruction to work in their service, locking him in a cave with a load of power tools and instructing him to get on with it.

Many superhero stories have a magic ‘if’ involved, a moment where you have to really suspend your belief, and Iron Man‘s comes at this point – for Stark is able to make himself an armoured exoskeleton powered by a pioneering new mini-reactor and battle his way to freedom, without any of the terrorists wondering exactly what he’s building until it’s too late. But it’s a cool sequence anyway.

Back in the USA, Stark is a changed man, suddenly terribly aware of the carnage he is responsible for around the world, and determined to make amends for this. His announcement that his corporation will cease manufacturing weapons is met with shock from the media and hostility from his business partners, and news eventually reaches him that unauthorised shipments of ordnance are still being made. So it seems he has no choice but to go back into action, using a rather more sophisticated new suit of armour…

Well, yes, this is yet another superhero origin movie, and while I suppose there is a very real possibility that we will one day grow sick of them, that seems unlikely to happen when they are as smartly put together as Iron Man. The world being what it is, Stan Lee’s original version of this story has been quite neatly updated by the simple expedient of replacing Vietnam with Afghanistan. Iron Man dates from Lee’s imperial phase as a creator of new superheroes, and indeed the veteran scribe (who makes another of his cameos here) announced that with Iron Man his intention was to create a hero who had nothing in common with his young, not especially affluent, somewhat counter-culturally inclined core audience, just to see if he could make it work.

If the film has a significant achievement to its name, it’s that this is a rare example of a comic-book movie which is dominated by the title character’s performance, rather than the villain or (even worse) just the special effects. A few years ago, Tom Cruise was apparently in talks to play Stark, and he would have been a more predictable and conventional choice in many ways. But now, post-Johnny Depp in the Pirates movies, slightly more idiosyncratic performers can get a shot at this kind of film, which is presumably why Downey Jr stars here. He’s always been a brilliant actor, but his problem has been not so much that he couldn’t get arrested in Hollywood, but that this was happening just a bit too frequently. Here, though, he puts his undeniable talent to good use – the initial, roguish Stark is still charming and likeable, while his transformation into a genuinely heroic, dedicated righter of wrongs is convincing, while still maintaining the character’s appeal.

Of course, the focus on Stark, while welcome, does mean that the actual villain of the movie, whose identity I suppose I’d better not spoil, is a little flat in comparison – a fairly unusual flaw for a superhero film, I’m sure you’ll agree. On the other hand, Downey Jr is very well-supported by the rest of the cast, not to mention a sharp and snappy script with some very zippy dialogue. No doubt future movies will feature more spectacular opposition – a not-exactly-subtle hint that Howard will be putting on a set of armour in a potential sequel certainly suggests Marvel are thinking along those lines. If you get that joke, you’ll probably also appreciate an appearance by Clark Gregg in a small role as a member of a government spy agency well-known to Marvel readers.

Iron Man is a very competent, engaging and entertaining movie, and surely bodes well for the future of the Marvel Studios project. That said, it really does have a sense of ultra-cautiousness about it, the company not wanting to take too many risks. As a result it doesn’t feel like it has the scale or scope of, say, Christopher Nolan’s Batman movie, or Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2. But maybe that will come in time; the very least one can say about Iron Man is that it is a solid debut for this new studio, and certainly a movie that suggests Marvel’s in-house film operation could produce some very interesting work over the next few years.

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The 2001 Toho movie Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (sensibly abbreviated to GMK by sane commentators) is kind of the movie equivalent of a fairly obscure artist releasing a record on a minor label, scoring a considerable critical success, and then being signed up by one of the big boys as a result to see if they can work the same kind of magic with considerably greater resources behind them. The director of GMK, Shusuke Kaneko, first came to the attention of Japanese monster movie connoisseurs with his trilogy of Gamera movies, made for Daiei between 1995 and 1999 – during a pause in Toho’s own production of Godzilla films, as it happened. Now, most of the Toho Godzilla films of the early and mid 1990s are not bad at all, but Kaneko’s Gamera films have a freshness, style, and depth which means they are inarguably better.

