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Posts Tagged ‘comedy’

It’s easy to forget that, about three years ago, predicting the imminent failure and embarrassment of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy was a popular pastime amongst a wide range of respected and sensible industry commentators: Marvel couldn’t keep on making huge hits, after all, and this was a step into the unknown for the studio – a comedy SF adventure featuring quite possibly the most obscure group of Z-list superheroes ever committed to the big screen? With Vin Diesel playing a tree? Come on.

Of course, following critical acclaim and a box office take of nearly $775 million (not to mention a bunch of other substantial hits in the interim), no-one is saying the same kind of thing about Gunn’s sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: quite the opposite. Expectations have risen to a level that might give some folk pause. But not, it seems, Marvel Studios – the new movie has received the plum late-spring release date, even ahead of the new Spider-Man film, a considerable vote of confidence. But is this justified? Are people going to stroll out whistling the soundtrack, or not even stay for the first couple of post-credits sequences (there are a lot of these)?

James Gunn has never really been one to avoid unusual creative decisions, and the first of many in Vol. 2 is to explicitly set the film in 2014, even though the story has only the most marginal connection with anything happening on Earth. (All this achieved, really, was to make me wonder what the timeframe and chronology is as far as all the other Marvel films is concerned – do they take place in real time? On-screen evidence suggests otherwise. Drawing attention to this topic may be a mistake.) Anyway, that the new film is going to really be more of the same is indicated almost at once, as the opening credits showcase a dance routine to ELO, occurring in front of a backdrop the likes of which Jeff Lynne can surely never have dreamed.

Having been successful in their latest mercenary exploit, Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and the currently pot-plant-sized Groot (Vin Diesel, apparently, not that you can actually tell) head off, intent on turning Gamora’s insane sister Nebula (Karen Gillen) in for a substantial bounty. However, the kleptomaniac tendencies of one of their number land the Guardians in serious trouble, and result in their former associate Yondu (Michael Rooker) being hired to hunt them down.

Help of a sort arrives in the unexpected form of mysterious space entity Ego (Kurt Russell) and his assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff). Ego reveals he is actually Star-Lord’s long-estranged father, and whisks him off to his domain to explain his true heritage and tutor him in the use of his cosmic powers. However, Yondu and his band of ne’er-do-wells are closing in… but is all quite as it seems?

It does not take too much effort to interpret much of Vol. 2 as a resounding ‘Ha-HAH!’ from Gunn, directed at all those people smugly predicting the first film would be a disaster and that he was just not suited to directing mainstream movies. All the things that made the first film tonally distinctive, not to mention odd – the garish production designs, the 70s and 80 pop cultural references, the oddball, tongue-in-cheek humour – are here again, and more prominently than before.

However, one change which has not been much commented upon is the fact that Gunn has written and directed this film single-handed, whereas the script of the first volume was partly the work of Nicole Perlman. One of the reasons the first film worked so well was that all the weird stuff was built around a story with an absolutely rock-solid structure, and I am compelled to assume that most of this came from Perlman’s initial work, not least because (having seen Slither and Super) narrative discipline is not something I would necessarily associate with Gunn, and it’s certainly absent from long stretches of Vol. 2.

The film opens strongly, but relatively soon feels like it’s losing direction – there’s no sense of what the story is actually about, or where it’s heading. This is partly necessitated by the nature of the plot, I suspect, but perhaps that just suggests the plot itself is inherently flawed. Instead of a sense of progression in the narrative, the film proceeds through a succession of eye-catching directorial set-pieces, somewhat earnest character scenes, and outrageous comedy sketches.

Now, let’s not get confused about this: the film looks great, is filled with fine actors doing their stuff, and when it’s functioning as a pure comedy it is often very, very funny (though certainly not a film to take small children to see) – Vol. 2 doesn’t fail to entertain, distract, and amuse. However – and here’s the ironic thing – it feels more like a compilation tape than a movie in its own right. All the stuff you really enjoyed from the first one is here, and turned up to the max; but many of the less-noticeable elements that helped to make it function so well as a satisfying movie have been a bit skimped on.

