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Posts Tagged ‘adventure’

Some kind of threshold in the delexicalisation of the word irony was surely passed when the Original Film Company announced it was going to release… well, take your pick, really: Sonic the Hedgehog, the Total Recall remake, any of the Fast and Furious movies… not that all of these films are necessarily bad, of course. It’s just part of a larger trend, anyway, and one which we have discussed before: such is the expense and exposure involved in making a major tentpole summer blockbuster these days, that the big studios invariably hedge their bets by backing properties with a history of success – which translates as doing sequels, remakes, and adaptations of properties from other media (TV shows, comic books, video games, theme park rides).

It’s a slightly dismal state of affairs even when, as noted, some of the sequels, remakes, adaptations, etc, stand up pretty well on their own terms. The arrival of a big popcorn movie which is none of these things is always therefore a noteworthy occasion (especially if it’s not been directed by Christopher Nolan).

That said, I wasn’t particularly grabbed by the early publicity for Shawn Levy’s Free Guy, partly because it didn’t honestly look all that much like an actually original film (a grab-bag of ideas and visuals from elsewhere, really) and also because it’s a star vehicle for Ryan Reynolds, who has undeniable ability as a light comedian and leading man, but also often comes across as a bit smarmy. Still, you know, sometimes you just want to see something colourful and lively and not too demanding on the higher brain functions.

Reynolds plays Guy, who is a bank clerk in Free City. Guy thinks Free City is a utopia, the greatest place to live in the world, even though it objectively seems to be a dismal, insanely violent, crime-ridden hellhole, where the streets are filled with outlandishly-dressed violent psychopaths all wearing sunglasses and intent on non-stop mayhem and slaughter. But Guy still likes it there. But is there something missing from his life of cheery routine? (Wake up – grab coffee – go to work – be robbed six or seven times a day – go home etc.) Perhaps there is.

He gets an inkling of what it may be when he encounters a mysterious woman (Jodie Comer), one of the sunglasses-wearing faction. This provokes him to break with the old routine, stop doing all the usual things, and even – his best friend is appalled by the thought – get a pair of sunglasses for himself. To say the world takes on a whole new hue when he pops them on is an understatement.

The audience is a step ahead of Guy by this point, anyway, as the movie doesn’t hang around in elaborating on its central conceit: Free City is the setting for a computer game (something like a MMORPG version of Grand Theft Auto) and Guy is one of the background, non-player characters (NPCs) whose main function is to be brutalised by the players (the psychopaths in sunglasses). But something has happened to Guy, allowing him to evolve beyond his designed function and take control of his actions…

This concerns and baffles the people maintaining the game systems, but is also of great interest to two programmers in particular (Comer again and Joe Keery). Comer’s character believes the Free City game includes code illegally swiped from one of their own productions, and is seeking evidence for a lawsuit against the tycoon responsible (the increasingly ubiquitous Taika Waititi). Can Guy have something to do with all this?

I will concede that for a theoretically original film, there is a lot about Free Guy which feels suspiciously derivative: you could make a very long list of all the films which it feels like it owes a debt to, one way or another, starting with Westworld and going on to take in movies as diverse as They Live, The Truman Show, The Matrix, Gamer and Ready Player One. (This is before we even consider some of the crowd-pleasing pop-culture references Reynolds has managed to sneak in courtesy of his relationship with Marvel and Disney.) But it manages the very neat trick of taking all its influences and combining them to produce something which doesn’t feel like it’s obviously ripping off any of them in particular.

The result is a very clever and visually dense film – the corners of the screen are filled with little gags and throwaway details – as well as one which is solidly structured and written (managing to handle some of the issues with this type of scenario with notably more grace than some of its donors). It’s not just clever as a piece of entertainment, either – it manages to take big and potentially unwieldy ideas and smuggle them in front of the camera, usually disguised as jokes or incidental detail. There’s a lot of satire of computer game norms and gamer culture in general, but also more thoughtful and even philosophical ideas about free will and the nature of reality. That the world around us is not what it initially seems is a foundational premise of much great science fiction; which means that Free Guy easily qualifies as one of the best SF films in ages.

Smart summer blockbusters are rare enough, but the other thing which really makes this film stand out is that it has a genuine sweetness and positivity about it which is, to be perfectly honest, incredibly rare in a major studio movie these days. What makes Guy stand out and get noticed as he begins his quest to improve himself is that he is attempting to be a hero in a world where the default assumption is that everyone will behave like a sociopath. He is cheery and upbeat and often apologises to people after finding himself required to do violence upon them. Reynolds finds a way to do this without coming off as bland or saccharine or preachy; I can’t think of a better performance from the actor. But then the whole film is notably well-cast as well as being well-written; the closest thing to a stereotype is Waititi’s grasping businessman, but then he is largely there to symbolise the evils the film is setting out to challenge (he even gets a line about how originality isn’t profitable and that sequels and IP are where the money is).

A film flying the flag for creativity and new ideas, and doing so while suggesting there is indeed value in doing the right thing, would get my support no matter what (well, maybe not if it seemed to be acted by drones, edited by chimps and directed by a committee) – but for a film to do these things while being consistently engaging, clever and funny is virtually miraculous these days. Free Guy, rather unexpectedly, turns out to be a real treat and almost certainly the best popcorn film of the summer.

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It is curious to reflect that, as he settled comfortably into a prosperous middle age, Sean Connery seemed quite happy to spend most of his professional life in the middle ages, too. Think of a noteworthy Connery film from the mid-seventies to the mid-nineties and there’s a good chance it will feature our man swinging a sword and possibly wearing chain-mail, too: Robin and Marion, Highlander, The Name of the Rose (all right, he’s a monk in that one), Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves, Dragonheart… in retrospect it’s something of an achievement that he managed to wrench himself back to the present day for so many of his final films.

We can only ponder as to what quality Connery possessed that made him such a good fit for this sort of film – Terry Gilliam once spoke of Connery’s essentially telluric nature (in the context of why he would have been a poor choice to play Quixote), and he does have that unreconstructed alpha-male aura going on for him, which may indeed go quite well with tales of an earlier and simpler time. Whatever the reason, the result is a CV featuring such plum roles as Robin Hood, Richard the Lionheart, William of Baskerville and (potentially the biggest of the lot) King Arthur.

