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Posts Tagged ‘cobblers’

Disney’s current near-hegemony at the box office is always just a bit more apparent at Christmas time, where for some years now it has been very apparent that everyone else is running scared of the power of the Mouse House. One sign of this is that other studios are releasing their festive movies absurdly early: bringing anything new out at a sensible time, like actually at Christmas, risks being squashed like a bug by their latest stellar conflict brand extension or whatever.

As a result, Paul Feig’s Last Christmas has been out since about the middle of November, which is plainly a bit ridiculous, especially when you consider the grim, steely determination with which it sets about spraying the audience with yuletide cheer, like an Uzi set to fully automatic. As is not entirely unexpected for a film heavily trading on affection for George Michael and his music, it opens with a choirgirl singing ‘Heal the Pain’. This is not unpleasant to listen to, but I was almost at once distracted by the fact she is apparently singing it in a church, in – according to a caption – Yugoslavia in 1999. Did they sing pop songs in Balkan churches in 1999? Was Yugoslavia even still around in 1999?

Best not to get too tangled up in such issues, anyway. For reasons which remain obscure, the bulk of the film is set at Christmas 2017, and concerns the now-grown choirgirl, Kate (Katarina to her family), who is played by Emilia Clarke. She is an aspiring musical theatre actress, but is going through a sort of ill-defined long-term personal crisis. She is also (initially at least, though this kind of gets forgotten about) a huge fan of George Michael and Wham, and (in the name of ensuring the film’s festivity quotient is maxed out) works in a year-round Christmas shop run by Michelle Yeoh.

It is while she is working here that she meets Tom, a mysterious stranger played by Henry Golding, in a more than usually contrived cute-meet involving a bird shitting on her face. All the usual stuff blossoms between the two of them, and slowly she begins to reassess her life, be more considerate of the people around her, and generally attempt to be a bit more positive… WAKE UP!!! (Sorry. I just know the effect that this sort of thing has on me, and I imagine it’s the same for other people.)

The first thing I should mention about Last Christmas is that it is a film built around a plot twist. Nothing wrong with that; many fine films can say the same. The thing about a good plot twist is that it should come as a complete and breathtaking surprise when it actually happens in the film, but (in retrospect) seem entirely reasonable. Last Christmas‘s plot twist does not quite reach these lofty heights: unless all the bulbs in your cerebral Christmas lights have blown, you will almost certainly be able to guess the twist just from watching the trailer. Even then, this wouldn’t necessarily be a fatal problem if most people were not then moved to say ‘That’s a really cheesy/stupid/terrible idea’. But they are. Hereabouts we respect plot integrity (even in bad movies), so I will simply suggest that the film’s plot pivots around a uniquely reductionist interpretation of some George Michael lyrics. Enough said.

So: basically, what we have here is the archetypal seasonal story, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, involved in a head-on smash with the Richard Curtis rom-com formula. Various often acceptable performers are scythed down by the ensuing shrapnel, and quite possibly members of the audience too. The story was thought up by Emma Thompson and her husband, and written down by Thompson and Bryony Kimmings, possibly all on the same afternoon. I can’t speak about Thompson’s husband or Kimmings, but Emma herself always struck me as a fairly smart cookie, and I am surprised to see her so signally fail to figure out that these two story-patterns are just not compatible. For the Christmas Carol pattern to work, you need to have a genuinely flawed character seriously in need of redemption. Rom-com characters are also flawed, as a rule, but not to anything like the same degree: the form requires them to be cute and loveable from the get-go. Last Christmas‘ problem – one of its problems – is that it can’t get over how wonderful it thinks Emilia Clarke’s character is. We are occasionally told what an awful person she is, but that’s all: the film is almost palpably needy in its attempts to make you root for and sympathise with her. Only having watched certain selected highlights of Musical Chairs on the internet, I am not really familiar with Emilia Clarke; but even if she really is as great an actress as my friends often assure me, she would need a much better script to make this particular character work.

It probably doesn’t help that she is sharing the screen for a lot of the film with Henry Golding, who is playing – and let me just pause for a moment here while I reflect upon the mot juste – a git. Specifically, he is a rom-com git, the kind of relentlessly warm, quirky, caring, decent chap guaranteed to evoke feelings of homicidal animosity in any right-thinking viewer (cf Michael Maloney in Truly, Madly, Deeply, for instance). As the name suggests, it takes an actor of significant skill, nuance, and charisma to transcend the essential gittishness of this kind of role and turn them into someone whose appearance in a scene does not cause the heart to sink. Golding brings to bear all the experience and technique he has acquired in his long career as a presenter of TV travel shows, and yet still somehow falls short.

There does seem to be something awfully calculated and insincere about Last Christmas, and I do wonder if this doesn’t extend to the casting. One of the trends I have noticed in commercial cinema over the last few years is the tendency to stick in a couple of Asian actors, just to help flog the film in the far east, and I can’t help wondering if the inclusion of Golding and Yeoh (Anglo-Malaysian and Chinese-Malaysian respectively) isn’t just another example of this sort of thing. It does make the various jokes in the film about the proliferation of horrible commercialised Christmas tat seem rather lacking in self-awareness, given the whole movie is horrible commercial Christmas tat itself. Nevertheless, we are assured this is ‘the Christmas film of the decade!’, although without specifying which one: possibly the 1340s.

It would be remiss of me to suggest that Last Christmas is all bad, of course: there was one moment which actually made me laugh, although as it featured Peter Serafinowicz this is not really surprising. Unfortunately he is only in the film for about a minute. The rest of it is fairly consistently horrible, containing weird plot holes, mistaking quirkiness for genuine wit, and failing to realise that feel-good moments only come at a price: you have to really believe the characters have been knocked down if you’re going to rejoice when they get up again. The film’s attempts at moments of genuine emotional seriousness and pain just feel trite, though I should note that Clarke is trying hard throughout. The film’s habit of occasionally sticking in a glib and superficial political subtext with little real bearing on the plot is also rather crass, and does rather jar with Emma Thompson’s sizeable performance as a comedy Yugoslavian immigrant.