You can make out signs of Toho trying to assimilate all of Kaneko’s innovations in the films they made when Godzilla production resumed between 1999 and 2004, but the fact is that the 1999 and 2000 films, Godzilla 2000 and Godzilla Vs Megaguirus, are both sub-standard entries to the series. You can see why the studio decided to go direct to source and retained Shusuke Kaneko himself to co-write and direct the next movie, GMK.

GMK follows the usual convention of Godzilla movies from this period, ignoring all the previous films except the very first one – though they can’t resist doing a gag at the expense of the 1998 American Godzilla, revealing that a giant monster recently attacked the east coast of the USA – the Americans are sure it was Godzilla, but Japanese experts are much less convinced.

The story gets going with the loss of a nuclear submarine in the Pacific, and a Japanese submarine named the Satsuma is sent in to investigate (‘satsuma’ is an odd name for a sub, but I suspect this is a homage to veteran Godzilla suit-artiste Ken Satsuma). Sure enough, there are claw marks on the sunken wreck and a familiar set of dorsal plates are spotted lurking in the vicinity. Property values in the Kanto region instantly take a hit.

We then meet Yuri (Chiharu Niiyama), our human point-of-identification character for the movie. She is a reporter for what seems to be a fairly trashy cable TV show, doing a film about legends of monster sightings in various parts of Japan. She sees a mysterious old man in an equestrian safety helmet, shortly before there is a rather unusual earthquake: a road tunnel collapses, crushing an annoying biker gang, and a survivor in the area reports seeing a giant monster.

The weird events continue, with some irritating teens being dragged beneath the waters of a lake, their bodies later being discovered wrapped in cocoons (yes, it’s Mothra’s work, but probably best not to ask what he/she is doing at the bottom of a lake). Yuri and her friends learn of the legend of three Guardian Monsters who will awake to defend the islands of Japan should they be threatened. It turns out the old guy in the riding hat is convinced of the truth of this and is using special stones as some kind of spiritual battery, to wake up the Guardians. Meanwhile Japanese defence command is preoccupied by a series of distraught (and somewhat self-referential) committee meetings – ‘Why is Godzilla coming here again? Why can’t he pick on some other country for a change?’ appears to be the main item on the agenda.

Anyway, Godzilla eventually comes ashore and starts wreaking havoc, just about the same time that the first of the Guardian Monsters breaks cover: it’s Baragon, a relatively minor Toho monster from the 1960s who is not famous enough to get his name in the title of the movie. It soon becomes fairly obvious that Baragon is not capable of being much more than an hors d’oeuvre for Godzilla, and the heavy lifting come the climax of the film wil fall to the other two Guardian Monsters – giant mystic lepidoptera Mothra, and multi-headed golden dragon King Ghidorah…

Now, I know you, you are wise in the ways of the world. Right now you are saying ‘Wait a minute, Ghidorah’s the good guy? Since when does that ever happen? Ghidorah is the embodiment of monster evil in the Toho universe.’ And I would normally agree with you. It seems that Kaneko’s original idea was for the Guardian Monsters to be Baragon, Varan, and Anguillas (all second-division Toho kaiju), but the studio nixed this on the grounds that the series at this point needed the marquee value of appearances by Mothra and King Ghidorah. Thus we end up with the unprecedented spectacle of Mothra and Ghidorah actually teaming up to fight Godzilla.

I mean, it doesn’t quite kill the movie outright, but it does feel very odd: that said, there are lots of elements of GMK which just feel odd, and one wonders about the extent to which Kaneko’s vision for the film was compromised by Toho’s requirements for it. I watched the English dub of GMK, obviously, and I’m aware that the tone of the English dialogue can sometimes give a misleading impression. As a result I’m not sure if this really is as knowingly cheesy a movie as it actually seems, or whether the cheesiness is just an accident.

