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Wonder Woman! Wonder Woman!

All the world is waiting for you

And the power you possess

Fighting for your rights

In your satin tights

And the old red white and blue.

I tell you, folks, they don’t write theme songs like that any more (although I must confess to always having been slightly baffled by the lyric ‘Get us out from under Wonder Woman’). Well, time passes, and some things change, and some things don’t. Expectations seem to have been riding high for Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman movie, for a number of reasons, but – I hope this doesn’t constitute a spoiler – the film itself does not concentrate much on hosiery, satin or otherwise, the jingoistic nature of Wonder Woman’s costume has been toned down, and the references to feminine emancipation are handled with considerably more subtlety.

It is a fact that here we are in 2017 and there has never been what you could honestly call a hit movie based on a superheroine – there hasn’t even been a genuinely good one that just didn’t catch on with audiences. Personally I think the fact that most previous cracks at this sort of thing were generally quite poor and often rather patronising movies is largely to blame, rather than prejudice on the part of audiences, but there does seem to be a real desire for a female-led comic book movie that’s actually good. The same could also be said as far as DC’s movie project goes – the previous three films in the current cycle have their staunch defenders (vsem privet, Evgeny), but in terms of both critical success and box office returns, they are lagging a long way behind their arch-rivals at Marvel. So Wonder Woman has the potential to either kill multiple birds with one stone, or just perpetuate multiple ongoing injustices. Lotta pressure, there.

One way in which the new movie is very much of a piece with the rest of the current DC cycle is the fact that it often takes itself rather seriously – the actual codename Wonder Woman has clearly been decreed to be too frivolous and it’s not until relatively deep into the closing credits that the actual words come anywhere near Wonder Woman the movie, which I must confess to being slightly disappointed by.

Nevertheless, there is much good stuff here, opening with Wonder Woman our heroine, Princess Diana’s childhood and education on the mystical island paradise of Themiscyra, home of a race of immortal warrior women, the Amazons. The Amazons have a historic beef with Ares, the Olympian god of war, and are constantly anticipating the day he will return to plunge the world into perpetual conflict and slaughter.

Well, when a plane breaches the mystical barriers surrounding the island, it seems like the day has come – piloting the vehicle is American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine – not too bad, for once), and pursuing him are some angry Germans. In the outside world it is 1918 and war is ravaging Europe. Diana can’t help but suspect that Ares is somehow responsible for the brutal conflict in the trenches and beyond, sponsoring the work of an unhinged chemical weapons expert known as Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya). Availing herself of a god-killing weapon left to the Amazons by Zeus, she agrees to take Trevor back to the outside world if he will help her track Ares down.

Europe in 1918 proves a bit of a shock to Diana, as do the inhumanly callous attitudes she discovers amongst the senior military figures she meets. However, she makes a connection with Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis), an advocate of peace talks, and with his help she, Trevor, and a small band of others head over to the trenches of France in search of the warmongering general Ludendorff (Danny Huston), her goal being (to coin a phrase) to stop a war with love…

Virtually the only element of Batman V Superman that everyone agreed was any good was Gal Gadot’s appearance as Wonder Woman, and it seems that this was not a one-off fluke, for I am delighted – and, I’ll confess, rather surprised – to report that Wonder Woman is pretty much everything you want from a summer blockbuster movie – it has appealing performances, action sequences that genuinely thrill, jokes that are actually funny, and a few bigger ideas for audience members who are not hard-of-thinking. Crucially, it feels like the work of people who’ve really taken the time to get to know this character and figure out what makes her distinctive, rather than just reducing her to a gloomy cipher plunged into a morass of cynical desolation.

I suppose Gal Gadot has an advantage over some of her colleagues, in that she isn’t going to get compared to numerous predecessors in the way that, say Ben Affleck or Henry Cavill are – although this isn’t to say that Lynda Carter’s iconic performance as Wonder Woman doesn’t cast a sizeable shadow – but even so, Gadot gives a winning turn here, easily carrying the movie, with just the right mixture of steely determination and charming innocence.

I suspect that the decision to move Wonder Woman’s origin back twenty-five years to the First World War was primarily the result of a desire to avoid comparisons with Captain America, another origin story about an idealistic, star-spangled hero. There is still a slight resemblence between the two movies, but on the whole the choice works, tapping into the popular conception of the First World War as an ugly, pointless slaughterhouse bereft of any moral justification. The film is quite careful to point out that Diana is not there to fight the Germans as such, but is in opposition to concept of war itself (which isn’t to say there aren’t some rousing scenes of her charging machine guns, flipping over tanks, and so on). One problem with the whole ‘superheroes at war’ concept, especially when it’s done historically, is how to explain why they don’t just win the war in two or three days flat and thus turn the whole thing into alt-history. Wonder Woman negotiates its way around this rather gracefully.

