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Posts Tagged ‘cobblers’

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most famous of English historical folk-legends and – well, I was about to say that they make a film totally devoid of historical content, but this would not be true.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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It falls to few people, no matter how naturally talented they are, to be good at everything. (This feels entirely just and comes as something of a relief to those of us who frankly often struggle to be good at anything.) And so there is surely something reassuring about the fact that, despite a massively successful and influential career as a novelist, author, essayist, critic, and memoirist, Martin Amis will still be remembered as a crappy writer of SF movie screenplays.

To be fair, he only had one go at this, and the experience seems to have been sufficiently unpleasant to put him off having another try. The film in question is Saturn 3, directed by Stanley Donen and released in 1980 under the auspices of Lew Grade’s ITC Entertainment. Amis apparently used his experiences on the movie as material for his novel Money, which I haven’t read; Saturn 3, on the other hand, I have experienced, as both a movie and a tie-in novel.

saturn 3

(Not that it matters much, but I once interviewed the writer of the Saturn 3 tie-in – this was not the major focus of our chat – who was a fellow named Stephen Gallagher. Gallagher, a bit like Amis, went on to do many much more distinguished and interesting things, but as he is primarily a genre writer he is not nearly as celebrated for them. His main recollection of the Saturn 3 job was that he was writing the novelisation before the film was actually finished – I think this is standard practice – and had only a copy of the shooting script to work from, along with a photo of one of the sets and another of the film’s robotic antagonist. My recollection is that the book changes the end of the film subtly but considerably, but as I’ve observed before it’s not unheard of for tie-in writers to quietly try and improve on the original script.)

Your first sense that things are going somewhat adrift with Saturn 3 comes very early on, when it is revealed that Kirk Douglas, superstar of the Golden Age of Hollywood, is only second billed on the movie. The coveted top spot is given instead to Farrah Fawcett, star of TV’s Charlie’s Angels. Hmmm. Rounding out the cast is Harvey Keitel, sort of (yes, this is another of those British movies which recruited an almost entirely American cast in an attempt to secure a US release).

In time-honoured post-stellar conflict post-Alien style, the film begins with a hefty model spaceship crawling from the top of the screen to the bottom, more than slowly enough for the viewer to discern that they are in for some duff special effects in the course of the next 88 minutes. All is not well inside the ship, either, for Captain Benson (Keitel), disgruntled at being barred from a mission on the grounds of mental instability, decides to murder his replacement and impersonate him on the job. (As this is the premise for the whole movie, you just have to accept how ill-thought-through and implausible it seems.)

Benson is soon rocketing off to Saturn’s third moon, Tethys, which is the location of a hydroponics research station operated by a couple named Adam (Douglas) and Alex (Fawcett). Both of them have been isolated for a long time – Alex has never been to Earth – and perhaps don’t notice that Benson is acting a bit strangely (nor that Keitel is obviously, and rather distractingly, having all his dialogue dubbed by Roy Dotrice).

The couple, who to judge from the film spend much more time in bed together than actually doing any hydroponics research, are displeased to learn that Benson’s mission is to oversee the construction of a shiny new robot which will make the station much more efficient and allow one of them to be reassigned elsewhere. But it turns out they have bigger problems. Hector the robot, who appears to be half-Terminator, half-anglepoise lamp, is programmed by Benson using a direct brain interface, and is inadvertently getting all of the captain’s homicidal tendencies and lustful thoughts about Farrah Fawcett in addition to his basic training. Trouble is bound to ensue…

Hard to believe it may be, but there was once a time when a film like Saturn 3 (current Rotten Tomatoes rating: 18%) could be broadcast as the BBC’s big Saturday night film. I should know, I was there: 8.20 p.m. on September 6th, 1986. My main memory is of acute surprise when the film turned out to have much more nudity and gore in it than I had expected (this must have been before they instituted the 9 o’clock watershed on UK TV). Apparently Lew Grade envisioned Saturn 3 as being a slightly disreputable exploitation movie (you can see how the plot might lend itself to this sort of approach), but Stanley Donen (who took over when original director John Barry was dismissed) presumably wanted something a bit more high-minded.

