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Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

If any TV series can claim to have entered the folklore, certainly on an international scale, it is probably The Twilight Zone (of course, it depends on how you define terms like TV series and folklore, and personally I can think of quite a few candidates that could credibly make such a claim). Maybe this is more the case in the US than over here, where the original series has not, to my knowledge, received anything like a complete re-run in well over thirty years, but even so – odd little instances of it keep bubbling up in quiet little corners of the TV spectrum. Once upon a time it was the after-dark small hours where you could find either the original show or the 1980s version, these days it is amongst the high-numbers channels where you are probably going to find a portal to the Zone quietly awaiting you. (On a related topic, Talking Pictures TV has been rerunning The Outer Limits for the last year, nearly, episodes of which have been quietly stockpiling on my tellybox recorder all that time. It’s almost enough to make one hope for a whole succession of rainy days.)

When I went to see the Twilight Zone stage show five years ago, one of the things I mentioned was the fact that a new incarnation of the series had just been announced, the main name attached being that of Jordan Peele (TV comedian turned great new horror director of our time, perhaps). I was, perhaps, just a bit too dismissive of the idea, but then I was hip deep in the Rod Serling version at the time, in all its inconsistency, occasional unsurpassed brilliance, and frequent pulp corniness. The new version of Zone finally turned up free-to-air over here in the summer and I finally got around to watching it recently.

If you’re not familiar with the concept, it can be difficult to explain exactly what The Twilight Zone – in any of its incarnations, all of which are essentially the same anyway – actually is. It’s an anthology series, that’s easy enough, so there are no recurring characters (unless Rod Serling himself counts as a character), no particular locations, no ongoing storylines. But what genre is it? Well, sometimes it’s sci-fi, sometimes it edges towards genuine horror, most commonly it’s fantasy of various different flavours (then again, there’s at least one episode with no fantastical elements at all). People stray out of their ordinary places into somewhere… different, where that which is usually immaterial becomes startlingly concrete. Allegory and metaphor gain flesh and bone and steel and wood. This is The Twilight Zone, always unsettling, occasionally hungry.

Lots of people have done Twilight Zone-style stories down the years, of course, not least Peele himself – Get Out could have been a Zone story, trimmed down quite a bit – and this is probably why he was tapped to get involved with the new show (other familiar names on the production team include Glen Wong (veteran X Files scribe) and Simon Kinberg (long-time influence on the X-Men movie franchise, if overseeing the slow demise of a film series counts as influencing it). The new show sticks quite close to the original format, which is sensible enough – The Twilight Zone is one of the most perfect vehicles for telling a series of stories that anyone has ever come up with, after all.

The new show ran for twenty episodes across two seasons before those involved decided to knock it on the head – a rare example of the network wanting more, but the creative personnel deciding they’d said their piece. The first season is made up of sixty-minute episodes (including adverts, etc); in the second a few forty-five minute instalments crop up, which helps with the sometimes over-stately pacing of many episodes from the first year.

So, is it any good or not? Is it a worthy successor? Well, it’s a tricky question, isn’t it, as the quality of any anthology series tends to be incredibly choppy, no matter who’s making it. Even Rod Serling owned up to the fact that, of the episodes in the original show, the percentage ratio of great/average/awful episodes ran pretty close to 33/33/33%. On a solely aesthetic level, the series is undeniably successful – the production values are excellent, with great sets, cinematography, and special effects.

Dramatically, there seems to me to be a distinct different between the first and second series. It feels like the first planning meeting included a segment where the writers sat down with a whiteboard and made a list of all the topics they wanted to make a pronouncement about: Social Media, Native American Rights, Toxic Masculinity, Gun Control, Donald Trump, and so on. You are certainly seldom in doubt about what any given episode is commenting upon, nor what the position taken by the writers is.

This can get a bit tiresomely didactic regardless of whether you agree with the script’s politics or not. The best of the first season episodes either come at their topic slightly askance, and feel more like genuine pieces of entertainment as a result, or attack their subject with such gusto they’re hard to resist. Amongst the first category is The Blue Scorpion, about a troubled academic (Chris O’Dowd) who inherits a rather strange and temperamental pistol, and Nightmare at 30,000 Feet, a riff on the famous original-series episode with William Shatner and the Gremlin,  in which Adam Scott discovers the plane he’s flying on is destined to disappear without a trace – this finds an interesting vein of post-September 11th disquiet and paranoia to mine. Other superior episodes include the opener, in which Kumail Nanjiani plays a struggling stand-up comedian who finds that drawing on his own life for material brings success, but at an alarming cost, while The Wunderkind is a bracingly impudent tale of an amoral political operator who sets out to show the world what he can really do by ensuring a spoilt child is elected to the White House (the satire here is hardly deeply buried). An exception to the didacticism of most of the episodes is the concluding one, Blurryman, a neat piece of metafiction taking place on the set of the series itself – Peele appears as himself, as does Seth Rogen. A passionate young writer on The Twilight Zone finds herself being haunted by the same enigmatic presence which has been turning up in the background of various other episodes. The revelation, when it comes, is winning, in an episode which deconstructs the series, or at least its raison d’etre.

The second year relaxes a bit and seems to be a bit less worried about sending all the right messages – the pacing picks up a bit too, in the shorter episodes at least. This isn’t to say there are no contemporary resonances or social commentary in the second year, it just seems to be growing organically out of the scripts, rather than being imposed on them. The second series as a whole is probably more consistent, but that really just means that while its worst episodes aren’t as cheesy, there are fewer really good ones. Most of them are fairly forgettable – some of them commit the regular Zone error of solely writing towards a twist, which only really works if it’s a really good twist (though this happens in the first year too).

Others have much more of a ‘classic’ Zone feeling to them – The Who of You (struggling-actor-turned-criminal discovers the power to switch bodies with other people) feels like it’s channelling the original episode The Four of Us are Dying, while A Small Town (handyman discovers a replica of his town, and changes to one are reflected in the other) feels like a remake, even though it isn’t. Less ‘classic’ but still striking is 8 (Antarctic expedition encounters a rather unusual octopus), an excursion into outright horror which unfortunately does feel constricted by a too-brief running time.

The best episodes come at the end – Try, Try is about a woman on a trip to the museum which takes a very odd turn, as the apparently-perfect man she befriends turns out to be nothing of the sort. It’s a devastating takedown of Groundhog Day, as it might appear from the Andie McDowell character’s point of view, with strong performances from Kylie Bunbury and Topher Grace. Possibly the best of all is You Might Also Like, a sort of spiritual successor to the original episode To Serve Man. It’s about advertising, and consumerism, and grief, and manages to be funny and poignant and weird and unsettling in a way none of the other episodes manage. You can see why they put it out last of all, though.

So, is the most recent incursion of Twilight Zone worth visiting? Well – much as with the original show, there is a fairly even mixture of good, okay, and bad episodes (perhaps not quite enough genuinely good episodes for comfort, though). If every episode was up to the same standard as Try, Try, The Blue Scorpion, and You Might Also Like this would be an extremely watchable and maybe even significant series. Sieving through the less-successful instalments could make watching this show more of a grind than it’s worth.