In short, it’s a mightily self-indulgent beast, though forgiveably so for the most part – though new viewers (and even some casual ones) are likely to find it slightly baffling. Some of the characters seem to be here more because Gunn likes them than out of any necessity to the plot: here I’m looking particularly at Nebula, to be honest. Speaking of self-indulgence, as is not unusual in this sort of film, the final battle/climax seems to go on forever, and is followed by a lengthy and somewhat sentimental coda that I’m not sure the film works hard enough to justify. Then we’re off to all five of the post-credits sequences, if you can believe that.

There’s something not-unimpressive about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2‘s adamantium certainty that the audience is going to be utterly beguiled and swept along by it, but at the same time it does almost feel a little bit smug, especially given the lack of narrative impetus in that long middle section. This movie is by no means a failure, because it does function as a spectacle and a comedy (Dave Bautista is, by the way, consistently the funniest thing in it), and it’s by no means the weakest of the sequels that Marvel Studios have released. But it’s not in the front rank of the movies that they’ve released, by any means. Cut it a degree of slack and you’ll have a good time watching it – and rest assured that no matter how much slack you cut it, that’s still almost certainly less than the amount of slack it cuts itself. In the end, this is only a moderately awesome mix.

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There comes a point during F Gary Gray’s Fast and Furious 8, possibly when the great Vin Diesel is jumping his car over a nuclear submarine in order to rid himself of the heat-seeking missile which someone has inconsiderately launched at him, when it is entirely reasonable for a person to forget that things were not always thus with this franchise. The last four or five installments have been such utterly reliable, if slightly ridiculous, big-scale entertainment, that you might assume that this is really an in-name-only sequel to the moderately gritty and down-to-earth 2001 progenitor of the series.

This is about as good a hopping-on point for newcomers as any film in the series. As things get underway, man-mountain boy-racer and mastermind of good-hearted skulduggery Dom Toretto (Diesel) and his wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are enjoying a postponed (since F&F4) honeymoon in Cuba. This involves Toretto launching burning cars into the harbour at supersonic speed, backwards, but romance is a personal thing, after all. Meanwhile, colossus of justice Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) is enjoying a little down-time, until someone arrives to deliver some important exposition. Thus we get a scene where someone is trying to explain to Hobbs about a stolen doomsday weapon while he is distracted and trying to coach his daughter’s soccer team.

Well, Hobbs retains Toretto and the rest of the F&F All-Stars to help him get the doomsday widget back, not realising Toretto has fallen under the sway of evil cyber-terrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron), who gets him to pinch the widget and zoom off with it, abandoning the rest of the All-Stars. But how is this possible? Given that Dom devotes most of his dialogue in these films to rumbling on about the importance of ‘fam-er-lee’, what could possibly make him sell out his nearest and dearest this way?

Anyway, Hobbs gets slung in the chokey for his part in the failed mission, and ends up in the next cell to Deckard (Mr Jason Statham), the villain of F&F7, conveniently enough. Energetic prison-riot shenanigans inevitably ensue. In the end, shady intelligence puppetmaster/plot device Mr Nobody (Kurt Russell) gets the All-Stars, Hobbs, and Deckard together and tasks them with finding Toretto and Cipher before they can do anything too naughty with the stolen doomsday widget. Cue a succession of monumentally overblown car chases and fist-fights, a peculiar bromance between J-Stat and the Rock, some extremely broad humour, and more than a whiff of sentimentality as people bang on and on about ‘fam-er-lee’…