This is not to say the movie is completely immune to the flaws which superhero blockbusters are traditionally heir to – in addition to being rather obscure, Dr Poison is a somewhat underwhelming villain who doesn’t contribute much, there are signs of the narrative coming a bit unravelled in the third act in order to keep the pace going, and so on – but it does manage to contrive one very neat plot twist, and it does a commendable job of feeling like a movie in its own right rather than just a franchise extension – it’s not stuffed with cameos and plot-points there to set up half a dozen other coming attractions.

I have occasionally been accused of being biased in favour of Marvel’s movies and against those of DC, which honestly isn’t the case. If anything, I love DC’s stable of characters slightly more than their Marvel counterparts, and I really do want the new DC movies to hit the same standards as the Christopher Reeve Superman films or Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. This is the first film in five years to really come close, and the first to bear comparison with the best of Marvel’s output. If Wonder Woman is representative of what else DC have planned, Marvel finally have serious competition in the comic book movie business. Wonderful.

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The half-term school holiday is upon us once more, here in the UK, with the attendant jostling for space by films eager to snap up all that extra potential trade. Pole position is naturally held by the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie, but I note that Warner Brothers are wheeling out Wonder Woman this coming Thursday in order to take advantage of the last few days of the week. And, of course, there is the potential for counter-programming, which as far as family films go means smaller, quieter, more reserved fare, not backed by major corporations or fast-food tie-ins, films which the most bien-pensant sandal-wearing parents can take their tinies to see, even if those tinies are as yet too young to even understand a phrase as simple as ‘Stop kicking the back of my seat,’ even when it is said to them many, many times.

Doing quite well in my neck of the woods with this cute-but-exasperating crowd is Michael Dudok de Wit’s The Red Turtle, which is an animated Belgian-Japanese co-production (yes, I know what you’re thinking: oh no, not another one). The size and prominence of The Red Turtle‘s release is almost certainly due to the fact that the Japanese end of the deal is being handled by the legendary Studio Ghibli, beloved by art-house cinema proprietors up and down the country.

I have to say that for an organisation which announced it was ceasing operations nearly three years ago, Studio Ghibli is still cranking out movies with impressive frequency (although I understand this may be due to reports of Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement proving to be exaggerated). Apparently, in this case, it was the Ghibli team who sought out Dudok de Wit with a view to collaborating, Miyazaki himself being impressed by one of his short films. Now that’s what I call getting the nod.

The Red Turtle is another one of those films seeking to get round the obstacle of not being made in English by not bothering to include any dialogue whatsoever – also known in these parts as the ‘boom-bang-a-bang’ theory of international cinema. The story, naturally enough, is a relatively simple one: the movie opens with a spectacular storm out at sea, at the heart of which a castaway is struggling to survive. Survive he does, and pitches up on a reasonably well-appointed desert island.

Having explored his new home and collected himself, the man decides to take his chances on a bid to return to civilisation, and builds himself a raft. However, shortly after leaving the island, he finds his fragile vessel deliberately smashed to pieces by an unseen force. This happens repeatedly, and our hero eventually discovers that the culprit is a large turtle of an unusual crimson hue. Angry and frustrated, the man returns to the island, and when one day he happens upon the turtle making its laborious way up the beach, he decides to eliminate the vindictive beast and the menace it poses to his liberty…

Now, here the story takes a rather startling and unpredictable left turn – unpredictable to anyone who isn’t a dyed in the wool fan of Ghibli movies, anyway. A lot of Ghibli movies look a bit trippy, in their own gorgeous way, but what it’s easy to forget is just how weird the stories virtually always are. Never mind being forced to work in a sauna for ghosts, there are films about juvenile starvation, aviation design, odd things you find in the bamboo, possible cases of sibling attraction syndrome, family ghost stories: the list goes on and on. Despite the fact it’s a co-production, the story of The Red Turtle stays proudly true to its Ghibli heritage by suddenly becoming exceedingly odd: the man and the turtle fall in love with each other.

This is not a euphemism or a metaphor or anything like that: the man and the turtle end up having a baby together (this sequence is quite delicately handled by the animators, thank God) – suffice to say the manly charms of our hero are sufficient to bring the turtle out of her shell (thanks everybody, I’m here all week). What can I say? I thought Gamera: Incomplete Struggle was the weirdest Japanese movie about a turtle with unusual faculties that I was ever likely to see, but of course I had reckoned without the supreme eccentricity of the Studio Ghibli script department.