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For the last eighteen months or so my RPG group and I have been playing through the core storyline of the game King Arthur Pendragon. As the one who sits at the end of the table and goes ‘um’ a lot (aka the referee), this has required me to steep myself in Arthurian lore to a degree which was not previously the case – I mean, I was already familiar with the basic outline of the story, as it’s quite difficult to have grown up in the UK reading and watching a lot of fantasy and not acquire a basic understanding of what’s going on with Arthur, Merlin, Guinevere, Lancelot, and the rest of the mob, but some of the finer points of matters concerning supporting characters and subplots – people and things like Balin, the Fisher King, the invasion of Rome, and so on – needed a little bit of study.

So I acquired and browsed through a rather nice edition of Le Morte d’Arthur, along with Peter Ackroyd’s more digestible The Death of King Arthur; also T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (for my money, the most accessible and poignant version of the story, if not the most faithful); I watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail again, also Excalibur, First Knight, and The Fisher King.

And I also came across Stephen R Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle, a trilogy of fantasy novels which I’m guessing I acquired from a relative round about 1996. I’d never got around to reading them, as with many of the fantasy doorstops that were handed down to me – I’ve owned a copy of the first Game of Thrones novel since long before the TV series was even mooted, but never read a word of it (hush, now, with your gasps and bemusement). Lawhead is an American writer long resident in the UK; apparently he moved here to do research for the books in question. They are, as you have probably guessed, another retelling of the Arthurian legend, albeit a rather peculiar one.

The first thing to bear in mind about the Pendragon Cycle is that it was apparently planned as a sequence of five novels, respectively entitled Taliesin, Merlin, Arthur, Pendragon and Grail. However, midway through production the publisher got cold feet and the saga was brought to an end after the third book (the last two have since been published elsewhere). The result, at least as far as the original trilogy is concerned, is a telling of the legend of King Arthur in which Arthur himself doesn’t appear until two-thirds of the way through and doesn’t get to be High King for another long while even so.

So what do we get in the first two volumes? Well, not much that feels authentically Arthurian, to be honest. The narrative voice shifts around from book to book (sometimes mid-book) but stays third-person for the opening volume. The story is split between the tales of Charis, a privileged princess growing up in one of the kingdoms of Atlantis, and Taliesin, a gifted young bard and druid coming of age in a sort of vaguely-recognisable version of Dark Ages Wales. Yes, these two are contemporaries – the book concludes with their coming together and the appearance of Merlin – which means the books are predicated on the slightly bizarre notion of Atlantis sinking not just in historical times, but during the decline of the Roman Empire. This shifts the books into an odd halfway house between quasi-historicity and pure fantasy, something which Lawhead never seems quite sure how to handle.

Certainly he’s very good at his Celtic texture, and most of the characters appear in their Celtic guises – Arthur remains Arthur, of course, but Guinevere is Gwenhwyfar, Merlin is (sometimes) Myrddin, Lancelot is Llwch Llenlleawg, and so on. (A pronunciation guide is provided but it’s still no surprise these books have never featured on Jackanory.) Nevertheless he does a lot of – to my mind – quite wilful tinkering about with the legend, to suit his own agenda.

I suppose, once you accept the presence of the Atlantean leg of the story, most of the rest of it is really small potatoes – but even so. It almost feels like most of the trilogy is setting up the pieces, getting everything to the point where the Arthurian legend can begin in earnest – but when it does, it’s really rushed-through. I felt I could honestly have skipped a lot of the stuff in Atlantis and concerning Merlin’s youth and early years as a Welsh king, because it wasn’t what I’d turned up for.

And the Arthurian material, when it does arrive, often feels peculiarly tinkered-with – and I don’t mean just the names, either. Some of the family relationships are significantly different – Galahad and Gawaine are brothers in this version, but this is a very minor detail. More striking is the fact that Merlin is the son of the Lady of the Lake and the grandson of the Fisher King; he’s also distantly related to Mordred and Morgan le Fay. The red flags really start to flutter when Lawhead explains that Arthur is actually the son of Ambrosius, not Uther (as is the case in virtually every other version of the story where the King’s parentage becomes significant to the story), something which destroys the underpinning of the whole myth as a tragedy.

Why is all of this going on? Well, given how often the characters are given to praising God for his blessings and mercy, it does seem like Lawhead had the faith-based market in mind when he was writing the book, and that the story has been tidied up and made more acceptable for a conservative audience as a result. Forget about Lancelot and Guinevere’s adulterous romance, no place for that here. The same goes for Mordred being the result of an incestuous liaison between the King and one of his sisters. (Although for some reason the very obscure character Gwenddydd, from ancient Welsh myths, is retooled as Merlin’s wife rather than his sister.) Even the inciting incident of the classical version of the saga, Uther’s demand that Merlin use his powers to get him access to the Duke of Cornwall’s beautiful wife, is neutered – it’s the Duke’s daughter, and Lawhead’s Merlin, being a good Christian, never does any of your actual magic.  Merlin, narrating the story at this point, scoffingly acknowledges the existence of false ‘legends’ about what happened – ‘Some people will believe anything!’ Especially if it has more dramatic power and mythic resonance, yes.

As a result the whole thing feels slightly bland and passionless (a non-threatening sort of religious fervour excepted). It’s frequently quite hard work, to be honest, and somewhat repetitive: characters constantly riding back and forth between the same handful of places as the plot crawls forward. I’m not yet at the point where I feel mortality breathing down my neck and can happily bail out of a book I’m not much enjoying with a clear conscience, so I stuck with the whole trilogy, but when it came to decide whether or not to get the later instalments – Pendragon and Grail – for my e-reader, I found myself strongly inclined towards giving them a hard pass. I imagine that in a post-Game of Thrones landscape, these books will seem oddly fusty and twee, no matter what you think of Lawhead’s attempts to rewrite the Arthurian story as a family-friendly religious tract.

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There are lots of things I haven’t done since 2009, but the one that we should concern ourselves with particularly today is watching James Cameron’s Avatar. I think this is mainly because the film is such a big old beast, but there may also be an element of – well, faint disdain, I suppose. I remember watching it and thinking ‘yeah, this is a decent enough fantasy blockbuster, but I don’t quite get what all the fuss is about’. I still don’t, to be honest, and thirteen years on, sequel or not, claims that it was the future of cinema look to have been rather optimistic – that was all to do with the 3D, an effect which I’ve never much cared for.

Nevertheless, there is that even more substantial sequel nearly upon us, with at least one more set to follow even if it flops. If the new episode does well, Cameron has promised – or threatened us with – at least four sequels he’ll direct personally, and then an unspecified number of future episodes to be handled by other people. As ever, you can’t accuse James Cameron of a lack of self-belief.

Then again, we were discussing the whole question of ‘the most successful film in history’ at work the other day. Currently the title is held by Avatar or Avengers: Endgame, depending on what you think of that slightly sneaky trick where Cameron’s film was re-released in China for a couple of weeks just to make another $200 million or so and reclaim the title. Before that it was Titanic (it’s that man again), before that Jurassic Park, before that E.T., before that Star Wars, and so on… you don’t have to go very far back before the title reverts to Gone with the Wind, but I digress.

