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Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps it was always the Eternals who had the most potential to throw a spanner in the works of the mighty Marvel machine. One of the more abstruse debates in the realms of comic book history is the exact nature of the working relationship between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and who, if anyone, was the dominant creative talent. Both men claimed it was them, one way or another; Lee was a more flamboyant self-publicist by far, and had another quarter-century to put his side of the story after Kirby died in 1994, hence his status as the perceived Prime Mover of the Marvel Universe.

Not that this is necessarily untrue. Working together, the Lee-Kirby partnership produced the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, the X-Men, Daredevil, Black Panther and the Silver Surfer. Lee working with other artists, most notably Steve Ditko, created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. Kirby working alone, on the other hand… well, he co-created Captain America back in the 1940s, but apart from that – Machine Man, anyone? Devil Dinosaur?

The original Eternals comic-book was the product of Kirby’s mid-seventies sojourn with Marvel Comics, something he wrote and pencilled himself. Heavily influenced by (amongst other things) the ‘ancient astronaut’ books of Swiss hotelier and convicted tax-fraud Erich von Daniken, it was never really supposed to be a part of the larger Marvel universe, being a cosmology separate to itself. It didn’t stay that way, of course, but the grafting of the Eternals characters onto the wider continuity has never quite taken: someone has a go at doing something with the Eternals every few years, which is briefly successful, but then they all get quietly forgotten about for a while, until the next revival comes along (one obscure bit of the lore is that, in the comics, Thanos is technically an Eternal; it’s not entirely clear if or how the movies are going to deal with this).

Will Chloe Zhao’s movie do anything to break this age-old (well, decades-old) cycle? Let us not forget that Zhao has the singular distinction of releasing a Marvel movie in the same year that her previous film (Nomadland – no, still haven’t seen it) won Best Picture at the Oscars. (What was that quote about what Fred and Ginger individually brought to their partnership?)

Well, the film gets underway with the first of several big whomps of exposition to the viewer’s head – delivered by roller caption, no less. It all boils down to a bunch of almost infinitely powerful aliens called the Celestials sending a slightly less infinitely powerful bunch of aliens called Eternals to Earth, to protect the developing human race from some considerably less infinitely powerful aliens called Deviants. (Lots of blazing cosmic power in the mix here, along with Kirby’s gift for rather oddball nomenclature – which the film rather cheekily cocks a few snooks at.)

We get to see the Eternals arriving on Earth in 5000 BCE: there is a nicely understated raid on Kubrick as their black slab of a starship slides toward the planet out of the void of space, followed by some well-staged superhero action in the classic style as they save some primitive humans from marauding, sinewy Deviants. All this stuff in the ancient past with the Eternals introducing humanity to various innovations (agriculture, steam-power, the Mexican accent) takes place in a lyrical-pastoral-mythical mode which I found rather pleasing, to be honest.

Cue a jump forward to the present day, where Eternal Sersi (Gemma Chan), who has vast cosmic powers and never ages but still apparently can’t grasp the concept of an alias, is working in London. An immense earthquake is followed by the emergence of a new strain of Deviant (whom the Eternals figured they’d killed off centuries ago, after which they went their separate ways). Her old flame Ikaris (Richard Madden) turns up to help out, and they decide it is time to get the band back together. When it turns out that one of their number has already been slain (the awkward bit of comics lore where Eternals are literally immortal and indestructible has been dispensed with for the film), the scene is set for the revelation of the truth about the Eternals’ true nature and that of their mission on Earth…

So, a bit of an outlier as Marvel movies go: so much so that you can almost imagine Eternals working better as a standalone film with no ties to the rest of the franchise (in line with Jack Kirby’s original concept). The links that do make it in feel more than usually contrived; Marvel seem to feel obliged to cram obscure characters into each new film at this point, to say nothing of a voice cameo by… ah, I shouldn’t spoil it. (There are also a couple of references to DC Comics characters, who are apparently part of pop culture in the Marvel world. One wonders if the DC movie adaptations are any better over there.)

On the other hand, the fact the Eternals are such an obscure property – I could only have told you the names of a couple of these guys – means that the Progressive Agenda Committee have been very free to come in and give them a proper seeing to, retaining the names and (to some extent) power sets of the characters but changing ethnicities, genders, and almost everything else, regardless of Kirby’s original conception or indeed whether it even makes sense on the film’s own terms. But then this is the nature of modern culture, as is the appearance of a disagreeable trope, the nature of which would be another spoiler.

There are still a whole bunch of Eternals, though, which means many of them inevitably spend a lot of time in the crowd scenes just standing around in the background – one main character is completely absent throughout the climax and I honestly didn’t notice he wasn’t involved. Who manages to cut through? Well, Madden does okay as Ikaris, as does Salma Hayek as the matriarch Ajak; Angelina Jolie undeniably makes an impression in a rather secondary role as mentally-fragile war-goddess Thena. There’s an interesting role for Kumail Nanjiani as an Eternal who’s become a Bollywood star – however, as ostensible lead Sersi, Gemma Chan is amiable but essentially affectless.

And the result is… well, the film certainly has scope and a sort of visual majesty about it, even if some of its ruminations on the nature of belief and free will and destiny aren’t anything like as profound as the film-makers were probably hoping for. It’s all a bit like a galleon under full sail: deeply impressive and beautiful to look upon, and maybe even rather stirring, but at the same time hardly agile and not exactly what you’d call sparky fun, either. (Some might say this gives it the authentic feel of one of Jack Kirby’s solo projects.) It may well be that this is the best adaptation of Eternals one could realistically hope for, but at the time of writing this is the worst-reviewed film in Marvel Studios’ history (‘the script is a load of hooey’ is the considered opinion of one writer on a major British paper), and while I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that, it’s hard to think of another film in the Marvel meta-franchise which is less obviously a crowd-pleaser.

That said, a healthy crowd turned out for the first showing at my local multiplex (what can I say, I needed to get out of the house to avoid the cleaners), and the two evening showings that day were close to selling out, so it would be foolish to declare Eternals to be the death-knell of the whole Marvel project. But this will be a considerable test of the brand’s ability to retain an audience, I suspect. Future plot developments may prove otherwise, but for now this looks like the least essential Marvel movie in ages.

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One sign of the movie business getting back to normal – the scheduling and releasing wing of it, anyway – is the fact that major releases, like Commander Bond’s latest excursion, are surrounded by a sort of exclusion zone where no sensible person releases another commercially-oriented movie – never mind not releasing in the same week, there were no major films out the week before or the week after. By ‘commercially-oriented’ I of course mean ‘films expecting to draw big audiences’.

Nevertheless, the reason we have the expression counter-programming is because some films are aimed at the kind of niche audience that probably doesn’t want to go and see a big popcorn blockbuster anyway, and will happily trot off to the local arts centre to see something more unconventional. As previously touched upon, The Green Knight has seemingly been designated an art-house movie for these purposes, not running at all in the local multiplex (I can kind of see why you’d make that decision) and joining in it on the fringes, well beyond the mainstream, is Fanny Liatard and Jeremy Trouilh’s Gagarine.

