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Posts Tagged ‘Donald Sutherland’

We talk quite glibly about ‘the war movie’ as a distinct genre, and I suppose there is some truth to that – there are enough commonalities of subject matter, setting, and theme for these films to comprise a recognisable canon of sorts, after all. And yet war films are as diverse a bunch as any other, often depending on exactly which war they concern and the accepted narrative concerning it. War movies made during actual wars are usually propaganda, plain and simple; ones made in the decade or two after a war become testimonials, usually concerned with retellings of notable deeds. After enough time has elapsed they just become backdrops for rousing adventures and/or examinations of more universal themes.

John Sturges’ film adaptation of the Jack Higgins novel The Eagle Has Landed came out in 1976, thirty years after the Second World War concluded, at a point when the myth of the war and its iconography was perhaps beginning to displace memories of the reality in terms of how it was perceived. Certainly the film itself is hardly painstaking in its attempts at historical accuracy.

 

(I have to say, respect is due to an impressively imaginative poster, which features all sorts of elements – exploding churches, strafing Messerschmitts, and so on – which do not prominently feature, or indeed feature at all, in the actual movie. Not sure they’ve got Jenny Agutter’s face quite right, though.)

Things get underway in – one surmises – late 1943 or early 1944, with the result of the war no longer in doubt, only the final score. Inspired by the rescue of Mussolini from captivity in Italy, Hitler (played by the late Peter Miles in scenes which didn’t make it into the final cut) orders the kidnapping of Winston Churchill from Britain: no-one but Himmler (Donald Pleasence) takes this notion seriously, but the head of German military intelligence is obliged to carry out a feasibility study for political reasons anyway.

The job is assigned to a Colonel Radl (Robert Duvall), who – rather to his astonishment –  discovers that there is an outside chance that the trick can be turned: Churchill is due to be spending a weekend at a secluded country house close to the east coast of England. To carry out the mission, Radl recruits IRA man and mercenary Liam Devlin (Donald Sutherland) and decorated, but now disgraced Fallschirmjager officer Kurt Steiner (Michael Caine) and his men. Soon enough Operation Eagle is underway, with first Devlin and then Steiner and the others inserted into the UK in disguise. But even the best laid plans can go awry, especially given Devlin’s penchant for romantic entanglements and the presence in the area of a force of US Rangers…

The Eagle Has Landed is very much an all-star all-action mid-seventies ITC Entertainment kind of production, and it is perhaps illuminating to compare it to the 1943 movie Went the Day Well?, directed by Cavalcanti. Both deal with the same idea, of a British village being seized by enemy paratroopers as part of a wider plot, but the treatment is quite different, as is the context of the films (of course). Went the Day Well? is a propaganda movie, and an occasionally brutal one, with precious few shades of grey as the heroic villagers (including a gun-toting Thora Hird) rise up and do battle with the vicious German interlopers. At the time the threat of invasion was still a recent memory, and the war still being prosecuted, but in 1976 things were very different.

We tend to remember the Second World War as one of the ‘good’ wars, justified by the fact it was essentially a heroic battle against the darkest of evils, but there’s little sense of that watching Sturges’ movie – this is a war movie oddly bereft of bad guys. All the German characters are rather sympathetic, Himmler excepted, and the movie is at pains to establish Steiner as a decent man revolted by the Nazi doctrine of racial superiority. The structure of the movie means we get to know these people rather better than any of the British or American characters who are ostensibly the heroes who foil Radl and Steiner’s plan – the US Ranger commander played by Larry Hagman is a vain, pompous fool, his subordinate (Treat Williams) something of a cipher.

The result is that the action sequences towards the end of the film, in which the German-held village is assaulted by American soldiers, feel like a curiously empty spectacle. They’re very well staged and directed, and do stir the blood a bit, but you always know what’s going to happen, and you don’t feel particularly invested in watching the inevitable Allied victory – you will almost certainly be hoping that Michael Caine survives, and may even be hoping that (in defiance of historical fact) he succeeds in his mission.

The question is whether this moral vacuum at the heart of the movie is a deliberate choice, reflecting the fact that there can be heroes and villains on both sides in a war, or just the result of a director not quite getting to grips with the material. Certainly Caine thought it was the latter, complaining that Sturges had no involvement with the editing of the film once shooting was complete, choosing to go fishing instead. He lamented the fact that what could have been a more substantial thriller ended up as a somewhat cartoonish action adventure.

I can see what he’s getting at, because – as someone else has pointed out – Pleasence’s impersonation of Himmler is the most credible thing in the movie by quite some distance. Caine is still good, as are many of the other supporting players, some of them better known as British TV faces – Jean Marsh is in there, also Roy Marsden and Denis Lill – but possibly a bit too prominent is Sutherland. Sutherland goes all-out for the central casting Oirishman from County Leprechaun approach, and it does make you roll your eyes a bit, as does the improbable romance between him and a young local girl (Jenny Agutter).