The key question about this one, I suppose, is whether or not you can make a viable and satisfying Fast and Furious movie without the late Paul Walker (or, for that matter, Jordana Brewster, who doesn’t appear either). The answer seems to be ‘yes’, but I get a sense of the film-makers being aware of the change in the essential dynamic of the series – this may be why Diesel is sent off into his own plotline away from the other characters for most of the movie, and Statham and Johnson inserted into the heart of the ensemble (although rumour has it that this may also be due to Diesel having had a bit of a tiff with certain of his co-stars and refusing to share any scenes with them). This is very successful, I would say, because these are two charismatic dudes who deserve a chance to do more than just sweat and either sit behind steering wheels or wallop stuntmen. The dividend extends further, with both Michelle Rodriguez and Tyrese Gibson getting some of their best material in the history of the series. (Scott Eastwood turns up as a new character and also does surprisingly well.)

Even Charlize Theron does pretty well with a character who is, on paper, not much more than an, um, cipher, much given to slightly preposterous speeches about evolutionary psychology and so on (clearly she’s yet another person who’s just read Sapiens). Given the size of some of the performances elsewhere in the movie (and the size of some of the performers, come to that), it’s hard to make a big impression as the bad guy in Fast and Furious Land, but she has a good go, helped by the fact that Cipher steers the series into some properly dark territory – something genuinely shocking and serious befalls a regular character partway through this film, threatening to tilt it all over into the realms of bad taste.

The casual way in which the film recovers its absurd, freewheeling tone is just another sign of the genuine deftness and skill with which these films are made (although this one does seem to score a bit higher on the mindless slaughter scale than most of the others). I do get mocked for my sincere enthusiasm for this series, but it is simply supremely well-made entertainment, and if the combination of stunts, jokes, fighting, and sentimentality is a bit preposterous, so what? With the Bond movies seemingly locked in ‘glum’ mode for the duration, there’s a gap in the market for something so knowing and fun. At one point in this movie, Jason Statham launches himself into battle with a squad of goons, gun in one hand, baby-carrier in the other, and what follows is both a terrific action sequence and genuinely very funny, with all the craziness you’d hope for in one of Mr Statham’s own movies. I do hope they keep Deckard (and his own fam-er-lee) around for the next one.

If Fast and Furious 8 is silly or ridiculous (and it really is), I would suggest it is silly and ridiculous in an entirely intentional way. And underlying all this is a script that regular writer Chris Morgan genuinely seems to have thought about – he doesn’t quite do his usual chronology-fu, but nevertheless he’s locked onto the fact that ever since the first one, the best of these films have all been about the camaraderie and sense of belonging you get from being part of a gang, or a family, and this informs the plot of this one in a fundamental way – that’s the thread linking the new film to the original one. Silly is not the same as stupid.

So I suppose it’s possible to genuinely dislike Fast and Furious 8, in the same way it’s possible to dislike any movie – but that doesn’t make it any less successful in hitting the targets it has set for itself, or indeed any less entertaining for the rest of us. If every film were made with this degree of skill and attention to detail, then the world would be a happier place.

 

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After well over a month of viral post-apocalyptic gloom, I find that I want to make it clear that not all genre TV from the 1970s was cut from the same depressing cloth. When I find myself in the mood for this sort of change of pace, more often than not I find myself reaching for an episode of either The Avengers or its bell-bottomed progeny The New Avengers, and so it proves this time too. The episode my gaze fell upon on this occasion was Sleeper, written (like most episodes of this show) by Brian Clemens.

A demonstration of a new knockout gas, S-95, is scheduled, and so a gathering of top scientific and intelligence boffins is in progress in London. Unfortunately, no sooner has one of these boffins arrived at London Heliport than he is bundled into a cupboard and beaten senseless with his own briefcase by this week’s villain, Brady (Keith Buckley). Brady goes on to observe the demonstration, along with Steed, Purdey, and Gambit, and they all (pay attention, this is a plot point) receive injections granting them temporary immunity to S-95.