Yes, they are French, yes, this film is subtitled, and – just in case you were wondering – there is an odd blend of non-naturalism and le old Nouvelle Vague about the movie. Even its origins are slightly off-the-wall: the directors have a history as documentarians and were recruited to interview the occupants of Cite Gagarine, a housing project in Paris (basically a tower block to the likes of you and me). The project was being considered for demolition and the architects wanted someone to interview the residents about their experiences. And, as you presumably would if you were a French documentary film maker, this inspired Liatard and Trouilh to make a full-length narrative film about the last days of Gagarine, albeit working from a rather skewed perspective.

The movie opens with archive footage of your actual Yuri Gagarin visiting the project which bore his name, and interviews with some of the crowd that turned up to meet him. A young boy is asked if he’d like to go into space, but he cheerfully admits to doubting he’s good enough – even from a very early age, one absorbs a sense of what one can realistically aspire to do.

Then again, much of the film feels like a retort to this, although not an angry one. The narrative jumps to something not far off the present day, with some fabulous images of the sun rising past the rectilinear bulk of the tower, and a skewed shot of a forest of satellite dishes resembling a radio telescope array: the film may be set in urban Paris, but its heart lies in outer space.

Gagarine is being assessed for demolition, and doing his absolute utmost to make sure it isn’t torn down is Youri (Yuri according to the subtitles on the print I saw), a young man living alone in one of the flats (the fate of his father is never really addressed, but his mother has taken up with a new man who doesn’t want him around). This is a very winning performance from Alseni Bathily, who doesn’t appear to have acted before. Youri is going around replacing all the broken lights and wiring with the help of his best friend, using scrap he’s acquiring courtesy of getting to know Diana, a young woman from the local Roma community (Lyna Khoudri, who has the enviable ability to play a character getting on for half her actual age).

But, of course, slightly quixotic programmes of DIY cut little ice with the people in charge of urban renewal schemes, and the decision is made to demolish the project anyway. The community of Gagarine – and the directors take pains to show it is a community, not just a collection of social problems – begins to dissolve as everyone is relocated.

Youri, however, stays put, hiding from the construction workers charged with stripping the place out, and converting his apartment on the top floor into… well, not actually a space capsule, but something which strongly resembles one. More or less his only company is Dali (Finnegan Oldfield), the local drug dealer, who may have his own ideas about what to do with Youri’s hydroponic garden. Romance glimmers with Diana, but it does seem like Youri is staging a full-scale retreat from reality. Can it possibly end well?

Gagarine is a good-looking, vivid, and ambitious film, well-played by the mostly-youthful cast and filled with striking imagery. Much of it is a compassionate and non-judgmental look at the lives of people too-easily dismissed as have-nots, naturalistically and convincingly presented. But of course there’s a whole other thread to this film, which becomes increasingly dominant as it continues, which I suppose you could describe as magic realism (‘Magic realism is Spanish for Fantasy,’ according to the late Gene Wolfe; possibly it’s a cognate in French, too).

Comparisons with High Rise are doubtless lazy and facile, but there is something very Ballardian about the way that the external world and Youri’s cosmic imaginings slowly begin to elide, courtesy of inventive set design and impressive cinematography. There are some wonderful images at the climax of the film, and a strong emotional arc to the story. The only issue – and perhaps this isn’t so much a problem as a convention of this kind of film – is that what exactly’s going on is not entirely clear on a boring old nitty-gritty plot-carpentry kind of level.

But, as I say, this may not have been the primary concern of the film-makers anyway, and the film does show every sign of being rigorously thought-through in terms of theme and imagery. The juxtaposition of Parisian housing projects and slightly retro space travel is not an obvious or especially natural one, but the directors find a rich source of material here, resulting in a film that may occasionally feel strange, but does so in a way which is entirely intentional. ‘The Martian set in a tower block’ is the glib elevator pitch for this film, but that doesn’t do justice to it. It’s true that Gagarine is much stronger on atmosphere and imagery than plot, but these alone are strong enough to make it a rewarding watch.

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Family movie night again (well, with my niece and nephew, anyway: their parents were off watching Bond) and I found myself in the midst of a ticklish diplomatic negotiation – finding a film to keep all parties happy. Virtually impossible, of course (it seems to me that the main innovation of the streaming era is that the protracted arguments you used to have in Blockbuster can now take place in front of your flat-screen), especially given the fact that my tastes incline towards nephew’s naturally, and I do worry about niece feeling a bit underserved.

So, in the end, I made an executive decision and we ended up watching Ron Howard’s Splash from 1984, which (the odd joke about Swedish pornography aside) I recalled as being nice, innocuous fare – this was admittedly based on my sole viewing of the film at Christmas 1987, so it’s not like my memory was pinpoint sharp or anything.

So: here we have a rom-com of the fantastical variety, although there are some interesting structural anomalies to it which we will come to in good time. A rather young Tom Hanks plays Allen Bauer, co-owner of a New York City fruit and veg wholesaler, who seems to be doing okay financially but is just not happy when it comes to his love life: no matter how seemingly perfect the woman in his life appears to be, he just can’t seem to engage romantically with them. His crass elder brother (John Candy) doesn’t seem to see the problem, but Allen wants love.

And so he drives up to Cape Cod, which for you or I would seem like an odd way to solve this particular problem – for him it makes marginally more sense, as he had an odd encounter there when he fell off a boat as a young man and hallucinated (obviously) seeing a young mermaid in the water. Apparently the area has form in this area, as a fringe marine biologist named Kornbluth (Eugene Levy) has turned up to go mermaid-hunting.

Well, what do you know, but Allen ends up falling in the water again, and knocking himself out. He wakes up on a nearby beach, apparently having been dragged to safety by a gorgeous naked blonde woman (Daryl Hannah) – maybe there’s something to be said for Cape Cod after all. She flees into the water when he attempts to speak to her, but still hangs onto his wallet (maybe there’s a lesson there, lads).

(The MousePlus version of Splash, which we watched, has a caption announcing it has been digitally re-edited for its appearance on the platform. I thought this meant the Swedish pornography joke had been expurgated, but no: what they’ve done is digitally extended Daryl Hannah’s hair to cover her bum when she’s running away from the camera. Apparently even an innocent pair of bare buttocks is unacceptable to the mouse executives – but the effect just makes it look like she’s got a furry arse, which is considerably less charming than the original scene must have been.)

Well, Allen goes back to New York, where he is soon afterwards joined by the blonde woman, who is indeed a mermaid, and has tracked him down using his driving licence and some ancient nautical charts (yes, this is a movie which makes a few substantial asks of the audience, even given that it is about mermaids). This being the 80s, and the whole safe sex message not quite having got going yet, they go straight back to his apartment for some off-screen (but apparently intensive) whoa-ho-ho: whether Allen later contracts Fin Rot or something similar is not disclosed.

However, there are wrinkles in the idyll which appears to be in the offing: for one thing, the mermaid, who takes the name Madison (this was a joke at the time, but as a result of the movie it experienced an immense spike in its popularity), can only stay on land for five or six days before having to leave forever (it’s an arbitrary plot-enabling rule). Also, Kornbluth is aware that Madison is staying with Allen and is determined to expose her and thus vindicate his belief in the existence of merfolk (their tail turns into legs on lend, until they get wet, at which point the tail reappears – another ability the film seems to have invented wholesale as a plot-enabler, along with Madison’s ability to learn perfect English in an afternoon just by watching TV)…

Splash is a charming, funny film, and you can see why it was a big hit and gave most of the people involved such substantial career bumps – this is really the start of the career of Tom Hanks as we know him – not too long prior he was appearing in things like the silly scaremongering TV movie Mazes and Monsters, while he was also in the coarse frat-boy comedy Bachelor Party in the same year. At the time I doubt anyone honestly thought they were looking at the great leading man of his generation, but with hindsight you can see just why Hanks has become such a big star.