The interesting thing is that nearly everyone you meet seems to have seen Titanic, whereas asking if anyone had seen either of the most recent films resulted in a lot of head-shaking and blank looks. This is probably to do with the list being based on box-office gross rather than actual ticket sales (which means that inflation is a factor – Gone with the Wind is still on top if you go by numbers of tickets sold), and maybe also has something to do with people going to see the same film multiple times (I will confess to watching Endgame twice myself).

No-one doubts the continuing popularity of the Marvel franchise, but it is curious that a few of these list-topping films almost seem to have melted into the ether somewhat. People of the right age are nostalgic for E.T., I suppose, and the same factor probably explains some of the success of the more recent Jurassic Park films, but the long wait for the Avatar sequel does mean the world of the film hasn’t expanded since it initially came out. Doing the sequel creates the kind of narrative space where fandom makes a home for itself; the fictional universe of Alien only really exploded in popularity with the release of the first sequel there, too (it’s that man again). It will be interesting to see if the same thing happens to Avatar – not least because Avatar and Aliens have a peculiar similarity to each other.

Both films start with a rather despondent, damaged protagonist, surveying a dead-end future on a grim, corporate Earth of the future. In Avatar‘s case this is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-marine, who Cameron openly presents as a warrior looking for a cause. Perhaps this comes along when he is recruited to replace his dead twin brother on a mission to Pandora, a moon in the Alpha Centauri system – his DNA is the most important factor in his recruitment, as the job will involve having his consciousness projected into the body of a specially-grown replicant of one of the intelligent natives of the planet (the avatar of the title).

Corporations are busy exploiting the vast mineral resources of Pandora, but meeting with increasing resistance from these natives, the Na’vi. Chief scientist on the project Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) is all for doing research and finding a way to live in peace – she is less than delighted to have someone she considers a trigger-happy jarhead joining her team – while security chief Quaritch (Stephen Lang) sees no prospect of co-existence and wants Sully to act as, essentially, a spy, learning about the natives, particularly their weaknesses. In return he will see to it that Sully gets the expensive spinal repair operation that will allow him to lead a more normal life back home.

This sounds good to Sully, until he comes to appreciate the natural beauty of Pandora and the value of the Na’vi culture (regular readers may suspect the dreaded words ‘the Important Things in Life’ are drawing close to this review), especially as he finds himself making a close personal connection to Na’vi princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). But which set of loyalties will prevail when the chips are down…?

There are lots of things that Avatar is not, and the most obvious one is subtle – the story is straight-forward, the characters are drawn in pretty broad strokes, and the message of the film may as well be flashed up onto the screen in large letters at regular intervals. A month or so before the film even came out over here I found myself writing a fairly mean-spirited parody of it, about what would really happen if a bunch of elves with bows and arrows tried taking on enemies armed with near-future technology. But, and I think this should not be disregarded, when I actually came to watch the movie I found myself actually getting quite invested in the story and letting my emotions be manipulated by Cameron in exactly the way he wanted. People may have been lured to see the movie by the promise of its 3D effects, but they ended up paying it attention because they cared about the story.

And watching it again now, it’s a rather more interesting film than seemed to be the case at the time. Naturally it’s a very proficiently-made film, with both the human and the Pandoran environments persuasively realised, at least on a superficial level (I still don’t buy this ‘brilliantly designed alien ecosystem’ idea – how exactly did everything end up evolving those USB cables in their hair and ears? How come the Na’vi are the only vertebrates on the planet who don’t have six limbs? And let’s not get started on the floating mountains), and no-one has ever accused Cameron of not being able to put together a first-rate action sequence. The film also manages to assimilate a wide range of visual and cultural cues (everything from Vietnam movies to Mesoamerican culture) into a largely coherent whole. But beneath all of this is a very competent demonstration of how to use science fiction as a way of realising a metaphor.

It’s there in one of the core ideas of the film, that of the avatars themselves – the notion of ‘going native’ becoming literally the case. It’s also there in the concept of the entire planet functioning as a single entity (which Sully manages to rouse and get on his side when it really matters during the climactic battle). Serious scientists have proposed what is usually called the Gaia hypothesis, the idea that the entire biosphere of Earth can be viewed as a single organism; Cameron finds a way to incorporate this into the plot in a dramatically interesting and accessible way.

The one element of Avatar that struck me as – well, slightly amusing, to be honest, back in 2009 was the climax, in which a human in a powered exoskeleton must fight hand-to-hand against an enraged female alien whose family has come under sustained attack. It’s basically the climax of Aliens, but flipped, of course; I thought it had something to say about how Cameron’s career had progressed, and maybe the genre as well.

Watching the film again I noticed the sheer number of resonances and connections between Aliens and Avatar. There’s Sigourney Weaver’s presence, obviously; Michael Biehn was at one point considered to play Quaritch (a part which eventually went to Stephen Lang, whom Cameron remembered from an unsuccessful audition for… well, guess). Giovanni Ribisi’s slimy corporate executive is clearly a close cousin to Paul Reiser’s character. It’s marines against aliens in both films.

But it goes deeper. Aliens is about an encounter with a hideous alien ecology, one which seeks to consume and exploit human biological tissue. The situation is simple: exterminate or be exterminated. The planet in Aliens is a grim and inhospitable wasteland, of course, totally unlike Pandora – a lush and verdant world teeming with life. The ecology in Avatar is a much more welcoming and benevolent system, capable of accommodating and aiding its human visitors. Here the implacable exploiters and consumers are the human beings themselves. The two films mirror and complement each other in a weirdly comprehensive way, but it’s noticeable that while the aliens and their worlds are totally different, there’s very little to choose from between Quaritch and his men and Hicks and the marine squad.

It’s an interesting effect, and I’ve no idea how conscious of it James Cameron was when making the film – whatever the merits or flaws of the sequel, it’s hard to imagine it containing a similar element. I still don’t think Avatar is perfect, but you can hardly hold it responsible for all those terrible 3D-ified movies that followed it. The question of whether or not it really deserves to be the most successful film of time is ultimately a fatuous one; what matters is that it is a vivid and persuasive adventure, not a story told with the subtlest of brush-strokes, but well-told all the same.

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Rudyard Kipling once said that four-fifths of everyone’s work must be bad, with the corollary that the remaining fifth made it all worthwhile. By the time of George Orwell, things appeared to have shifted to the point where he (wearing his book reviewer’s hat) was obliged to conclude that in over ninety percent of cases the only objective conclusion would be that a given book was worthless. Despite all that, this truism is most often ascribed to the American science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon (these days probably best remembered for his Star Trek scripts), who formulated it as ‘ninety percent of everything is crap’.

That seems like a reasonable and perhaps generous assessment, if you ask me, perhaps a little over-charitable when it comes to things like Christmas-themed movies. The sheer quantity of these never fails to astound me: one channel in the UK starts showing them on a daily basis round about the beginning of November, and these days all of the streamers start weighing in with their contributions too – usually inescapably glutinous tales of hard-nosed metropolitan types rediscovering the Important Things in Life, usually in conjunction with a romantic interlude with someone in chunky knitwear. There are some good Christmas movies, of course: the local arthouse is showing Die Hard again, and you’d have to have a heart of stone not to at least give a sympathetic hearing to The Muppet Christmas Carol. (I know it came out in May, but maybe Iron Man Three also qualifies.) But on the whole it seems to be one of those genres which actively discourages innovation.