This was a late-middle-ages role for Connery, coming in Jerry Zucker’s 1995 film First Knight. (Connery had previously played another of the great Arthurian roles, the Green Knight, in 1984’s Sword of the Valiant.) Zucker had scored a big hit with his previous film, the extravagant weepie Ghost, and this has the feel of a ‘classic’ Hollywood period movie, the spiritual successor to things like The Black Knight and Knights of the Round Table.  From the opening moments it goes full-bloodedly in search of the closest thing to Merrie Olde England camp you will ever find in a Hollywood movie of the 1990s.

King Arthur’s realm is finally at peace (it’s taken longer than usual, as he’s clearly in his sixties) and the monarch is intent on marrying, despite the lurking threat of a renegade knight (Ben Cross is playing the role of Malagant, who is essentially playing the role of Mordred in this version of the tale). Also wandering the realm is Lancelot (Richard Gere), who on this occasion is a charmingly roguish trickster leading an aimless life.

Prince Malagant is intent on taking over the land of Leonesse, which appears to be a titchy little realm between Malagant’s domain and that of Camelot, and this involves his men terrorising the local peasants (keen-eyed viewers may spot a young Rob Brydon hamming it up ferociously in the crowd scenes – Brydon was offered a bigger part but had to go and be at the birth of his child, or something). Playing Malagant’s chief lieutenant is Ralph Ineson, who – at the time of writing – is appearing (or not, depending on where you live) in the title role of David Lowery’s The Green Knight, and you have to wonder if the two facts are in any way connected.

Off the peasants stagger to tell the ruler of Leonesse, Guinevere (Julia Ormond). Her one-of-the-people credentials are established by the fact we initially find her playing football with another bunch of peasants. Lending the film some twinkly gravitas but making no substantial contribution to the plot is John Gielgud as her wise old mentor. It turns out that in addition to facing the threat of annexation, Guinevere has to decide whether or not to marry King Arthur. Needless to say she agrees.

However, on the way to Camelot, Malagant’s men have a go at kidnapping Guinevere, and she is only rescued by the timely arrival of Lancelot, whose charmingly roguish ways we have already been introduced to in the pre-credits sequence. Guinevere is soon roguishly charmed up to her eyeballs, but her sense of duty and self-respect require her to carry on to Camelot where she (and the audience) meet King Arthur (finally).

The film has been going for a bit by this point and it’s frankly a relief to finally meet Sean Connery, who is, after all, top-billed. To be honest, I find I can often take or leave these mid-to-late period Connery performances, as the actor often seems just a bit too ready to trade on his natural charisma and established screen persona rather than actually do any work. Here, though, he is rather good as the aged version of the King, a decent and just man, veteran of too many wars, who wears his vast authority very lightly. You can see why Guinevere loves him, but is it in truth a love with any fizz and wow to it? How does it, in fact, compare to the sizzling chemistry she clearly shares with Lancelot? Hopefully the threat of Malagant will somehow enable everyone to work through all their personal issues…

So: a story credit for Lorne Cameron, one for David Hoselton, and one for William Nicholson (who’s credited with the actual script). No story credit for either Chretien de Troyes or Thomas Malory, presumably because they just don’t have good enough lawyers (being dead for centuries can really affect your ability to get good legal help). Still, this is fairly recognisable as the classic story of the love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot, very much chopped down, speeded up and rendered digestible for the perceived requirements of a modern audience.

As you might expect, the various changes to the story inevitably impact on how it plays out – Lancelot meeting and falling for Guinevere before he even meets Arthur or becomes a knight really shifts the dynamic of the story – but none quite as much as the decision to dispense with virtually all of the mythic and mystical aspects of the story. So this is (spoiler incoming) a tale of the twilight and fall of King Arthur with no Mordred, no Morgan le Fay, no Merlin (not that you’d strictly speaking expect him to be around at this point), no Excalibur, no Avalon, and so on.

A non-mythological King Arthur movie is a curious choice but not necessarily a risible one; the 2004 film with Clive Owen made a similar choice, going all in on historicity and period detail and gritty realism. First Knight ditches all the mythology, but (as this is a family-friendly romantic adventure) can’t find anything to replace it. As a result the film fails to convince, either as fantasy or anything else. Even the romance feels rather turgid: Lancelot and Guinevere talk a lot about their feelings but they never come across to the audience; there is no actual sense of passion at any point, despite the fact that Ormond at least is working hard to convince. (Gere seems rather out of his comfort zone, to be honest.)

The result is one of those slick but bland movies that they seemed to make a lot of back in the 1990s. I suppose people with a taste for soft-focus romance in a cod-mediaeval setting may find it passes the time quite agreeable; the rest of it is not entirely bereft of interest – there are some interesting faces in the supporting cast, Ben Cross is not bad as the panto villain the film requires, and much of the fight choreography is likewise well up to standard – but it’s essentially unsatisfying as either an adventure film, a drama, or a screen version of one of Britain’s greatest myths.

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A now-obscure movie called The Siege was briefly the focus of some attention back in 1999 when odd behaviour amongst some of its patrons was noted: they would buy a ticket, take their seats, but then walk out as soon as the credits began. The reason? This was before the age of widespread and easy internet and they had just come to watch the trailer for George Lucas’ upcoming stellar conflict movie.

Now we are in the age of widespread and easy internet, trailers are a lot more accessible and subject to much more scrutiny than was the case in years gone by. Back then, much more of the heavy lifting when it came to promotional duties was done by the poster. We have considered in the past some of the more outlandish claims made on the posters of ambitious but low-budget exploitation movies, but few attempt the hard sell quite as ferociously as the advertising for the 1968 movie The Lost Continent:

Blood-beasts, female flesh, torture-pits, giant jaw-snapping molluscs, floating death-ship, helpless beauties, crazed kelp-monsters – sounds like a hell of a movie, doesn’t it? Or possibly just hell, depending on your taste in films. The Lost Continent (NB barely features a continent, and certainly not a lost one) was made by Michael Carreras for Hammer Films. Now, Carreras produced many of the studio’s best and most successful films, and deserves credit for that. However, as a writer and director his track record is rather less stellar, with The Lost Continent (one of two films that he wrote under a pseudonym and directed, the other being Prehistoric Women) a powerful exhibit for the prosecution’s case.