And so we end up with something which is neither intelligent or especially fun to watch. In addition to some of the most dubious spaceship models and special effects of its period, the film notably fails to present a coherent or convincing vision of futuristic society – this is obviously a second-wave SF knock-off film, post-Alien, but unlike that film and other ones deriving from it, you get no sense of recognition of the world or how it functions. Amis tries to create a sense of time and place by dropping cod-futuristic expressions and slang into the script (the base is ‘shadow-locked’ for most of the movie, which is why no-one can call for help, while the ageing Adam (Douglas was in his early sixties at the time, which if you ask me is too old to be doing nude fight scenes) is approaching his ‘abort time’, whatever that is), but it just feels intrusive.

Without much of a wider context having been established (the film’s Wikipedia page claims that it occurs in a future where Earth has become immensely overpopulated, but there’s barely any reference to this in the actual movie), Benson’s attempts to get his hands on Alex (‘You have a beautiful body. Can I use it?’) just feel contrived and leery for all his assertions that this is how it’s done back home. There’s an attempt at conjuring up some kind of sexual tension between the three leads, but the weak script and the lack of chemistry between any of them scuppers this (the most interesting relationship in the film is the one between Keitel and the prop robot).

Luckily, this is not a long movie and relatively soon we come to the bits with the robot on the rampage. I suppose it’s a testament to the achievement of Isaac Asimov that he managed to banish the ‘killer robot’ story from respectable SF (this was his intention with his ‘laws of robotics’ stories). Saturn 3, which is one of the purest ‘killer robot’ stories in cinema, is therefore something of an aberration. Nevertheless, the film’s most effective sequence comes near the end, with the human characters stalked through the base by Hector (who, being a clanking seven-foot machine, develops an almost supernatural ability to sneak up on them). There is not much in the way of characterisation or context here, but it does function on a cinematic level.

The rest of the film doesn’t, really. There is an identifiable story going on, there is the most basic kind of characterisation, and the film doesn’t contain the more egregious violations of the laws of physics that some more distinguished professional film-watchers would have you believe are present. But it never engages and never persuades, and the story isn’t fun enough to make you overlook its various shortcomings. A rather ugly and primitive movie; the kind of thing that gives incompetent SF a bad name.

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

room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Regular readers may recall my trip a couple of months ago to the excellent Ghost Stories, in the company of a couple of young Russian women who – in defiance of all logic – were unaware they were actually going to see a horror movie. Well, as they say in the more gothic-influenced parts of Switzerland, mein Gott, ich habe ein Monster erschaffen, for – while her friend Yekaterina returned to Russia alarmed and trembling – Olinka, it seems, has developed a real taste for this sort of thing. ‘Can we go and see Hereditary? Can we can we can we?’ ran the general tenor of her messages to me for quite some little while, until we, um, went to see Hereditary, directed by Ari Aster. Filling in for Yekaterina was me good mate and occasional contributor around here Next Desk Colleague, which if nothing else made me hope that there would be less jumping onto and grabbing at each other in the dark on this occasion.

We saw the trailer for Hereditary before Ghost Stories, of course, and were not unimpressed by its unsettling weirdness. Less positive was the response of another group of people who also saw the trailer, according to the media, but as they were a group of small children and their parents waiting to watch Peter Rabbit, this is not really surprising. Oh, the horror! Oh, the outraged screams! Oh, the parents desperately dragging their youngsters out of the theatre! Mind you, I don’t understand why this doesn’t happen during every screening of Peter Rabbit, regardless of which trailers precede it, but there you go – it’s a funny old world.

‘It’s a funny old world’ is not the prevailing ethos on display in Hereditary. ‘It’s a horrendous, bleak, nightmarish existence’ would probably be closer to the mark. The main character is Annie (Toni Collette), a successful artist, who lives with her husband (Gabriel Byrne), son (Alex Wolff), and daughter (Milly Shapiro). As the film opens they are preparing to bury Annie’s recently deceased mother, with whom she had a fraught relationship, to say the least. It soon becomes fairly clear that this is not exactly what you would call an entirely functional family: tensions and resentment, between mother and children at least, seem to be constantly simmering away not far from the surface. And as far as daughter Charlie is concerned – well, the kid just ain’t right, somehow, choosing to spend lots of time alone in a somewhat spooky treehouse, with hobbies that include scissoring the heads off dead birds. Hmmm.