One of the more notable revelations which Sleeper treats us to is the news that the British security services have sunk serious R&D money into – and there’s no other way of describing it – magic, because that’s what S-95 seems to be. It’s not a gas, because someone says it isn’t, being more a sort of cloud of magic dust. If you breathe in the magic dust you go to sleep for six hours, unless you’ve had the antidote of course. The dust doesn’t blow away or dissipate or anything like that; it remains just as potent (for, presumably, the six hours previously mentioned).

Oh, who am I kidding, it’s a preposterous plot device that works the way it does solely to enable the episode to function. Much the same is true of the way in which Brady manages not only to impersonate the boffin without anyone suspecting it, but also single-handedly steal a couple of cannisters of S-95 and a supply of the antidote, again without the alarm being raised. They should probably have spent less money on magic plot device secret weapons and more on padlocks and burglar alarms.

Anyway, Brady has assembled a rather suspect squad of ne’er-do-wells who have penetrated to the heart of London by the cunning ruse of pretending to be a coachload of tourists. Everyone on the coach is a bad guy, but they still go through the motions of listening to the guide’s spiel (the guide is a bad’un too), simply in order to preserve the surprise of their true identity for the viewer.

The plan, of course, is to dump a load of S-95 on central London just after dawn on a Sunday morning, putting the whole city to sleep and allowing Brady and his gang of ruffians to knock over every bank in the affected area. What they have not reckoned on is the fact that their operation has been infiltrated by an associate of Steed’s, not to mention that Steed, Purdey, and Gambit are still immune to the S-95 and will be up and about and able to throw a spanner in the slightly ridiculous works.

This is one of those episodes where it’s fairly clear that the main idea – the trio of protagonists contending with a much larger group of enemies in an effectively deserted London – came first, and the rest of the episode was written to facilitate it, no matter how absurd the necessary narrative gymnastics became. Most of the episode is a series of gently comic set-pieces as Steed and Gambit (who are paired up this week) and Purdey deal with various opposing parties.

The scenes with Steed and Gambit are fairly humdrum – the two of them exposit to each other a lot before deciding to go to the pub – but Purdey’s adventures are given an odd little twist by the fact she gets locked out of her flat and spends most of the episode in a fetching set of turquoise silk pyjamas. I first saw this episode early in 1991 on a late-night repeat (showing just before Mike Raven in Crucible of Terror, fact fans) and I have to say my teenaged self found many of Purdey’s scenes to have a subtle erotic charge to them (at one point she has to pretend to be a shop mannequin, and of course her pyjama bottoms start falling down). Nothing very much comes of this except a fairly absurd fight between Joanna Lumley and Prentis Hancock (ah, Prentis Hancock, one of the unsung heroes of 70s genre TV).

(Other before-they-were-famous members of Brady’s gang include David Schofield, who’s been in everything from An American Werewolf in London to a couple of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, and Gavin Campbell, who was briefly an actor but these days is best known as a presenter of That’s Life and a celebrity marathon runner. One of the pleasures of watching these old TV shows again is spotting these incongruous faces in the minor roles.)

There are some quite well-mounted action sequences in the deserted city streets, especially a car chase with Purdey at the wheel of a commandeered mini, but on the whole it’s not nearly witty or entertaining enough to justify the sheer level of contrivance and preposterousness involved. Being knowingly silly is pretty much the sine qua non of Avengers and New Avengers episodes, but this one is a bit too silly and not nearly knowing enough. Still kind of memorable in that 70s New Avengers way, though.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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It occurs to me that two of the most demanding forms of fiction to attempt are comedy and horror, mainly because the criteria for success are just so non-negotiable – it doesn’t matter how good the acting, dialogue, or direction are in a film, if people aren’t laughing at it, then it’s not a very good comedy. The same arguably applies in more general ways too – there’s a sense in which setting out to make a niche, art-housey kind of film is less challenging than attempting to make a whopping mainstream hit, simply because the former are primarily judged on their critical success (always subjective and open to dispute), whereas with the latter it’s just the case of the bottom line and the box office take, which you can attach a figure to.