There’s nothing wrong with a certain level of knowing cheesiness (or even unconscious cheesiness), but it does sit very strangely in a film which occasionally attempts to tackle some quite serious and even dark subject matter. Kaneko has said he was attempting to make more of a fantasy take on Godzilla, which probably explains the film’s most striking innovation – the revelation that Godzilla is possessed by the angry spirits of all those who died as a result of Japan’s actions in the Second World War, which is why he’s always homing in on Tokyo in a bad mood. It’s a curious and provocative idea, and not the only time the film skirts sensitive topics – the first moment when Godzilla unleashes his nuclear breath is followed by a scene where a school teacher looks out of the window and sees the resulting mushroom cloud rising over her town. ‘Atom bombs!’ she gasps. (No, it’s not all that subtle, but this is a Godzilla movie, after all.)

But then we go from this to the comedy caricatures of Yuri’s workmates, or a scene where a couple of tourists spot Baragon yomping towards them. ‘He’s enormous, but kind of cute!’ says one of them. ‘Let’s take a photo, then run!’ says the other. Seconds later they are both crushed to death as Godzilla smashes through the hillside they are standing on. In yet another tonally very weird moment, we see a man apparently contemplating suicide, fashioning a crude noose from his tie so he can hang himself from a tree. But he falls off the rock he’s standing on and does a comedy pratfall down into the cave where Ghidorah is hibernating.

How much of this is down to Kaneko’s attempt to make a more edgy Godzilla I don’t know. For me, the best moments of the film are the more subtle and restrained ones – there’s an impressive scene where a group of people in a small building are terrorised by Godzilla’s passing. You never see the monster, but the whole set is rigged to shake and sway and collapse at the sound of his footprints. The reactions of individual characters to Godzilla give the film what resonance it achieves.

Most of the time, though, this just feels like an old-school monster bash, like something from 35 years earlier. As such it’s not too bad, but really nothing very special – the CGI is impressive, and the monster suits are not too bad – although there’s something about the Godzilla suit here which makes him look more like a fat dinosaur than is usually the case. The way the movie concludes with a succession of deeply weird moments  and plot developments is also arguably a bit of a problem.

Well, the least you can say about GMK is that it’s better than the two movies that preceded it. But the fact is that not only does it not come close to the standard of Kaneko’s Gamera movies, but it’s also not quite as good as the films in a similar vein which Toho themselves had been making ten years earlier. How much of this is down to Toho insisting on the inclusion of certain elements, and how much to Kaneko missing the presence of Gamera co-writer Kazunori Ito, it’s difficult to say. But this film is inevitably a bit of a disappointment.

 

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Seeing as we were discussing the change in fortunes of Marvel movies over the years just the other day, we might usefully consider the question of what, exactly, it will take for them to actually produce another proper turkey (yes, yes, I know a lot of people didn’t like Iron Man 3 – didn’t stop it becoming one of the biggest hits in history). Well, I would say that on paper, the omens for Thor: Ragnarok are a little worrying, simply because when Marvel head Down Under to make their films (Ragnarok was filmed in Australia), the results are frequently not pretty.

Exhibit A is the 1989 version of The Punisher, transplanting Frank Castle from New York to Sydney and turning him into Dolph Lundgren, and I would argue that Exhibit B is Brett Leonard’s 2005 take on Man-Thing. On this occasion the movie at least purported to be set in the swamps of the southern USA, but it was actually made, once again, in the Sydney area.

Rather surprisingly for a Marvel movie, the story gets underway with a reprise of the opening of Jaws, as a young couple sneak off into the bayou for a little illicit whoa-ho-ho. Things are going nicely, until the male participant is gorily impaled through the chest and dragged off into the undergrowth, leaving his partner a screaming wreck. (The character who gets killed is named Steve Gerber, who was a writer on the Man-Thing comic back in the 1970s – several other writers and artists get characters named after them, too. I suspect all of these people would have felt more honoured if the scriptwriters had tried harder to make a better movie.)