And here we kind of run into a problem, which leads us back to the trailer to Hereditary. This is definitely one from the atmospheric, impressionistic end of the spectrum – it does a very good job of giving you an idea of how you’re going to feel while watching the movie, but in terms of telling you what the actual plot is, or even what the movie is really about… not so much. Let’s just say that something happens, the nature of which is significant, and the rest of the film is about the family’s response to this and the various ways in which things go awry as a result.

So what is Hereditary about? It’s not at all clear at first. If you’re watching a zombie movie, there’s a certain grammar and set of tropes in the storytelling that you know to expect; the same is true with werewolf movies, haunted house films, and all the other odd little subgenres. But for the first hour or so Hereditary offers no hints, at least not openly. The film really seems to be about the dysfunction of an affluent family – you only really know it’s a horror film because the soundtrack makes it clear that there is an ominous significance to many of the events on screen (lots of heavy cello and occasional outbursts of unsettling noise). This, together with the sheer darkness of what occurs on screen, results in a first half to the movie which is genuinely extremely uncomfortable – there is an almost chokingly oppressive sense of darkness and unease. It is not at all easy or pleasant to watch. I have to say it’s not actually very scary, either, as this is traditionally understood, and I did wonder if this was going to turn out to be another one of those post-horror movies we are having so many of currently.

Well, it turned out that Hereditary isn’t a post-horror movie after all, for it turns into a very different film in the second half and a rather more familiar one. Once again, there does seem to have been some deliberate obfuscation on the part of the film-makers as to what audiences should expect, so I don’t feel I can really go into too much detail except to say that it involves seances not going according to plan, conspiracies, the desecration of graves, one of the kings of Hell, a cult, numerous severed heads, spontaneous combustion, and quite possibly a demonically-possessed kitchen sink. In other words, we are very much back in mainstream horror territory, with the important caveat that it still isn’t particularly scary.

Oh, they manage a few mechanical jump scares, and there are bits which will make the average person go ‘eww’ and no mistake, but it won’t get into your head and mess you up in the way that a truly great horror film will. The best it can manage is some so-so gore and other old favourites: when a shot is composed so that the main character in it is off to one side in front of an open doorway, you don’t have to be Thelma Schoonmaker to figure out that something spooky will be ‘unexpectedly’ appearing in the frame behind them in the not too distant future. And the problem is that all this doesn’t even seem to be there in support of a story which makes sense. There are a lot of ominous red herrings which don’t seem to go anywhere: Next Desk Colleague observed that it looked like a film where they were making up the story as they went along. Maybe they were.

Not surprisingly, by the end people were openly laughing at Hereditary in the screening we attended, and not the nervous-tension-diffusing kind of laughter either. I myself found I was more inclined to look at my watch, but I did emit the odd derisory snort as things went on. As the credits rolled I looked around at the rest of the team, wondering if they would agree with my snap ‘what a load of cobblers’ judgement. Apparently so: ‘terrible,’ was NDC’s response, while all Olinka had to say was ‘I’m so sorry for making you watch that.’

This does seem to be one of those films which everyone loves apart from the audience, though – I note that Hereditary currently enjoys a 92% approval rating from your actual professional film critics, but only a D+ from paying audiences. I do have to say it would be remiss of me to give the impression that this is an entirely worthless experience – the way in which the atmosphere of the first half is created and maintained is extremely impressive, highly unpleasant though it is to experience. Also, while all the main actors are good, the film has a particular virtue in Toni Collette’s performance, which is often mesmerising, and manages to engage and affect the viewer even when the film is beginning to unravel. So there is lots of promise and potential here, but for this to be realised it would need a film which is more coherent and original. There are certainly things of interest in Hereditary, but if this is the future of the horror movie, we are looking at a genre heading into serious trouble.

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I first saw James L Conway’s Hangar 18 when it showed up on prime-time UK TV in the summer of 1986 (the film itself came out in 1980). I seem to recall I was more pleased than anything else, at the time – it wasn’t that often that a new sci-fi movie turned up at a time I could actually watch it – and the movie itself seemed engaging. Looking at the movie again now, however, I am somewhat astonished that, even thirty-two years ago in the dog days of summer, the BBC actually put this sucker on in the middle of the evening. As far as the development of my critical faculties go – well, we were all young once.