The movie opens with beat combo The Peddlers treating us to the title track, which is heavy on the Hammond organ (this forms a key element of the film’s soundtrack). We find ourselves in a strangely-hued graveyard of ships, aboard one of which a burial-at-sea is just under way: various people, some dressed as Spanish conquistadors, others in modern dress, stand around gravely.

Presiding is Captain Lansen (Eric Porter), a man who is deeply troubled by questions of how he got into this situation (there may not have been much acting required from Porter, to be honest). The film obligingly flashes back to provide some answers: Lansen’s ship, the tramp freighter Corita, is making a swift departure from Freetown in Sierra Leone, trying to dodge the customs launch in the process. Why? Well, Lansen has got sick of being the owner-operator of this leaky old tub and has taken on a lucrative but illegal cargo of highly explosive white phosphorous, with a view to selling it and the ship in Caracas and retiring on the proceeds. His more principled first officer is duly shocked.

When the ship runs into a hurricane and starts taking on water, the rest of the crew demand that Lansen turns back (white phosphorous detonates when wet, apparently), but the passengers are having none of it (the crew includes some fine actors, including Victor Maddern, Michael Ripper and Donald Sumpter, but they don’t get much to do in this film). Despite the contemporary setting, the roots of the story in a 1938 novel by Dennis Wheatley are very obvious here, as there is something rather hokey and dated about all these people sitting around the saloon of a freighter making a transatlantic crossing. Amongst them we meet a boozy con-man (Tony Beckley), a former trophy-wife on the run (Hildegard Knef), an enquiry agent in pursuit of her (Ben Carruthers), a doctor fleeing a scandal (Nigel Stock, who is briefly seen reading the Wheatley novel – about as close as the film gets to genuine wit) and his daughter (Suzanna Leigh), whom he is fiercely protective of for self-interested reasons.

None of this lot want to go back to Africa and so the crew mutiny and depart, taking one of the lifeboats; only a handful stick around, including the steward (Jimmy Hanley) and the chief engineer (James Cossins). We have commented in the past on Cossins’ tendency to be cast as pompous establishment figures; this is about as proletarian as he gets, although as the story goes on the chief engineer proves to be a man with a side-line is fierce theological rigour.

With the ship leaking, the movie attempts a tense sequence with the passengers having to shift all the explosives to somewhere less damp. It is not really very tense, to be honest, and concludes with Lansen deciding they have to abandon ship anyway. So everyone piles into a lifeboat, which is launched into something which is very obviously a medium-sized water tank.

Some occasional rowing (‘It’ll keep you fit!’ growls the captain) and arguing over the rations ensues, with everyone bemoaning their lot and the viewer possibly beginning to wonder when the crazed kelp-monsters, giant jaw-snapping molluscs, and indeed the lost continent itself are actually going to make an appearance in the movie. In the end Tony Beckley can’t take it any more and hurls himself over the side in a drunken stupor; Nigel Stock dives in to save him and is eaten by a rubber shark, but Beckley is retrieved anyway.

The lifeboat becomes entangled in thick sea-weed, which proves to be more serious than it first appears when the weed grapples onto Lansen with its thick, thorny fronds – yes, the crazed kelp-monsters have finally arrived! Another extra is eaten by the weed before the lifeboat bumps into the Corita, which has likewise been snagged by the kelp. Everyone gets back on board, which only leads one to conclude that this whole sequence has just been there to get rid of Nigel Stock.

With Stock out of the way, his daughter reveals he has been repressing her for ages and goes a bit mad as a result of her sudden freedom, chucking herself at Beckley (not keen, racked with guilt following the bit with the shark) and then Carruthers (rather more receptive). The two of them slip out onto the deck to see what happens, but any developments are forestalled by the appearance over the gunwale of a giant octopus, which proceeds to eat Carruthers and cover Leigh in green slime before it can be driven off.

There is a sense of the plot finally getting somewhere, and not before time, as the freighter pitches up in a strange weed-infested realm of wrecked ships, some of them seemingly very ancient, and rocky outcrops. (It’s still not a continent though.) Strange shapes are sighted through the mist, and then contact is made with the locals, as a young woman approaches the ship. She is played by latter-day blues singer Dana Gillespie, and has an impressive set of flotation devices. She also has a set of helium balloons strapped to her shoulders.

(Yeah, I do kind of appreciate that that last attempt at a gag is probably unacceptable in these enlightened days of 2021, and I feel duly apologetic – though clearly not to the point of actually removing it from the review. It’s not as though the film doesn’t go all out to exploit the potential of the stunning Gillespie decolletage: the poor woman is in a shirt open practically to the navel, and most of the publicity photos for this film seem to show her leaning forward while sitting on a giant plastic crab:

My mistake, it’s a giant scorpion, not a crab.)

Gillespie is being chased by Spanish conquistadors working for the Inquisition, with whom there is a brisk scrap. (All the locals wear balloons and snowshoes to let them walk around on the weed.) She reveals they are the descendants of explorers who got stuck here centuries ago and are reigned over by the tyrannical El Supremo, a child ruler under the control of a pointy-hood-wearing maniac. Clearly conflict between the newcomers and the Inquisition is on the cards, but not before they can cram in Jimmy Hanley being throttled by a giant crab and a death-struggle between the crab and a giant sea scorpion (the question of which is the worse prop is also fiercely contested).