Daryl Hannah hasn’t done quite so well – I don’t remember seeing her in anything since Kill Bill – and while this may be due to the usual way movie star career trajectories pan out – men mature, women either fade away or end up in character parts – perhaps it’s also got something to do with the rather odd structure of the film, which I alluded to earlier.

I don’t want to generalise, but the rom-com genre is usually perceived as being quite female-oriented, or at least egalitarian in the way they handle the two leads. The thing about Splash is that it mixes into the rom-com formula some quite big dollops of broader comedy, as well as a sort of action-adventure jeopardy climax which feels like it owes a lot to E.T.. (This is where the Swedish pornography gag fits in, along with the pricelessly funny image of John Candy trying to play squash with a fag hanging out of his mouth.) These skew the film more towards a general audience. In addition to this, Madison never quite feels like a fully realised character, she’s just a sort of convenient fantasy figure (blonde, often-clothing averse, large sexual appetite – not sure the furry arse fits this profile though) – it’s Allen whose personality and feelings the film seems much more interested in exploring. Perhaps this is what you need to do for your rom-com to be a break-out hit – Four Weddings was a smash, which was likewise very focused on the male lead, while the critically-adored The Shape of Water (which is almost a darker, role-reversal version of the same story) billed itself as a fantasy or even a horror film rather than a romance.

I don’t know how much of this was the result of calculated choices by Ron Howard and the directors (nor, for that matter, how much of a debt the film owes to the British romantic comedy Miranda and its sequel, films with a vaguely similar theme), but I think they contributed substantially to Splash’s success. I enjoyed seeing it again, and my young relatives found it quite diverting too. So we may cautiously describe it as a minor classic – even if I would still recommend the pre-digital-editing version.

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If you’re anything like me (which isn’t really a fate I would wish on anybody), there is something of an elephant in the room when it comes to David Lowery’s The Green Knight (currently enjoying a low-profile theatrical run in the UK after having its release cancelled in the summer due to a spike in the virus numbers). You may recall a movie called Gods of Egypt from a few years ago, in which Gerard Butler, Geoffrey Rush, Elodie Yung, and others played the titular pantheon; the movie wasn’t exactly great, but a lot of the stick it drew was because none of the leading cast were actually Egyptian. (The question of ethnicity when applied to deities is an intriguing one, but let’s not get sidetracked.) Ethnically-appropriate casting is, according to a voluble section of society, very important.

So, anyway, back to The Green Knight, a story set in Dark Ages Britain, concerning the hero Gawain (or Gawaine), who according to some versions of the Arthurian legend hails from the Orkneys. And he is played by Dev Patel, because apparently ethnically-appropriate casting is not an issue on this occasion, at least less of an issue than diversity and colour-blind casting.

Well, whatever. If you feel that every film, no matter what its setting and source material, has to represent an idealised version of contemporary society, then that’s a coherent position you’re entitled to take. It just kicks me out of the movie when something like this happens, that’s all. I mean, Armando Ianucci’s David Copperfield film (also with Patel) just about got away with it, mainly through being studiously non-naturalistic throughout, but I don’t think this is an option open to every film.

Anyway. Let’s talk about the movie proper, which opens one Christmas in – not that it matters much – probably the 6th century. Gawain, though kin to King Arthur (an idiosyncratic but memorable performance by Sean Harris), is still something of a young wastrel, spending all his time carousing and disporting with a young prostitute (Alicia Vikander). However, he is summoned to court by the King for the Christmas feast, and Arthur expresses a desire to know him better.

However, the feast interrupted by the coming – it is implied, the summoning – of a stranger, and a very strange stranger he is: a man made of wood. And, no, this wooden presence is not Orlando Bloom, but the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), who has come to play a special Christmas game with the knights of the Round Table – one of them must try to strike him, gaining great renown and glory if he succeeds. But a year hence, the other contestant must seek the Green Knight out and receive in turn whatever wound he inflicted.

Looking to make a name for himself, Gawain volunteers, and after – it is implied – being lent Excalibur by his uncle, arguably gets carried away and ends up beheading the visitor. Decapitating someone at a Christmas party always casts something of a pall, I find, but on this occasion the situation is somewhat saved when the headless body clambers to its feet, picks up the severed bonce and rides away – though not before Gawain is reminded that, one year hence, he is honour-bound to receive payment in kind from the Green Knight…

Anyone’s who’s been keeping up will be aware that I’ve been awaiting this movie somewhat impatiently, filling in the time by watching Excalibur, The Fisher King, and First Knight – my friends and I have been scratching our TTRPG itch with King Arthur Pendragon for the past few months, so it’s all grist to that particular mill. It certainly offers a new and distinctive take on the Arthurian legend, not least in the way it attempts to blend historical grit and uncompromising fantasy – but perhaps that’s not the right word, perhaps mysticism would be better.

This is absolutely not a straight-forward historical adventure, but a disquieting and often spikily strange movie, which makes a point of reminding the audience that this particular tale has been told many times before in different ways. As I’ve suggested in the past, the Arthur legend endures because it is vast and deep enough to accommodate all kinds of interpretations; David Lowery’s version is certainly not going to ‘break’ the myth.

Nevertheless, the film contains an odd mixture of fidelity and innovation, some of it quite self-conscious. The legend surrounding Arthur is pared back – Excalibur, Guinevere and Merlin are all present, but not referred to by name; none of the other famous knights gets anything significant to do. Also present is the figure of Gawain’s mother, who is Orcades (also known as Morgawse) in the legends – Lowery simplifies things by making her a more famous sister of the King, Morgan le Fey (played here by Sarita Choudhury), though again this is not made explicitly clear until the closing credits. One of the innovations is the heavy implication it is Morgan who summons the Green Knight, though her motivations are left for the audience to decide.

Quite a lot of what’s actually going on in The Green Knight – and, as importantly, what it all means – is left for the viewer to work out for themselves. The bulk of the film is concerned with Gawain’s journey to the chapel of the Green Knight, which comprises a series of adventures, some of them unearthly, others mundane, some almost sumptuously surreal in their presentation, and concluding with his stay at the home of a strange unnamed nobleman (Joel Edgerton) and his wife (Vikander again). Everything feels like it’s loaded with significance; the film is obviously heavily symbolic throughout, to the point where the actual plot sometimes feels like an afterthought, but interpreting what it all means is extremely difficult (especially while you’re watching it). This is a film that demands thought and time to fully assimilate.

And this is never less true than at the end, which is the section which has outraged some Arthurian purists. Some have complained the film changes the end of the story; I would just say that the film doesn’t have a conventional ending of any kind (shades of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, another Arthurian outlier, but the actual conclusions are quite different). The director has said a more definite ending was filmed, but the one they eventually went with was a deliberate choice.

(And I can’t really criticise this. Only after watching the film did I remember that, nearly 35 years ago, I was given the assignment of retelling this tale by my English teacher: we were given the premise, and told to continue the story. I couldn’t figure out what to do once Gawain reached the chapel, so I ended the story rather ambiguously at that point (and got a very good mark). Lowery, I hasten to say, takes a slightly different approach (and has likewise got good marks, from the critics).)