In the end, this is all surface and sentimentality, without any real sense of believeable characters or genuine emotions, with a soundtrack of George Michael songs (seemingly picked at random) trying to hold it together. I imagine that admirers of this thing (and they must be out there, for it has made $68 million to date) would say that its heart is in the right place. Given how the plot turns out, this is somewhat ironic, but it’s not true, in any case. Last Christmas‘ heart is in the right place only if you believe the right place for a heart is between the ears.

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Massed letter-writing campaigns and appeals to basic human decency have all clearly come to nothing, for the schedulers at the Horror Channel have plunged on with the second season of Space: 1999 regardless (you can take this ‘horror’ remit a bit too far). All you really need to know about the second season is that the show only got renewed by the skin of its teeth, and on condition that Gerry Anderson’s soon-to-be-ex-wife Sylvia was replaced as producer by someone more in tune with the demands of the US TV sci-fi audience. Who they got was Fred Freiberger, one of the most notorious figures in the history of the genre. Diligent Horror viewers can get enjoy a double helping of Freiberger every night at the moment – their SF-themed block of programming kicks off with a repeat of an episode of the third season of the original Star Trek (cancelled, and I am tempted to say deservedly, during Freiberger’s producership) and then concludes with Space: 1999 (ditto, except this time it was definitely deserved). Freiberger, later in his life, compared his encounters with science fiction and its fans to falling out of a plane during the Second World War and being held prisoner by the Nazis. He was in no doubt which was the less gruelling experience (hint: it was not the one with the plane).

To get maximum Freiberger (although God knows why you would want to) you should check out one of the episodes he wrote as well as produced. The most notorious of these, probably, is… well, first I should probably say that this was a UK-based production and the UK is doubtless an exotic place to many American visitors. Even the place names sound bizarre and alien (probably). And, we should remember, Freiberger’s remit was to think primarily of the American viewer, unfamiliar with the towns and cities of southern England. So it was that Freiberger decided it was perfectly reasonable to turn in a script entitled The Rules of Luton. (Legend has it he saw the name on a road sign while driving in to the studio one day.)

Now you and I might think that the rules of Luton mainly concern long-term parking at the airport and possibly the punishment for jumping the queue at one of the local curry houses, but Freiberger had a different take on this. The episode opens with a bunch of the characters en route to a mysterious new planet which they are going to survey in the hope it will provide a new home to the long-suffering inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha. (We are already pretty sure it won’t, as this would mean the end of the series.) However, just as they are about to land, their Eagle transporter springs a leak, and (in a somewhat questionable piece of decision-making) Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) opts to be dropped off there for a few hours, along with alien science officer Maya (Catherine Schell), while the pilot (someone from Howard’s Way) goes back for a fresh ship.

The planet seems very nice, helped no end by the fact this is one of the series’ most extensive location shoots, but things go badly wrong when (in another dodgy piece of decision-making) Koenig tucks into one of the local berries while Maya starts picking the flowers. There are wails of outrage from all around them! A booming, apparently disembodied voice (David Jackson, probably best known for playing Gan in Blake’s 7) decries them as criminals and cannibals. (Dude, it’s a berry. This isn’t cannibalism – Landau’s performances may be a bit ripe sometimes, but he ain’t no fruit, nor indeed a vegetable.)

Well, it turns out the planet is called Luton (the British cast-members do their best to salvage the situation by pronouncing it Luh-Tahn) and here the fruit and veg is running the place, and takes a dim view of flower-picking and vegetarianism. (Insert your own joke about vegans here.)  Some trees of great local importance inform Koenig and Maya that they will now be required to fight for their lives against other berry-eating recidivists, if they want to leave in one piece. Three actors in some of the dodgiest alien suits ever to make it onto a film set duly appear and wave bits of rock at them. The slightly mind-boggling thing is that the producers went ahead and hired what I can only describe as proper actors to play the opposition – looking rather like a green version of Lemmy in a costume which is mostly black leather and long hair is Jackson, again, while Roy Marsden (later to become a respectable TV face) is obliged to dress up as a mangy parrot. The third alien is played by Godfrey James – more of a jobbing actor than the other two, but still someone with a very respectable list of credits.

They were (reasonably) young, they needed the money…

Koenig’s laser-stapler doesn’t work on the aliens (a typical example of a brazen Freiberger plot device) and so he and Maya are obliged to leg it from the hostile trio. The boss tree makes a rather ominous announcement: in order to make this a fair fight, they have given the aliens ‘special powers’ which are the equal of those of Koenig and Maya. Even Koenig recognises this as being distinctly iffy, given they are outnumbered and all. Maya, admittedly, has the power to change into easily-trained animals and rubber-suit aliens, but what exactly is Martin Landau’s special power supposed to be? It’s certainly not the ability to lift a duff script.

Well, there’s a lot of chasing about, during which Koenig gets dinged, one of the aliens falls in a river and drowns, and so on, and so on. Meanwhile the chap from Howard’s Way is making good on his promise to return for them, even though the entire planet has vanished from his sensors (these trees are remarkably resourceful). What follows is a load more chasing about, with what looks very much like a cameo appearance by the killer vine from the Fluff Freeman segment of Dr Terror’s House of Horrors at one point.