The poster catch-line ‘A living hell that time forgot!’ accurately nails The Lost Continent as a precursor to the Trampas movies made by Amicus in the following decade (The Land That Time Forgot, etc) – but while those films occasional attain the level of Good Bad Movie, this one is (to quote the Encyclopedia of Science-Fiction’s review) wholly absurd, even if the art direction is good. The Doug McClure films are unashamed pulp from start to finish: Carreras seems to think this film has an outside chance of functioning as serious drama, hence a lot of very intense scenes as the captain and passengers articulate their various personal issues to each other, usually by monologuing. These would probably feel corny even in a conventional context; surrounded by scenes dealing with killer sea-weed and rampaging invertebrates, they become utterly ridiculous and just as funny as the bad creature effects.

The saving grace of The Lost Continent is that its general badness is still somehow exceeded by its extreme silliness; how anyone involved managed to take any of it seriously is a miracle, but somehow they did and the result is an extraordinary piece of unintentional comedy. Perhaps I’m being unnecessarily harsh to the producer class, but so many producers-turned-directors start off by making this sort of tat: plenty of action and character and colour, but no developing storyline, no connections, just incident after incident. The material here is so bizarre that the film achieves a surreal kind of bad-acid-trip quality; afterwards you can’t quite believe what you’ve been watching. It’s a terrible film, but also enormously entertaining.

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Now here’s a funny thing: I’ve been reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories since I was eight. I’ve read the lot, watched nearly every TV adaptation in the last thirty-five years, seen most of the major film adaptations, even read quite a few pastiches, and – and if this isn’t a sign of the irretrievably lost, I don’t know what is – have even had a go at working out the chronology of the canon, and can explain fairly succinctly why all such attempts are doomed to inevitable failure. And yet I find myself strongly suspecting that I am not in the target audience for Netflix’s new slice of Holmesian schlock, Enola Holmes (directed by Harry Bradbeer).

What’s that then, you may be thinking, and what kind of a name is Enola, anyway? Well, fair point: ‘Let’s be blunt about this – you should not name your baby girl after the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb,’ advises one website dealing with infant nomenclature (the pushback from irate Enolas who are sick of this particular historical association dominates the comments section). Apparently the name dates back to the 1850s, at least, so it’s not totally implausible that it could have been given to the younger sister of the slightly better-known Holmes brothers, Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and Mycroft (Sam Claflin).

Enola Holmes herself is played by Millie Bobby Brown, who also produced it (you know you’re getting old when the film producers start looking younger, but then again Brown is only sixteen). With the Holmes patriarch having passed away, the youthful Enola is raised by her mother (Helena Bonham Carter, cast so absolutely to type it practically sets a new record), with a somewhat eccentric home-schooling curriculum. However, this bucolic idyll is dispelled when our heroine herself turns sixteen and her mum vanishes, almost without a trace.

This occasions the turning up of Enola’s brothers for the first time in over a decade – Sherlock is making a name for himself as a detective, while Mycroft is some sort of non-specific civil servant – and she is somewhat dismayed by their response, which is basically to pack her off to a grim, Gilead-like finishing-school run by Fiona Shaw. She demurs at this and heads for London, following a trail of clues left by Mrs Holmes using her first class scrabble and ju-jitsu skills. Is a mother and child reunion on the cards? Or will another, unconnected mystery end up occupying most of the movie’s running time? (Clue: it will.) This concerns a non-threatening young toff on the lam (Louis Partridge) and the future of British society.

This is the movie that managed to get Netflix sued by the Conan Doyle estate, on the grounds that it depicts Sherlock Holmes as having emotions (this is supposedly still covered by copyright). This surprises me not because of the possibly opportunistic nature of the litigation (the Conan Doyle heirs have form in this area, having previously taken a tilt at the 2015 film Mr Holmes), but because the emphasis given to particular aspects of the great detective’s character is really the least of the film’s offences when it comes to the canon of the stories. Speculation as to the existence of a third Holmes sibling has been going on for years and has taken many forms, so the existence of the film isn’t a problem per se – but the moment the film begins to present Mycroft Holmes as a bitter, reactionary misanthrope, jealous of the greater intellectual gifts of his younger siblings, you know that whoever is responsible (the book was by Nancy Springer, adapted by Jack Thorne) either doesn’t know the Conan Doyle stories or just doesn’t care about them.

Mycroft’s basically there to represent The Man in a film which is only nominally a mystery and much more about sending the right kind of messages about self-realisation and emancipation, leavened somewhat by a very chaste YA-friendly sort-of romance for Brown. It doesn’t bear much resemblance to the Conan Doyle stories, but then neither does it seem to have much to do with the actual reality of life in Victorian London, or anything else connected to historical fact: the film is much more about now, something reflected in a jaunty and slightly frantic visual and directorial style – at times Enola Holmes seems more interested in breaking the fourth wall and talking to the viewer than in interacting with the other characters in the story. No doubt this is where the kids are at.

To be fair, Brown does have a certain winsome presence and carries the film about as well as one could reasonably expect in the circumstances. Most of the other performances are competent as well. I imagine most eyes will inevitably turn to Henry Cavill, who is after all joining a long and very distinguished list of actors to have played the most-filmed human fictional character. I do find Cavill to be an agreeable presence who can be fairly effective in the right part, but on the other hand he is best known for playing another crime-fighter of a slightly different ilk. Now, there’s no rule saying that the same person can’t play both Sherlock Holmes and Superman, but I think it’s a safe bet that they’re going to be somewhat miscast in one of those roles. Cavill is decent if a bit bland as Holmes, but this is down to the script as much as the actor: he’s there as a comforting supporting character, not as someone who drives the plot in any meaningful sense. Does that really sound like Sherlock Holmes to you? Nevertheless, this is the part Cavill has been engaged for.

The film is made to the usual standards of competency, with the English countryside nicely presented and an impressive CGI London, but then that’s really nothing special these days. There’s also some fairly nasty violence, which doesn’t feel like a particularly good fit for a film which seems to be aimed at a very young audience. I could be wrong about this, but the laboriousness with which the film bangs on at the same theme again and again suggests it doesn’t have high expectations with regard to its viewers’ mental development.