Well, the story may be rather bizarre (and then some), but this is still a stunningly beautiful piece of animation. Quite what the Belgian creators are bringing to the mix is a little unclear – although I have to say all the human characters do look rather like Tintin the boy reporter – as this looks very much like any other Ghibli production you care to mention, incredibly naturalistic but also extremely beautiful and effortlessly charming (there are some very endearing crabs in this movie).

This is not some anthropomorphic fantasy, but a more measured piece about – I expect – the circle of life and the place of humanity in the world. There’s also a bit where someone nearly throws up while skinning a seal, which you don’t get in your typical Pixar movie. Does the story seem deceptively simple or is this just one of those movies which is operating on a number of levels? I’m not completely sure, but while I did find the story perhaps just a touch underpowered and by no means under-length at only 81 minutes, I found it very pleasant to watch throughout (once I’d recovered from how barking mad the central conceit is).

I suppose that in the end The Red Turtle is indeed a film which is a metaphor about life. You try to find your way through the turbulence of the world, perhaps a little haphazardly, and then you meet someone. You may not initially appreciate the connection you have with them. You may indeed find yourself moved to try and brain them with a chunk of wood and turn them into soup. But then the realisation dawns that you share a special bond, and one day the two of you slope off to some sleepy lagoon somewhere to fertilise some eggs together.  It’s the story H.P. Lovecraft would have written had he ever tried his hand at romantic fiction. Or maybe it’s just a metaphor suggesting that age-gap relationships can work out after all (turtles can live for over a century, after all). I’m not completely sure. This is an odd little film, but a superbly made and very relaxing one to watch.

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Long-term and well-acquainted visitors to these parts may be familiar with my general attitude to the Pirates of the Caribbean movies: which is that these are obviously lavish and skilfully-made movies that I have generally found to be reasonably entertaining, diverting fare, but by no means especially memorable or exceptional (Hans Zimmer’s ebullient score is often the best thing about them). I’m probably in the minority there, as usual – I do find the massive success of these movies rather mystifying, to be honest, and can only assume it’s down to the continuing popularity of Johnny Depp’s portrayal of the addled buccaneer Jack Sparrow.

Depp is basically the only real constant in these films – he’s not quite the only person to appear in all of them, but it’s always his face on the poster and his character at the very centre of the plot. Everyone else gamely turns up and does their thing in the other stock roles, but they are clearly ultimately dispensable in a way that Depp definitely isn’t. I was mulling things over along these lines when I had a bit of an epiphany about these films, which is that they are basically the closest thing Hollywood has to pantomime.

I mean, you’ve got the Principal Boy and Girl, who gamely attempt to suggest romance using limited resources, you’ve got various supporting clowns and comedians, you’ve got some Serious Actor drafted in to play whichever spectral baddie is in this particular film, but above all you’ve got Depp, basically giving a Pantomime Dame performance, most of the pleasure of which comes from its sheer familiarity.

Even the structure of the films kind of recalls that of a panto, except that the songs have been cut and replaced by lavish and frequently OTT special-effects sequences. (They really should put songs in these films.) The rest of the movie consists of convoluted plotting, just-about-bearable romance between the Principal Boy and Girl, and – the stuff everyone turns up for – the many scenes of Johnny Depp doing his comedy schtick at great length.

There is of course a new Pirates movie doing the rounds, subtitled either Dead Men Tell No Tales or Salazar’s Revenge depending on where you live. In it the essential virtues of the Principal Girl – wholesome, determined, well-upholstered – are embodied by Kaya Scodelario, those of the Principal Boy – fresh-faced, heroic, wooden as a bannister – by Brenton Thwaites, and the Serious Actor is Javier Bardem, CGI’d to within an inch of his life. Providing a heavily-trailed surprise cameo is Paul McCartney, although Macca’s appearance here is not in the same league of baffling pointlessness as David Beckham’s in Legend of the Sword. Fans of an earlier generation of hardboard histrionics will be gratified by an appearance by Landy Bloom himself as the coral-encrusted captain of the Flying Dutchman – when it comes to an actor of Landy’s calibre, it takes more than being half-covered in barnacles to have any effect on his performance.

The new movie is directed by Joachim Ronning (O with a line through it) and Espen Sandberg (no, me neither, in either case). In keeping with the tradition of this series, there is a mightily unwieldy plot concerning an old enemy of Jack Sparrow’s (Bardem), a mysterious map, Landy Bloom’s son (Thwaites) trying to lift the curse from his father, ghost pirates, magical treasure, and so on. I’m not even going to try to attempt to explain what happens in detail: all it boils down to, in the end, is Sparrow and the new kids trying to track down a legendary plot device while being chased by the ghosts, who have teamed up with Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush).