The only non-chasing about element comes when our two heroes pause for what feels like a good ten minutes to share back-story with each other. Maya talks about her long-lost brother and the history of her planet; Koenig talks about his dead wife (killed in the Third World War of 1987 – don’t know about you, but I missed that at the time). It is an entirely unexpected piece of character-building, which leads me to conclude that a) Freiberger didn’t write this scene and b) it was something they had to come up with on location when the episode turned out to be running short. So far as I can recall, neither Mrs Koenig or Maya’s brother are mentioned at any other point in the series.

In the end it’s back to the chasing about. One of the noticeable things about Freiberger’s run on Space: 1999 is the extent to which the plots are thinly-disguised rip-offs of ones from original Star Trek, or at least contain virtually identical elements. So the replica Enterprise from The Mark of Gideon gives us the replica Moonbase Alpha of One Moment of Humanity, while the Space: 1999 episode New Adam, New Eve resembles a cross between Who Mourns for Adonais? and a wife-swapping party. The chief donor where The Rules of Luton is concerned is the iconic episode Arena, with all the usual Freiberger nonsense (super-powered aliens, absurd science, silly plot-devices) added to it. Arena concludes with Captain Kirk building a bamboo cannon to defeat his opponent. Rules of Luton concludes with Commander Koenig turning his jacket’s belt into a bolas with which he entangles Lemmy the alien’s legs: the alien promptly falls over and bumps his head, thus giving Koenig a win. He also gets to make a speech denouncing the cruelty and arrogance of the tree praesidium, stirring up trouble on Luton. Wisely, he and Maya make their departure before the gooseberries start rioting.

If you have travelled at all in the wonderful land we call SF, you do expect the script from Rules of Luton to be awful – what genuinely comes as a blow is how bad the direction is, considering this episode was overseen by Val Guest. Earlier in his career, Guest oversaw two hugely important and very accomplished British SF films – The Quatermass Xperiment and The Day the Earth Caught Fire – but here his work is just clumsy, with endless use of the same bits of footage. One wonders how severe the constraints on this production really were: the whole thing owes its existence to the fact that season 2 was given a very tight schedule, with twenty-four episodes to be made over no more than ten months. (From start to finish, season 1 was in front of the cameras from late 1973 to early 1975.) As a result Freiberger decided to double-bank some of the episodes, which is why Landau and Schell are so prominent here and yet peripheral characters in The Mark of Archanon (which isn’t quite as bad as this), and why this one is largely shot on location (the standing sets were being used by the other unit). Even so, filming a whole episode on location must have meant working at a hell of clip, which is presumably why the tipped-off viewer can apparently spot picnic tables and canoeists in some shots of the planet Luton. (I’ve never been able to bring myself to pay that much attention to it.)

So it’s rubbish, but like much of second season Space: 1999, it’s so extravagantly, uninhibitedly rubbish it’s almost enjoyable. One critic of the series has said ‘it is as bad as TV can get’, and I can see what he means. But would the world really be a better place without The Rules of Luton? I can’t quite bring myself to say so.

(Ho ho – when the Horror Channel first broadcast Rules of Luton, not long after showing the Freiberger-produced subtlety-free racism allegory Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, the transmitters battled on heroically for most of the episode before packing up in shame midway through the closing credits. The Horror Channel was off the air for over an hour. Lord knows what will happen when they show Space Warp.)

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I know that some people have occasionally accused me of being unreasonably inflexible and rigid in my attitudes and principles. Well, maybe so; everyone’s got to have their red lines, after all. But in my defence, I would like to offer proof that a man can change. For quite a long time in the early and middle 2000s I was a definite cheerleader for the career of Gerard Butler, always lamenting his poor film choices and bad luck and hoping he would rise to become a genuine leading man. However, for the last couple of years I have quietly been hoping he would pack it all in and slope off back to obscurity.

What changed? Well, when Butler actually became a star he ended up making films like Geostorm, Hunter Killer, and especially London Has Fallen, and frankly I can only take so much of that kind of thing (some of the personal grooming commercials he’s been doing have been difficult to stomach as well). If it hadn’t been for the current blight in interesting mainstream films I suspect I would have given his new one, Ric Roman Waugh’s Angel Has Fallen, a very clear miss. But, you know – maybe I do have some residual affection for the lad.

The movie opens with moody scenes of men in combat gear, flames, and helicopters. They are clearly big manly men, carrying big gunly guns, but keeping well clear of the big flamey flames. (Sometimes a helicopter is just a helicopter.) It turns out this lot are all after heroic swivel-eyed psycho Mike Banning (GERARD! BUTLER!), only not really, as anyone with a switched-on brain will quickly realise. This fake man-hunt is just a device to allow the movie to open with some running around and shooting as well as foreshadowing what is to follow when the movie properly gets going (basically, more running around and shooting).

Well, with that out of the way, they have to lay in some plot, which involves Banning’s old mate Jennings (Danny Huston), a mercenary who’s feeling the pinch, and the decision of the President (Morgan Freeman) not to use private security firms to execute American foreign policy. There is also a plotline about Banning knocking on a bit, suffering from insomnia and concussion and a dodgy neck, and dreading the prospect of the desk job which is being floated before him.

All this done, it’s off to the races as someone unknown (but really very obvious) attempts to kill the President while he’s fishing, using killer drones. This is one of the movie’s big set pieces and it is certainly fairly impressive, although the fact that this is the third film this year alone to incorporate killer drones as a plot device inevitably lessens the impact. Everyone dies but Banning and the Prez (who is left in a coma), and evidence surfaces suggesting that Banning has been colluding with the Russians against the best interests of the American people. With the administration in turmoil and the threat of war looming (as usual, this is an abstract, off-screen sort of looming, an attempt to raise the stakes more than anything else), it’s up to Banning to go on the run from the FBI in an attempt to clear his name and save the nation…

So: a few changes from the last …Has Fallen movie, most visibly the disappearance of Aaron Eckhart as the President and the promotion of Morgan Freeman to the top job. You can understand why Eckhart must have found this a fairly unfulfilling gig, as all it involved was looking weak and needing to be rescued all the time, and Freeman got to make all the big speeches anyway. It is odd to realise this is only the second film where Morgan Freeman plays the US President, it feels like it’s been a plank of his career for ages (even though the first time was in a film where basically half the world blew up, not the most reassuring track record). Banning’s wife has also been recast, not that it matters very much.