In the end The Eagle Has Landed seems to have become one of those largely innocuous all-star movies which regularly pops up on TV on Bank Holiday weekends, usually with its gorier moments (Hagman’s death, for instance) snipped out. Which is fair enough: it is an example of the war movie reduced to the status of simple entertainment – it doesn’t have the simplistic morality of the worst kind of war film, nor the complex ambiguities of many of the best. It just doesn’t seem inclined to deal with wider moral issues at all, focusing on its straightforward action-adventure story to the exclusion of all else. And there’s not much actually wrong with that, I suppose: but with the kind of talent involved in this movie, you could be forgiven for hoping for something slightly more substantial.

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Sometimes I could almost believe the people at Lovefilm are reading this blog and sitting in judgement upon it. One of the unusual (and, to my mind, rather enjoyable) aspects of my soon-to-be-defunct DVD rental service is the random nature of it – you basically get very little control over what films from your list they decide to send you. Is there some sort of lucky dip system in effect at Lovefilm HQ? Somehow I doubt it, for there have been several occasions when I have received a string of suspiciously similar films in a row. On these occasions I can almost hear a spectral voice saying ‘We enjoyed your review of that last Woody Allen film. Have another one.’ And my thoughts on Tales from the Crypt seem likewise to have earned the approbation of the DVD gods, for landing on my figurative mat this week was another Amicus portmanteau horror movie – the daddy of them all, in the form of Freddie Francis’ 1965 film Dr Terror’s House of Horrors. All I can say is: DVD gods, please send Tiptoes before your service closes down.

Anyway – yes, this is the one with Fluff Freeman and the killer vine. This was the original Amicus portmanteau, and as a result it does feel a little less formulaic than later films in the subgenre. Scripted by Amicus head honcho Milton Subotsky, apparently the film originated in the late 1940s, with the script hanging around for fifteen years or so before it finally went into production – scholars of American horror movies of the mid-40s have suggested that all the segments of House of Horrors are to some extent derivative of other movies and stories from that period, but this is not especially obvious to a modern audience.

The movie opens with a group of men gathering in a train compartment, and you do get a sense almost at once that this isn’t a film completely trapped in the horror ghetto – true, you do have Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee giving their legendary imprimatur to proceedings (although both are somewhat cast against type), but there’s also a very young Donald Sutherland, not to mention all-round entertainer Roy Castle and the disc jockey (and not very good actor) Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman. Something for everyone there, I’m tempted to say.

Anyway, Cushing is playing the enigmatic Dr Schreck (German for ‘terror’, naturally), which allows the actor to have some fun with a peculiar accent, and really go to town with the make-up box: his fake eyebrows suggest a couple of hairy caterpillars are engaged in a courtship ritual on his forehead. When he reveals he’s carrying a set of tarot cards in his luggage, and they have mystical powers to foretell the future and shape destiny, the others are initially doubtful – especially Lee’s snotty art critic. But one by one they consent to have their fortune told…

First up is Werewolf (the segment subtitles leave a little to be desired, if you ask me), a slightly overplotted tale of an architect (Neil McCallum) who returns to his recently-sold family home to do some surveying work for the new owner (Ursula Howells). Soon enough he discovers the coffin of a legendary sorcerer and werewolf, the magnificently named Cosmo Valdemar, walled up in the cellar, and recalls old tales of Valdemar’s undying hatred of his family. Better start melting down the silver crucifix to make bullets, then… but is there something else going on that our man is not aware of?

The least you can say about any of the stories in House of Horrors is that they are atmospherically filmed, and this one is no exception. However, each of them also stands or falls on the strength of its punchline, so to speak, and the question of exactly what’s going on here always seems to me to be a little confused. Or, to put it another way, you don’t really expect to have to work out the plot of an Amicus portmanteau story for yourself. Hey ho.

No such worries in the next one, The Creeping Vine – yes, the time has finally come. One of the distinguishing things about this film is that it’s not about dodgy types receiving their well-earned comeuppance, which is basically the rationale of later films like Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horrors and From Beyond the Grave – it’d be a stretch to describe any of the protagonists here as actually wicked, they’re petty or foolish at worst. And yet their fates are uniformly pretty grim. In this case, Fluff Freeman plays a very ordinary bloke who comes back off holiday to find a peculiar vine has sprung up in his garden. The vine violently resists any attempts at pruning, which is enough to prompt Fluff to head off to consult some boffins.

‘I’m pretty good at handling garden tools, I don’t think those shears slipped!’ says Fluff to the experts (I can’t understand why that line has not become one of the most celebrated movie quotes in history). The boffins (Jeremy Kemp and Bernard Lee), who obviously have far too much free time, speculate that rather than being a gardening mishap, this may be evidence of a sentient mutant plant having appeared, and one of them actually moves in with Fluff to investigate.