 

Hangar 18 was the product of Sunn Classic Pictures, an outfit which is indulgently remembered as a producer of a series of rather credulous sensationalist drama-documentaries, with names like In Search of Historic Jesus, In Search of Noah’s Ark, Beyond and Back (a movie about near-death experiences which made it onto Roger Ebert’s most-hated films list), The Bermuda Triangle, and The Mysterious Monsters. Hangar 18 has a go at whipping up the same kind of ‘could it be true?’ vibe, but is nowhere near up to the task.

Things get underway and we find ourselves watching the inaugural mission of the space shuttle (which presumably gave the film a near-future kind of vibe on release, as the first shuttle launches lay in the future in 1980). Aboard the ship are astronauts Steve (Gary Collins) and Lew (James Hampton). I would say they are the world’s least convincing astronauts, but then almost nobody in this film is convincing as their character. The crew are in the process of launching a satellite when they find themselves joined by another space vessel of extra-terrestrial origin. Despite their enormous technological prowess, the aliens prove themselves unable to get out of the way of the satellite and there is what orbital mechanics experts would describe as a bit of a ding.

The UFO falls out of orbit, landing in Texas, and the third crewman on the shuttle is beheaded by flying debris (the unconvincing special effect of the floating corpse seems to be one of the things about this movie that everyone remembers). Steve and Lew land back on Earth safely, but find themselves being blamed for the accident, with the presence of the alien ship not mentioned. What on Earth is going on?

Well, there’s a presidential election only two weeks away, and Machiavellian White House chief-of-staff Gordon Cain (Robert Vaughn, on autopilot) has decreed that all information relating to the saucer be kept under wraps until the votes are in (his reasoning here is a bit complicated but essentially spurious). This is almost certainly the least convincing cover-up in history, or possibly the worst thought-through. Steve and Lew get hung out to dry for the death of their crewmate, but there seems to be no attempt to keep tabs on them, as they are allowed to wander about doing some fairly inept sleuthing with no real difficulty.

Meanwhile the saucer itself has been whisked off to Hangar 18, which is not the same as Area 51, of course: Hangar 18 is in Texas, for one thing, and looks like a beat-up old aircraft hangar rather than a state-of-the-art government installation, although they try to get round this by suggesting it is cunning camouflage. ‘Don’t let the outside fool you!’ cries NASA boss Harry (Darren McGavin), introducing his team to the site, which is about as close to inventiveness as the film gets.

Mind you, the alien ship looks even more cruddy than the hangar, resembling a collection of vacuum-formed plastic boxes glued together, and it has not-terribly-interesting black-with-black-highlights décor, too. (On the other hand, it does seem to be bigger on the inside than the outside, so maybe one shouldn’t be too critical.) Harry and his team set about studying the ship and the bodies of the dead aliens inside, uncovering the odd abductee, translating the alien language with almost unseemly speed, and so on.

All this time, however, Steve and Lew are closing in on the heart of the cover-up, threatening to expose the secret of Hangar 18 and potentially really mess up the presidential election result. How far will Cain go to keep the situation under control…?

It’s not very far into Hangar 18 that you realise that, for whatever reason, you have sat down to watch what is fundamentally a bad movie. It is not quite the case that it is a comprehensively bad movie, for Darren McGavin works his usual magic and manages to lift many of the scenes he appears in to the level where they are relatively engaging. The film has a decent premise and is somewhat revealing as a post-Watergate, pre-X Files conspiracy thriller. But most of it is very heavy going. Partly this is because it has clearly been made on a punitively low budget, with minimal special effects.

However, a low budget does not excuse the suckiness of much of the script, which is the kind of thing that gives melodrama a bad name. The main driver of the plot is the sheer ineptness of the government cover-up, which allows Steve and Lew to roam the country gathering evidence and following tenuous leads almost with impunity. It is not one percent convincing as a depiction of the intelligence services in action, and as a result the film is almost impossible to take seriously as a drama.

The stuff with Harry and the others investigating the saucer is somewhat more interesting, though there is little original to be found here, either: it turns out the aliens have been abducting people, and also possibly armadillos (it’s not entirely clear); the ancient astronaut ideas of Swiss hotel manager and convicted fraudster Erich von Däniken are also dusted off and wheeled out. It barely qualifies as proper science fiction, to be honest, and I can imagine many modern commentators having issues with the fact that this is a movie almost wholly populated by middle-aged white dudes.