Next we meet the new sheriff in the area, Kyle Williams (Matthew Le Nevez), whose incipient male pattern baldness cannot disguise the fact that he is improbably young for such a big job (Le Nevez was only in his mid-20s when the film was made). Top of his in-tray, apart from the mysterious disappearance of his predecessor, are the various problems besetting the local oil company, which has been putting up various rigs in the swamp and annoying environmentalists and local Native Americans. Williams decides to open communications with the protestors by getting to know the blondest and comeliest protestor he can lay his hands on (Rachael Taylor, who has since gone on to a more successful Marvel connection, playing Hellcat in the Netflix series).

It turns out lots of people are vanishing into the swamp and then turning up dead, and Sheriff Kyle’s somewhat rudimentary investigations turn up two possible suspects – local ne’er-do-well Laroque, and the legendary guardian spirit of the swamp, which supposedly hosts the mystical Nexus of All Realities. Hang on a minute – does that mean Man-Thing is actually the bad guy in his own movie?!

Reader, I’m afraid it does. Now, we are of course dealing with a third-string Marvel character here, basically an ambulatory pile of muck with a philosophical temperament and a tendency to set fire to people (‘Whatever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing’s touch!’). There’s also the issue that Man-Thing, who lives in a swamp, is very prone to being confused with DC’s Swamp Thing, who used to be a man (well, kinda: it’s complicated) – Alan Moore basically said both characters were ‘Hamlet covered in snot’.

The movie version of Man-Thing is a very different proposition, resembling a grumpy Ent covered in CGI vines and creepers, much given to murdering innocent passers-by in a surprisingly graphic style. This is much more of a horror movie than anything else that has been produced under the Marvel marque, and contains a lot of other non-family-friendly material – F-bombs, nudity, and fairly graphic sex, too (perhaps the writers heard the comic was briefly titled Giant-Size Man-Thing and got the wrong end of the stick).

If only the film was as interesting as that makes it sound. The problem is that it isn’t; it’s just dull. This is a Man-Thing movie in which Man-Thing himself doesn’t appear in the flesh – sorry, muck – until near the end, and the script doesn’t seem to have much idea what to fill the monster-shaped hole at its centre. What it eventually plumps for is the kind of scenario that would sustain a filler episode of The X-Files, with a lumberingly unsubtle environmentalist message and cartoonishly evil oil-men bad guys, driven along by occasional monster attacks. It might just have been enjoyably silly and camp over a period of 45 minutes. Stretched out to feature-film length – it really does feel stretched – it’s just dull, lacking in tension or new ideas, brought to the screen by actors who are for the most part not especially charismatic.

One criticism that occasionally gets slung at the Marvel Studio films these days is that they are all a bit samey, written to a formula, and overly micro-managed by the producers – hence the departure of Edgar Wright from Ant-Man, for instance. Marvel’s response to this is basically to point at a movie like Man-Thing and say ‘this is what happens when we don’t keep tight control on our projects’, and it’s hard to argue with them.

You can’t really talk about ‘the current boom in superhero and comic-book movies’, as it’s arguably been underway since the late 1990s (a very long boom), and you could even argue that there was a brief period in the mid-2000s when the bad old days made something of a come-back – as well as Man-Thing, there was the Tom Jane version of The Punisher, Ben Affleck’s Daredevil, Nic Cage’s Ghost Rider, and Halle Berry’s take on Catwoman. I suppose it just shows that doing this kind of film well is never as easy as you might think it is – also that getting the tone right is hugely important, and really understanding the character that you’re bringing to the screen. Man-Thing certainly constitutes a dropped ball, and that’s mainly because it doesn’t feel like a Man-Thing movie, and whatever kind of film it does want to be, it’s a poorly scripted and ineptly made one.

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