And it’s not even as if going mainstream and commercial is necessarily easy – some people just aren’t built that way. The director John Singleton started his career making hard-edged issue-based dramas like Boyz N The Hood, which received acclaim and made him the youngest ever Oscar-nominated director, but his transformation into a maker of popcorn action movies just produced a stream of completely undistinguished films (the most notable probably being 2 Fast 2 Furious, and that’s only because it’s the only completely Diesel-free installment of the franchise).

Which brings us to Ben Wheatley’s new movie, Free Fire.  Wheatley’s career has been growing in prominence, if not commerciality, for a good few years now, and his latest project sees him working with Martin Scorsese (credited as exec on the new film) – now there’s a name with a bit of a cachet to it. The movie also features a rather strange juxtaposition of currently-hot star names with the more marginal type of performer Wheatley has made good use of in the past.

 

The setting is Boston, in the late 1970s, and criminality is afoot. A major arms deal is about to take place. On one side are Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), two Northern Irish gentlemen with strong political views, intent on buying a load of M16s from South African arms dealer Vern (Sharlto Copley). Facilitating the deal are Ord (Armie Hammer) and Justine (Brie Larson). Everyone convenes in an abandoned warehouse and things proceed to get very tense indeed, not least because a couple of the participants are clearly somewhat unhinged. Trust is in short supply, and the fact that Vern has turned up with a van full of ArmaLites rather than M16s does not help matters much. Still, a deal of sorts is on the cards, until it transpires that one of Vern’s hired hands (Jack Reynor) has a serious bone to pick with one of the Irishmens’ (Sam Riley).

Things degenerate, shots are inevitably fired, and then… well, the rest of the movie depicts, essentially, an hour-long gun battle, moving between various different parts of the warehouse as the different participants try to outmanoeuvre each other or reach particular locations. Matters are complicated by the appearance of a mysterious third group of shooters, whose allegiance is unclear, and also by the fact that this isn’t the kind of film where it’s straightforward to just kill someone with a single shot.

There is something slightly computer-gamey about the set-up for Free Fire, in that virtually everyone in it gets shot multiple times and usually just carries on with what they were doing, albeit slightly more slowly and uncomfortably. I’ve played in team games of Quake and other first-person-shooters which were a little bit like this movie; it also feels a bit like a particularly weird game of the RPG Fiasco which has gotten completely out of hand. However, the cultural reference point a normal person is probably going to reach for is accompanied by the adjective ‘Tarantino-esque’ and I can see where they’re coming from.

This is, obviously, a very violent film – there’s a consistent ongoing level of violence through practically the entire last two thirds of it – and the language is not really that usually heard at the annual church picnic. When you add the criminal milieu, the generally foggy morality, and some interesting soundtrack-based gags, it does almost look like Ben Wheatley has decided to go commercial by making a Tarantino pastiche, albeit one with the kind of off-the-wall black comedy which has featured in his other films.

Does it really work, though? Well – the idea of a film mainly consisting of a roughly 60 minute gun battle, when I first heard of it, put me rather in mind of the Fast Show sketch The Long Big Punch up, in which Charlie Higson and Paul Whitehouse just take it in terms to thump each other at very great length. How can you possibly get a story out of something like that?

Well, the secret, of course, lies in the first act of the film, which features the characters standing up and talking to one another, rather than crouching behind cover, shouting, and trading gunfire: a lot of quite subtle set-up and establishment of characters and relationships goes on here, which provides the fuel for the rest of the movie. It helps that Wheatley has primarily cast performers who are character actors rather than juvenile leads – this always remains a film about individual characters interacting with each other, not just ciphers blazing away. It doesn’t hurt that the film is frequently very funny, too – Sharlto Copley produces another one of his comic grotesques in the form of his leisure-suited highlight-haired ‘former Rhodesian commando’ – ‘Africa’s no place for sissies,’ he declares at one point. But this is a great ensemble performance overall.