The film seems to be about the question of what constitutes a good life, at least in the case of a man like Gawain – wealth, longevity and happiness? Or honour and the fame that comes with it? (Very pertinent questions to a Pendragon game.) Not surprisingly, the film leaves the answer up in the air. One thing that is certain is what a visually impressive film this is, with an equally accomplished soundtrack. It definitely tend towards the arthouse more than the multiplex, and it’s probably easier to admire than genuinely love, but this is still an impressive movie on many levels.

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(Split being, of course, the largest city in Dalmatia, which is (duh) the ancestral home of the Dalmatian dog breed. I’m well aware that, normally, nothing is more guaranteed to kill a decent joke than carefully explaining it, but in this case it’s an extra-subtle one that’s probably going to get overlooked if I don’t.)

The pandemic continues to shake its tail, and as part of the fallout from it all I find myself – temporarily – living with family and thus enjoying less control over the domestic media functions than is usually my wont. So far I have managed to dodge the endless YouTube dog and Minecraft videos which makes up the bulk of my younger relatives’ intake, but when it comes to Family Movie Night – oh yes, this is a thing! – I don’t really get any say in what’s on.

Which is why I ended up watching Craig Gillespie’s Cruella, a film which I experienced no actual desire to see during its theatrical release earlier this year. I know you may be thinking, ‘God, this guy is indolent, if he didn’t want to watch the movie he could have balanced his wobbling carcass on those stumpy legs of his and wobbled off away from a screen for just a few minutes’ – and I take your point. I believe my exact words to my hosts were something to the effect of ‘I’m going to see what this is like but I may slip out of the room if it’s not my kind of thing.’ I mean, I’ve enjoyed Craig Gillespie’s films in the past, and I’m not averse to Emma Stone, but it’s a live action Disney brand extension prequel to a story which I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen or read any of the other versions of.

I suppose we could reflect productively upon the reasons for this current run of villain-centric prequels – I’m thinking of the Maleficent films and Joker in particular – it’s a reasonable way of dodging the problems involved in doing sequels to well-loved tales, or indeed doing yet another remake. Not that they don’t come with their own set of problems, though.

This one kicks off in the early 1950s, with the birth of – well, not actually Cruella de Vil, but a young woman who ends up with the monicker Estella Miller. (Here we reach one of those points where a strictly accurate synopsis necessarily involves spoilers, so forgive me if not all of what follows is actually literally true in the context of the plot.) Despite having an unlikely duotonal trichological complexion, Estella has a relatively normal childhood with her mother (Emily Beecham), although she is a bit of a rebel and obsessed with outrageous fashion choices.

Eventually Estella is kicked out of school and the two of them head off to London, pausing on the way to visit the stately home of famous fashion designer, the Baroness (Emma Thompson). Estella’s mum is basically there to hit her up for some cash – exactly what’s going on is kept deliberately obscure – but it results in Estella being chased by some ferocious Dalmatians (some subtle foreshadowing, this) and her mother falling to her death off a precipitous cliff.

Yeah, it goes dark quite quickly, doesn’t it? But not for long; this kind of occasional veer into really bleak territory followed by an equally rapid course correction back to the realm of family friendliness is something the film does quite often. Anyway, Estella runs off to London, hooks up with a pair of juvenile tearaways, and they all grown up to be Emma Stone, Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser (Fry and Hauser are playing Jasper and Horace, the henchmen from 101 Dalmatians).

Eventually Estella gets the chance to give up her life of crime and join the fashionista establishment, initially at a department store and then as part of a famous London label. But she gets a bit of a shock when she realises that her boss and mentor is the same woman who was responsible for her mother’s death (Emma Thompson is still Emma Thompson). Estella decides that vengeance is really her only option, but to carry it out she must adopt another personality, that of the outrageous and ruthless Cruella – but is this really a new persona, or simply a new name for part of her which has been lurking away all this time…?

Well, as you probably guessed, I made it all the way to the end of Cruella even though it’s well over two hours long and thus overstays what a reasonable welcome would be. This is not because it’s an unqualified triumph of a movie, but it does have points of quality and it’s certainly interesting.

So what can we say about it that is positive? Well, it certainly looks ravishing, mostly being set in a fantasticalised version of London in the 1970s, and the direction is inventive. It shouldn’t do Emma Stone’s career any harm, either: quite apart from being a very capable actress (here she seems to be doing a Helena Bonham Carter impersonation for most of the film), she also has the knack of looking good no matter what colour (or colours) of hair she is issued with. Emma Thompson is also good value, but then that’s like saying the sun comes up in the morning, while Mark Strong (a touch underused, I’d say) does his usual trick of lifting every scene he appears in.

The general tenor of thing is rather like a superhero origin movie if it were written by Roald Dahl – the main character gradually adopts all the key elements of the persona that will make them famous, with various set pieces and reversals along the way, but all with an element of grotesqueness and (as mentioned) occasional excursions into real darkness. It reminded me quite a lot of Joker, more than anything else.

Of course, my problem with Joker was that I couldn’t quite see the point of a film about a villain without a hero; you can’t really make the Joker sympathetic without destroying what the character’s about. And the same is surely true here: Cruella de Vil isn’t quite in the same league when it comes to homicidal animus, but she’s still the bad guy. Is our knowledge of her origins supposed to make her actions more understandable? Are we even supposed to start sympathising with her? If not, then what is the point of the film?

And beyond this, I don’t think the script quite manages to sell the transition from Estella to Cruella completely convincingly – Emma Stone does what she can, but it doesn’t feel like a natural change, being more a series of abrupt shifts in personality and behaviour. Perhaps the problem is that the film still wants to be a relatively light-hearted caper – not a great fit for a story which appears to depict a relatively good-hearted young woman succumbing to her dark side. You don’t get the sense of loss or tragedy that should come with that particular narrative arc.

It’s ultimately quite a superficial film, then, but then the story hardly lends itself to naturalism. The setting in the fashion world of London in the 1970s, with a rebellious young designer making a name for herself, had me thinking this was a movie in some ways riffing on the career of Vivienne Westwood – and while there’s a bit of a punk aesthetic at work, with (probably anachronistically) the Clash and Blondie eventually turning up on the soundtrack, there’s a real mish-mash of things happening here – music from the 60s is mixed in with glam rock, and so on. The real world is carefully kept at arm’s distance, here and in the characterisations.

I would still like to think that, somewhere, somehow, the Mouse House still wants to make films that have some kind of moral premise and storytelling merit to them, rather than just being immense cash-guzzling brand extensions. There are things about Cruella that do have merit to them, particularly the two lead performances and the visual sense of the thing, and it does pass the time quite engagingly. But as far as the rest of it goes – what’s it about? It’s about the early life of Cruella de Vil. But what’s it really about, on a deeper level? I’m really not sure.

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Annette begins with an orchestra and singers preparing to make a recording; instruments are plugged in and tuned, everyone seems to slowly be getting ready for the moment of truth. Observing from the control booth is the director, who looks a lot like Leos Carax (this role is played, in a strikingly well-judged bit of casting, by the director Leos Carax). He asks if it would be possible to start.