Watching Millie Bobby Brown chuck men about in the course of the plot inevitably put me in mind of the late Diana Rigg, whose performances have been one of the things keeping me sane recently. Rigg ended up as the kind of icon of female strength, intelligence and independence that I suspect the makers of this film would quite like Enola Holmes to be, and yet I don’t recall any of Rigg’s characters belabouring the audience on the topic: she just got on with being strong, intelligent and independent. This put the point across perfectly adequately and resulted, on the whole, in films and TV series which were much more entertaining and rather less wearisomely obvious than Enola Holmes usually is. This is rotten even as a piece of Sherlock-Holmes-at-one-remove, and fairly dull and obvious as a YA adventure film. It may not have been quite so ideologically correct, but in terms of simple entertainment value Barry Levinson’s Young Sherlock Holmes did this sort of thing much better.

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I seem to recall that at one time there was a school of thought that the reason Akira Kurosawa became the most internationally-feted Japanese film director of his generation (as opposed to, say, Yasujiro Ozu or Kenji Mizoguchi) was that he deliberately made films that were accessible to foreign audiences and thus (there was always an implicit sniff at this point) not really authentically Japanese enough. Proof of this is sometimes offered in the fact that Kurosawa was always open to using western stories as the source material for his films (there are his famous adaptations of Macbeth and King Lear to a Japanese milieu) and also that his own original films proved to have enormous potential when it came to English-language remakes. There is a whole lineage of remakes of Seven Samurai, usually as westerns but also as science fiction, horror, and kung fu movies, and the same is also true to a lesser extent when it comes to Yojimbo (two remakes and various sequels).

None of these did quite as well as the English-language remakes of The Hidden Fortress (J-title: Kakushi toride no san akunin), a film Kurosawa made in 1958 (when I was younger I’m sure this film’s title was usually translated without the definite article – hey ho), but then these were rather less faithful and more thematic versions of the story anyway. The first of these was made in 1977 and directed by George Lucas, and was the first (but also the fourth) episode in his stellar conflict franchise. The second was made in 1999 and directed by George Lucas, and was the first (but also the fourth) episode in his stellar conflict franchise. One of them is adored, but the other reviled, which only goes to show – exactly what, I’m not sure, but it must show something.

The film opens with two ragged, miserable peasants named Matashichi and Tahei (Kamatari Fujiwara and Minoru Chiaki) staggering across an inhospitable landscape, endlessly bickering about which one of them smells worse. It turns out that they are former farmers, who made the unwise decision to invest in the most recent civil war and become soldiers, only to lose everything as a result. Angrily, they separate and try to make their own way out of enemy territory – but they are equally useless and pathetic when operating individually, and both get captured very quickly by the enemy.

It seems that their captors are looking for the gold reserves of the recently vanquished House of Akizuki, and the prisoners are put to work digging for it in truly hellish conditions – so hellish, in fact, that the peasants mount a revolt and break free from their captivity – an epic set-piece ensues, with swarms of desperate loincloth-clad prisoners charging down a flight of stone steps towards rows of musket-carrying ashigaru – it feels like it has been influenced by Sergei Eisenstein, while also anticipating the truly spectacular battle scenes in Ran (Ran was supposed to be being revived this spring at the UPP in Cowley: a small casualty of the lockdown, of course, but still one I feel keenly).

Tahei and Matashichi are quite surprised not to die in the fighting, but head for the hills. Here their luck seems to change, as they find gold bars hidden inside hollow sticks – it’s the Akizuki treasure everyone’s been looking for! Unfortunately, they also find a taciturn but imposing stranger (Toshiro Mifune, almost inevitably), who seems to know a bit about the gold himself. He leads the peasants to a – here we are at last – hidden fortress, previously owned by the House of Akizuki, where a few desperate survivors have gathered and are planning to make the dangerous journey to friendlier territory. The stranger turns out to be Makabe, the Akizuki family’s general, while as well as the gold the family’s other great treasure is here: Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), a wilful teenager who doesn’t like being told what to do by the general.

Eventually Makabe decides the circumstances are right, and the motley group set off for the border: Makabe himself, the princess (pretending to be a deaf mute), and the two peasants, all of them loaded down with the gold. Will Makabe and Yuki stop squabbling long enough to notice their companions plotting to steal all the gold and run away? Will any of them make it to safety without being shot?

Truth be told, you could probably watch The Hidden Fortress and never notice the influence it had on either of the stellar conflict movies it supposedly inspired: those aren’t anything like as close to the original, in plot terms, as the American remakes of Seven Samurai or Yojimbo, although I suppose you can see an echo of the relationship between Mifune and Uehara’s characters in that between Liam Neeson and Natalie Portman in the 1999 film. Lucas himself has said that the main inspiration was really one of perspective: for a story which is largely concerned with the fate and deeds of nobles and their retainers, it’s quite unusual that the viewpoint characters are the people of the lowest social standing in the story, but it’s this that he retained in his own script.

That said, I think you would struggle to find much sign of Lucas’ famous droid double act in the scumbag peasants here, for they are much more morally dubious and often unsympathetic characters: at one point they find themselves left alone with the sleeping princess, and promptly start drawing straws for who will have the pleasure (it is strongly implied) of raping her (another character appears and intervenes before this goes anywhere). This is an extreme moment, and perhaps a rare misjudgement from Kurosawa, for in many ways what the film is about is the difference in perspective between the two duos (Makabe and Yuki, and Tahei and Matashichi) and their outlooks on life: the peasants live life on the most basic level, concerned with simple survival and grubbing for money, while on the level of the general and the princess it is honour and nobility which is most important (it is the honourability of Makabe which ultimately leads to the film’s happy ending). But the film is also about what the two sides learn from each other: the princess comes to appreciate the privileges she enjoys, and what it is to live like one of her subjects, while the peasants learn about the value of trust and friendship before the film is over (but only just).