As I’ve been suggesting, it seems that Free Fire was intended to be Ben Wheatley’s ‘commercial’ movie after supposedly less-accessible works like Sightseers, High-Rise, and (especially) A Field in England, and yet it looks unlikely to match High-Rise‘s box office take despite hefty promotion and the appeal to Tarantino’s audience. Does this make it Wheatley’s first big failure as a director? (Not counting Into the Dalek, of course.)

Well… I still think this is an engaging, fun film, and the weird nature of the premise gives it a certain novelty value as a sort of formal experiment. You could argue the pace of the film flags a bit near the end, as Wheatley and his regular co-writer Amy Jump run out of complications to throw into the mix (‘I can’t remember which side I’m on!’ wails a minor character at one point), but it’s inevitably slightly static all the way through, and the nature of the piece really doesn’t lend itself to huge, kinetic action set-pieces. In the end this is a distinctly odd film, but by no means a bad one at all – inventively scripted, with moments of great black humour, and well-played throughout. I doubt it’s going to be Ben Wheatley’s ticket to the heart of the mainstream, though.

 

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I know, I know: you go seven years without a single review of an AIP Vincent Price movie, and then three come along in as many months. Blame the lucky dip nature of my DVD rental service (still waiting for Tiptoes, alas) – still, these are AIP Vincent Price movies, so there’s only so disappointed you can legitimately be. This week they sent me The Raven, a 1963 movie directed by (but of course!) Roger Corman, from AIP’s series of Poe movies.

This time around, the movie is based on a poem rather than a work of fiction, but otherwise the formula is wholly intact. Here is a screenplay from the great Richard Matheson. Here is Vincent Price, brooding over his dead wife’s picture. Here is a supporting cast featuring some unexpectedly big names, given the kind of movie that this is. Here are some pretty decent production values. It’s basically rather like an American Hammer movie, except slightly more genteel and with fewer hard edges.

The Raven is set in a rather fantasticalised version of the 16th century (historical accuracy is extremely low on the movie’s list of priorities), with Price playing Erasmus Craven, gentleman, scholar, and magician. Erasmus has withdrawn from the society of his peers and has become a bit of a recluse, partly because he objects to the plotting and scheming of his fellow adepts, and also because it gives him more time to brood over the portrait of his dead wife Lenore (Hazel Court, which may tip you off to the fact that Lenore is not as dead as originally advertised), somewhat to the concern of his lovely daughter Estelle (Olive Sturgess).

Then, one dreary midnight, as Erasmus sits, weak and weary, pondering over a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore (oh yes, I know a thing or two about Poe, and also how to Google the text of a poem), a raven turns up, knocking at his window. Erasmus lets the bird in, and, as he is played by Vincent Price in a Roger Corman movie, beseeches the bird thusly – ‘Shall I ever hold again the radiant maiden whom the angels call Lenore?’ The raven departs from Poe by responding ‘How the hell should I know?’, which pretty much sets the tone for what follows. (Apparently this was a departure from the script, as well as Poe, as Peter Lorre (who voices the bird) was much given to ad libbing on the set.)

It turns out that the raven is actually Erasmus’ fellow magician Adolphus Bedlo (Lorre), who has been magically transformed into a bird following a magical duel with the Grand Master of the Brotherhood of Magicians, Scarabus (Boris Karloff), the arch-rival of Erasmus’ dead father. Erasmus is happy to help Bedlo return to human form, but doesn’t want to get mixed up in the squabble between Bedlo and Scarabus – until he mentions that he has seen a woman resembling the supposedly dead Lenore in Scarabus’s castle. Erasmus pooh-poohs this idea, and offers to show Bedlo Lenore’s body, which he keeps in a box in his hallway (‘Where else?’ deadpans Lorre), but he is shocked to see she has been replaced by that of someone else. Desperate to learn the truth, Erasmus agrees to go to Scarabus’s castle with Bedlo, accompanied by his daughter and Bedlo’s son Rexford (John J Nicholson, who could have had a pretty good career if he’d just stuck with low-budget horror movies). Perhaps another clash of magics is on the cards…

