Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

And now for another installment in our current series entitled Underperformance Anxiety, in which we consider the plight of a movie which has not lived up to box-office expectations in a fairly serious way. This time around it is Nikolaj Arcel’s The Dark Tower, based on a (I’m tempted to say ‘interminable’) lengthy novel sequence by one of the greatest storytellers of our day, Stephen King. Many people have tried to bring The Dark Tower to the screen, for the sequence has gained legions of fans for its rich mythology, engaging characters, and imagination, apparently (I should point out that while I’m a big fan of King, I’ve always shied away from these particular books for no reason I can easily articulate). On the other hand, the two most famous of these were Ron Howard and JJ Abrams, neither of whom I would honestly describe as a visionary film-maker, so maybe that was for the best.

Or maybe not. What exactly, you may be well be wondering, is the Dark Tower, and why have they made a film about it? Well, fasten your seatbelts and I will have a go at explaining. The Dark Tower, you see, is the metaphysical bulwark which supports the structure of all the worlds of the multiverse, which stands at the centre of creation and holds back eternal, demon-infested darkness. Yes, apparently the Dark Tower holds back the darkness, which is a little counter-intuitive, but I shouldn’t worry too much about it. No-one in the movie actually visits the Dark Tower, it is just a sort of symbol or plot device – the movie could have been called The Pink Bus Stop or The Tartan-patterned Shed and it would be functionally exactly the same, just with a lower special-effects budget. (Although neither of those would have the same kind of archetypal mythic resonance. The whole movie is very big on symbolism and archetypes, which may be one of the reasons why it is as coherent as it is.)

Well, anyway, for reasons best known to himself, evil sorcerer Walter (Matthew McConaughey) is trying to knock the Dark Tower down and end the world, using the psychic powers of children whom his bestial minions have kidnapped from across the multiverse. This is causing mysterious earthquakes in the various worlds, and giving nightmares to Jake (Tom Taylor), a troubled young lad living in New York City with his mum and stepfather. His various visions of the Tower, of Walter, and of an enigmatic gunfighter (Idris Elba) just lead everyone to conclude he’s one book short of a novel sequence, and when Walter’s minions turn up offering to take him to a Special Clinic for Troubled Children he finds it very hard to say no.

But say no Jake does, and he manages to find his way into one of the other worlds, looking for the gunfighter. His name turns out to be Roland, and he is in fact a Gunslinger (the capitalisation seems non-negotiable), the last of an ancient and noble order of warriors, carrying a pair of pistols forged from the metal of Excalibur. Or something. However, Roland is having a bit of a crisis and seems in danger of becoming terminally grumpy (as you can imagine, this element of the character really plays to Elba’s strengths as an actor). However, the chance to kill Walter (with whom he has an old beef) perks Roland up a bit and he and Jake set off to find Walter’s supervillain lair together…

Hollywood Marketing Dogma #1 these days is that, if you’re promoting a product with an established following, you have to keep the fans onside, or else your movie could end up capsized by the bad buzz before it even reaches theatres. The alarm and disquiet with which early news of The Dark Tower was greeted by fans of the books probably chilled the soul of the marketing department – for one thing, this is an adaptation of a 4,250 page novel sequence that clocks in at a far-from-expansive 95 minutes, and for another, it’s not really a straight adaptation of the novel sequence at all, but also to some extent a sequel (I get the impression things get metaphysically weird on a fairly regular basis in Dark Tower-land).

On the other hand, while not many people seem to be going to see The Dark Tower, the ones who do seem to be having a reasonably good time – critics excepted. And the fact is that it’s not a terrible movie by any means, and indeed has some interesting things going on in it. It very much reminded me of a bunch of other, thematically similar films, such as Forbidden Kingdom and The Last Action Hero, in which children from ‘the real world’ find their way into a fantastical realm, hook up with a paternal tough-guy, fight against evil, and so on. Nothing wrong with that – a sturdy narrative archetype, I would say. The distinctive and perhaps problematic thing about The Dark Tower is that its fantasy element is not drawn from something as resonant as Chinese mythology or cinema itself, but has been created almost out of whole cloth – you’ve got gunslingers, Dark Towers, parallel worlds, high-tech dimensional portals, demons, psychic powers, evil sorcerers, and monsters in stolen human skins, all crammed into the same movie. Being hit with all this stuff at the same time is admittedly rather bracing, but at the same time you feel perpetually on the verge of being flummoxed by it all.

I say this as someone who is more than passingly familiar with the Stephen King opus. I like King more than many people (my writing coach, for instance, is by no means a big fan), and ideally this film would tip people off to the fact he’s not just a big-selling horror author, but the creator of a complex and intricate fictional universe of his own – there are various references to other King stories threaded into this one, which you don’t even have to be that big a fan to spot (in addition to Jake’s psychic powers being nicknamed ‘shining’, there’s a spot of free publicity for the forthcoming It movie, while Walter is so transparently another incarnation of King’s recurring supervillain Randall Flagg you nearly expect the revelation of his true identity to be a plot point). On the other hand, if you’re not into Stephen King I suspect all of this will just add to your sense of bafflement.