Less visibly, but perhaps more importantly, this is a less ugly and offensive film than London Has Fallen, although it is still a very mechanical chase-thriller with lengthy action sequences undistinguished by any real flair or energy. It doesn’t relish gratuitous sadism in the same way the previous film did, nor does it treat serious real-world issues in quite such an offensively glib manner. So it is on some level an improvement.

However, London Has Fallen was such a bad film that being better than it doesn’t mean Angel Has Fallen is actually what you’d call a good one. It is, as noted, mechanical, and also quite predictable – it’s crystal-clear right from the start that Danny Huston is going to turn out to be the bad guy, for instance. (Not quite entirely predictable, though: a couple of characters get the chop who you wouldn’t necessarily expect.) Much of it is quite humourless, soundtracked primarily by Butler shouting profanities and grunting a lot.

On the other hand, when they do try to lighten up, the results are mixed at best. Banning attempts to go to ground with his estranged father, played by Nick Nolte. It turns out that Pops Banning is also a swivel-eyed psycho, but he is presented as the comic relief character: when he blows dozen of bad guys away or stabs them to death it is usually the set-up to a punchline of some description. (When Mrs Banning meets her father-in-law for the first time, the very first thing he does is knife two guys to death in her presence – and she still has doubts that he’s related to her husband! Has she not been paying attention for the last two movies?) This also occasions an attempt at some added depth, as Pops Banning is another army veteran left traumatised by his experiences. Not that the film is really about this or attempts to deal with it in any depth. It just sort of prods the notion in an attempt to generate some pathos and then moves on to the next scene.

The movie is of course afflicted by the same problem that has troubled any recent attempt to portray goings on at the top end of the US government. In the past the answer has always been to create a sort of roman-a-clef effect, to some degree or other – so we had heroic, charming POTUSes in films during the Clinton years, Danny Glover and Jamie Foxx in the Oval Office during the Obama administration, and so on. But what are you supposed to do at the moment? Hire the Jim Henson Company? In the end the film parts company with reality entirely, which is kind of ironic as the current US administration did that quite some time ago.

You do actually get a sense of a film not quite hedging its bets completely in this area: if anything, this is a movie pitching to an old, white, male, blue-collar crowd, more likely than not to be wearing one of those red baseball caps with the cute slogan on it. Heroic Banning, after all, is framed for colluding with the Russians and wrongfully persecuted by the FBI as a result – although there is a passing reference to Russian tampering in US elections which someone has slipped in, in an attempt at balance. There is also a scene in which a defenceless African-American woman is shot in the face by a white middle-aged man, which I would imagining playing quite well with a certain constituency of the current president’s base.

However, lest you come away with the impression that this is just empty carnage, questionable comic relief and dubious political subtext, I should mention that there is also a theme about the deep bond and fellow-feeling that exists between former brothers-in-arms Banning and Jennings. Truly they understand and care for each other, although this doesn’t stop Jennings trying to frame his buddy or have his family kidnapped. The final tussle between them is thus an oddly affectionate one and even somewhat tender, as they grapple sweatily together, holding one another tightly and gasping for breath (both have been doing a lot of running, and Banning has just copped a grenade at point-blank range), before Banning brings things to a climax and slips it in (his dagger, I mean). ‘I’m glad it was you!’ whispers Danny Huston, before flopping down to bleed out in a pool of his own bodily fluids. You almost feel like you’re intruding on them by watching this stuff.

Or possibly I’m reading too much into all of this. I suspect it is actually impossible to read too little into it, for this is ultimately formulaic entertainment, the hard lines of plot barely garnished by the odd moment purporting to bring character or depth to it. That said, Danny Huston is clearly having fun, and there’s something about Morgan Freeman that can’t help but bring a touch of class to whatever he does. The film also scores points for improving on London Has Fallen. But on the whole this is insignificant stuff. My advice to Gerard Butler now? Take the desk job, the next time they offer it.

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When I was a lad, especially prior to the home entertainment revolution, your actual classic Disney cartoons never turned up on TV: the corporation had hit upon a cunning wheeze to maximise its cashflow as far as these films were concerned. The trick was a simple one: rather than selling the films to TV networks, Disney just kept re-releasing them into cinemas on a seven-year cycle, meaning that every new generation got the chance to see them on the big screen. This continued until the dawn of the new modern age of Disney animation in the early 90s – I remember seeing The Jungle Book on its 1993 release. Things are different now, of course, with all of the corporation’s back-catalogue available on DVD. They have to find a new way of maintaining interest in these movies.

And the solution they appear to have landed upon is to remake all those lovely old cartoons as modern CGI blockbusters: a trend which started with Jon Favreau’s remake of The Jungle Book three years ago [It has been pointed out to me that Ken Branagh’s 2015 version of Cinderella predates this – A], and which is reaching full fruition this year – apart from the Mary Poppins sequel, which is not exactly the same kind of thing, we will see live action and CGI versions of Aladdin and The Lion King. First off the blocks, however, is Tim Burton’s new version of Dumbo.

The original Dumbo, released in 1941, was made in something of a hurry for Walt Disney, made economically after Fantasia proved to a glorious folly for the film-maker. The new film is twice as long as the original and basks in a budget of over $170 million dollars. The story remains very roughly similar, and concerns a rather down-at-heel circus, in the new film run by Danny DeVito. The year is 1919 and animal trainer Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns from the First World War, in the course of which his arm has been CGI’d off, to be reunited with his (rather charmless) children. Their mother, along with many of the other circus folk, has died from the Spanish Flu, leaving everyone dispirited and emotionally scarred. (Good stuff for the tinies in the audience, this.)