It all sounds like Kurosawa in the classic style, and there is indeed much to enjoy here: Mifune is at his most formidably dynamic, Chiaki shows off some of the comic timing he displayed as the joker amongst the seven samurai (a third member of that immortal septet also shows up, as Takashi Shimura gets a brief cameo as another Akizuki advisor), and there are some epic set pieces and compositions. The problem is that, to a modern audience at least, the film seems rather slow and self-indulgent – it doesn’t have anything like the simplicity of premise or economy of script that Seven Samurai had: you know that bit near the start of the ’77 stellar conflict movie where the droids have a row, split up, but get captured and stuck back together, and the whole thing has no bearing on the plot? That’s a very Hidden Fortress-y bit of meandering plot. Of course, some of the various tangents and diversions eventually set up key plot developments, but some of them don’t. For this reason, I have to say that Hidden Fortress seems to me to be mid-table Kurosawa at best: interesting, and with some really good individual bits, but lacking in the sustained quality of his true masterpieces. As the film which inspired the film which changed the course of cinema history, it doesn’t quite live up to its own publicity.

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Sticking with our theme of watching the next best thing, one of the films I was considering seeing before everything shut down was The Hunt, a satirical horror movie which managed the considerable feat of annoying the famously temperate and unflappable Donald Trump. The movie apparently concerns right-wing Americans being hunted for sport by liberals. This reminds me a bit of The Last Supper, a Cameron Diaz movie from the mid-90s which I remember as being pretty decent, but to be honest on this occasion I am going to look a bit further back, to 1932 and Irving Pichel and Ernest B Schoedsack’s The Most Dangerous Game.

The movie opens on a steamer in what turns out to be the Pacific Ocean: they are approaching a dangerous passage and the captain is a little perturbed that the navigation lights aren’t quite where he remembers them being. Meanwhile, back in the saloon, the passengers (all rich white dudes) are engaging in a little philosophical chat. Amongst them is celebrated big game hunter Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea), who is quizzed about the morality of his chosen career: why do we consider humans civilised and animals savage, when we’re the ones who hunt and kill for pleasure? Bob is not swayed by this argument, suggesting that some animals actually enjoy the excitement of the hunt. Ah, says Bob’s interlocutor, but would you choose to swap places with one of the animals you hunt? Bob ducks the question. ‘There are two kinds of people in the world,’ he declares, ‘the hunters and the hunted, and I’m always going to be one of the hunters.’ Really, Bob? Are you absolutely sure about that?

Right on cue, the ship hits some rocks and sinks, with Rainsford the only survivor. He washes up on the shore of a nearby island and makes his way to the imposing fortress he discovers there, which seems to be staffed by Russian Cossacks. This is because it is the home of exiled Russian aristocrat Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), who is delighted to make Bob’s acquaintance, being a fan of his books. Zaroff is also a hunter, and sees a kindred spirit in Bob.

Apparently ships sink quite a lot near Zaroff’s private island, and also enjoying the Count’s hospitality are Eve and Martin Trowbridge, two other survivors (they are played by Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong, whom you may well recognise from another movie in particular, but we’ll return to this). They arrived here with a couple of sailors, but they are apparently off hunting somewhere and haven’t been seen for days.

Light dinner conversation ensues. Zaroff recounts how he was gored in the head by a buffalo, ever since when he has begun to find hunting less challenging, and thus less satisfying. Even using a Tartar bow instead of a rifle has failed to bring that old thrill back. But on this island he has found the answer! Here he can hunt and kill the most dangerous animals in the world, to his heart’s content…

Well, you’ve probably guessed it: Zaroff is a nutter who gets his kicks from hunting human beings. He thinks this is quite a fair contest, as if his quarry survives until the dawn following the start of the hunt they are allowed to go free (no-one has lasted this long so far). Bob, however, is appalled to learn of all this, and with a heavy heart Zaroff accepts that Bob and he are not going to be BFFs, and that he’ll have to hunt and kill Bob like all the others. Bob and Eve head into the jungle while Zaroff strings his bow and puts on his hunting trousers…

One prominent source suggests that the original short story on which this is based, Richard Connell’s The Hounds of Zaroff, is the most popular short story ever written in the English language. I’m not sure about that, but this is certainly one of the most-copied plots in both film and TV history. There have apparently been a dozen relatively straight adaptations of the story for cinema alone – apart from The Hunt, this year is due to see the release of Tremors 7, which is apparently another riff on the idea – before we even get to films which owe it an obvious debt, like Predator or The Hunger Games. The same is true of TV (I am particularly fond of the Incredible Hulk episode The Snare, in which an insane millionaire who hunts drifters for fun is surprised to find the Hulk in his sights). Given all this, you would expect this to be another case of the originator being outshone by its own successors.

And yet this isn’t quite the case. The Most Dangerous Game still stands up as a classic, if rather pulpy adventure story, and its easy to see it as part of a tradition of timeless genre movies coming out of Hollywood at this time. The 1932 release means it slots in very neatly between 1931’s Dracula (sinister eastern European aristocrat preys upon nice English-speaking folk after they visit his castle) and 1933’s King Kong (trip to a remote Pacific island does not go well). The comparisons with King Kong are particularly significant as this movie was made by the same team, featuring two of the same actors (Fay Wray is assured of screen immortality for her role in Kong, while Robert Armstrong is in another of the lead roles). I always thought King Kong was made as the follow-up to this, but apparently the two films were produced simultaneously on the same jungle sets.

Just as King Kong essentially inaugurated the Hollywood monster movie and special-effects blockbuster genres, so you could argue that The Most Dangerous Game did the same for the high-concept action-adventure movie. It has a solid script, with some unexpectedly thoughtful moments, and concludes with a well-mounted action sequence that’s still surprisingly effective today. The only area in which it shows its age is the pacing, which is probably a consequence of the film only being about an hour long – the situation and characters are introduced with care and intelligence, but the downside of this is that the actual sequence in which Zaroff hunts Rainsford doesn’t get underway until the final third of the movie. It inevitably feels somehow unbalanced as a result. Apart from this, however, the film stands up very well for its age. The basic premise of the story is such a strong and obviously dramatic one that there’s no reason to expect people will stop revisiting it on a regular basis, no matter what Donald Trump says. As it is, few films from quite so long ago have lasted as well as this one.