Well, we must be grateful, I think, for people like the makers of Violent Night, which tries to do something a bit different with the Christmas movie. Directed by Tommy Wirkola, the movie opens with a rather boozy man in a Santa Claus outfit (David Harbour at his most agreeably ursine), sitting in an English pub and bemoaning the materialism and commercialism of the Christmas festival these days. The twist comes when it is revealed that this is not just any shopping centre Santa but the genuine, thousand-year-old article, enjoying a pre-work drink or six. The ensuing warm glow of realisation that there may yet be magic in the world is somewhat compromised when Santa projectile-vomits from his sleigh onto the head of an unsuspecting passer-by.

Meanwhile, over in the Land of Good Old Uncle US of Stateside, little Trudie Lightstone (Leah Brady) is preparing for Christmas with her family, a cartoonishly horrible clan of disgustingly wealthy monsters: her parents are somewhat estranged and what she really wants is for them to get back together. The family are too busy buttering up hag-like matriarch Gertrude (Beverly D’Angelo) and jockeying for control of the fortune, however. You might reasonably think they are in line to get what they disturb when their incompetent catering company turns out to be a group of heavily armed thieves looking to break into the family vault for the $300 million of dirty money being held there: the leader of the group, code-named Scrooge (John Leguizamo), is not one of those people inclined to be sentimental during the holidays.

But there is little Trudie to think about, who obviously doesn’t deserve to be shot by a professional criminal. And, of course, there is also Santa, who has dropped in on the Lightstone compound to deliver a gift, eat some cookies, and – most importantly – make liberal inroads into their drinks cabinet. On being apprehended by one of the bad guys, Santa’s first instinct is to zip up the chimney and flee the area, but the goon is unwilling to let this happen, something he briefly lives to regret: never mind delivering presents, Santa discovers a facility for delivering a telling head-butt.

Yes, it turns out that Santa has a bit of a past, and soon his old skills are coming back to him. For Trudie is on his nice list, unlike all the thieves, and perhaps by saving her and the family, Christmas itself can be saved. One thing is certain: the words ‘Santa Claus is coming to town’ have never before been delivered with such an air of baleful menace.

Yes, it’s basically Die Hard, but with Santa as the main character. Either this will seem to you to be an inspired idea, that we should be ashamed that no-one came up with decades ago, or you will be inclined to dismiss it as one of the stupidest, most obnoxious, and possibly even sacrilegious notions ever consigned to the screen (that said, I must reveal that my research has shown up the existence of the 2020 film Fatman, in which Mel Gibson plays a Santa who must contend with a hitman sent after him by someone off his naughty list). Coming across the trailer unexpectedly generally draws cries to the effect of ‘Is this a real movie?!?’ Yes, it is: the question is whether it’s one of those ideas that sounds good on paper but doesn’t actually work as a full-length film.

Well… I think it does, but it’s certainly not one for everybody: the traditional Christmassy elements of goodwill and redemption are there, sort of, but mixed in with them is a graphically-violent action movie and a bracingly horrible black comedy, too – the movie circles between them somewhat erratically. The idea of Santa beating people up and slaughtering bad guys by the dozen runs out of steam a little, for all the film’s inventiveness when it comes to deploying the trappings of the season as implements of destruction – tinsel used as a garrotte, pointy Christmas decorations being rammed where they really don’t belong, and so on – and it wanders off and starts riffing on Home Alone, too. (The moment, seemingly promised by the trailer, where someone opens up on Santa’s sleigh with an anti-aircraft gun, is not here, but will no doubt turn up if there’s a sequel.)

I laughed a lot all the way through, not that I’m necessarily proud of that: the action choreography is nicely done, the jokes generally land, and the actors mostly pitch their performances just right. If the film has a more serious subtext – and I’m inclined to suspect this may not be intentional – it’s a reminder that, beneath the Dickensian, Coca Colarised version of Christmas and Santa which gets rammed down our throats every twelve months or so, there’s a much older, earthier, and more primal celebration, and it’s this more savage and brutal version of Santa that the main character finds himself reverting to. (The real-life gentleman whose remains are entombed in the Italian city of Bari, and who was the real Saint Nick, doesn’t get much of a look-in.)

The film even attempts the challenging trick of working on multiple levels simultaneously – the concluding battle to the death between Santa and Scrooge is so blatantly symbolic it’s obviously intended as spoof, and yet it still has a functioning sort of allegorical power. Several other moments manage the same thing: there is, as Spinal Tap famously observed, a fine line between stupid and clever, and Violent Night manages to straddle it reasonably comfortably.

Maybe Violent Night does work better as a trailer than a two-hour movie, but then it is a particularly winning trailer. Anyway, I thought the movie was a lot of fun, in its bracingly horrible way. Bonus points for having a very accurate title; further bonus points for having Slade’s Merry Christmas Everyone on the soundtrack (song and film share a sort of lairy exuberance that makes them a very good fit for each other). It’s a little difficult to imagine it gaining admission to the canon of authentic Christmas classics, but – and, given Harbour’s involvement, no pun intended – stranger things have happened.

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Today’s topic for discussion: historical accuracy – worth bothering with or not? Cripes, that’s a big question for a fairly trivial blog mostly concerning itself with fairly trivial movies. It probably depends on the history involved – is it recent or not, and is the movie involved actually about the history or just using it as a convenient backdrop? I seem to recall being quite trenchant about films like Bombshell, which proposed to make a serious comment about real-world events while cheerily mixing historical figures with entirely made-up characters. She Said, which caused me to emit such a wail of nihilistic angst recently, largely gets away with it, but then again its real people are playing themselves in some cases.

At the other end of the scale is a film like Don Chaffey’s Creatures the World Forgot, which is… how can I put it…? …inherently and irredeemably trivial. It does occur to me that talking about historical accuracy in connection with a film like this is to start heading up a gum tree, for it’s not as if this is a historical movie; it’s a prehistorical one, the last (and, many would have you believe) least of the Hammer cycle of prehistoric pictures. The previous entries were One Million Years BC (which is the one with Raquel Welch), Prehistoric Women (with Martine Beswick), and When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (with Victoria Vetri). This, in case you were wondering, is the one with Julie Ege; the fact these films are most easily differentiated in terms of their female lead may be significant.

What’s the plot like, you may be wondering. Well, it’s a Hammer caveman movie, what do you think the plot is like? The cave folk in this one even seem to be a more degenerate bunch, compared to the ones in the other movies – not only have they not invented language yet, they don’t seem to have even invented names – while some places will tell you the characters in this film have got names like Rool and Noo and Mak, the credits at the end of the film just go with descriptions like ‘The Fair One’ and ‘The Mute Girl’ and so on.

Basically, the cave people – this is actually a bit of a misnomer as they don’t spend much time in caves – wander about in the desert grunting at each other a lot, dying in hunting-related incidents, and so on. At one point there is a fairly substantial volcanic eruption, although to my eye this looks suspiciously like re-used footage from one or other of the previous films (different film stock and more voluminous furs on display). They wander about a bit more, going across a desert, where there is a fight to the death over an egg-shell full of water. An encounter with another tribe results in a sort of prehistoric wedding, the most memorable feature of which – the most memorable feature of the film, perhaps – is a bit where some young women get flogged across the breasts (kinky stuff, this). Twin sons turn up, one with very dark hair who is a rum character, and one with absurd peroxide blonde hair who is obviously a bit more heroic. There is strife between the brothers, mainly concerning who gets access rights to Julie Ege’s character (we are geological ages before #MeToo at this point, so nobody thinks of asking Ege what her thoughts on the topic are – though given what we see in the rest of the movie, her answer would probably be ‘Grungh’.) There is a spot of fraternal death-struggling and a hint of ancient magic, and then the film stops (probably occasioning a sigh of relief from all but the least-demanding of viewers).