In fact, I have to say that possibly the most interesting thing about Hangar 18 is the ending, or perhaps I should say endings, for there are two: the original theatrical one, and another one cobbled together for the film’s TV broadcasts (some of which took place under the spoiler-tastic title Invasion Force). Now, it seems to be the case that it’s the second ending which is in general circulation at the moment. The difference between the two, so far as I’ve been able to find out, is as follows. Both versions conclude with Cain deciding to make the problem of Hangar 18 go away by blowing it up in a faked plane crash (listen to the 9/11 conspiracy nuts squeal). Meanwhile, Harry and the others have just discovered that the alien ship is an advance scout for an imminent invasion. But before they can raise the alarm generally, the hangar is blown up and Cain’s machinations leave humanity unprepared! (In the theatrical version anyway.) In the TV version, the ending is somewhat recut to suggest the alien ship survived intact, along with everyone who was inside it. It’s a bit of a cop-out, to be honest, concluding a rather bland movie in a very bland way. So I suppose it has consistency to commend it, but at least the darker original end would have been more memorable. Even so, I’m not even sure Hangar 18 really has any particular claim to be remembered.

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Maintenance of aim is terribly important in any undertaking: if you’re a surgeon doing heart-surgery, for instance, it is generally accepted that changing your mind halfway through and embarking on a tonsillectomy is not best practice. This kind of goes without saying in most walks of life, and is not normally a problem when it comes to film-making, anyway; any decent movie, once it enters serious production, has all the agile manoeuvrability of a fully-laden oil tanker – it’s just too complicated and expensive to start changing things. (Many a famous flop is the result of clashing creative visions causing a bad movie to go soaring over budget.)

Movies are a bit more vulnerable at the scripting stage, of course, and a spectacular example of just how badly things can go wrong at this point appears to be John Hough’s 1986 film Biggles (released in the US a couple of years later, under the title of Biggles: Adventures in Time). Now, anyone familiar with W.E. Johns’ famous boy’s-adventure hero could probably have guessed that the producers of this movie had set out on a slightly rocky path: doing Biggles authentically would involve dealing with a lot of problematic material, mainly due to the character’s origins during the dying days of the British Empire – there are some fairly unreconstructed attitudes on display from time to time, if not outright racism.

Nevertheless, you could certainly imagine a Biggles movie kind of working, provided it was sensibly scripted to catch the spirit of the stories – lots of courageous aerial derring-do, all in the cause of righteousness, naturally – in fact, you could imagine the 1983 Tom Selleck movie High Road to China serving as a template for a fairly successful Biggles film. And apparently Hough’s movie started life as just such a rousing period adventure, in the Raiders of the Lost Ark style. However, and this is the point at which the catastrophe started to unfold, while the film was being scripted – it may even have been while it was in production, such are the timescales involved – key figures on the project noted the success of various science-fiction films, particularly Back to Future, and the decision was made to try and attract the same audience to the Biggles movie.

So it is that Biggles, a film supposedly about a British First World War flying ace, is primarily about Jim Ferguson (Alex Hyde-White), a New York City yuppie living in the middle 1980s. Ferguson’s job is running a company that produces fairly rancid-looking ready meals (he keeps getting dragged out of meetings by people declaring ‘there’s a glitch with the mashed potatoes!’) but his life is generally quite ordinary, except for the fact he is being stalked by a mysterious old man (a frail-looking Peter Cushing, giving it all he’s got).

Well, all this changes one night when Jim, apropos of nothing much, finds himself in 1917, saving the life of a British airman when his biplane crashes (this, needless to say, is Biggles, played moderately well by Neil Dickson). And then he’s back in New York, none the wiser. This happens a number of times, until he decides to sort it all out by tracking down the old man, who seems to be connected to this odd phenomenon. Cushing’s character actually lives inside Tower Bridge in London, for no very good reason, and turns out to be Air Commodore Raymond, Biggles’ commanding officer during the war. This would make him about a hundred years old, and the uncharitable would say Cushing possibly looks it, but the film skips daintily over such things.

Well, Cushing is saddled with the exposition, and reveals that Ferguson and Biggles are ‘time twins’ and that apparently ‘time travel is much more common than people think.’ This is the sole rationale for the movie, and not even Peter Cushing can sell it, I’m afraid. Anyway, every time Biggles is in danger, Ferguson finds himself plucked back through time to help him out, and spends most of the film ping-ponging back and forth. There is a plot about the Germans having developed a new weapon that delivers a devastating sonic attack (all together now: ‘You will feel dizzy, you will feel the urge to vomit’, and so on), which most of the action revolves around.