Well, who’d have guessed it, but the boffins are right, and soon the malevolent vine is strangling family pets and covering the whole house. Bernard Lee brings remarkable gravitas to an uproariously silly story, all the more so given he was apparently so much the worse for drink during most of his scenes that he had to deliver his dialogue sitting down. Fluff, meanwhile, just stands around looking slightly bemused by the whole thing. Very entertaining, but hardly the high-point of the British botanical horror tradition, and once again the ending is just a bit too ambiguous.

Next up is Voodoo, the tale of Roy Castle’s hapless jazz trumpeter (it’s Roy Castle, of course he’s going to have a trumpet), who is sent off for a residency in Haiti along with his band. We’re heading into slightly problematic territory here, with Haiti depicted as a hotbed of black magic and voodoo (Castle’s attempt at a West Indian accent at one point is also rather embarrassing), but the casting of Kenny Lynch allows the film to undercut the stereotypes a little.

Castle is much taken with the music of the local voodoo ceremonies and plans to arrange it for his jazz group, despite the objections of the local houngan, who insists it is ancient and sacred to his god Dhambala. ‘Oh, well, if it’s that old, it’s out of copyright…’ says Castle. Needless to say the playing of the music leads to unfortunate events back in London. A slightly lighter tone to this one, mainly because of Castle’s deft comic performance (hard to imagine first-choice actor Acker Bilk being quite so capable), if (a pattern develops) the climax is a little underpowered.

Christopher Lee’s stuffy art critic consents to have his future told next, and suffice to say it is entitled Disembodied Hand. Lee’s pompous and snobbish character gets involved in a feud with an artist (Michael Gough), which spins out of control. Gough is maimed and commits suicide as a result, but his severed hand is still on the loose and seeking revenge on Lee…

A really good performance from Lee here, who is miles away from his traditional kind of role – here he plays a vain, foolish man who gradually succumbs to terror as the hand’s relentless attempts at vengeance go on, and on, and on. The crawling hand prop is actually rather impressive, given this is not exactly a big-budget film – the hand would go on to have a fairly distinguished career in other Amicus productions, playing one of Richard Greene’s severed hands in Tales from the Crypt, for instance. A strong ending, too, finally.

And so to (spoiler alert) Vampire, in which doctor Donald Sutherland sets up in small town USA with his faintly exotic foreign bride. No sooner have they settled into their new home than mysterious cases of anaemia start cropping up amongst the townsfolk, often accompanied by strange marks on the neck…

I think this is a fairly witty little story, provided you don’t know the twist going into it. Not a great showcase for Sutherland, though, partly because while his character may be a qualified doctor, he’s also depicted as rather a dim bulb, but mainly because Sutherland gets bulldozed off the screen by Max Adrian, here playing the town’s other doctor, one of those actors with a tremendous capacity for stealing scenes.

Then it’s time for the final twist of the framing story. Now, as I’ve observed before, the thing about the Amicus portmanteaus is that the final twist is nearly always the same in all of them, but bearing in mind it would have been new and original on this occasion, I think it’s a reasonably good way of ending the movie.

All in all, Dr Terror’s House of Horrors feels rather less schlocky and threadbare than some of its successors, possibly because it’s not principally based on American horror comic books (as a couple of the other films were). Derivative it may be, but its choice of subject matter is sound – a vampire, a werewolf, a crawling hand, voodoo magic, and a killer plant… again, something for everyone here – and the film has an interesting mixture of styles. The werewolf story is properly gothic, the vine is more of an SF B-movie, the voodoo story is somewhat played for laughs, and so on. This, along with the extraordinarily eclectic and interesting casting, gives the film a real sense of variety and colour. You can see why Amicus and many others have endlessly reused this formula in the years since Dr Terror’s House of Horrors was made, but this film has a touch of class almost all the others lack.

 

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In the late 1970s and early 1980s you couldn’t move for hot young directors having a go at making SF and fantasy movies – George Lucas made the first of his stellar conflict movies, Spielberg made Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Paul Schrader made Cat People, John Milius made Conan the Barbarian, and Ridley Scott made Alien. Now some of these were a bit (or more than a bit) derivative, or adaptations of works in other media, but hardly any of them were straight remakes of earlier films. Perhaps this was because most films in this genre prior to only a few years prior to that point had been a little simplistic, not offering much potential to work with.

The exception, in both respects, is Invasion of the Body Snatchers, originally directed by Don Siegel in 1956 and remade by Philip Kaufman in 1978. Kaufman was later involved in the early stages of scripting Raiders of the Lost Ark, while this is (of course) one of the great immortal bankers of SF and horror cinema, with Jack Finney’s novel spawning four big-screen adaptations so far – the 1956, 1978, and 1993 movies all have their supporters, but on the other hand the 2007 film (retitled simply The Invasion and starring Nicole Kidman) was such a critical and popular failure that we may be waiting a good few years for another remake.

Kaufman’s take on Body Snatchers gets to the nub of the issue more quickly than most, opening with a sequence on a bleak alien world where strange, amorphous life-forms cluster and ripple, releasing tiny spores. We follow the spores as they drift through space, finally landing on Earth in the city of San Francisco. Here they colonise, or perhaps parasitise, the local plant life, producing tiny flowered pods.