Your kind of amateur-level reviewer of this sort of tosh would have you believe that this is the Hammer caveman movie distinguished by the fact that they made it on the cheap and didn’t bother to put any animated dinosaurs or other prehistoric creatures in it. Well, there aren’t any dinosaurs in Prehistoric Women, either, if we’re going to be precise about this, but then the whole point of that film is that it’s a bargain-basement cash-in. Certainly it looks like a reasonable amount of cash has been spent at various points in the making of Creatures the World Forgot, so perhaps the absence of dinosaurs (etc) is a bit more noticeable. The nickname the film has acquired – Creatures the Producers Forgot to Have Animated – is a fun and appropriate one.

As a result the film feels a bit like that apocryphal Korean edit of The Sound of Music in which, to keep the thing to a more manageable length, they dispensed with all the songs, or possibly a pornographic film reedited for a PG rating and entire bereft of naughtiness as a result. The bits without dinosaurs in a Hammer caveman movie are mainly there to fill time and extend the film out to a respectable length (if anything about this genre is particularly respectable). There’s a case to be made that a Hammer prehistoric movie without any prehistoric monsters is, quite literally and precisely, pointless.

In the absence of the monsters, the film is obliged to rely much more heavily on the other big attraction of this kind of film, which is women in scanty chamois-leather outfits. By 1971 moral standards in society had collapsed to the point where unashamed T&A had become much more a part of the Hammer repertoire, and there are indeed a great many prehistoric knockers on display throughout the film, flogged and unflogged. But it almost seems like Chaffey is trying not to be too salacious, as he doesn’t really dwell on this fact – Val Guest somehow managed to ensure that Victoria Vetri’s nude scenes in When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth packed a significant erotic wallop (or so it seemed to my febrile teenaged self), but here? Not so much. It’s a bit like one of those documentaries about nudism or semi-nudism – a lot less fun and exciting than it sounds.

On the other hand, the scenery and cinematography on the film is really quite good – locations were filmed in Namibia and South Africa, and are the best thing in the movie. The whole thing only really functions on a visual level anyway, and so this is more of a bonus than it might be in a conventional movie. But even so, the story is dull, lurching from one mildly exploitative moment to another, never managing to transcend its own absurdity, or the painful absence of dinosaurs, ahistorical or otherwise. I doubt anyone could make a genuinely good caveman movie – the closest you could probably find is the opening movement of 2001, and that’s a very different beast – and while this one has a sort of vague visual appeal, in every other respect it is completely forgettable, and probably not worth watching in the first place.

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Quail with me now as a long-forgotten presence threatens to stir back into life, controversial, morally ambiguous, ominous, at a time when most had assumed it was gone forever. I refer not to Jaume Collet-Serra’s Black Adam, although if you squint all the above applies to that as well, but the whole DC Extended Universe project (of which it is the latest manifestation). Any sane person could be forgiven for experiencing profound confusion over the status of this particular project, which got off to a reasonable start, stumbled badly very early on, and eventually seemed to run out of steam before splintering into a whole range of apparently unconnected films and sub-franchises operating independently (for example, it looks rather like DC currently have got three different actors under contract to play the Joker in different films).

One of the Marvel mega-franchise’s great strengths is its consistency and the fact it all pretty much hangs together, creatively and story-wise. The strange thing about DC’s project is that the more unravelled it’s become, with weird side-projects sprouting off at weird angles, the higher the quality of the individual films has tended to be. There is not, you would have thought, any pressing reason for them to keep trying to lash things back together.

And yet here comes Black Adam, which no less a luminary than genial Dwayne Johnson himself has said marks the beginning of ‘a new Phase One’ for the DC franchise. (Normally if anyone started trading in tautologies like ‘a new Phase One’ I’d pick them up on it fairly stringently, but genial Dwayne is much bigger than me.) The reason for Johnson’s interest is fairly obvious given he both produces and stars in the new movie.

It mostly takes place in the Middle-Eastern nation of Kahndaq, which is realised in vague, somewhat cliched terms they can only get away with because it’s fictional (the Superhero Movie Atlas is bulging with places like this, which may give us an insight into the degree of engagement with world affairs and politics of either the superhero movie audience or the typical superhero movie producer). As the movie opens the place is under the control of a cartel of faceless baddies, some of whom are searching for a Plot Device of Ultimate Power which will allow them to summon up the inhabitants of hell itself. Seeking to stop them are plucky archaeologist Adriana (Sarah Shahi) and her teenage son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui), but there are a lot of well-resourced bad guys on their trail. Luckily, it transpires that the ancient ruin containing the Plot Device is also the resting place of the ancient champion of Kahndaq, a five-thousand-year-old superhuman with some rather unreconstructed ideas about justice and punishment.

This, of course, is genial Dwayne’s gig, and soon enough he is laying waste to legions of bad guys (though his own moral alignment is also open to question) while struggling to get used to modern inventions like doors, mirrors, sarcasm and catchphrases. Such rampant use of the special effects budget attracts the attention of outsiders, however, and a superhero team known as the Justice Society of America is packed off to wrangle Dwayne and keep him under control. Leading the charge is Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), backed up by Dr Fate (Pierce Brosnan), Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), and Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo). Will Black Adam prove to be a force for good or evil in the ensuing conflict, and what part will the Plot Device of Ultimate Evil play?

Another thing about the Marvel project is that it is, to a significant degree, not star driven – people become famous from doing Marvel films, they’re not in these films because they were particularly well-known beforehand. Black Adam is an unusual example of a modern superhero movie which really is a star vehicle, to the point where it’s hard to imagine it being made without Dwayne Johnson’s involvement. Genial Dwayne, in his role as salesman for the movie, may talk about this being the fulfilment of an ambition, and of reading Black Adam comics as a child, but until only about twenty years ago this was an extremely obscure character, a long-term but rarely-seen villain in the rogues’ gallery of the original version of Captain Marvel (the character showcased in Shazam! a few years ago). In a sense this does give the film a bit of breathing space to operate in, not available to a new incarnation of Batman or Superman, even if the references to the Shazam! mythology are still prominent.

On the other hand, the film also does that thing common to a lot of DC projects where new characters and elements of worldbuilding are shovelled in with what feels like desperate speed. In some ways it makes sense to feature the JSA in a Black Adam movie, as the character was rehabilitated in the JSA’s comic, but it also means including a bunch of second- and third-string superheroes who have to be introduced and somehow fleshed out. To be fair, the film does a decent job of this, albeit mainly by leaning heavily on familiar tropes from this kind of movie and going for broad-brush characterisation.