Of course, you have to keep the audience happy while laying in all the vast amount of plot and backstory required by the tale, so of course they open with a couple of humungously extravagant sequences for this very purpose. I suppose that this is, for me, one of the pleasures of the Pirates of the Caribbean series – the vast resources and expertise of a major film-making corporation put to the service of set-pieces which are uninhibitedly silly.

The problem is that there aren’t that many of these, and the film doesn’t have a great deal else to offer. It does feel like there’s a huge amount of exposition involved, and the character scenes are mostly just drab. One thing you can say about Thwaites is that he could plausibly be the progeny of Landy and Keira Knightley, but Scodelario’s character just feels parachuted in, and she’s so obviously designed to hit feistiness and intelligence quotas that it’s almost a surprise that she’s not played by Emma Watson. In any case, put the two of them together and we’re back to the land of furniture being stacked.

There are many ridiculously over-elaborate set-pieces – an absurdly over-blown gag about a revolving guillotine is a bit of a stand-out – and there’s one involving zombie sharks that I did think worked rather well. Better this stuff, anyway, than the laboured comedy routines which are inserted into the plot whether they’re strictly required or not. The jokes work better when they feel more natural, I think, and there are some decent gags in this film, always assuming you have a soft spot for Carry On-level double entendres (there’s a running gag about the word horologist which I don’t think you’d find in any other movie series).

The knowing silliness of much of the Pirates franchise has reminded me of Monty Python in some ways, but, of course, this is the kind of enterprise which will quite happily plunder the tone and visual style of a Terry Gilliam movie without for a fraction of a second ever consider actually employing Gilliam himself as a director. Certainly the series has always had that slightly Gilliamesque sensibility of a world where the forces of mysticism and chaos are staging a ferocious rearguard action against the encroaching age of  enlightenment, and that continues here as well. The new movie is being marketed as the final installment in the series, and you could argue that this one concludes with the culmination of that conflict. On the other hand, the door is left not very subtly open for a further episode, courtesy of the now-obligatory post-credits sequence.

Personally, I think Captain Jack Sparrow and the crew have delighted us all for long enough. Apparently one of the declared intentions of the new movie was to take the series back to its roots and have the same kind of dynamic and atmosphere as was the case in the original film. I haven’t seen that one in ages, but I do recall it being much less laborious and infinitely lighter on its feet than the new offering. This particular formula is wearing extremely thin, and to me it looks very much like it’s time for this franchise to walk the plank. There will probably be worse films this year, but few quite as dispensable.

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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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One of the various innovative ticketing initiatives/scams that my magic cinema entry card allows me to avoid is so-called ‘Blockbuster Pricing’, whereby the powers that be routinely stick a couple of quid on top of the regular cost of a ticket, if they think it’s a film that a lot of people are going to want to see. Quite who decides on this sort of thing I don’t know, I imagine some sort of panel meets in a darkened room somewhere and makes a ruling on a quarterly basis. Not that they always seem to get it right: currently enjoying an extra quid on top of the regular price is Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, which strictly speaking looks like being a blockbuster only in its aspirations – early projections are apparently that this is going to turn out to be a historic bomb.

There have of course been lots of Arthurian movies down the years, many of them rather undistinguished of course, perhaps the best-known being John Boorman’s Excalibur, and the most recent high-profile offering Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur from 2004. Excalibur did okay at the box office, by the standards of its day, but King Arthur didn’t, and it has been suggested that this is just one example of a curious trend where historically popular stories and genres are not capturing the imaginations of modern audiences – last year’s Tarzan movie, for instance, was only modestly successful at the box office. Perhaps it’s simply the case that the kids just want to go and see the latest superhero or computer game adaptation.

In any case, Legend of the Sword seems to be trying fairly hard to lure in a younger audience, for it opens with a virtual reprise of various bits of Lord of the Rings, with the fortress of Camelot under attack by an evil wizard and his minions (including some rather surprising elephants which are about the size of oil-rigs). Noble King Uther (Eric Bana) springs into action and sees the baddies off, fairly easily, but this turns out just to be a prelude to a grab for power by his wicked brother Vortigern (Jude Law). Vortigern seizes the throne but the king’s infant son Arthur floats off down the river to safety, his identity unknown.

He winds up in the city of Londinium (hmmm), where he is adopted by a gang of prostitutes and raised in a brothel. Years whizz past, courtesy of the first of several funky montage sequences, and soon enough Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is a grown man, a face on the local underworld scene, and a dab hand at kung fu following regular training sessions down the neighbourhood martial arts school.