One of the people so attracted to these new arrivals that they take them home is Elizabeth (Brooke Adams), a researcher with the city government. However, this proves to be a mistake, as very soon her boyfriend, previously laid-back and hedonistic, becomes inexplicably cold and stern. Understandably confused, Elizabeth tells her friend Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), a public health inspector for the city. All Bennell can do, at first, is suggest she see a pop-psychiatrist friend of his (a rare non-Vulcan big-screen appearance for Leonard Nimoy).

But the weird phenomena seem to be spreading: casual acquaintances also report the sensation that friends and loved ones have been mysteriously replaced by imposters. Matthew and Elizabeth encounter an apparently-deranged man who warns them that ‘They’re here! You’re next!’ (this is Kevin McCarthy, reprising his role from the end of the original film – Don Siegel also makes a cameo appearance). And two of Bennell’s friends (Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright) discover something grotesquely resembling a half-formed human body – something that gradually seems to become more human as time passes.

Bennell and his friends realise that all the stories of mysterious imposters are not hallucinations – something from out of deep space has come to Earth, and is replacing human beings with emotionless duplicates that emerge from the pods. But can they persuade the authorities of the truth? And – even more disturbingly – who can they trust? The pod people are everywhere…

As I mentioned, this seems to be one of those endlessly flexible stories that each new generation of film-makers seems to be capable of taking on and reinterpreting (even if the film-makers of the 2000s made a bit of a hash of it). The original small-town setting, with its Red Scare subtext, is gracefully transformed into an equally resonant piece about big city angst and dysfunctional society.

Living in cities is stripping people of their empathy and emotion anyway, or so the film seems to suggest, and we are spending all our lives surrounded by strangers. Is it any wonder if people start to get a bit paranoid? The signs of an ongoing alien invasion are almost completely masked by the usual neuroses of urbanites. It’s never really made clear at what point Leonard Nimoy’s character is replaced by his duplicate, so it’s entirely possible his initial certainty that everyone’s concerns about the ‘imposters’ are misplaced is sincere. Of course, the flip side is that watching the movie you do become rather concerned that, if something like this were to actually happen, it does seem like it would be virtually unstoppable. This makes the film even creepier.

And it is a very creepy film. You can, of course, suggest that the film’s paranoia, and the byzantine uselessness of the government (it’s implied the pods may already have struck here), are both elements of a post-Watergate commentary on American society, but this also works superbly well as a horror movie in its own right – a subtle one, of course, very dependent on a superbly-evoked atmosphere of low-key unease. The unsettling discordant soundtrack is superb. Despite being second-cousin to a zombie film, the movie is relatively light on visual shocks and gore for most of its duration, although there is one very jarring moment when the characters encounter the product of a botched duplication, in the form of a dog with a human head. As well as being well-played, the film is superbly paced and highly intelligent – quite apart from its in-jokey references to Velikovsky (whose theories on the influence of cosmic events on human history seem very apposite), it’s the only movie I know that name-checks Olaf Stapledon’s criminally obscure Star-Maker.

Great though the 1956 movie is, it does seem very dated now, whereas Kaufman’s version still stands up extremely well – quite an achievement when you consider that it manages to incorporate virtually every key story beat of the original film, while arguably fixing a few flaws in the story (the mystery of what happens to the original people after their duplication is explained), along with completely changing the setting and subtext of the film. But then that’s the essential magic of Invasion of the Body Snatchers – we seem to be hard-wired for this kind of creeping paranoia. Do this story right and no matter where or when you set it, it provides a slow slide into nightmare like few others.

 

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Well, it’s a cold and rainy afternoon in November, and the threat of references to Battle Royale and The Year of the Sex Olympics hangs heavy in the air, so I suppose it must be time for this year’s Hunger Games movie. I must confess to having gone along to the latest instalment, Mockingjay Part Two (directed, like the last couple, by Francis Lawrence), more out of habit than any sense of genuine excitement or anticipation. This should be something of an anomaly, given I have usually been impressed by the previous offerings in the series.

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I must also confess to a certain relief that this is the last movie in the series. Standard operation procedure for any series of book adaptations, these days – especially a genre or YA series – is to chop the final volume in half in order to maximise revenue. The result is often rather choppily paced films with arbitrary-feeling start and finish points. The fact that they’re largely aimed at a pre-existing, fanatically-dedicated audience also often means that the film-makers skip on things like recaps and other things to refresh one’s memory of the previous episode.

Mockingjay Part Two is a bit like that, opening with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) recovering from the attempt on her life by her long-term is-he-or-isn’t-he-love-interest Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who has been conditioned to want to kill her by nasty President Snow (Donald Sutherland). In case you are wondering, we are in the midst of a full-blown civil war, but to be perfectly honest, if you haven’t seen the previous episodes, you probably shouldn’t bother with this one at all.