Possibly as a result of this, Black Adam manages to square the circle of being both very familiar as a superhero movie but also as a Dwayne Johnson vehicle – as my old friend and mentor Sagacious Dave put it on the way out of seeing Hobbs and Shaw, his films tend to be very congruent. You’re not going to get many surprises or much in the way of experimental film-making from a Dwayne Johnson project, but on the other hand you’re likely going to get a slickly-packaged and at least passably entertaining piece of product to consume. Black Adam ticks all the boxes required of it in exactly this way.

It even manages to raise some questions that come startlingly close to deconstructing elements of the whole superhero genre, particularly as it relates to international affairs and world problems – who exactly has put these people in their position of authority? Why, for example, don’t we ever see the equivalent of the Avengers or Superman swooping in to topple Putin or other totalitarian leaders? One is reminded of the comments of Alan Moore, amongst others, of the intrinsically fascist subtext to virtually every superhero story ever created. The film doesn’t actually find any answers, but the simple fact it seems aware of the question makes it stand out from the crowd.

Genial Dwayne’s performance is also – dare one say it – quite impressive. I’m not suggesting this is the sudden revelation of a performer whose next movie could conceivably be a piece by Ibsen or Beckett, but neither is it exactly another retread of Dwayne’s usual gently comedy-inflected schtick. Elements of humour do eventually creep in, but Johnson plays Adam completely straight and borderline-unsympathetic for an impressively long time. He certainly carries the movie with aplomb, the only other person really showing up on the acting radar being Pierce Brosnan, who appears to be having some fun with his role (either that or he’s just not bothering any more). It’s not a great movie – the pacing in particular seems a bit suspect – but it does what you expect, and it’s always very watchable. The various sequels which are set up by the end of this film seem, for once, like genuinely interesting propositions rather than just exercises in brand extension. Johnson may be in this costume for a while, if Black Adam does prove to be the saviour of the DC movie series.

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When it comes to film CVs, there’s homogenous, and then there’s eclectic, and then there’s George Miller. To be fair, Miller isn’t the only one to have skipped his way through multiple genres in the course of a long career – you could argue that (amongst others) Neil Jordan, Steven Soderbergh and even Steven Spielberg have all covered a lot of ground, as well – but the relatively small number of films he’s made in over forty years, and the acclaim many of them have received, does make it particularly noticeable in his case. He practically invented a new subgenre in Mad Max 2, moved gracefully on to glossy fantasy with Witches of Eastwick, wrote and produced the pitch-perfect pig fantasy Babe, and then – after a brief interlude involving dancing penguins – blasted back with the most recent Mad Max film at the age of 70. A further spin-off to the road warrior series is apparently in the works, but Miller has warmed up for this with another entirely different kind of film.

This one is entitled Three Thousand Years of Longing, and a somewhat curious beast it is too. The protagonist-narrator (Tilda Swinton) presents it as a kind of fable or fairy tale, which is entirely appropriate as the film is largely about why people tell stories and the power inherent in them. Swinton plays Alithea Binnie (her name means ‘truth’, which is probably not a coincidence), a present-day academic – she calls herself a narratologist, but this sounds to me like the kind of discipline scriptwriters invent when they’re worried audiences won’t understand what an anthropologist or ethnographer actually does. Basically, she studies folk tales and other literature. As the film opens she is on her way to Istanbul to address a conference.

All goes well, apart from Alithea having some rather bizarre hallucinations of outlandish and otherworldly individuals haunting her steps – she is clearly well-liked and respected, despite being someone who has always been solitary and slightly detached from everyone around her. A colleague insists on buying her a gift from the Grand Bazaar before she departs, and she settles on a slightly curious glass bottle, somewhat discoloured by fire at some point in its history.

As you would, she decides to give the bottle a bit of a scrub with her electric toothbrush, and – you are probably ahead of me at this point – the top flies off and billowing mystical vapour fills the room. Yes, it’s one of those bottles with a genuine genie inside it, although as we are in 2022 and respect other cultures now, the movie tends to stick to the word djinn instead. The djinn (Idris Elba) offers Alithea the usual three wishes to fulfil her heart’s desire, subject to certain reasonable rules (no wishing for infinite wishes, no raising the dead, no abolition of suffering, etc), at the end of which he will be able to vanish off to the realm of the djinni. However, there are a couple of problems to be overcome first – as a scholar in her particular field, Alithea knows full well that the entire corpus of wish-granting literature easily fits into the genre labelled ‘Cautionary Tales’, which is hardly an incentive to start wishing for anything. There’s also the problem that she’s very satisfied with her current mode of existence, and isn’t at all sure what her heart’s desire actually is…

This is not one of those films which you get a sense of an iron narrative structure about while watching, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable or engaging. Once the djinn is out of his bottle, the two of them settle down in her hotel room to discuss their situation, which develops into the djinn recounting the peculiar tale of his long existence and the various interludes which have punctuated his time in the bottle. A series of quite lavish Orientalist fantasies unfold, incorporating characters such as Solomon, the Queen of Sheba, Suleiman the Magnificent, and so on. There is doomed love and palace intrigue and a striking number of really extremely voluptuous women who are notably under-dressed. It put me very much in mind of certain elements of Terry Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen movie, and also some parts of his Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus too, although Miller doesn’t have quite the same unique visual style. Eventually the film goes into a different gear, telling the story of what happens when Alithea takes the djinn back home to London with her.

This film is really a buffet of things to enjoy; it looks fabulous, and the two leads are both on top form – then again, Tilda Swinton is seldom less than magisterially watchable. Perhaps it is working opposite her which inspires Idris Elba to give one of the best performances I can recall him ever producing – blessed as he is with a very distinctive presence, so often Elba seems to be actively trying to be generic. The most memorable thing about Idris Elba’s film career, in some ways, is just how forgettable he often is. For whatever reason, that doesn’t happen here, and Elba’s work has both depth and subtlety. If he really wants to leave an impression as an actor, he should spend more time doing films like this and less time being chased by lions.

What it’s actually about is a little more obscure. George Miller is of the post-Lucas school of thought in the sense that he is very much influenced by the writings of Joseph Campbell, particularly with respect to the latter’s theory of the monomyth – the idea that there is one fundamental ur-story from which all the others are derived. You can sense the director’s very real fascination with the power of storytelling and roots of mythology throughout the film; you get the impression there’s a first-rate documentary waiting to be made here. But as an actual piece of fiction dealing with this topic, it’s not really clear what point he’s trying to make – or even if there is one.

Instead, the film concludes with a reasonably affecting (if slightly rose-tinted) tale of romance and loss. If it’s ultimately a bit unexpected, that’s because it always seems difficult to predict what’s going to happen next in this film. It’s a very likeable, deeply humane film, made with obvious intelligence, wit and sensitivity – but’s notably short on any real sense of conventional narrative structure. The incidental pleasures on offer will more than likely be sufficient reward for many viewers, however.

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Given the popularity of so-called Scandi noir, with all the darkness and moral ambiguity implicit in the notion, it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that the past year has seen something of a bumper crop of horror movies from the Nordic countries – the weird livestock-based psycho-drama Lamb, the profoundly disturbing ‘what I did on my summer holidays’ movie The Innocents, and now Hanna Bergholm’s Hatching. In some ways this is more of a conventional horror film than either of those, but there’s always something to be said for the classic style.