Hopes are high that a new elephant recently purchased for the circus will turn the fortunes of the business around, as the animal is about to give birth. However, the mini-elephant, when it emerges, is an unprepossessing specimen, mainly on account of its freakishly large ears, and it is unkindly christened Dumbo. However, and you are almost certainly ahead of me on this one, Dumbo turns out to have an unusual talent – when properly motivated, those ears begin to flap and the pachyderm takes to the air!

So far, so very much like the 1941 version, you may be thinking. Well, yes and (very emphatically) no, for as you may have gathered, the more charmingly whimsical elements of the story have been almost wholly excised in favour of a bunch of largely one-dimensional new human characters. Think of an element of the original Dumbo that you remember with particular vividness and fondness, and I can almost guarantee that it is essentially absent from the new one. Oh, yes, there are plenty of call-backs and allusions, but only in the most superficial way – Timothy the mouse is gone, the extraordinary alcohol-induced hallucination sequence is gone, and the musical sequence with the singing crows has also gone (presumably it has been decreed that the crows could be construed as racially provocative). In their place are clangingly delivered messages about the treatment of circus animals and (for some reason) the evil of gender roles: in almost every scene, Farrell’s daughter gets to deliver solemn dialogue about how she is going to be A Scientist and Discover Things and Do Research And Experiments Using The Scientific Method. Nothing wrong with the sentiment, naturally, but why the hell are they crowbarring it into Dumbo?

I should point out that the new film blows through virtually the entire plot of the 1941 version well within the first hour, leaving a lot of time to fill before the obligatory happy ending. It is at this point that the new Dumbo stops being just dismaying and becomes actively baffling: arriving on the scene is wealthy entertainment tycoon V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who is opening a new theme park and needs a big attraction to lure in the punters. He initially comes across as a warm, avuncular figure, but (no real spoilers here, I think) eventually proves to be a ruthless, grasping, exploitative villain.

At which point one can only pause to wonder what on Earth the people at Disney think they are doing? Has no-one noticed the subtext of the new movie? This is a Disney film in which the bad guy is effectively a thinly-disguised version of Walt Disney, with ‘Dreamland’ presented as a thoroughly phoney and unpleasant place. It’s the worst possible advertisement for the world’s biggest entertainment brand. I can just about imagine someone like Tim Burton being amused by the idea of smuggling this kind of subversive idea into a film from the Mouse House, but this is barely subtle enough to qualify as smuggling – it’s hardly some buried subtext, more the essential message of the film. I say it again: has everyone at Disney gone mad?

Normally I would be quite amused by the extravagant way that the world’s biggest entertainment company is cheerfully shooting itself in the foot, but the execution of this part of the film isn’t really any better than that of the opening act. The characterisation is still thin (the best part probably goes to Burton’s girlfriend Eva Green, as a trapeze artist), the general tone of the film gloomy and grotesque. No-one seems to have figured out that a concept which is effortlessly charming when realised with cel animation and anthropomorphic talking animals just seems weird and slightly disturbing with photo-realistic CGI and human performers: we are clearly intended to find Dumbo irresistibly cute, but the glassy-eyed creature front and centre for much of the film comes direct from the Uncanny Valley.

I suppose one should even be slightly grateful for how comprehensively misconceived the new version of Dumbo is, for few films in recent memory are quite as worthy of this kind of self-sabotage. It’s a film which trades heavily on the audience’s fondness for the original film – fondness which is entirely warranted, I feel obliged to mention, for the 1941 film is packed with charm, imagination and pathos – but then attempts to lure them in to see something which barely qualifies as a remake, having a substantially different tone and story, and including none of the moments you remember. One can only assume the other films on the way will be better – it’s hard to imagine how they could be much worse – but Dumbo is, well, mostly just dumb.

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You’d think that you knew where you were with a film luxuriating in the (frankly brilliant) title Devil Girl from Mars: the details practically fill themselves in, after all. We are dealing with a product of the 1950s, low-budget, most likely dreadful (in an entertaining sort of way), an American B-picture. And you would be right in all respects but one.

David MacDonald’s film opens with stock footage of a plane flying peacefully on its way – but it then abruptly (and rather unconvincingly) explodes, plunging us into the title sequence and the startling revelation that there are some fairly well-known names in this film – not just Hazel Court, whose finest big screen moment may well have been The Masque of the Red Death, but also John Laurie, whose immortality is assured not, as you might expect, by his appearances in classic films like The Thirty-Nine Steps and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, but by the years at the end of his career spent playing Fraser the undertaker in Dad’s Army. What is this quintessential Scotsman doing in a sci-fi B movie?

Soon the question becomes one of ‘what’s a sci-fi B-movie doing in Scotland?’ for it rapidly becomes clear that this film will be almost exclusively set in and around a remote Scottish pub, which is operated by John Laurie and his wife. Various other characters turn up: their barmaid (Adrienne Corri), who hails from down south and is here for somewhat mysterious reasons, a renowned astronomer turns up accompanied by a journalist, drawn by a report of a meteorite falling somewhere in the vicinity, and so on. There is also a fashion model (Court) on the run from a failed liaison, and an escaped convict who is literally on the run from the police.

Confirmation of the special quality of this film comes when the barmaid greets the escaped convict, for he is the (somewhat wrongfully imprisoned) man she loves. The guy’s name is apparently Robert Justin, but, he says, he has decided to change his name to Albert Simpson to conceal his identity. Corri’s character doesn’t bat an eyelid and proceeds to call him Albert for the rest of the film without making any further comment.