Anyway, the conflict seems to be tipping the rebels’ way, and as the assault on the Capitol gets underway, Katniss embarks on a personal mission to assassinate the author of all her woes (I’m talking about Snow, by the way, not Suzanne Collins), along with – but of course! – a squad of equally photogenic cohorts, along with a few adults who are mainly there to frown a lot. Some people are looking ahead to whatever will follow the conclusion of the war, and realising that the inspirational qualities that have made Katniss such a useful media asset during the conflict could make her an equally dangerous enemy once it is over – so perhaps putting her in harm’s way isn’t such a bad idea…

‘Harm’s way’ is a bit of an understatement, for the path to Snow, as well as being blocked by vast legions of Stig lookalikes, has also been extravagantly booby-trapped by the twisted minds of the Capitol’s light entertainment division. Will anyone survive the mission to take out the President? And even if they survive the war, surviving the peace is another question…

Regular viewers may recall that I was generally impressed by the first film, somewhat disappointed by the second one, and rather surprised by the sheer sophistication and astuteness of number three – not to mention a little concerned that this concluding exploit was going to cop out in some manner. Well, I am pleased and not a little startled to say, it does not; it absolutely does not.

I suppose I am so impressed by the Hunger Games films simply because on paper they resemble a bunch of other movies based on popular YA series (Twilight, Maze Runner, Divergent, that sort of thing) and I automatically manage my expectations sharply downwards as a result. That said, if all YA film adaptations are anywhere close to these ones in quality, then this subgenre comprises the best-kept secret in modern cinema, for the Hunger Games films are genuinely impressive on so many levels.

It’s not just in their technical proficiency, which is of course commendable, but in the way they manage to be so consistently sharp and cynical. This one is no exception: it doesn’t romanticise or glamourise combat in any way, and while it’s theoretically an SF movie, it doesn’t shy away from the brutality of war (or politics) in the slightest. Glib heroics and easy solutions are utterly rejected at every turn. I think I said once that this is the most thoroughly horrible dystopian vision ever to make it into a blockbuster, and I stand by that: the film is relentless in the way it deconstructs the mechanisms of power and politics, and finds the people at the top of both sides to be virtually indistinguishable.

This is one of the things that makes the Hunger Games films distinctive: for all that they are set in a futuristic otherworld, and occasionally feature genetic mutations and the like, they are always firmly grounded in reality, almost painfully so (for all the absurdly OTT death traps involved, there are also some shockingly bleak moments in this film). For all their huge SFX budgets, they also shy away from the big action set-pieces you expect from this kind of movie – they are almost always character-driven, when it comes down to it. Perhaps this is at the root of my inability to completely engage with them, despite their quality: they may look and get advertised like huge action blockbusters, but they’re not. (That said, half-way through this film is a stunningly effective Aliens and Blade 2-influenced action sequence which seems to have wandered in from a different film entirely – and like a lot of the movie, it stretches the limits of the 12A certificate to breaking point and beyond. This is not a film for anyone yet to reach their teens.)

And this is why the films have been so lucky to get an actress like Jennifer Lawrence to lead them – such a character-driven series needs a performer of her quality, even if she perhaps isn’t required to use all of her range. She receives customarily good support from all the usual suspects this time, with Sutherland on especially good form. (Julianne Moore looks rather like Theresa May this time around.) I feel compelled to mention that this is the last film to feature Philip Seymour Hoffman, although his contribution this time is sadly limited.

It’s really a small miracle that Mockingjay Part Two sticks to its guns and stays so downbeat and dourly realistic almost to the end, although I suppose one shouldn’t be surprised that a degree of idyllic rustification pops up before all is said and done – the underlying politics of these films has always been fairly traditional, perhaps even reactionary, when you really think about it. Nevertheless, this is a worthy and impressive conclusion to a series which maintained a startlingly high level of consistency throughout. In years to come I suspect these four films will come to be regarded as classics, of a sort – and there’ll be no injustice to that.

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So, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls; here we are again for the third of our annual visits to the Hunger Games franchise. I just had an interesting discussion with a somewhat like-minded friend down the pub, who expressed surprise that I was even going to see this film, revealing that he hadn’t thought it to be my cup of tea. ‘What, you think I don’t like big-budget Hollywood SF movie?’ I said, my face probably assuming a fairly distinctive expression.

‘You think it’s SF?’

‘Well, yes, of course – what do you think it is?’

‘Young Adult.’

‘Yes, but Young Adult SF.’

Oh, how the evenings fly by when we get together, especially when I start going on about The Hunger Games’ place in a long lineage of things like (say it together with me) Battle Royale, Rollerball, and The Year of the Sex Olympics. Anyway, my point was ultimately that if all Young Adult movies (is that even a proper genre?) are as sophisticated and cynical as the Hunger Games series, then there’s no call to be snotty about them.

