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Posts Tagged ‘Dan Stevens’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dearie me, here we are again at the end of another year, with everything that it entails: the adverts start a little bit earlier every year, the sentimentality becomes a little bit more glutinous, the doublethink just a little more bemusing. (Yeah, I should say: this is probably going to get extremely cynical, even by the normal standards of this blog. What can I say? So it goes.)

But, you know, let’s do something a bit different and try a Christmas movie for a change. I mean, it’s not as if there aren’t any Christmas films that I have time for: I like It’s A Wonderful Life (well, who doesn’t?). I like Die Hard. I like Brazil. So, there’s every chance that I could end up liking this new film, always assuming it includes one or other of an attempted suicide, blood-sodden gun battles, or delusional insanity as a happy ending. So here’s hoping.

Well, anyway, the new film is Bharat Nalluri’s The Man Who Invented Christmas, a fictionalised account of a period in the life of Charles Dickens (you know, I’m starting to think those blood-sodden gun battles may not appear). Dan Stevens plays Dickens himself, who at the start of the film is making his first tour of the USA, where he is greatly feted. Quite what this sequence is doing here I have no idea, for it contributes nothing to the story; I imagine it is present only to try and sell the movie to America.

Things get underway in earnest some time later, towards the back end of 1843. Dickens finds himself financially embarrassed and in need of a hit, after a number of flops in a row. So he resolves to write a book for the Christmas market which will solve all his problems. But whatever will he write about? Well, there’s a doddery old waiter at the Garrick Club called Marley, he sees a grim-faced old man muttering ‘humbug’ at a funeral, he overhears his new maid telling the Dickenslings a fairy story about ghosts, and so on.

Still, it’s a tough old gig writing a novel in only about six weeks (apparently – although some of us do manage it every November), and things get a bit fraught between Dickens and his family, especially his feckless old dad (Jonathan Pryce) with whom he has Issues. (Hey! Jonathan Pryce was in Brazil, that’s a good sign.) There is also the problem that Dickens can’t come up with a happy ending – is Tiny Tim marked for death???

Hum, well. The Man Who Invented Christmas is clearly a film which has something to say about the Real Meaning of Christmas. Well, let me just stop you there, The Man Who Invented Christmas, not least because (need it even be said?) Charles Dickens did not actually invent Christmas, Christmas not being that kind of discrete, specific concept, but instead a syncretised religious and cultural event which has existed in various forms and under different names for thousands of years, with roots in traditions as widely-flung as Egyptian and Norse mythology. (Glad we got that sorted out.) The film suggests the Real Meaning of Christmas is something to do with our better selves and redemption and kindness and generosity and all that sort of thing. My experience is that this is what many people like to to tell themselves Christmas is all about, before surrendering to the warm glow of self-satisfaction this idea gives them and spending several hundred pounds on a giant TV, which they proceed to fall asleep in front of after consuming enough alcohol to power a small outboard motor. Personally, even if I had invented Christmas, I would not necessarily rush to take the credit for it.

You know what, I’m starting to think I’m not the best person to give this film an objective review. Never mind, let’s press on. The basic idea of this film is not that different from Shakespeare in Love, although in this case Dickens in Debt would obviously be a better title. There’s a lot of slightly strained humour as we see Dickens pacing about his study, trying to think of a name for his protagonist, muttering things like ‘Scrunge? Scrank?’ It is a fairly well-documented phenomenon that, while films require good writing, films primarily about the act of writing are rarely good. This film’s crack at the problem of how to make writing a novel cinematically interesting is to have the various characters from A Christmas Carol materialise and talk to Dickens.

This does at least enable what’s indisputably the best thing in the movie, which is the appearance of Christopher Plummer as Scrooge. (Plummer has been having a bit of a Christopher Lee-type Indian Summer in his career for some years now.) You really want to see Plummer play Scrooge properly, and not engage in the underpowered ‘comic’ banter with Stevens that he is assigned here. There is, I suppose, something mildly amusing about the idea of Charles Dickens being followed around and annoyed by the cast of one of his novels, but it’s not exactly fall-off-your-seat funny, and it’s hardly a convincing depiction of the creative process.

In fact, this is one of those comedy dramas which isn’t that funny and isn’t especially dramatic, either – they have a stab at some kind of psychological insight, by suggesting that Dickens can’t bear to see Scrooge redeemed until the author has himself worked through his various daddy issues, but it feels a little bit contrived. (One wonders what Simon Callow, a noted Dickens authority who appears in a supporting role, made of the script.) Certainly there is little sense of any real darkness or complexity to the Dickens of this film.

The thing about a really good Christmas movie is that it does work hard to earn the happy-feel-good conclusion by going to somewhere genuinely dark and troubled on the way. This one doesn’t – it’s just slightly insipid all the way through, dramatically inert, almost aggressively bland.

You can almost imagine the thought process that led to this movie being made – no-one does costume drama quite like the British film industry, and those are a good bet at this time of year. But, as there have been nearly thirty movie or TV versions of A Christmas Carol already, including ones where Scrooge has been played by a skunk, a smurf, and Michael Caine, obviously the edict was to do something different. This is a competent film in its own way, I suppose, but I just came away wishing they’d done a proper adaptation of the book, so Plummer could have played Scrooge properly. As it is, this is soft in the middle and runny round the edges, and generally about as appetising as that sounds.