Things proceed in this sort of slightly demented manner for a while, creating a sort of Grand Hotel ambience of stewing subplots (only with more of a neeps and tatties flavour to it). But then everyone is astonished by the landing, in the pub garden, of one of your genuine flying saucers! From within it emerges Nyah (Patricia Laffan), an imperious interplanetary dominatrix whose costume inevitably puts one in mind of plumbing supplies.

Nyah informs the assembled company that they are cut off from the outside world (which if nothing else helps to keep the budget down). Mars, apparently, is short of red-blooded males and she has come to take a few off there to help re-populate this dying planet. Having dropped this bombshell she goes back into the flying saucer so everyone else can think about it and talk about what to do next.

It becomes apparent fairly quickly that this is Nyah’s preferred modus operandi: she occasionally comes out of her flying saucer to perform some shocking (but still economical) demonstration of her satanic space technology, then goes back in again to allow everyone else to react. Eventually, however, the stubborn resistance of the humans proves to be too much for her to tolerate, and she unleashes her robot, which is likely to prove too much for many audiences to tolerate. It basically looks like a fridge on legs, staggering about very, very slowly, and pausing only to unleash its death ray on various bits of the local countryside.

The clued-up viewer will rapidly come to two conclusions, based on this sequence: firstly, this whole movie is inspired, if that’s the right word, by The Day the Earth Stood Still (alien visitor and robot companion cause a commotion), and secondly, some parts of this film are surprisingly good, relative to how utterly awful the worst elements of it turn out to be. The actual death ray stuff is rather well executed, though very similar to similar effects in The Day the Earth Stood Still and The War of the Worlds; some of the shots of the flying saucer are also quite acceptable.

That said, most of the stuff in this movie which is not openly ridiculous comes from the homespun British drama side of the mash-up, rather than the flying saucer sci-fi aspect. The sets and props of the pub are fine, if hardly ground-breaking; most of the subplots are the stuff of programme-filling potboilers, with people in fraught romantic relationships – melodrama, really, but the UK made hundreds of now-forgotten films about this kind of thing back when our film industry was more substantial. The melodramatic aspect of the subplots is really no better and no worse than that of many other films of this period. Apart from how corny the plot is, the real revelation is just how parochial the film feels – at one point the convict and his girlfriend are discussing his possible future, and the prospect of his fleeing the country comes up. ‘You don’t need a passport for Ireland!’ he says, in a sudden moment of inspiration. For a film that deals with cosmic ideas, the horizons of this film are often very close at hand.

In the end this is really not very good science fiction – the palest shadow of The Day the Earth Stood Still, certainly – there’s no concerted attempt to bring any kind of depth or allegorical content to it. Klaatu in the more famous film is clearly intended as an analogue for Christ; Nyah, in this one, never feels like she’s much more than a woman in a vinyl costume and a shower curtain. It’s sci-fi as spectacle, bereft of intellectual content – if I was feeling particularly nasty, I would mention that the sound recordist on this film was one ‘Gerald Anderson’, later to go on to make many much-loved sci-fi TV shows that look fantastic but are seldom noted for the brilliance of their scripts.

Devil Girl from Mars isn’t even as innocently enjoyable as most of the Anderson shows: but entertaining it is, if you enjoy bad movies which unashamedly display not just their own limitations but also their own weirdness. Much of it is bad, but parts of it are very funny indeed: a good enough deal for me, and probably for many others too.

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  1. Cornwall, 2010. Possibly a Thursday. 

JIM (James Purefoy) and his crew of fellow lobster fishermen gather by their boat.

JIM: ‘Morning lads. Now, as you know, I am Jim Trevelyan. You probably vaguely recognise my face from various direct-to-DVD thrillers and character parts in prestige TV shows, but in this here film I am the stubborn, unsophisticated, but stalwart and principled patriarch of this fishing village, and I will be making it clear in all my dialogue just how Cornish and authentic I am.’

CORNISH FISHERMEN: ‘Arrrrrr.’

JIM’s daughter ALWYN (Tuppence Middleton) joins them.

ALWYN: ‘Now, I am your daughter, Dad, and you probably know my face from off the telly and various low-budget British movies. I am a feisty single mum, as this allows me to show my grounded, maternal personality while still being available for a trite romance. My job is to talk almost entirely in platitudes and clumsily communicate the message of the film, about the importance of The Important Things in Life.’

JIM: ‘We had best be about our lobster fishing and singing, for we need to establish the tone of this film, while still providing the opportunity for some scenic footage of Cornwall.’

The boat sails about scenically while the FISHERMEN sing heartily.

SINGING CORNISH FISHERMEN: ‘We sing and fish the whole day long, from dawn until it goes dark / We’ve Cornish clichés by the ton, we’ve even more than Poldark.’

 

2. London: a phoney, shallow necropolis of the soul, apparently, although I bet the film producers are happy enough living there.

DANNY (Daniel Mays), a music business type, meets his boss TROY (Noel Clarke) and some other friends of little significance to the plot.

DANNY: ‘Hello lads! I am the go-getting, outwardly jaded city boy just crying out to be put back in touch with The Important Things In Life. You probably know my face from off the telly and various low-budget British films, although I was in the recent stellar conflict movie that everyone agreed was good, too. Shall we all go on a stag weekend in Cornwall?’

TROY: ‘Sounds good to me! I am your cynical, money-grubbing American boss. You probably know my face from off the telly and various low-budget British films, but I was in one of the Star Trek movies, too (although not one of the good ones). In this movie I have a beard and I’m having to do an American accent, and it seems to have destroyed my ability to act. It’s like I’m first-series Mickey Smith again.’

DANNY: ‘I’m sorry to hear that. Shall we go off with the intention of mocking the Cornish yokels, little realising one of us is in for a life-changing experience?’