And it is all almost indescribably awful. It’s not as infuriatingly, wilfully ugly as the Peter Rabbit movie, but this is the kind of film that made some people spend most of the eighties announcing the death of the British film industry. Cushing is the only person connected with this film who had any kind of movie career of note, and it was his last role. Everyone else has a solid background in duff TV, for it is full of faces from things like Allo Allo! and Roland Rat. Well, maybe I’m being a little too harsh on John Hough, who in addition to doing various episodes of The New Avengers and similar things also made Twins of Evil for Hammer and the original Witch Mountain movies for Disney. There’s a bit of a Hammer thread running through this movie, for in addition to the presence of Cushing and Hough, a Hammer subsidiary part-financed the film. It just shows the extent of the company’s fall from grace in the 1980s, I suppose.

I mean, the film verges on the downright incompetent when it comes to things like editing and pacing, to say nothing of the tranquilised quality of most of the performances – Hyde-White is a particular offender in this department. All this just compounds the flaws inherent in the basic conception of the film, which crassly hedges its bets by attempting to combine swashbuckling adventure with time-travel fantasy and broad comedy: Ferguson keeps time travelling at inappropriate moments, so his friends discover him dressed as a nun (ho ho!) or he finds himself inadvertently machine-gunning the London police (ha ha!). The casual profanity in this film, to say nothing of the gags about breast implants, just feels horribly wrong for a Biggles movie, but the uncertainty of tone is pervasive – we go from moments of near-slapstick to a bit where Ferguson’s girlfriend (Fiona Hutchison), for no very good reason, claws an incinerated corpse’s eye from its socket. Even in the bits which seem vaguely historically accurate, the synth-pop soundtrack destroys any chance of atmosphere (this film contains Queen bassist John Deacon’s only recordings outside the band, which may mean it is of marginal interest to obsessive fans).

The real problem with Biggles is that it doesn’t have an audience: I don’t mean that no-one would be interested in a film based on this character (I think that a serious film based on the earliest stories, which are darker and grittier, could be really interesting), but that the structure of the story is so slip-shod and weak it appears to be aimed at undemanding children, while much of its substance is clearly pitched towards a much older age-group. The result is a strikingly incompetent film with a very broad lack-of-appeal; other than Queen aficionados, it’s only likely to be of interest as Cushing’s final (non-CGI) big screen appearance, and even in those terms it’s a horribly unworthy valediction for the great man.

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I was commenting to a colleague just the other day that, when it comes to the great Gothic horror novels of the 19th century, the ones which came to dominate large swathes of popular culture, we are talking about books which are largely unread (and, in the opinion of some people, largely unreadable). And yet we still know the stories, or think we do. To be fair, film-makers have been diligently trying to smuggle elements of the original novels back into films, in defiance of audience expectations, with honestly quite variable results. It’s getting to the point where you have to think quite hard about which elements of (for example) Frankenstein are original to Mary Shelley, and which were inserted into the story by James Whale, Terence Fisher, Kenneth Branagh, Jack Smight, et al.

So how do you approach a new version of Frankenstein these days? Do you go for the ultra purist approach and try to stay completely faithful to the novel, risking audience ennui and having to contend with the fact that it’s hardly structured like a modern screenplay? Or do you decide to be a bit more adventurous, running the risk of losing any trace of what makes this story distinctive in the first place?

On reflection, I would say the former is a much safer bet, but then I did watch Paul McGuigan’s Victor Frankenstein quite recently and it may have had an effect on me. Responsible for the script was Max Landis, who rose to prominence with the rather good Chronicle but has only really had his name on dud films ever since. (Am I giving away the end of this review too early? Hey ho.)

First indications that this is a slightly different take on Frankenstein come right at the start, when the film decides to eschew the traditional setting of central Europe in favour of a circus in Victorian London. Here we meet a nameless hunchback (Daniel Radcliffe), employed as a clown by the circus proprietor. Despite having no formal education or proper materials, the hunchback grows to become an awesomely talented self-taught doctor, anatomist and surgeon. No, honestly he does. The whole film is kind of predicated on this. (I did warn you.)