The immediately previous movie in the Poe cycle, Tales of Terror, had as its centrepiece The Black Cat, a darkly comic, more than slightly outrageous tale co-starring Price and Lorre, and Corman and Matheson apparently enjoyed making it so much that they decided to have a go at making a full-length movie in a similar vein. Most of The Raven was invented whole-cloth by Richard Matheson, there not being quite enough material in a 108-line poem to sustain a movie even of only 86 minutes. I think it’s really stretching to describe The Raven as an actual horror film, even by the standards of the early 1960s – it’s more of a very tongue-in-cheek fantasy adventure, impossible to take seriously.

It does make full use of Price’s ability as a comic actor, of course, and also – I’m tempted to say – his generosity as a performer, as he tends to be outrageously upstaged by Peter Lorre in every scene the two of them share, with Price very much the straight man of the duo (‘I think you need something for the cold,’ Erasmus declares to Bedlo, as the two of them prepare to depart, which prompts his guest to head straight for the drinks cabinet). Boris Karloff’s performance is less showy, but then the sheer understatedness of it is much of the fun. He’s up against it when competing with the other senior members of the cast.

If the overall quality of The Raven‘s cast isn’t quite clear yet, let me put it this way: one of the actors in this movie has received more Oscar nominations for his work than any other man in history. Yes, really. It’s not Price, Lorre, or Karloff, though – playing Lorre’s son, in case you haven’t worked it out, is Jack Nicholson (yes, that Jack Nicholson), who turns up in a lot of AIP movies from this period, partly because his father James H Nicholson is the executive producer on them. It’s fair to say that there is not much sign here of the movie legend Nicholson would eventually become – although there’s a sequence where he is briefly possessed by evil magic, and does the same face made famous by The Shining – but he does give a very game performance, dashing about the set in tights, cape, and feathery hat. I doubt this movie was ever very prominent on his showreel, though.

The silliness of much of The Raven doesn’t prevent it from having a more intricate plot than you might expect, nor indeed an unexpectedly sound narrative structure, with a proper character arc for Vincent Price to work his way through. It may be a disposable comedy, but Matheson has clearly taken the writing of it very seriously, which is probably why it still stands up so well today. Corman directs with his usual efficiency, and comes up with at least one outstanding sequence, the final magician’s duel between Erasmus and Scarabus, which in addition to being witty and inventive, even has some pretty decent animated special effects.

I still think The Masque of the Red Death is the zenith of the Corman-Poe series of movies, but it’s a very different kind of film to The Raven, and very definitely a genuine horror-fantasy. The Raven is much more knockabout entertainment, but the strength of the script and particularly the comic performances means there is still a huge amount to enjoy about this movie even today.

 

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It would be impossible to write the history of American genre film-making without devoting a hefty section to American International Pictures and its founders Samuel Z Arkoff and James H Nicholson (also known as Jack’s dad). These are the guys who made the original version of The Fast and the Furious, and a bunch of other movies which have brilliant titles even if they’re (perhaps deservedly) obscure: The Astounding She-Monster, Frankenstein Conquers The World, I Was A Teenage Werewolf, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die… those films alone sound like a long weekend of bliss to me, and there are hundreds more.

Not that AIP didn’t aspire to a touch of class sometimes, perhaps most famously with their cycle of Poe adaptations overseen by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price. Those films came out in the late 1950s and early 60s, and nearly ten years later Price was back with the company for another well-remembered and reasonably classy outing, in Robert Fuest’s The Abominable Dr Phibes.