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If an alien or someone fresh out of long-term hibernation were to cast an eye across the cinematic landscape and try to guess who amongst the actors currently working was, by some metrics, the most successful movie star in history, the chances are they would go for one of the Toms (Cruise or Hanks)  – which would be a reasonable guess, but not quite right. In the end it all comes down to how you measure these things, and many people would suggest that Samuel L Jackson’s string of cameo appearances in huge movies from the Marvel and stellar conflict franchises, not to mention Jurassic Park (and many others), puts him on the top spot, but others reckon it to be someone who has a rather lower profile these days: Harrison Ford.

Now, as with all right-thinking men of a certain age, I loved Harrison Ford when I was younger – or, more accurately, I loved the movies he made as Han Solo and Indiana Jones, and those movies made me go on to watch many other Ford performances in films like Witness and The Fugitive. At this point I was all set to do my usual thing of bemoaning the fact I haven’t done a good job of keeping up with Ford’s more recent movies – but then I checked out his recent filmography and it turns out that I have seen every film he’s made in the last seven years, and only missed eight of the twenty he’s appeared in this century. He just doesn’t crank ’em out any more.

How he picks his projects I’m not entirely sure (though I imagine an enormous paycheck was a factor in his last couple of appearances for Lucasfilm), but it does seem that he still has proper movie star clout and consequently draws the salary one would expect. Chris Sanders’ new version of The Call of the Wild has Ford’s name above the title, and he is prominent on the poster – though in some of the advertising he is definitely playing second banana to a dog.

Then again, this is par for the course with The Call of the Wild, which – again, according to some of the advertising – is based on ‘a classic family adventure’. I’m not sure what Jack London, who wrote the original novel, would have made of that. I’m not entirely sure I ever actually finished reading The Call of the Wild – I can only imagine I bought a copy as background material while planning out a Werewolf RPG chronicle – but I don’t recall it being particularly gentle or family friendly. The new movie rectifies this, of course.

This is the story of Buck, an enormous St Bernard-Scotch Collie dog who as the film begins is living a pampered existence in California in the late 1890s, as the pet of the local judge (Bradley Whitford, briefly appearing). He is good natured but disruptive, and generally a bit of a softie. But Buck’s life changes when he is dognapped and sent north to Alaska, where the Gold Rush is in progress and dogs are required for all sorts of jobs. Here he briefly encounters grizzled, grumpy, but ultimately likeable prospector John Thornton (played by grizzled, grumpy, but ultimately likeable actor Harrison Ford), before being bought by a couple (played by Omar Sy and Cara Gee) running a dog-sled mail route. Can Buck find a place for himself in the savage north? Will destiny bring him and Thornton back together (hint: yes)? Can he resist the call of the wild (hint: no)?

I imagine the thinking behind the new version of Call of the Wild (this is a much-filmed tale) was basically that the CGI version of The Jungle Book was based on a classic novel and made a ton of money, and so a CGI-heavy version of London’s book was likely to do the business too, especially with the cachet brought to it by the presence of a superstar like Harrison Ford. It all makes sense when you put it like that, but the fact remains that Call of the Wild looks likely to lose the studio (it is the first film released by the newly-rechristened ‘Twentieth Century Studio’) a nine-digit sum. Maybe people will only go to see Ford playing either of the characters who made him famous, or maybe people don’t have the same kind of warm associations with London that they had with the Disney take on Kipling. Either way it’s a shame, as this is a solid movie that I found to be rather more satisfying than I expected.

Of course, it is a movie of the modern day, with all that goes with this both narratively and technically. The most striking thing about it is that much of the time the dogs and other animals in the film are all CGI, which I suppose cuts down on trainers’ fees but also lifts the whole thing into the realm of being effectively part-animated. Buck is ‘played’ (through the wonders of mo-cap) by Terry Notary, who I suppose is the American answer to Andy Serkis: other mo-cap roles include parts in the last King Kong film, along with the Hobbit trilogy, the most recent Planet of the Apes films, and (almost inevitably) a bunch of films for Marvel. You really have to get on board with the fact this is a CGI/mo-cap heavy film, or it will just do your head in; it mostly does look indefinably fake, but it’s a pretty enough fake to be tolerable.

Needless to say, the Progressive Action Committee have also made an appearance in the course of the production and various diversity quotas have been met, with characters given racial and gender makeovers. For once I’m not too inclined to grumble about this, because the actors employed as a result – Omar Sy and Cara Gee – are both very able and engaging. The role of bad guy has been taken from some native Americans and – of course – given to a privileged white man (played by Dan Stevens).

The other main departure from London is that the film has been softened up quite considerably – there’s a lot of whipping and clubbing and biting and clawing, if memory serves, and the story doesn’t shy away from some brutal realities. The hard edges have been sanded down quite considerably for the screen, though, with the result that the film rests comfortably in the PG bracket. It is mawkish and sentimental in places, but the moment I was dreading, when the dogs would start talking to each other, never arrives. The animals are allowed to be animals to this extent at least.

And the humans are allowed to do some decent acting, too. Whatever else you want to say, the film does seem to lift considerably whenever Harrison Ford comes on the screen. He’s never been the most extravagant of performers, but his ability to give heart and heft to unlikely material remains undiminished and it is a pleasure to watch his slightly earnest performance in this movie (I should say the movie itself is determinedly earnest and somewhat old-fashioned in its storytelling). For a while I was wondering why this movie was making me feel quite so nostalgic, but the fact it features Ford partnering up with a co-star who is enormous, hairy, and doesn’t have any dialogue should have tipped me off. Eventually I remembered the Russian word for dog is sowbacca and it all fell into place.

Let’s be clear: The Call of the Wild isn’t going to rock your world or give you a thrilling night at the movies you will never forget. But it is a well-made movie in its way, which is clearly trying hard to be respectful to the source material, and in the end it is very engaging and satisfying entertainment. And it’s always good to see Harrison Ford in a movie. Hopefully it will find some kind of audience.