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This time around we are treated to the fairly unwieldy title The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -Part One, for the adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ final book has been chopped in two. (Rather mysteriously, Collins is credited for ‘Adaptation’, while two other bods have their names on the script. Hmmm.) This isn’t the only unwieldy thing about the film, which has most of the strengths and weaknesses of its predecessors, but at least it’s reasonably short.

One problem is that the film seems to be made with the dedicated fanbase in mind (is there much of a fanbase? The coffeeshop was running a marathon showing of all three films this week, but I’ve no idea how many turned up for it). As before, there’s no recap or reprise from the previous film, we’re just dumped into the action, and it took me quite a while to remember exactly who everyone was and what they were up to. This was irksome, and if you haven’t seen the other two I suspect you will never work out what the hell is going on.

Anyway, stubborn bow-wielding knitwear-lover Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is still ensconced in the separatist enclave of District 13, her home region having been devastated in the uprising that broke out at the end of the second film. The rebel leadership (various genuine luminaries like Julianne Moore, Jeffrey Wright, and the much-missed Philip Seymour Hoffman) have the plan to use her as a symbol of rebellion against the Capitol and nasty old President Snow (Donald Sutherland). She signs on, in the understanding that her sometime love-interest Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is sprung from Snow’s clutches. Naturally, Snow is using Peeta to issue various statements undermining Katniss and the rebel cause.

As you may have surmised, there aren’t actually any Hunger Games in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part One, but to my mind this was rather to the film’s benefit, as the games were by far the least interesting bit of the second film. This one builds on the strengths of the second, especially in its bleakness and the sophistication of its politics.

Once upon a time this sort of ‘heroic rebels versus evil empire’ kind of film would have been about just that – plucky underdogs triumphing due to their own essential virtue and the rightness of their cause. The Hunger Games is savvy enough to recognise that things do not work this way: this film is all about the media management of the rebellion, which is presented as being absolutely crucial to both sides. We first see President Snow objecting to having to call the rebels ‘rebels’, and a word with more satisfactory connotations is soon found. Katniss’ allies are not interested in her as a person, but as a symbol to the masses they are trying to bring into the conflict.

She is, in short, much more useful as a propaganda aid than as a warrior, and when she is sent to the barricades of the rebellion she is accompanied not by a team of soldiers but a camera crew. In a fiendishly clever bit of scripting, no sooner does she meet the people she is supposed to inspire than she finds herself having to lie to them: the subtext is clear. She is, in short, being manipulated by her superiors just as Peeta has become a mouthpiece for the regime.

This is all surprisingly sharp and impressively cynical for a major release aimed at teenagers: the film is all the more timely, given how much it recalls the high premium placed on media-management in recent conflicts in the Middle East. The bombed-out, shattered landscapes of Mockingjay are horribly reminiscent of any number of news reports from Iraq, Libya, or Syria, and Snow’s doleful threats that civil war can only end in unimaginable slaughter and suffering sound depressingly plausible. I can’t quite see where the happy ending at the end of the next film is coming from; I hope the writers don’t completely cop out on all this good work.

This is all so engaging that you really don’t notice the slightly soapy teen romance angle of the story, nor a few somewhat improbable plot developments. The fact that this is really just the first half of the story means that there isn’t actually that much action in it, and hardly any of that features Jennifer Lawrence herself. Lawrence’s ability to maintain a career as both a bona fide box office star and an acclaimed actress is impressive, and it’s a shame that here she has a largely passive role, spending a lot of her time staggering about looking appalled at whatever atrocity the bad guys have committed most recently. Other senior members of the cast are much luckier: Moore, Hoffman, and Sutherland are all clearly having a ball scheming away at each other.

The Hunger Games is one of those series which rather impresses me while I’m watching it, but doesn’t exactly linger in the mind once I’ve finished. Maybe it’s just expectations management – the level of intelligence and grit in most SF franchises is somewhat lamentable – but it seems to me that these films are always much smarter and more surprising than they have any right to be. I just hope the concluding episode doesn’t let the side down; there are grounds here to be hopeful, I would say.

 

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You could spend happily spend forever pointing out all the things The Hunger Games series is derivative of, and come to think of it I indulged myself quite a bit when I was talking about the first film. So let’s just say Year of the Sex Olympics, occasional bits of Star Trek, and Battle Royale one last time and move on to considering the new movie on its own merits.

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The hefty lead-times involved in a movie this size mean that Gary Ross has been replaced as the director by Francis Lawrence, a prolific creator of music videos but someone really lacking in a significant movie CV. These movies are basically a licence to print money anyway, so all it really takes is a safe pair of hands, I suppose.

Anyway, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (one of the increasing number of films that doesn’t bother with a title card until the end credits) is very much what it is, which is one of the middle films in a blockbuster genre adaptation franchise. (As is pretty much obligatory these days, the final volume is being chopped in two to maximise the bottom line to increase viewers’ pleasure.) By this I mean that it assumes most of the audience will not only have seen the first film, but watched it recently on DVD, because there isn’t what you could call a recap of the events of part one.