 

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Film companies, being the savvy and cost-conscious entities that they are, know the best ways to spend their money when it comes to things like marketing. They know that there’s not much value in advertising a reserved and thoughtful costume drama in front of a Vin Diesel movie, or showing the trailer for a gut-churning survival horror ahead of the latest Pixar offering. This is why you routinely get trailers for films of the same genre as the one you’ve actually paid to see (and the ‘These trailers have been specially chosen for this film’ message in some cinemas). When this isn’t this case, it’s a sign that either the advertising people have dropped the ball somewhat, or a film has come along that they really have no idea how to cope with. For the same movie to be accompanied by trailers for Wonder Woman, Baby Driver, My Cousin Rachel, and War for the Planet of the Apes is a clear sign of a system on the verge of meltdown, and a pretty good indicator of just how weird Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal really is.

This is one of those films that feels like it started out as part of a bet – or at least a conversation running something along the lines of ‘I don’t think you could possibly write a script which combines elements of any two random old movies’/’I bet I could’/’Go on then, pick two names out of this bag’/’All right… oh’/’Which ones did you get?’/‘Manchester by the Sea and Terror of Mechagodzilla’/‘Ha hah! I win!’/’No hang on, give me a chance…’ For this is pretty much what Colossal is, only much, much odder than it sounds.

Anne Hathaway plays Gloria, a young unemployed writer struggling with a bit of a drink problem. The sympathy of her boyfriend (Dan Stevens) is finally exhausted and he kicks her out, forcing her to return to her home in small-town America. Here she encounters her old school friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) and his buddies, and manages to land a job waitressing in Oscar’s bar (this is probably not the best idea for someone contending with incipient alcoholism, but she is pretty much out of options).

Gloria’s personal issues soon become less of a priority as the world is shocked by the appearance in Seoul, South Korea, of a skyscraper-sized reptilian monster, which proceeds to meander about leaving a trail of devastation and panic in its wake, before disappearing into thin air. The authorities rush to respond, people struggle to take in the news that the world is so much stranger than they had thought… and Gloria slowly begins to get a suspicion that she may have some involvement with all of this.

Yes, it eventually transpires that if Gloria is in a certain spot in town at a particular time of day, an enormous monster will materialise in Korea and mirror her every action. This is enough to give a girl pause, as you might imagine. But what should she do with this remarkable new power? Should she do anything at all with it? And where does the ability come from?

If you think all that sounds like an intensely weird premise, I should inform you that Colossal is another of those movies that bucks the current trend and doesn’t put the entire plot in the trailer. More than this, there are great swathes of story and character development that aren’t even hinted at – the film is much, much odder than even the brief synopsis I’ve given might suggest.

For a movie genre to be deconstructed and played with is normally a sign it is in robustly good health, and so you might conclude that the existence of Colossal suggests that all is well with the giant monster or kaiju movie. Well, maybe (the recent King Kong movie was pretty good, after all), but I think it may just be that this is a genre everyone knows, or thinks they know. There are no particularly clever allusions or references here for fans of the form to spot – I suspect the reason the giant monster shows up in Korea rather than Japan is just to avoid a lawsuit from Toho (the film-makers drew the ire of the legendary Japanese studio for using images of Godzilla without permission in very early production materials), although the appearance of the kaiju (specifically the horns) seems to me to recall the titular monster in Pulgasari, the notorious North Korean communist kaiju film.  There isn’t even a proper monster battle, really.

Instead, the monster movie angle seems to be there mainly because of the sheer ‘You what?!?’ value of mashing it up with an offbeat indie-ish comedy-drama, which is what the rest of the film initially appears to be. It is an intriguingly bizarre premise for a film, if nothing else.

That Colossal in the end doesn’t really hang together is therefore a shame: I like bonkers movies, and this one certainly qualifies, but in the end it just doesn’t work, despite being well-directed and performed. The sheer unevenness of tone is certainly an issue, for one thing: when the film attempts to mix more serious moments into what started off as a very offbeat comedy, you’re left genuinely unsure as to how you’re supposed to react – are these beats intended sincerely, or as just another piece of deadpan black humour? At any given moment, is it actually meant to be funny or not?

Some of the trouble is more basic, though, and derives from the most basic elements of the storytelling. In order to achieve that lurching mid-movie shift in tone and emphasis, and make it a genuine surprise for the audience, the story requires several main characters to either engage in behaviour which seems strikingly incongruous, given how they’ve previously been presented, or suddenly undergo radical changes in personality, both of which feel rather implausible.

I know, I know: we’re discussing a film in which a young woman magically acquires an enormous reptilian doppelganger in Korea, and somehow I’m complaining that it’s the character development which is the most implausible thing in the movie. But there you go – it only goes to prove that you should never neglect the carpentry.

I suppose the film’s lack of a strong central metaphor is also an issue – if it is indeed that alcohol can unwittingly turn people into monsters, it’s not really followed through with quite enough thoroughness, and the result is a movie which just feels like a collision of various strange ideas, many of them interesting and amusing, but not quite working together as a coherent whole. The simple fact that films as bizarre as Colossal are still being made is surely a hopeful one, though.

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