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Over forty years on, all the movies that Kevin Connor and Doug McClure made together have coalesced in the cultural collective memory into one disreputable, slightly garish lump: probably with a rubber monster of some kind sitting on top of it. They flow together in the mind as well: which is the one with the bi-plane? Which is the one with the giant octopus fight? Which is the one with the iron mole?

The first of the set, The Land That Time Forgot, isn’t any of those. Made in 1975, it is the one boasting a screenplay co-written by legendary author Michael Moorcock (based, of course, on the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs). As a long-time admirer of Moorcock and his work, I am perhaps biased when I say that his contribution gives the film an element of class and intelligence not present in the various follow-ups – the way the film opens and closes with the same sequence gives it a pleasing symmetry and indicates some thought has gone into it.

This material relates to a vestigial frame story which is not much gone into – it is mainly present to recreate the structure of Burroughs’ novel. The tale itself begins in 1916, with a German U-boat sinking a British cargo vessel. This is portrayed entirely from the point of view of the German crew, mainly because the submarine set is essential to the film and the cargo ship is just in this one scene: one of the hallmarks of the film is the way it manages to be thrifty without it being obvious too much of the time. Amongst the survivors are beefy American engineer Bowen Tyler (McClure) and comely English biologist Lisa Clayton (Susan Penhaligon).

Having his ship torpedoed out from under him isn’t much of a problem for a guy like Doug McClure, though: together with the captain of the ship (Keith Barron) and a few other crew members, they board the U-boat when it surfaces to refresh its air supply and take it over, rather to the annoyance of the German captain (John McEnery) and his second in command (Anthony Ainley). (The captain is one of those decent, noble German officers one so often finds in this kind of story, while Ainley is honing the performance as a fanatically malevolent psychopath that would stand him in good stead throughout the 1980s.)

So far the film has been solid, gripping stuff, but now we encounter a significant wobble, as the British seizing control of the ship from the Germans is followed in fairly short order by the Germans seizing control of the ship from the British. And this in turn is followed by the British seizing control of the ship from the Germans, again. This inelegant plotting is all to get the film to where it needs to be: the U-boat ends up lost in the southern Atlantic, low on fuel and supplies.

However, there are glimmers of hope when they come across a mysterious new landmass, surrounded by towering, icy cliffs. The German captain suspects it to be Caprona, discovered centuries earlier by an Italian explorer who was unable to make landfall due to the cliff barrier. The existence of an underwater passageway means the U-boat could penetrate the interior of Caprona, thus possibly giving them access to the supplies they so desperately need.

Well, after a tense passage and a few dings to the sub, the voyagers find themselves in a lush, tropical paradise. Finally we get the first of the rubber dinosaurs we have been impatiently awaiting, and rather superior they are too. This is no consolation to the crew of the U-boat, who find themselves on the lunch menu of the plesiosaurs and mosasaurs infesting the river they are on.

Still, at least the skirmish provides the hungry sailors with some fresh provisions. ‘Should one drink red or white wine with plesiosaur?’ wonders Keith Barron. More pressing concerns supplant correct etiquette, however: there are places in Caprona where crude oil springs from the ground, raising the possibility of refueling the sub. However, in addition to the dinosaurs, there are ape men here too – and the natives may not be friendly…

Well, regular visitors may recall my recent cri de coeur about the BBC non-adaptation of The War of the Worlds, which effectively threw away all but the most fundamental details of the original novel and ended up being almost wholly unsatisfactory as a result. Here, perhaps, we have an example of the opposite situation – an adaptation which on the whole stays remarkably faithful to the source text, to the point where it impacts on the film’s success as such.

The issue is that this is a pulp adventure – superior pulp, to be sure, but still pulp. Burrough’s plot is episodic, consisting of a series of exploits and adventures undertaken by a group of thinly-characterised individuals. There’s no sense of it building to anything, or a central issue heading towards resolution – just a series of set-piece action and special effects sequences. These are often well-mounted, but the film still feels more like a theme park ride than an actual narrative.

The closest thing to a big idea the film contains is the revelation of how life functions on Caprona. To say that this is non-Darwinian is to rather understate the matter: populations don’t evolve in the usual manner here, but individual creatures progress through the different stages of evolution in the course of their lifetime as they travel across the landscape (they apparently feel compelled to constantly travel northward towards the sea). It’s a curious idea, but the film doesn’t really do anything with it – we never see it happening and it doesn’t inform the plot in any meaningful way. Full marks to Moorcock and co-writer James Cawthorn for retaining it, but you almost wish they’d found a way to do something more interesting with the notion.

However, while the film’s weaknesses may have been inherited from the source novel, its strengths are all its own. This is a classy looking movie, not nearly as garish or silly as some of its successors (At the Earth’s Core, I’m looking at you) – the period detail is well done, with a nicely grimy feel to it. The presence of many solid British actors (there are many familiar TV faces scattered through the cast list) gives the movie a further touch of class.

Even the dinosaurs, usually the weak link in this kind of movie, are a cut above what you might expect. They are the work of Roger Dicken, a man with a relatively brief but nevertheless hugely interesting CV as a special effects technician – we can overlook the rubber bats he provided for Scars of Dracula, given that a decade later he created the facehugger for Alien. Doubtless for cost reasons, Dicken doesn’t go with the traditional stop-motion dinosaurs, or even men in suits, but opts for glove-puppet dinosaurs instead. I fear I may be damning Dicken and the movie with faint praise if I say that these are some of the best glove-puppet dinosaurs in the history of cinema. The only time the special effects really aren’t up to scratch comes in a sequence where McClure is menaced by some implausibly rigid and stately pterodactyls, but even Ray Harryhausen struggled to make this sort of thing work.

It’s a sign of the general quality of the movie that the dinosaurs only feel like one element of a bigger adventure, rather than the sine qua non of the whole thing. It’s true that the acting is not great, but then it doesn’t really need to be: the movie sets out to be a pulp adventure, and on those terms it’s a successful one: you can see why it was such a commercial success. You still have to wonder if there was some way of preserving the essentially Burroughs-iness of the story while coming up with a more dynamic and satisfying plot, but I still think a film like this is far preferable to an in-name-only updating of the book.

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