And so they begin, singing a song on the topic of starting. Very quickly, however, the key members of the band (the instantly recognisable figures of Ron and Russell Mael, aka Sparks), the backing singers, and so on, all get up and proceed out of the studio into the street. And I do mean proceed: this is a procession in the classic style. The Mael brothers cede their position at the front to Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, and Simon Helberg, but the parade continues out into the streets of Los Angeles, the lyrics addressing the anticipation inherent in beginning-of-movie moments like this, but also including the reasonable request that the audience ‘shut up and sit’. Eventually Driver and Cotillard depart to get into character and things become marginally less odd for a while.

(The closing credits of the film feature another procession by the cast and crew, this time politely wishing the audience a safe trip home after the movie, a thoughtful touch which is rather more endearing than the usual post-credits scene.)

Annette is a musical directed by Leos Carax, based on a story and with songs by Sparks, so this is never what you’d call a conventional movie experience for long. Adam Driver plays Henry McHenry, a misanthropic stand-up comedian not entrely unlike Andrew Clay or Bill Hicks, while Marion Cotillard plays operatic soprano Anne Defrasnoux. Henry and Anne have recently begun a relationship and fallen deeply in love with one another: they sing a song about this, called ‘We Love Each Other So Much’, which – in authentic late-period Sparks style – largely consists of the title repeated over and over again, albeit with the couple in increasingly startling situations as they sing the line.

Soon the news breaks that Anne is pregnant, and the world awaits the birth of the child. (I particularly enjoyed the singing obstetrician and chorus of midwives who appeared at this point to perform a song largely about breathing and pushing.) The baby is named Annette, but her arrival marks a change in the fortunes of the couple: while Anne meets with success after success, Henry finds it hard to maintain his edginess and his career struggles as a result. And so they decide to take Annette with them on a fateful boat trip…

‘Not mainstream’ was my partner’s considered opinion after watching Annette, and this strikes me as a very accurate assessment of the kind of film this is. Of course, few films have the capacity to become beloved crowd-pleasers in quite the same way as a great musical can, but I suspect the relentless weirdness of Annette will prove a bit of a barrier to mainstream success.

It’s not quite the conventional ‘sing a bit, talk for a bit, sing a bit’ musical, for one thing: this is practically sung through, which always produces some slightly odd moments. The effect is something akin to actual opera, with all the strangeness associated with that – Driver, Cotillard and Helberg play the only developed characters, so a lot of the time they are interacting with choruses made up of supporting roles – the audience of Henry’s stand-up show get a song with the lyrics ‘Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha!’, the police interrogate people to music, and so on.

What of Annette herself, you may be wondering? Well, just in case a slightly self-referential rock opera starring people without trained voices and with music by Marc Bolan and Hitler lookalikes isn’t offbeat enough, baby Annette is played by a wooden puppet. It is fair to say this is a slightly creepy wooden puppet (though still not as unsettling as the CGI baby in the last Twilight film). As the film goes on it proves to be the case that there are sound artistic and metaphorical reasons for the baby to be played by a puppet. But this doesn’t make the various scenes of Driver and Cotillard putting the puppet to bed, and so on, any less bizarre.

The baby puppet only really becomes prominent in the later sections of the film, by which point the plot has soared to such heights of extravagant madness that it probably registers less than it would in a film with a more naturalistic plot. Someone is murdered (they keep on singing even as they are being done in), someone comes back as a vengeful ghost, Annette the baby puppet turns out to have a borderline-magical gift which leads to her becoming the subject of much attention, and so on.

I think the non-naturalism of the movie musical is one of its greatest strengths, but there’s non-naturalistic and then there’s Annette. This is one of those rare movies fully in the self-aware, presentational mode, which is open about its own artificiality. Normally this is a recipe for camp, pretentiousness and a rather desperate reliance on irony, but – and this is probably Annette’s greatest achievement – the remarkable thing about this film is that it still packs a significant emotional punch in its key moments. Much credit must go to the actors, particularly Adam Driver (especially since most of the songs seem to be pitched rather higher than he seems comfortable with), but of course the Mael brothers deserve praise for an inventive score which includes some extraordinary pieces of music.

I was hoping to see rather more of Ron and Russell on screen during the film, but apart from the opening and closing sequences they stay behind the scenes, except for a brief cameo as aeroplane pilots. But the film does have the mixture of wit, playfulness, and sincere emotion that is the hallmark of much of Sparks’ music. The central metaphor of the film is an effective one, and if the things it has to say about modern culture are not terribly original, it at least puts them across well.

This is a soaringly weird and often deeply strange film, but also a rather beautiful and affecting one. It’s a coming together of such special and diverse talents that it’s almost certainly a unique, one-off piece of work – not that this shouldn’t instantly be clear to anyone watching it. I doubt there will be a more distinctive film on release this year.

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One of the nice things about Marvel Comics, back in the days of my youth, was how diverse they were. I mean this not in the slightly reductionist modern sense, where it is often just a question of ticking boxes during the scripting and casting stages, but in terms of the tone and subject matter of the comics themselves. When I was about seven my mother bought me a discounted three-pack of different Marvel titles as a holiday treat. One of them was about Spider-Man and Ghost Rider fighting an evil magician in an amusement park; the next was a grandiose underwater piece of high fantasy with Namor the Sub-Mariner; and the third was something rather unexpected, a book entitled (in full) The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu, which seemed to be some sort of spy adventure with a lot of pulp influences and Asian cultural references.

Master of Kung Fu seemed to be happening in its own little world, completely separate to the other Marvel books (though the character ended up fighting the Thing, amongst other superhero characters), but it seems we have now reached the point where Marvel Studios have already made movies about every other character with any kind of traction, and so even outliers like Master of Kung Fu are now getting the big-screen treatment – Eternals, due out in a couple of months, is likewise based on a book not originally intended to share a universe with Spider-Man and all the others. (I once made a joke about Marvel doing movies based on characters like Squirrel-Girl and Brother Voodoo; it now just feels like it’s only a matter of time.)

And so I found myself in the foyer of a bijou cinema in the depths of Somerset, asking for a ticket for the evening showing of Shang-Chi – and until a few years ago I would have never expected to ever be typing that sentence. The full title of the film is Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and the director is Destin Daniel Cretton, who got the job off the back of the (rather good) legal drama Just Mercy.

Our hero is played by Simo Liu, who is an amiable screen presence, and when we first meet him he is living in San Francisco and working as a parking valet along with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina), who is there to do the ironic comedy relief. Neither of them have figured out what to do with their lives yet, but destiny (not to mention Destin) gives them a little push when they are menaced on the bus by a gang of toughs led by a chap named Razor Fist (Florian ‘Big Nasty’ Munteanu). ‘I don’t want any trouble!’ cries Shang-Chi in the time-honoured chop-socky manner, but the bad guys do want trouble, and so it behoves our lad to break out his invincible kung fu skills.

Yes, it seems he is a parking valet with a past: son of Wenwu (Tony Leung), an immortal warlord who is possessor of the ten rings of the title: as well as letting him live for a thousand years, they also make him unstoppable in battle (except when the plot requires it to be otherwise). Shang-Chi was raised by his father’s criminal empire to become the perfect warrior and assassin, but he threw a bit of a teenage strop and ran away to America instead.

But now it seems his dad wants a reunion. Wenwu is seeking to gain access to Ta Ro, a magical realm in another dimension filled with fantastic sights and mythical creatures (not to be confused with K’Un-Lun from the Iron Fist TV show, a magical realm in another dimension filled with fantastical sights and mythical creatures, of course, or indeed any of the vaguely similar locales in the other movies), from whence his wife (and our hero’s mum) came from. Wenwu’s children have a role to play in this scheme, but what is it? And why is Wenwu so determined to reach Ta Ro? Could the survival of the universe be in peril, again?