TROY: ‘Yeah, all right.’

 

3. A harbour in Cornwall.

The FISHERMEN are preparing to give an outdoor concert.

JIM: ‘All right, we’ve established all the main characters in very broad strokes, it’s time for the inciting incident. Let’s get this plot underway.’

SINGING CORNISH FISHERMEN: ‘I love my boat, I love my hat, I love my lobster pot / Let’s sing a bit more in this style, it’ll help to start the plot.’

DANNY and TROY are watching the concert.

TROY: ‘Danny! As a strange and elaborate practical joke, I order you to stay here and go to great lengths to get these singing fishermen to sign a record contract that I have no intention of honouring while I go off back to London with the others.’

DANNY: ‘Okay! Er – why are you doing this to me? I thought we were friends, and I’ve not really done anything to antagonise you.’

TROY: ‘Sorry, man. The plot demands it.’

SINGING CORNISH FISHERMEN: ‘You’re born to be a fisherman, or born to be a farmer / You’ve no choice over what you do, when you’re in a melodrama.’

 

4. A pub in Cornwall.

JIM is talking to his MUM in the bar.

JIM’s MUM: ‘So that there outsider finds himself stuck amongst us, initially against his will, but slowly learning to appreciate the value of our authentic community-centred way of life?’

JIM: ‘Looks that way.’

JIM’s MUM: ‘So it’s basically another knock-off of Local Hero, only with less wit and charm and more folk music?’

JIM: ‘Aye.’

JIM’s MUM: ‘Don’t you just hate it when people hit on a successful formula, and then mindlessly repeat themselves.’

JIM: ‘Don’t you worry, Mum, I’m sure the reviews of new films will go back to normal soon enough.’

Outside the pub, DANNY is talking to ALWYN.

DANNY: ‘So, I was initially here against my will, but now I have decided to stay, either because I am falling in love with you or because your authentic community-centred way of life has shown me what The Important Things in Life are.’

ALWYN: ‘The Important Things in Life are very important, Danny.’

DANNY: ‘Thanks for making that absolutely clear to me.’

ALWYN: ‘Is this not a sudden and not especially well-handled transformation of your essential character, Danny?’

DANNY: ‘Sorry, the plot demands it.’

 

5. JIM and ALWYN’s house in Cornwall.

DANNY is talking to ALWYN.

DANNY: ‘So, now we have fallen in love, and after some rather meandering plot developments I have managed to secure a record deal for your Dad’s band against the wishes of my shallow money-grubbing boss. I have also come to appreciate The Important Things in Life.’

ALWYN: ‘The Important Things in Life are very important, Danny. How long has all this taken?’

DANNY: ‘The internal chronology has become a bit vague, I’m afraid. But everything else seems to be going well.’

JIM and the FISHERMEN enter.

JIM: ‘I’m sorry to say this, but we’re at the end of the second act and it’s time for Danny to have a dark night of the soul which will help him realise all he has learned.’

FISHERMEN: ‘Arrrrrr. And not before time.’

JIM: ‘Danny, you are nothing but another shallow outsider who doesn’t understand our authentic community-centric ways! Plus, someone lovable has died and we’re all very upset. Get out of Cornwall and never return!’

DANNY: ‘All right, I’ll be off then. See you all at the climax for a life-affirming resolution.’ 

SINGING CORNISH FISHERMEN: ‘It’s now the part with pathos so the film will seem less shallow / Just like the bit in Four Weddings, where they kill off Simon Callow.’

 

6. At the pub.

DANNY enters. Everyone else is there waiting.

DANNY: ‘I’m back for the climactic resolution, where I demonstrate my commitment to Alwyn and show just how much I have changed. I now fully understand the importance of your authentic community-centric way of life, and many other Important Things in Life.’

ALWYN: ‘The Important Things in Life are very important, Danny.’

JIM: ‘I will therefore have to grudgingly admit you into our community, although I do note the storyline about a folk group of singing fishermen proving unexpectedly successful has become somewhat eclipsed by a subplot about who owns the pub and its symbolic relevance to the issue of the survival of communities like this one.’

DANNY: ‘Shall we all live happily ever after while the credits show us photos of the real-life folk group?’

JIM: ‘Aye, may as well. I think we’ve time for one last sea shanty, too. Hit it lads!’

SINGING CORNISH FISHERMEN: ‘The final verdict’s on its way, and it’s sure to be nasty / There’s less meat to this bloody film than in a Cornish pasty.’

Fisherman’s Friends (directed by Chris Foggin) is in cinemas now, and is sure to folk you up.

 

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One of the things you occasionally hear people suggesting, when it comes to films, is that some of the famous old stories that have generally proven to be bankers time and time again – you know the sort of thing: Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Tarzan, King Arthur – seem to have fallen out of favour, at least slightly. It’s not that they always flop, goes the theory, but they’re seldom world-conquering smash hits any more.

Nevertheless, people still keep making films based on these stories, even if it is the result of some sort of reflex action: we’ve had two big-budget Sherlock Holmes so far this century, with another on the way (even if it is a spoof); a rather poor Dracula a few years ago; and two King Arthur films since 2004 (the Clive Owen version, which suggested the famous king was a Romano-British soldier, and the Charlie Hunnam one, which presented him as a kung-fu fighting London gangster superhero). And now we are on our second Robin Hood film in not much than eight years (the last one being the Russell Crowe-Ridley Scott collaboration which seemed to get considerably less interesting between the time it was announced and its actual release).