Well, anyway, the hunchback is in love with the circus trapeze artist (Jessica Brown Findlay), and as a result is quite upset when she falls off one night and nearly dies. However, the hunchback is able to save her with the help of a brilliant medical student who happens to be in the crowd, who goes by the name of Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy).

Frankenstein instantly spots his new friend’s potential and recruits him as an assistant, freeing him from the circus, fixing his hunch, and employing him to do various fiddly bits of stitching to help his private medical research. To make life a bit easier, Frankenstein gives him the name of his suspiciously elusive flatmate, Igor, and the duo embark on a quest to uncover the deeper mysteries of life and death…

It’s a bit difficult to know where to start with Victor Frankenstein, except to say that you have to be somewhat amused by a film which opens with the voiceover line ‘You know this story’ before going on to depart almost entirely from Mary Shelley’s actual plot. Or, to put it another way, any Frankenstein movie in which the actual animation of the creature doesn’t take place until ten minutes before the end has obviously got serious issues.

What on Earth is it about for the first hour and a half, then? Well, this being a modern movie, it doesn’t really want to saddle itself with a lot of baggage about sin and hubris and the arrogance of man trying to supplant God in the cosmos, even though this is to a large extent what Frankenstein is actually about. Instead, we get a never-knowingly-underwrought tale of the friendship between Frankenstein and Igor. It’s true that this is an aspect of the Frankenstein story which has never before been explored in detail. On the other hand, this may just be because doing a Frankenstein movie where Igor is the hero is a bafflingly stupid idea.

If nothing else it does suggest a certain familiarity with the James Whale version of Frankenstein from 1931 – although, if we’re going to be strictly accurate about this, the first time a character called Igor appears as Frankenstein’s hunchbacked assistant is in Mel Brooks’ spoof version of the story from 1974. The script seems to treat the whole Frankenstein canon as fair game, anyway, stealing bits from many different versions: Frankenstein needing someone to do the fiddly work for him comes from a couple of the Hammer movies, for example, while the fact that Victor had a brother named Henry Frankenstein is another nod to the 1931 film (in which Frankenstein’s name was changed).

When it starts trying to be its own thing, though, the film generally becomes exasperatingly odd very quickly. Landis seems to be under the impression that the key difference between Victorian London – the exact period is obscure – and the present day is that people wore big hats and cravats and long frocks. Uneducated circus folk are able to pass in high society with no difficulty at all, for instance. There’s also frequent tonal uncertainty – Frankenstein’s initial project is a homuncular beast largely made from bits of chimpanzee, and to be fair it’s an unsettling creation – until you’re reminded that Frankenstein has christened it ‘Gordon’ for no very obvious reason.

One of the main influences on this film is nothing to do with Frankenstein, anyway: Paul McGuigan was the initial director on Sherlock and this is really reminiscent of that show at its most self-consciously stylish. McAvoy’s performance is very much like Cumberbatch at his most shoutily eccentric, while possibly the best thing in the film is Andrew Scott’s performance as a police detective in pursuit of Frankenstein for his own reasons. Even Mark Gatiss turns up, although he only gets one line (you can’t help thinking that Gatiss must have a great Frankenstein adaptation in him somewhere).

I suppose I shouldn’t be too unpleasant about McAvoy, as he’s only playing the character as it was written. You can tell that, in a ‘straight’ adaptation of Frankenstein, he would probably be brilliant. The thing is that I suspect the makers of this film would argue that it is really is a ‘straight’ Frankenstein, and sincerely mean it. But it isn’t. It’s the kind of film where there’s an outbreak of slo-mo or CGI every five minutes, just to stop the audience getting bored, where all of the original ideas have been purged in favour of ‘character-based personal drama’ (i.e. soapy nonsense). The movie’s big idea is that Frankenstein created Igor every bit as much as the more famous creature – well, in this film he does, but then (as we’ve discussed) Igor is hardly a core element of the Frankenstein story, especially not as he’s presented here. So what is the point of this film? What is it actually about? Apart from a few scenes here and there, what has it honestly got to do with Mary Shelley’s story? I can see very little connection, and it’s not even imaginative or competent enough to be as much fun as some of the wackier Hammer Frankenstein sequels. A waste of talent, potential, and time.

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