Master of Kung Fu’s nature as a book only tangentially linked to the rest of Marvel’s output was exemplified by the fact it featured characters heavily implied to be the descendants of James Bond and Sherlock Holmes, while Shang-Chi’s original father (dear me, only when writing about comic book universes to you end up using formulations like ‘original father’) was the fiendish Dr Fu Manchu, Sax Rohmer’s diabolical mastermind and racist stereotype as featured in many novels and movies. Then again, at various points Marvel’s sprawling cosmology has included such improbable inhabitants (mostly licensed from other sources) as Godzilla, Dracula, the Transformers, and the black monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey (the monolith’s own comic book series was not a big seller for some reason).

These days, of course, you can’t really do a movie with Fu Manchu as the bad guy, to save nothing of the rights issues involved, and so Shang-Chi’s parentage has been tweaked. This has been quite inventively done: the Ten Rings have been a story element in these films since the very beginning, and Tony Leung’s character seems to be at least in part an attempt to placate that small segment of the Marvel audience annoyed with the presentation of the Mandarin back in Iron Man 3. This is done deftly enough that it shouldn’t feel too weird or fussy to normal people in the audience, but I have to say that some of the links and cameos connecting this movie to the wider Marvel enterprise feel rather gratuitous and contrived this time around.

Nevertheless, it eventually becomes very clear that a Marvel movie is what this is – if I were to be reductionist myself, I would say that it’s clearly trying to emulate the success of Black Panther, although using Chinese culture rather than Afro-futurism as its starting point. I thought this was rather a shame – the first act or so of the film, which actually resembles a genuine kung fu movie, is superbly entertaining, with good jokes and inventive action choreography. However, it slowly transforms into what’s basically just another CGI-based fantasy spectacle, becoming slightly bland and heftless along the way. The issue with traditional Chinese culture is that it’s a real thing, and everyone involved seems to have been very wary of doing anything that might cause offence (they likely had one eye on the potentially vast Asian box office returns too), and the film loses a lot of its wit and pop as a result.

Still, a great deal of goodwill has been built up by this point, and Michelle Yeoh pops up to do some exposition as Shang-Chi’s auntie, so the film remains very watchable till the end. But you can see why the film’s not called Master of Kung Fu – there’s not much sign of that in the closing stages of the film, which I was a bit disappointed by. Master of the CGI Special Effects Budget is a less engaging proposition.

This is a fun film and unlikely to disappoint the legions of devotees Marvel have gathered to their banner over the last decade-and-a-bit; the action and humour are all present and correct, and Tony Leung in particular manages to give the film a bit of gravitas and depth (on one level this is another saga of a dysfunctional Asian family) But on the other hand, one of the main alleged weaknesses of the Marvel films, the fact that they are all ultimately a bit samey, is also arguably on display: no matter how quirkily and originally they start out, everything always concludes with a slightly bloated climax slathered in visual effects. But as long as these films continue to make such immense piles of money, this is unlikely to change. Shang-Chi isn’t as distinctive as it promised to be, but it’s still an engaging piece of entertainment.

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What are we to make of M Night Shyamalan? Does he, in fact, get an unfairly raw deal from critics and commentators, for reasons which may have nothing to do with the quality of his work? (I myself have done jokes about his name in the past, which I am rather uncomfortable about now.) Many of the man’s films have been very successful; there’s a sense in which he rarely repeats himself; and he’s shown a willingness to be creative in his storytelling which a lot of less-mocked directors don’t.

But on the other hand, his work is maddeningly inconsistent, his early reliance on plot twists of variable quality has become the stuff of folklore, and some of the films are just plain bad. (This is before we even get to his insistence on casting himself in his films, often in significant roles he shows no real sign of being able to carry off.) It’s got to the point that with each new Shyamalan release, you wonder which version of the guy will have been responsible – the one who made The Sixth Sense and Split or the perpetrator of After Earth?

Well, he’s back again with the first post-Covid film I’ve seen on the big screen (this may explain some of the film’s formal minimalism), Old. It’s based on a Swiss graphic novel, but – not for the first time with Shyamalan – may strike some viewers as resembling an episode of The Twilight Zone stretched out to feature length.

Gael Garcia Bernal and Vicky Krieps play Guy and Prisca, an outwardly-successful professional couple (he is an actuary, she a museum curator) just beginning a holiday at a luxury resort hotel with their children. But, needless to say, there are soon signs of something strange and unsettling afoot. (Not least the fact that he is Mexican and she is from Luxembourg but their children both speak with neutral American accents.) The smarmy resort manager offers them a chance to go to an exclusive private beach on the other side of the island, and naturally they accept, despite the fact the guy driving the bus is a very bad actor (yes, it’s Shyamalan again).

They find themselves there with a doctor (Rufus Sewell) and his family, and another couple played by Ken Leung and Nikki Amuka-Bird (all those years of playing useless establishment types in dodgy BBC sci-fi have finally paid off). Also on the scene is a rapper (Aaron Pierre).

But is someone watching them from way up on the cliff top? Why are the children suddenly complaining of discomfort? And why does anyone trying to leave the beach seemingly faint? It soon becomes apparent that, due to a freak geological effect (it says here), anyone on the beach ages at the rate of a year every thirty minutes. This could be the holiday of a lifetime… it’s just that the lifetime may be over much sooner than anyone expected.

So, you know, an interesting premise for a movie, if nothing else. I must confess I wrote a little book about the horror genre not long ago (something to do during lockdown) and one of the things I discussed was the nature of those basic, primal fears that everyone shares. I think that deep down, everyone is a bit frightened of senescence, the slow and inevitable physical decline that’s part of the deal that comes with continuing to breathe. But because it’s so incremental and slow, we manage to thrust it from our minds, most of the time at least. Old, in theory at least, should be an interesting vehicle to force us to confront this particular issue.

The only problem is that – how can I put it? – nobody in Old actually gets that old; at least, nobody who wasn’t old to begin with. Primarily this is because Shyamalan clearly feels obliged to keep an eye on the narrative underpinnings of his high-concept story and try to ensure it all stays relatively plausible. Someone asks, quite sensibly, why their hair and nails aren’t growing at an accelerated rate, and the answer is that the acceleration effect only works on living cells. This is bafflegab, really, only there to facilitate the story (the director doesn’t want to mess about with everyone having hair down to their knees and two-foot-long fingernails), but one consequence of the very-quasi-scientific approach Shyamalan takes is that it rules out the use of proper prosthetics and other make-up to give the impression of extreme old age (the extent to which people actually look older is limited).

In short, the director can’t find a way to make the process of dying of old age very rapidly into something visually interesting and cinematic. Nevertheless, the structure of this particular kind of film requires a succession of – to put it delicately – striking deaths, along with other arresting goings-on. He just about manages it, but the result is a film supposedly about dying of old age where most of the characters are actually murdered, or drown, or fall to their deaths, or undergo spectacularly nasty demises due to chronic medical conditions running out of control. So it’s arguably a bit of a chiz on that front: the central conceit is fantastical, but the film feels inhibited about really running with that notion.