Hatching is centred on the members of an affluent family living somewhere in Finland (though there is nothing intrinsically Finnish about the story). The father is amiable but clueless, while Mother (Sophia Heikkila) rules the roost, demanding nothing but domestic perfection from everyone else, mainly because this is best for the video-blog which seems to be her main concern in life – we see a few glimpses of this cringe-making project, which is entitled Lovely Everyday Life. In the case of her daughter Tinja (Siiri Solalinna) this extends to constant and gruelling gymnastics training, to which she submits without complaint.

One day the domestic idyll is disrupted when a bird flies into the house – the distressed creature swoops around, flapping and cawing, breaking plates and generally wreaking havoc amongst Mother’s carefully-managed decor. Tinja manages to catch the frightened bird – only for Mother to snap its neck, seemingly out of simple spite. Mother has a thinly-disguised ruthless and manipulative streak, as quickly becomes apparent – when Tinja walks in on her cavorting with the handyman (Reino Nordin), she quickly manages to make her daughter complicit in her infidelity.

It’s a lot for a young girl to deal with, and Tinja has more to contend with than this, anyway – racked with guilt over the death of the bird, she has brought what initially seems to be one of its eggs into the house and is secretly trying to incubate it. This at least seems to go well, for the egg grows to an enormous size – before cracking open and disgorging…

Well, thereby hangs the tale, of course. The hatchling is a remarkable creation, a fusion of CGI and the puppeteer’s art – a rather disquieting bird-thing and yet not entirely without the capacity to evoke sympathy. Perhaps even more disturbingly, there is clearly a profound bond between Tinja and the creature, which she names Alla. For her part, Alla seems very prone to becoming outraged on Tinja’s behalf, even violently and excessively so – a local dog which nips at her meets a grisly fate. Needless to say things do not bode well for her annoying little brother or her rival on the gymnastics team…

This is a slick and impressive production which has clearly been thought-through by the writers. It’s kind of curious that several of the things I’ve been saying about horror movies recently certainly apply to Hatching – firstly that it is, to some extent, clearly inspired by E.T. the Extra-terrestrial – a troubled pre-teen develops an extremely close connection with an unearthly creature they keep hidden in the family home – but done as a horror movie. (My understanding is that the original conception was for the protagonist to be male, which would have made the derivation even clearer.)

The origins of the film are just a starting point, of course, for this eventually goes off in a quite different direction. Whatever the alien is meant to represent in E.T., Alla is clearly a symbol of something else. When I was writing about Men, one of my complaints about the film was that while the central metaphor was entirely clear, the film didn’t make sense in any terms other than those of the metaphor – while the thesis was clear, the narrative delivering it was a nonsense. Hatching doesn’t fall into the same trap, but it pushes the limits of the narrative right to the limit, by which I mean that the horror story is just good enough to serve the director’s purpose. The decision to frame and present the story almost as a fable or fairy tale helps smooth some of the more awkward edges, too.

What Hanna Bergholm is up to here is another film about the pressures placed on young people, particularly girls, in modern society: forced to adhere to a certain set of standards and requirements, they have no socially-sanctioned outlet for their negative emotions – which nevertheless build up and lead to a destructive outburst. Here, the eruption takes the form of an alarming bird-monster, but I am sure that many parents of teenagers can empathise, plumage or no plumage.

The film is well-made, and extremely well-acted, with an astonishingly self-assured performance from Siiri Solalinna (who apparently has never acted before). The eruption of gore and grue into the carefully-curated family home is striking, and there are a few effective jump-scares sprinkled into the story (even the most atmospheric horror movie is sometimes enlivened by the odd jump-scare). However, once it becomes clear what’s going on – and, to be fair, the film is so well-paced that this takes a while to become apparent – the film inevitably seems a bit less interesting than it did to begin with, like a song where you can guess many of the rhymes in advance.

To be clear, there’s a definite pleasure to be gained from finding yourself so in-synch with a film, or when a film is so congruent with the conventions of whatever genre it is operating in. Hatching is a satisfying and effective film, certainly a success by any rational metric – both as a horror story and a film with something to say about the dehumanising and pressurising elements of modern life. But the distinctiveness of the early part of the film, when it is at its most fairy-tale-ish, led me to anticipate something as original and striking throughout. Nevertheless, this is a very good movie, and one which will hopefully mark the debut of a number of talents who will go on to do interesting work for years to come.

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It’s a crowded market when it comes to the low-to-mid-budget horror movie – the very nature of the form means that it can be hard to cut through and get attention. What you really need, in the likely absence of star names, is either to be part of an established franchise, or a really good gimmick. But there’s only so many films they can crowbar into the Conjuring or Paranormal Activity settings, which may be why we are increasingly seeing the rise of the peculiar (to my mind, anyway) ‘…but done as a horror movie’ subgenre.

I suppose if you wanted to be pernickety you could argue this dates back all the way to the 1940s with I Walked With A Zombie, which is Jane Eyre, but done as a horror movie. It’s all become a bit more impudent and grisly in recent years, however: one film that stood out for me was Brightburn, which is basically the origin of Superman, but done as a horror movie. There was also the horror take on (of all things) the Banana Splits, also in 2019. Currently getting more buzz than you would have thought possible for what sounds like a deeply questionable work is the forthcoming Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey, in which the loveable old bear is reimagined as a homicidal maniac and basically sounds like a fantastic argument for revisiting the law when it comes to copyright and public domain. (I doubt it will prove quite as traumatising as the Peter Rabbit movie, of course, and that wasn’t even meant to be a horror film.)

I didn’t have quite as extreme a reaction when my fellow Cthulhuites and I went along to see Underwater, not that long before the first lockdown, and were treated to the trailer for the film version of Fantasy Island, directed by Jeff Wadlow. My first reaction was ‘doing Fantasy Island as a horror movie? That’s a really, really weird idea.’ I am old enough to remember the original Fantasy Island TV show from the late 70s and early 80s – I barely remember any of the actual plots, but I do recall the iconography of the thing – Ricardo Montalban swanking around in a white suit crying ‘Smiles, everyone, smiles!’, and Herve Villechaise as his sidekick shouting ‘De plane! De plane!’

For the uninitiated: it was basically an anthology show which came out of an unsuccessful pitch meeting at the network ABC. Apparently the exhausted producers had half a dozen ideas rejected by executives, leading one of them to jokingly suggest they do a show about an island where people could live out their sexual fantasies, which of course the network really liked. (Nowadays it would probably be a reality show.) The premise was essentially just that: an island where visitors could live out their fantasies, through unexplained but possibly otherworldly means. (Various episodes suggested that Roarke might be God; Montalban’s own theory was that he was a disgraced angel.) I think it’s fair to say it was about as gritty and challenging as The Love Boat, although apparently the version from the 1990s with Malcolm McDowell was a bit sparkier. (I understand that, post the movie, yet another incarnation of the show is now running, though whether the success of the movie had any part in making that happen I have no idea.)

So, anyway, this is a horror version of that show. Roarke is played by Michael Pena and the premise seems to be the same – visitors arrive on Fantasy Island to leave out their dreams. As we have already seen a young woman being kidnapped by masked men, however, it’s clear that this place has a darker side to it. Initially it seems very much like a conventional update of the TV show – a hard-working businesswoman (Maggie Q) wants the chance to revisit a bad relationship decision, a cop wants the opportunity to be a soldier for a while, two brothers just want to live like millionaires for the weekend. But the final guest (Lucy Hale) has a different kind of fantasy – horribly bullied and persecuted at school, she wants revenge on the person responsible. Her fantasy consists of her going into an underground vault where the bully (who we saw at the start) is tied to a chair. Various options for punishment are available to her. Is this really what she wanted?