No, wait, it gets better (for a given value of better, anyway). In the meantime Vortigern has grown rather concerned about his nephew coming back to take revenge, but fortunately has an infallible method of finding out who he is – there’s a big stone outside the castle with a sword sticking out of it, and (stop me if you’ve heard this one) only the rightful heir can draw Excalibur forth. Young men from all over the country are being rounded up and forced to give it a try, under the watchful eye of David Beckham (formerly a noted football player, m’lud).

Yes, it really is him, and he provides one of the biggest ‘You what?’ moments in a film not exactly short on them. Truth be told, Goldenballs is not in the movie for very long, but the very brevity of his participation just makes the scale of his achievement all the more impressive: it takes a very rare individual to be quite as arrestingly awful in a really very tiny part as Beckham is here. He makes Vinnie Jones in X-Men 3 look like Sir John Gielgud.

Well, anyway, having pulled Excalibur out, Arthur is clocked as the rightful heir and things look bleak for him. However, various members of the old regime who are resisting Vortigern’s rule rescue Arthur, with an eye to grooming him as a possible replacement. But our man decides he’s nobody’s puppet and sets about assembling his own gangland crew to take down his wicked uncle, Londinium-massive style! (One thing you can say about that King Arthur, no grannies got mugged when he was around, he never hurt one of his own, and you could leave yer front door unlocked, etc.)

Whatever else you want to say about Guy Ritchie as a film-maker, he is at least consistent. After two Sherlock Holmes movies that weren’t exactly purist in their approach to Conan Doyle, and a Man from UNCLE adaptation that frankly bore no resemblance whatsoever to the TV show, he has now rocked up with an Arthurian film which is virtually unrecognisable as anything of the sort. They keep the sword in the stone bit, but there’s no Lancelot, no Guinevere, no Morgan le Fay, and virtually no Merlin or Mordred (mystical duties are palmed off to a somewhat ethereally gamine character played by Astrid Berges-Frisbey).

I must confess I was all set to have some fun with the fact that, in this film, King Arthur has the kind of beard and hairstyle you would normally expect to find on the barman of a hipster cafe in Shoreditch, but this seems like a very small matter when you consider that the film also contains magic elephants, half-woman half-squid life coaches, rodents of unusual size, kung fu fights, and many other elements that Tennyson, Mallory, White and the rest just plumb forgot to mention. (There’s a moment where King Vortigern tells his lieutenant to ‘Do your ****ing job’ which I suspect may not be drawn from the Venerable Bede.) These are mostly incidental, though: the film essentially feels like the result of a three-way collision between one of Ritchie’s lairy lad gangster movies, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings (or, to be less charitable, Warcraft), and a Marvel superhero film – Arthur’s claim to the throne is backed up not by his nobility or wisdom, but by the fact that wielding Excalibur gives him bad-ass superpowers and the ability to slaughter vast numbers of bad guys in the twinkling of an eye.

And no doubt you are expecting me to tear into the movie for all of this. I find that I can’t quite do this, not because it really works as an experience – it doesn’t, although the sheer incongruity of the different elements does make it bizarrely watchable, simply because you never know what’s coming next – but because it’s pretty clear that this isn’t just some ham-fisted, clueless muddle – Ritchie has been largely successful in making exactly the film he wanted to make. It’s just that he had zero interest in wanting to make a traditional (some might say ‘sane’) Arthurian movie. Sequences that could’ve been quite authentic are simply rushed through, while others which bizarrely resemble chunks of contemporary gangland drama have been spliced in instead.

In some ways it resembles Brian Helgeland’s A Knight’s Tale from 2001, another movie which cheerfully took an axe to historical accuracy in the name of crowd-pleasing entertainment, and a film which I rather enjoyed. The difference is that Legend of the Sword doesn’t seem to have quite the same cheerful sense of its own absurdity – it takes itself relatively seriously – and that A Knight’s Tale wasn’t wreaking havoc upon one of the foundational myths of Britain.

I suspect we may be spared the rest of the proposed six-film series which Legend of the Sword was supposed to inaugurate, and I must confess to feeling a little saddened by that – I would’ve been rather curious to see just how far out there the other films could get, and it would at least have kept Ritchie from getting up to mischief with other properties for a decade or so. There may well be an audience for this film – always assuming there are people out there who want to see a bog-standard fantasy film made in the style of a lad’s mag gangster dramedy – but not a big enough one to make this a commercial success. It’s not so much a bad film as much as a very, very weird one – but there are still many more bad bits than great ones. And yes, Beckham, I’m looking at you.

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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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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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