It does not help much that the script is a lot less clever and subtle than Shyamalan probably thinks it is: virtually the first piece of dialogue we hear is a mother telling her daughter not to be in too big a hurry to grow up, but there’s so much stuff in a similar vein very early on that it topples over from being a neat foreshadowing of the subtext to simply too on-the-nose. And in places it’s vague, too: the children grow from being pre-teens to being on the cusp of middle-age over the course of a day and a night; what’s not at all clear is whether they remain children in adult bodies, or if they mature intellectually and emotionally too. I think the film eventually inclines towards the latter, but why this should be isn’t really addressed.

We must remember Shyamalan was working under sub-optimal conditions with this film and there are still some good things about it: the various transitions between the different actors playing the children as they age are neatly handled (some of the switches in actor are almost imperceptible – The Crown this ain’t), horror fans will enjoy one or two memorably gruesome moments, and the whole thing does eventually hang together on its own terms reasonably well (there’s not so much a twist, more a sort of reveal of what’s been going on). The problem is that those terms, the ones that make it a coherent thriller, are the same ones which undercut the film’s effectiveness as a film about how people deal with the ageing process. For once, a more fantastical approach would probably have resulted in a better film. In the end, Old isn’t one of Shyamalan’s worst films, but it’s just mildly diverting tosh when it could have been something genuinely unsettling and thought-provoking.

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Odd to think that the first of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films will be twenty years old in less than six months (the same is true of the first Harry Potter adaptation, of course). Or, to put it another way, it’s now very nearly equidistant in time between the present moment and the appearance of another great fantasy film of decades past – I speak of John Boorman’s 1981 film Excalibur.

The comparison is a pertinent one as Boorman tried for many years to mount his own adaptation of Lord of the Rings, never quite managing it (given one of his ideas was for the Hobbits to be played by children being dubbed by adults, perhaps it’s just as well). But apparently a lot of the Rings prep work ended up informing Excalibur, and you can perhaps trace a connection between the syncretic Arthurian mythology, built up over a thousand years, and the primal European myths which inspired Tolkien’s legendarium.

Boorman puts his own spin on the Arthurian cycle, as everyone who approaches it ends up doing, focusing the story on the titular blade. The film opens in the Dark Ages (real-world history and geography is more or less elided), with ferocious warlord Uther (Gabriel Byrne) intent on becoming king, assisted – sort of – by the enigmatic, and eccentric, figure of Merlin the Magician (Nicol Williamson). It is Merlin who procures the sword of power for Uther, and Merlin who is most dismayed when Uther seems intent on simply using it to satiate his own lust for power, and other things.

One of the other things is Igraine, wife of the Duke of Cornwall (she is played by another of the numerous Boormans to appear in the film; he is Corin Redgrave). But Uther’s deal with Merlin whereby he can enjoy a night of passion with Igraine (Uther keeps his suit of armour on throughout, surely the hallmark of any sensitive lover) has unexpected consequences: Merlin takes the ensuing child, and while pursuing the magician Uther is ambushed and killed, but not before he can drive Excalibur into a block of stone, from which only the rightful heir can draw it…

This first section of the film unfolds very naturally and satisfyingly; from here on things get a bit choppier, as Boorman has to start picking and choosing which elements of the Arthurian legend to focus on. So we get the sword in the stone, the struggle faced by Arthur (Nigel Terry) as he tries to claim his throne and unite the country, the coming of the invincible Lancelot (Nicholas Clay), the founding of Camelot, Arthur’s marriage to Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi), the treachery of Arthur’s half-sister Morgana (Helen Mirren) and the begetting of Mordred, the Grail Quest, and so on and so on…

Even for a film that’s pushing close to two and a half hours in length, this is a lot to handle, and Boorman omits many of the peripheral elements of the story – the May Babies are omitted, as is the story of Tristram and Isolde, along with that of Balin and the Fisher King, while the importance of Gawain (Liam Neeson) is downplayed, and Galahad is left out entirely (most of his role is given to Perceval, played here by Paul Geoffrey).

Doing the entire Arthurian legend in detail would be an undertaking beyond the scope of any sane movie – you’d be thinking in terms of a series (much as Guy Ritchie recently did), or perhaps a multi-season TV series like a cross between Game of Thrones and The Crown (this is such a patently brilliant and obvious idea I’m surprised no-one’s doing it already). So the flaws in the narrative structure of Excalibur, the jarring shifts in time and space, the odd changes of tone, are to some extent inevitable given the nature of the film.

However, the decision to frame the film almost solely as mythic fantasy is Boorman’s own: there’s relatively little grit or dirt in the world of the film, and not much sign of the common folk, either: on the rare occasions when they do appear, it’s slightly reminiscent of another great Arthurian film of roughly the same period, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. You could definitely argue that the Python film has a greater sense of reality about it than Excalibur; Boorman’s film always looks good, but it’s strangely heftless and is often easy to snigger at (Uther isn’t the only character who spends all his time lumbering around in full armour, even at feasts and weddings) – the balance of otherworldly mysticism and quasi-historical grit was handled much better by the Robin of Sherwood TV show (which possibly shows hints of an Excalibur influence on occasion).

Nevertheless, there’s a huge amount the film gets right, or at least does interestingly: the central thesis of the connection between king, land, and sword is a splendid innovation, and the film handles many of the incidental moments of the story extremely well: Merlin’s mentorship of the boy king, Arthur winning the loyalty of the barons who initially refuse to acknowledge his right to the throne, and so. It is, of course, helped enormously by what history has proven to be a really impressive supporting cast – Helen Mirren doesn’t chew the scenery as Morgana, a young Liam Neeson is sweaty and energetic as Gawain, and there’s a cracking turn from Patrick Stewart as Leodegrance. When this film was made, Stewart was still best-known as an RSC stalwart: he gives his declamatory scenes and sequences where he gets to whack people with a battle-axe the full Shakespearean beans, and you come away wishing he was in the movie more.

Perhaps the fact that it’s mostly the supporting players you think this of is another flaw in the film; Terry, Lunghi and Clay are all right as the central trio, but not exactly captivating. As a result, it’s really Williamson who ends up walking away with the film – given Merlin’s disappearance from the story, this might be a fatal flaw, but Boorman contrives things so he makes a vital contribution in the climax.

In many ways the director makes sensible choices about how to bring the King Arthur story to the screen, and occasionally inspired ones (the Wagner- and Orff-heavy soundtrack, for instance). If he ends up eventually making a film which is at best flawed, that’s because the task itself is an impossible one; ‘flawed’ is still a significant achievement given Excalibur‘s sheer ambition. Nevertheless, this is still the yardstick when it comes to movie treatments of the Arthurian legend, even if it is a bit too hectic and breathless to be much more than an introduction to the cycle.

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A now-obscure movie called The Siege was briefly the focus of some attention back in 1999 when odd behaviour amongst some of its patrons was noted: they would buy a ticket, take their seats, but then walk out as soon as the credits began. The reason? This was before the age of widespread and easy internet and they had just come to watch the trailer for George Lucas’ upcoming stellar conflict movie.