Gradually it turns out that most of the other fantasies are not going fantastically well, either, and it seems like a succession of cautionary tales with the subtext ‘be careful what you wish for’ are in progress. Some of the guests also get momentary glimpses of a horribly burned figure closing in on them, and it becomes clear that there is something else going on here…

At this point I sat up and started paying more attention to a movie which was proving to be a bit less dumb than I had expected it to be. It turns out that all the guests, rather than simply winning a free trip to the island, have been deliberately selected to go there. To say more would be to enter the territory of spoilers, I fear, but there is perhaps a sense in which the shade of J. B. Priestley briefly lingers over Fantasy Island (before no doubt leaving very rapidly).

It’s certainly an interesting take on the material – very up-front about the powers of the island and Roarke’s position as its overseer, both of which get a lot more exposition than ever happened on TV. ‘Interesting’ can only take you so far, of course, and the main problem with Fantasy Island is one you might have predicted: tonally it’s a bit all over the place, switching from frat-boy comedy to mainstream drama to dark fantasy to something not unlike torture-porn horror almost at random. It’s very curious to watch, and actually quite intriguing as the story begins to develop, but it’s never that funny, or emotionally involving, or honestly even scary. It’s also the case that, for the film’s twist to work, at least one of the characters has to spend the first half of the film acting in a way that doesn’t actually make sense given what we later learn about them. Probably this is a major flaw in the script, but the film is so hectic it’s not the sort of thing you find yourself minded to dwell upon much.

Occasionally you see a trailer for a movie and your gut reaction turns out to be exactly on the money: Fantasy Island is really, really weird. It’s almost certainly not an unqualified good kind of weird, though on the other hand I don’t think the film is so awful it deserves some of the opprobium heaped upon it (multiple nominations at that year’s Golden Raspberries) – I can only imagine that people thought ‘Fantasy Island as a horror movie? Terrible idea = terrible movie.’ It’s certainly a strange idea, and film itself is odd and not really very satisfactory. But it has a certain originality and ambition to it.

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In the past we have occasionally touched on the odd phenomenon of what happens to movie titles when they crash through a language barrier of one kind or other. It seems to me to be greatly preferable to leave things be and not make any changes at all, if the alternative is films ending up with titles like The Indestructible Iron Man Fights The Electronic Gang (one of the Asian titles of A View to a Kill) or Archie and Harry are Too Old to Do It Anymore (an alternative name for the 1986 comedy Tough Guys).

I suppose you can sort of understand why Wim Wenders’ 1987 film Der Himmel uber Berlin got retitled for its English-language release: The Heaven Over Berlin strikes me these days as a rather evocative and thoughtful title for a movie, but back in the 1980s if you mentioned Berlin to anyone it probably had a rather different set of associations. Getting an audience to go and see what’s undeniably a German art-house film probably demanded a different approach, and so the film received the title it got back then and has just recently been re-released under: Wings of Desire.

The setting is, as mentioned, Berlin, a grey and divided city nearing the back end of the 1980s – or perhaps that should be two Berlins? Not just the East and West Berlin of temporal geography, but two versions of the city on different metaphysical planes, one home to all the usual humanity you might expect (and filmed in glorious colour), the other a monochrome world which hosts (and I use the word with precision) angels, tasked with overseeing, or witnessing, the lives of men, women, and children – something which is made considerably easier by their supernatural powers of telepathy, or possibly clairvoyance.

The main angels in the story are Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander), and much of the film is relatively plot-free, the camera simply accompanying one or other of the duo as they carry out their appointed taask. Tableaux of city life unfold on the screen, the interior monologues of whoever’s on screen murmuring away as the angels pass unseen amongst them. It’s quite hypnotic and occasionally very moving; something about the conceit generates an enormous sense of humanity and compassion. Intermingled with this are a number of continuing threads – a trapeze artist named Marion (Solveig Dommartin) has to come to terms with the news that her circus is closing, while visiting American movie star Peter Falk (played, not entirely surprisingly, by Peter Falk) ruminates on various philosophical concerns of his own. If the presence of Falk playing himself (in one sequence he is followed by a crowd of fans chanting ‘Co-lum-bo!’) isn’t off-kilter enough, a later scene includes a live performance from a very young Nick Cave and his band (Cave was apparently based in West Berlin at the time and a fixture on the city’s cultural scene).

Much of the film is unrepentantly arty and it all seems very unlikely as the source material for an American remake with Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan. And yet such a film exists (1998’s City of Angels). Needless to say, the remake is mostly drawn from the final movement of Wenders’ film, which adopts a rather more conventional narrative mode: Damiel grows weary of his role as an eternal onlooker, and seeks the full breadth of human experience, including a relationship with Marion. It does feel like the beginning of some sort of slightly offbeat romance or romantic comedy, but it is here as a conclusion to the film, and as such it works rather effectively.

Prior to this the film is… well, I told the woman of my life (who is of German extraction) that they were showing this classic piece of West German cinema locally and asked if she wanted to go and see it, and she sort of grimaced at me, having already tried to watch it once before. If gripping narratives are your thing, watching Wings of Desire is unlikely to be a particularly happy experience – most of the film is ruminative, stately, and not particularly concerned with providing a singular storyline for most of its duration. Some of the dialogue between the angels, in particular, comes across as especially stagey; the dialogue (often more accurately a series of monologues) in the scenes depicting the lives of the mortal characters is much more naturalistic.

That said, naturalism isn’t really the name of the game here, as you might expect – the film’s debt to a whole range of classic cinematic fantasies is clear from the start (the list starts with A Matter of Life and Death and proceeds from there). Any threat of things becoming too portentous – which is a danger – is countered by the film’s unexpected (and presumably entirely made-up) revelations about the biography of Peter Falk (the actor was apparently cast at the suggestion of Claire Denis, who I know is a respected director these days but still seems to specialise in really dingbat ideas). Even Falk thought the film was a bit crazy but he certainly seems to be enjoying himself in it.

There is certainly something pleasingly upbeat and life-affirming about Wings of Desire, as is often the case with stories about exotic outsiders who become enamoured with what initially seem to be just very ordinary lives. It’s not at all what you’d expect from a film set in a divided Berlin, which is not to say that the shadow of the wall does not loom over the project. Much of the film concerns the angels bearing witness to the individual experiences of the people they encounter – there’s an Eleanor Rigby-ish sense to some of it – and the divisions and separations between them are surely reflected in the larger division of the city itself.

I suppose, in the end, it’s a film about the value of human experience – the film’s strongest card is Ganz’s performance, and his shift from cool detachment to almost palpable joy as he elects to pursue a mortal existence. You can’t help but be dragged along and conclude that life is really not that bad and something to be savoured. This may not be the most profound message ever committed to celluloid, but it’s still a worthwhile one, and Wenders handles it with enough wit and warmth and style to make this a satisfying film, worthy of its reputation and a return visit to the big screen.

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