The new film is (once again) Robin Hood, directed by Otto Bathurst. Now, I am generally well-disposed to an adventure movie in the classic style, even if the story is somewhat well-worn. However, I suspect that even if I had managed to get to the screening of the new film without encountering the trailer or advertising, my expectations would have been flattened like a tax-collector hit with a quarterstaff by the opening dialogue alone. ‘I could tell you what year all this happened,’ says the blokey voice-over, ‘but I’ve forgotten. I could bore you with the history, but I won’t.’ Yes, God forbid you should credit the audience with any intelligence or attention span, writers of Robin Hood, just patronise away. It really does sound like the makers of the movie getting their excuses in first.

I can understand why, for what the film-makers manage to do is take possibly the most famous of English historical folk-legends and – well, I was about to say that they make a film totally devoid of historical content, but this would not be true. There is lots of history in Robin Hood. It is all just mind-bogglingly, preposterously inappropriate history.

Things get under way with them setting up the romance between good-hearted young nobleman Robin of Loxley (Taron Egerton, who has turned into a serviceable enough leading man) and rebellious young working-class girl Marian (Eve Hewson, who is all heavy eyeshadow and embonpoint). However, their idyll is shattered when Robin receives his ‘Draft Notice’ in the post from the Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn), sending him off to fight in the Middle East. Here we have our first two bits of history – the ‘draft letter’ scene, which could quite easily come from midwestern America in the late 1960s, and the Sheriff’s full-length grey leather trench-coat, which rather leads one to assume he is serving in the Wehrmacht, circa 1940.

It gets better (by which I mean it gets worse). Robin is supposedly serving in the Third Crusade (1189-1192), but the conflict is deliberately presented in a manner designed to create associations with the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, rather more recently – it is the same vicious chaos of house-to-house fighting. Swap out the longbows for assault rifles and stone throwers for air support and the sequence would be utterly indistinguishable from something contemporary.

Anyway, Robin’s moral qualms at the execution of prisoners by his brutal unit commander results in him being sent home in disgrace, but also in his earning the respect of an enemy warrior who eventually decides to go by the name of John (Jamie Foxx). Our hero is actually quite pleased to get home and see his girl again, but gets a tremendous surprise when he discovers he has been declared dead, his lands seized, and Marian is now shacked up with a bloke named Will (Jamie ‘Sex Dungeon’ Dornan). (This, by the way, was nothing to the surprise I got when Robin’s ship sailed into ‘Nottingham Harbour’, as Nottingham is generally agreed to be some sixty miles from the coast.)

Robin soon learns that the Sheriff is manipulating the war in Arabia for his own ends (apparently Nottingham is ‘the beating heart of the Crusades’), soaking the poor and spreading dark, divisive tales of multitudes of freedom-hating killers intent on infiltrating western civilisation. He and John resolve to stop it, but this involves discovering what the Sheriff is really doing with the money he takes from his subjects as taxes. They adopt a two-pronged approach – by day, Robin will be a charming young nobleman who will slowly gain the Sheriff’s confidence. But by night he will be a bow-slinging robber known only as the Hood!

I don’t especially want to labour this point too much, because (as mentioned) the film-makers do make it absolutely clear from the get-go that they couldn’t give a stuff about historical accuracy, but, short of proceedings halting for a musical number where Jamie Foxx delivers a new version of his 2005 meteorological ick-fest Storm Forecast, it’s hard to see exactly how this film could become any more divorced from things that actually happened in English history. One of the plot drivers is the question of what the Sheriff is up to with the cash, and I honestly would not have been entirely surprised to learn he was secretly building tanks or robots, because it would have been much of a piece with the rest of the film.

Even so, you have to be somewhat staggered by something passing itself off as a Robin Hood film which features no sword-fighting, no band of Merry Men worthy of the title (there are various characters with similar names, but almost without exception they bear no resemblance to the ones from folklore), and in which you only hear the word ‘Sherwood’ and get a close-up look at a tree in the last five minutes before the credits roll. Prior to this the film is just a generic cod-historical action runaround, most obviously influenced by various computer games and superhero movies and TV shows.

I suppose the big question when one chooses to revisit a fable like this one, if one has any kind of artistic soul, is why you are doing so, given there have been so many previous versions. What is the Robin Hood legend actually about? Why has it endured, and why does it continue to resonate? For me, the legend in its purest form is about a number of things – the complex nature of English society, the relationship between the people and the land, and the national inclination towards independent thinking and natural justice.

If the new version of Robin Hood is about anything beyond special-effects set-pieces, Taron Egerton looking soulful, and Ben Mendelsohn yelling ‘I’ll boil you alive in your own piss!!!’, then it appears to be a sort of glib, one-size-fits-all anti-capitalist and anti-establishment propaganda. Parallels between the situation in the film and recent events are drawn in with broad, clumsy strokes – young people are sent off to die in a foreign war puppeteered by wealthy old men at home, the poor are screwed over by the economic system, and corrupt leaders cynically employ divisive and racist rhetoric to maintain control over the masses.

You could, I suppose, have introduced some of these themes into a Robin Hood movie, if they were handled with care and delicacy, and inserted as a subtext. But here, the whole film feels like a cack-handed attempt at allegory – not so much Robin Hood as Occupy Sherwood.

I will try to find something nice to say about this film, beyond simply that it is not quite as bad as Peter Rabbit (I still had my head in my hands at various points, though). Well – much of it is quite well-staged, and competently organised. I suppose the production values are quite good, although the costumes and sets bear no relation to any particular point in history. Ben Mendelsohn does his best as the Sheriff (too many of the supporting cast are simply wooden). The plot sort of hangs together, on its own terms. But that’s about it, really.

The Rabbit comparison is a pertinent one, actually: in both cases, a well-known tale (or body of tales) has been comprehensively gutted of anything resembling the traditional content, in favour of something which the makers presumably think is contemporary, ‘street’, and edgy, but all the charm and texture of the original has been lost in the process. This is, by any rational standard, an awful Robin Hood film. It will probably make a lot of money. But give me Michael Praed any day.

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