Now we are in the age of widespread and easy internet, trailers are a lot more accessible and subject to much more scrutiny than was the case in years gone by. Back then, much more of the heavy lifting when it came to promotional duties was done by the poster. We have considered in the past some of the more outlandish claims made on the posters of ambitious but low-budget exploitation movies, but few attempt the hard sell quite as ferociously as the advertising for the 1968 movie The Lost Continent:

Blood-beasts, female flesh, torture-pits, giant jaw-snapping molluscs, floating death-ship, helpless beauties, crazed kelp-monsters – sounds like a hell of a movie, doesn’t it? Or possibly just hell, depending on your taste in films. The Lost Continent (NB barely features a continent, and certainly not a lost one) was made by Michael Carreras for Hammer Films. Now, Carreras produced many of the studio’s best and most successful films, and deserves credit for that. However, as a writer and director his track record is rather less stellar, with The Lost Continent (one of two films that he wrote under a pseudonym and directed, the other being Prehistoric Women) a powerful exhibit for the prosecution’s case.

The movie opens with beat combo The Peddlers treating us to the title track, which is heavy on the Hammond organ (this forms a key element of the film’s soundtrack). We find ourselves in a strangely-hued graveyard of ships, aboard one of which a burial-at-sea is just under way: various people, some dressed as Spanish conquistadors, others in modern dress, stand around gravely.

Presiding is Captain Lansen (Eric Porter), a man who is deeply troubled by questions of how he got into this situation (there may not have been much acting required from Porter, to be honest). The film obligingly flashes back to provide some answers: Lansen’s ship, the tramp freighter Corita, is making a swift departure from Freetown in Sierra Leone, trying to dodge the customs launch in the process. Why? Well, Lansen has got sick of being the owner-operator of this leaky old tub and has taken on a lucrative but illegal cargo of highly explosive white phosphorous, with a view to selling it and the ship in Caracas and retiring on the proceeds. His more principled first officer is duly shocked.

When the ship runs into a hurricane and starts taking on water, the rest of the crew demand that Lansen turns back (white phosphorous detonates when wet, apparently), but the passengers are having none of it (the crew includes some fine actors, including Victor Maddern, Michael Ripper and Donald Sumpter, but they don’t get much to do in this film). Despite the contemporary setting, the roots of the story in a 1938 novel by Dennis Wheatley are very obvious here, as there is something rather hokey and dated about all these people sitting around the saloon of a freighter making a transatlantic crossing. Amongst them we meet a boozy con-man (Tony Beckley), a former trophy-wife on the run (Hildegard Knef), an enquiry agent in pursuit of her (Ben Carruthers), a doctor fleeing a scandal (Nigel Stock, who is briefly seen reading the Wheatley novel – about as close as the film gets to genuine wit) and his daughter (Suzanna Leigh), whom he is fiercely protective of for self-interested reasons.

None of this lot want to go back to Africa and so the crew mutiny and depart, taking one of the lifeboats; only a handful stick around, including the steward (Jimmy Hanley) and the chief engineer (James Cossins). We have commented in the past on Cossins’ tendency to be cast as pompous establishment figures; this is about as proletarian as he gets, although as the story goes on the chief engineer proves to be a man with a side-line is fierce theological rigour.

With the ship leaking, the movie attempts a tense sequence with the passengers having to shift all the explosives to somewhere less damp. It is not really very tense, to be honest, and concludes with Lansen deciding they have to abandon ship anyway. So everyone piles into a lifeboat, which is launched into something which is very obviously a medium-sized water tank.

Some occasional rowing (‘It’ll keep you fit!’ growls the captain) and arguing over the rations ensues, with everyone bemoaning their lot and the viewer possibly beginning to wonder when the crazed kelp-monsters, giant jaw-snapping molluscs, and indeed the lost continent itself are actually going to make an appearance in the movie. In the end Tony Beckley can’t take it any more and hurls himself over the side in a drunken stupor; Nigel Stock dives in to save him and is eaten by a rubber shark, but Beckley is retrieved anyway.

The lifeboat becomes entangled in thick sea-weed, which proves to be more serious than it first appears when the weed grapples onto Lansen with its thick, thorny fronds – yes, the crazed kelp-monsters have finally arrived! Another extra is eaten by the weed before the lifeboat bumps into the Corita, which has likewise been snagged by the kelp. Everyone gets back on board, which only leads one to conclude that this whole sequence has just been there to get rid of Nigel Stock.

With Stock out of the way, his daughter reveals he has been repressing her for ages and goes a bit mad as a result of her sudden freedom, chucking herself at Beckley (not keen, racked with guilt following the bit with the shark) and then Carruthers (rather more receptive). The two of them slip out onto the deck to see what happens, but any developments are forestalled by the appearance over the gunwale of a giant octopus, which proceeds to eat Carruthers and cover Leigh in green slime before it can be driven off.

There is a sense of the plot finally getting somewhere, and not before time, as the freighter pitches up in a strange weed-infested realm of wrecked ships, some of them seemingly very ancient, and rocky outcrops. (It’s still not a continent though.) Strange shapes are sighted through the mist, and then contact is made with the locals, as a young woman approaches the ship. She is played by latter-day blues singer Dana Gillespie, and has an impressive set of flotation devices. She also has a set of helium balloons strapped to her shoulders.

(Yeah, I do kind of appreciate that that last attempt at a gag is probably unacceptable in these enlightened days of 2021, and I feel duly apologetic – though clearly not to the point of actually removing it from the review. It’s not as though the film doesn’t go all out to exploit the potential of the stunning Gillespie decolletage: the poor woman is in a shirt open practically to the navel, and most of the publicity photos for this film seem to show her leaning forward while sitting on a giant plastic crab:

My mistake, it’s a giant scorpion, not a crab.)

Gillespie is being chased by Spanish conquistadors working for the Inquisition, with whom there is a brisk scrap. (All the locals wear balloons and snowshoes to let them walk around on the weed.) She reveals they are the descendants of explorers who got stuck here centuries ago and are reigned over by the tyrannical El Supremo, a child ruler under the control of a pointy-hood-wearing maniac. Clearly conflict between the newcomers and the Inquisition is on the cards, but not before they can cram in Jimmy Hanley being throttled by a giant crab and a death-struggle between the crab and a giant sea scorpion (the question of which is the worse prop is also fiercely contested).

The poster catch-line ‘A living hell that time forgot!’ accurately nails The Lost Continent as a precursor to the Trampas movies made by Amicus in the following decade (The Land That Time Forgot, etc) – but while those films occasional attain the level of Good Bad Movie, this one is (to quote the Encyclopedia of Science-Fiction’s review) wholly absurd, even if the art direction is good. The Doug McClure films are unashamed pulp from start to finish: Carreras seems to think this film has an outside chance of functioning as serious drama, hence a lot of very intense scenes as the captain and passengers articulate their various personal issues to each other, usually by monologuing. These would probably feel corny even in a conventional context; surrounded by scenes dealing with killer sea-weed and rampaging invertebrates, they become utterly ridiculous and just as funny as the bad creature effects.

The saving grace of The Lost Continent is that its general badness is still somehow exceeded by its extreme silliness; how anyone involved managed to take any of it seriously is a miracle, but somehow they did and the result is an extraordinary piece of unintentional comedy. Perhaps I’m being unnecessarily harsh to the producer class, but so many producers-turned-directors start off by making this sort of tat: plenty of action and character and colour, but no developing storyline, no connections, just incident after incident. The material here is so bizarre that the film achieves a surreal kind of bad-acid-trip quality; afterwards you can’t quite believe what you’ve been watching. It’s a terrible film, but also enormously entertaining.

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