Jennifer Lawrence again plays Katniss Everdeen, a young woman who when asked to describe herself opts for ‘Stubborn – good with a bow – that’s about it.’ I think she’s forgetting ‘fond of knitwear’, but that’s just me. Having won the titular games in the first film, she and co-winner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) – not stubborn, not much good with a bow, basically just blandly good-looking and a bit dull – are coming to terms with the realities of life as victors. They are celebrities, but more than that, the manner of their victory has made them symbols of dissent against the autocratic government, as embodied by nasty old President Snow (Donald Sutherland).

For complex and slightly subtle reasons, Snow manages to persuade Katniss that preventing an uprising against the authorities requires her and Peeta to maintain the fantasy of the romance they simulated during the games, and do her best to avoid stoking the flames of dissent. Of course, events prove this to be quite difficult, and Snow comes to realise that the cult of personality surrounding games victors is a threat to his own position: the games weren’t intended to produce heroes, but that’s what’s happening (oops, forgot one: it’s a bit like the original Rollerball, too).

So, with the aid of new games director Plutarch Heavensbee (good grief, these names), played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Snow hits upon a wheeze which will probably kill all these symbols of opposition – and even if it doesn’t, Katniss’s reputation as a good citizen will likely take a major hit. He decides to stage a champion-of-champions version of the hunger games where only previous winners will compete.

It takes quite a long time for the film to reach this point, and another quite long time for the various pre-games rituals and games themselves to play out. The result is a film which, to be perfectly honest, felt to me to be rather longer than was strictly necessary, especially when so much of the second half is more-or-less a retread of the same material from the first film – all right, so they’re in a jungle rather than a forest this time, and things get spiced up a bit by the introduction of acid gas, homicidal baboons, and so on, into the proceedings, but even so.

I thought the first half of the film was by far the more interesting, anyway, dealing with the realities – both political and personal – of The Hunger Games’ world with a surprising level of sophistication and subtlety. Contrasts are repeatedly drawn, between the fantasy of the viewing channels and the reality of life in the various districts, between the personae Katniss and Peeta adopt for their fans, and who they really are, and so on. This section of the film is surprisingly subtle and cynical, in many ways, and it doesn’t feel the need to belabour the audience with the points it is making.

Then again, it did occur to me that The Hunger Games may be the most dystopian piece of SF ever to form the basis of a modern blockbuster franchise: this is a horrible, brutal world, and we are shown absolutely as many details of it as the 12 certificate will permit. My main criticism of the first film was that it just wasn’t vicious and shocking enough: I do not make that same criticism here. The parallels with the days of the Roman Empire are not made with a great deal of delicacy, but that doesn’t stop them being effective.

So this is, at least in part, a very competently made and rather thoughtful piece of SF. However, it felt to me like a potentially very good film bashed out of shape by the need to be part of a franchise. We don’t get a proper opening, as it follows straight on from the first film and doesn’t bother to introduce the characters, and – especially irksomely – it doesn’t really have a proper conclusion, opting instead for a cliffhanger into the forthcoming part three.

And I still think the fact that the film is consciously pitching to as broad an audience as possible is a problem. Everything, from the plot to the characters, is just a little blanded out or soap-opera’d up in an attempt to make it as palatable as possible. As a result none of the cast really get the material they deserve to show their full abilities, and this is a real shame when performers like Jennifer Lawrence and Philip Seymour Hoffman are sharing scenes. (Also particularly good this time around are Jeffrey Wright and Jena Malone as two of Lawrence’s rival competitors – Toby Jones, on the other hand, has landed himself a plum spot in the cast list but barely appears.) Then again, I suppose you could argue that people like Hoffman and Lawrence aren’t cast in this kind of film to give brilliant, subtle performances, they’re here to give a glossy genre movie a bit of credibility and gravitas. (We really should be honest that, both here and in the X-Men films, Jennifer Lawrence really is slumming it in return for a fat paycheck.)

There were a lot of things that I liked about The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – the cast do the best they can, the production designs are pleasing, and the generally horrible tenor of the whole thing is sort of refreshing. I wasn’t so impressed by the structure, as I said, and the soap-opera love-triangle romance elements felt a bit laboured to me. Some of these negatives will no doubt get fixed for part three, while others I’m sure will be with us for the duration. For the time being, though, this is one big franchise which doesn’t feel like it’s outstaying its welcome or presuming too much on the audience’s goodwill.

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Looking back through the collected works, it occurs to me that I may, on occasion, have come across as just a bit snarky and oh-ho-ho about the life and works of Jason Statham – ‘my kitchen can act better’ (about The Transporter), ‘a nuanced performer he is not’ (Transporter 2), ‘Statham in genuinely good movie shocker’ (Killer Elite), and so on. I think I am guilty of misrepresenting myself, as I’ve never seen a Statham-led movie I haven’t enjoyed on some level, but more importantly doing the man himself a disservice: Statham is clearly aware of his own range as a performer and operates inside it exceedingly well. He hasn’t quite made a gilt-edged classic yet, but neither has he put his name to a complete dog (it’s just occurred to me that I should watch Revolver before throwing that kind of assertion about).