The film is set in 1920s England (not that this is immediately apparent). Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey) is investigating a series of bizarre and grisly murders: one man has been stung to death by bees, another savaged by bats, a third has had his head crushed by a rigged fancy-dress mask, and so on. It turns out that all the victims were doctors, and a further connection is that they all worked on the same case, an operation overseen by Dr Vesalius (Joseph Cotten). The patient died, and Trout begins to suspect that her husband, who was believed dead, may in fact be nothing of the sort.

He is right, of course, for the outraged widower, Dr Anton Phibes (Vincent Price, of course), brilliant organist, theologian, and inventive genius, is back on the scene and intent on extracting revenge on the men he holds responsible for the death of his beautiful young wife (I suppose this qualifies as another ‘Vincent Price Broods Over His Dead Wife’s Portrait’ movie – Mrs Phibes is played by the delectable Caroline Munro, only adding to the movie’s cult credentials). Can Trout anticipate Phibes’ plans and stop him from completing the nine murders he has planned?

Stripped back to its absolute bare bones, The Abominable Dr Phibes sounds relatively straightforward – an unhinged killer sets out to take revenge on a group of men he holds responsible for a loved one’s death. What elevates the film from being a relatively routine suspense or horror movie into its own special realm is the bizarre, whimsical, baroque detail the film indulges in throughout. The film could have just opened with Dr Phibes emerging from his inner sanctum and setting off to orchestrate another murder. However, what actually happens is that Price emerges through the floor while playing a pipe organ (rather in the manner of Reginald Dixon), performing a piece by Mendelssohn. Having completed this important part of his plan, he goes on to engage in a little ball-room dancing with his enigmatic sidekick (Virginia North), the music being played by a band composed of life-sized clockwork automatons. Then he goes off to murder someone.

I don’t say this as a criticism of the movie, far from it – for it is the absurd excess of the film, and its darkly comic overtones, that give it so much of its charm and entertainment value. Is there a particularly plausible reason for Phibes to theme his revenge scheme around the biblical plagues of Egypt? Well, no, of course not: but it would be a much duller film without this. You could argue it is part of a great tradition of extravagant, somewhat gothic horror – and the film is surely partly inspired by The Phantom of the Opera – where odd details are actually very important. Things like the way that Phibes can only speak by plugging a gramophone into the side of his neck, and only eat and drink in a similar manner, may not be terribly important to the plot, but they add enormously to the atmosphere and style of the film.

Now, seasoned Price-watchers will of course be aware that the structure of this film is not unique in the actor’s canon: embittered maniac, aided by a mysterious young woman, embarks upon a series of elaborate themed murders against those he perceives as having done him wrong. That is, of course, the outline synopsis not just of The Abominable Dr Phibes but also Douglas Hickox’s Theatre of Blood, which came out a couple of years later. The Abominable Dr Phibes is an entertaining and well-made movie, but it can’t help but come across as a dry run for Hickox’s movie, which is arguably superior: the theme is more coherent, and it’s not afraid to really put the pedal to the metal when it comes to including elements of black comedy.

And, of course, it gives Price an unparalleled opportunity to show off his range. In The Abominable Dr Phibes, he’s playing a character who is effectively permanently masked and largely mute, thus drastically limiting the options for Price’s performance. That the actor still gives a striking and memorable performance says much about his class, but the thing that distinguishes Vincent Price from peers like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee is his capacity for outrageous, operatic, over-the-top performances, and it’s this that’s missing from The Abominable Dr Phibes.

This is a fun film, which feels very much like a product of the British film industry in the 1970s – various distinguished figures show up for brief cameo roles (Terry-Thomas, John Laurie, Hugh Griffith) – for all that you can, perhaps, if you squint, see how it may have had some kind of influence on a later generation of horror movies (one element of the climax seems to me to anticipate Saw). Its ostentatious wackiness may not be to everyone’s taste, nor does it really make ideal use of its biggest asset (Price himself), and so for me the real significance of this movie comes from the fact it represents a first attempt at the formula which Theatre of Blood later perfected so wonderfully. Still highly entertaining in its own right, though, of course.

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