On the other hand, it might not go amiss were he to stretch himself just a little more in his choice of roles – because long stretches of Simon West’s The Mechanic are virtually interchangeable with bits from other Statham movies, or other recent action movies generally. It has the same colour-saturated cinematography, the same kind of graphic design, the same aesthetic, the same sensibility – with the insertion of a bare minimum of new material I suspect you could edit The Mechanic, Colombiana, either of the first two Transporters and Haywire together into one sprawling six-hour epic, so very similar are all of these movies.

In The Mechanic Jason Statham plays… well, officially, someone called Arthur Bishop, but really he’s just playing his standard Jason Statham Character. (There’s a broad unity between most of his roles, moreso even than with the average action movie star.) For the benefit of newcomers, the Jason Statham Character is a highly skilled and extremely dangerous mercenary, who is also either blessed or saddled with a strict code of personal honour which he does his best to abide by at all times. He has feelings, but most of the time he knows better than to show or act upon them – except when the plot demands it, of course. In this movie the Jason Statham Character is a professional assassin who specialises in invisible killings (making it look like an accident, in other words).

The Jason Statham Character’s code is stretched, however, when he is called upon to terminate his own mentor, Harry (Donald Sutherland), who has apparently gone bad. He initially demurs from this, but the client – another member of the same nebulous organisation – is insistent and makes the point that surely the Jason Statham Character would prefer to do it himself, and be sure that Harry doesn’t suffer unnecessarily. Harry himself expresses relief on the same point when the deed is actually done – there’s a strange commingling of sentiment and brutality here which I found rather creepy, to be honest.

Anyway, motivated largely by guilt, the Jason Statham Character takes on Harry’s troubled son Steve (Ben Foster) as an apprentice – not bothering to tell him that he killed his father, of course. Needless to say, Steve has issues of all kinds, which perhaps mean he’s not the best person for this line of work. And what will happen if he ever finds out the truth about his father’s demise…?

Well, The Mechanic is a solidly competent action thriller which should satisfy fans of both the genre and Statham himself. That it isn’t anything more is a shame, because West has previously shown himself to be a superior director and there are flashes here of what could have been a rather more accomplished movie.

Part of the problem is that the movie could really use another fifteen or twenty minutes to add onto the relatively brief running time: for most of its length the film is building up the relationship between Bishop and Steve, and at the same time increasing one’s expectations of what will kick off when – inevitably – Steve learns the truth about his father’s death. One kind of expects the climax of the movie to be an extended battle of wits and skill between master and apprentice. Suffice to say it’s nothing of the sort; the bulk of the movie turns out to revolve around a seen-this-before hero-is-screwed-over-by-his-own-employers plot, with the stuff you’ve been expecting handled in a very cursory way almost as an afterthought.

So the plot is a bit lopsided and doesn’t deliver on what it appears to be promising. On the other hand, what it delivers instead is a series of effective action sequences and character bits, slickly assembled and presented. Some of it is a little far-fetched – it’s a fairly big ask to have as total a professional as Bishop decide to take a loose cannon like Steve on as a trainee – but the script and (to be fair to him) Statham both work hard to make Bishop’s guilt (and thus his desire to help Harry’s son) plausible. As I mentioned, there’s nothing really very new going on here, but what does happen is playing to the strengths of the performers.

And, as I mentioned, there are moments that lift the film briefly above the average – early on we see Bishop meeting a woman in a bar, they dance, it then transpires they’re lovers – and you think, ah ha, she’s the girlfriend who doesn’t know what his job is, she’s going to get caught in the middle of this and force him to reappraise his lifestyle. But almost instantly the film kicks all this out from under you: she’s simply a prostitute Bishop regularly uses, and for all that she’s the top-billed woman she’s barely in the film (no pun intended). Your expectation of the worst kind of cliches is, refreshingly, not met. This kind of intelligence in a genre movie is welcome no matter how fleetingly it manifests itself.

This is a movie with a slightly harder edge than many action films, but not to the point where it ever becomes too gruelling or realistic to be entertaining. That said, there’s a slightly lurid flavour to it in a couple of places – a couple of incidental victims of the two hitmen both turn out to be sex offenders, for no other reason than to reassure the audience that they really do deserve to be executed. I can really do without this kind of material, to be honest: a dumb action movie it may be, but this just struck me as salacious and unnecessary.

Apart from this there was very little in The Mechanic I found myself taking exception to and a lot that I rather enjoyed. I must confess that a little more of Statham himself, properly in action, wouldn’t have gone amiss, but his actual performances these days are more than competent enough to lead a movie with the minimum of martial arts nonsense being required. This movie doesn’t quite give you exactly what it suggests it will, but it comes close enough to be satisfying.

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