Perhaps it’s the need to keep the wider audience on board that is responsible for the film’s structure feeling so very, very familiar. You can almost see the flags popping up as the various points in Classic Story Structure are reached and ticked off. For all its textural and thematic weirdness, the movie is on some level very routine, even predictable, and perhaps this is the single biggest problem with it. It’s almost like taking pieces of ancient, gnarled, mysterious wood, from trees at the edge of the world, and then using them to make flat-pack office furniture, in strict accordance with the assembly instructions. The film should really be bigger, richer, weirder, more sprawling, and definitely have more than three significant characters.

That said, all three of the leads are perfectly acceptable, with McConaughey in particular seeming to have fun with his role. The production values and direction are also never less than thoroughly competent, and occasionally you do get a glimpse of the remarkable film which could be made from this material – some of Tom Holkenborg’s rousing music, for instance, seems to have wandered in from a rather more effective fantasy adventure movie.

No doubt the producers would agree, defending this movie by saying it’s only intended as an introduction to the Dark Tower mythology, with various TV series and sequels in the works which will explore this universe further. Well, if so, that nearly reduces The Dark Tower to the status of the world’s longest and most expensive teaser trailer – and one which doesn’t really do its job, for at the end you don’t really feel a burning desire to spend any more time with these characters. The uninspired efficiency of the movie robs it of genuine power and magic. It seemed like everyone had forgotten about the famous hoodoo afflicting Stephen King, where for the longest time his most famous and accomplished novels would come a terrible cropper when they were adapted for the screen. It seems to be back in full effect as far as The Dark Tower is concerned. Still, not an actively bad film, just a rather odd and not particularly exciting one.

 

Read Full Post »

‘I can’t believe you’ve never seen Being John Malkovich,’ said Bloke From Next Desk.

‘I didn’t say I’d never seen it, I just said I haven’t seen it in a very long time. Fifteen years or so,’ I said.

‘No problem,’ he said (I’m not entirely sure he actually heard me). Within a couple of days he had brought in his copy of the film on DVD for me to watch. He is a thoughtful fellow, even if I find him rather too inclined to be generous towards Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Hey, nobody’s perfect.

So, anyway, Spike Jonze’s 1999 film Being John Malkovich, which reached the UK a short while later, as tended to be standard in those days. I was living in the north of England at the time, many hours from the nearest art-house cinema, and so I could often only listen and sigh as London-based film critics extolled the praises of bold, brilliant, unusual films, that I knew I didn’t have a chance in hell of actually getting to see on the big screen. Ah, my wilderness years; however did I make it through? Being John Malkovich was just one especially notable example of this – there was a distinct buzz about this film, presumably because of both its startling premise and relentless originality.

John Cusack, that dependable and likeable screen presence, is cast rather against type as Craig, a struggling puppeteer who is married to obsessive animal-lover Lottie (Cameron Diaz, who is also cast very much against type). At Lottie’s request, Craig puts his unusual dexterity to use in a steadier job, working as a file clerk for the mysterious LesterCorp. Here he meets and is instantly attracted to the spiky Maxine (Catherine Keener) – she, quite sensibly, wants nothing to do with him.

All this changes when Craig discovers a mysterious blocked-up doorway in the file room. Going through it results in him being sucked down a passage and finding himself in the mind of the distinguished American actor John Malkovich (John Malkovich). For fifteen minutes he gets to experience life as a famous thespian, before he is disgorged onto the side of a road just outside New York.

Craig and Maxine decide to make the most of their discovery, by selling tickets to Malkovich’s mind for $200 each (as you would). Needless to say, there are dozens of interested parties, and it looks like the pair of them have a good thing going – until Lottie discovers that occupying Malkovich allows her to live out her fantasies of being a man, and engages in a relationship with Maxine from within the actor. Malkovich himself becomes suspicious of the odd events happening around him, and decides to find out just what is going on…

These days, you look at Being John Malkovich and think, ‘aha, a Charlie Kaufman movie’, for the writer has gone on to carve out a unique furrow as a purveyor of existential strangeness in wildly original and blackly funny films like Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Anomalisa. It’s almost enough to make you suspect he has some kind of superpower when it comes to persuading A-list actors to appear in very, very strange films.

So it is with this one. If you haven’t seen it, you may be wondering how on Earth the film goes about selling the notion of a metaphysical portal into someone’s mind to the audience – well, it is a ridiculous idea, but Kaufman and Jonze make it work by setting the whole film in a ridiculous world. No-one in the film behaves entirely normally – Craig is forever getting punched in the face for putting on age-inappropriate puppet shows in the street, the LesterCorp receptionist appears to have some kind of bizarre problem with her hearing, and the company itself is on the Seventh-and-a-Half floor of its building, with the result that everyone has to go around stooped over all the time. Given that all the characters accept these various elements without questioning them in the slightest, the existence of the Malkovich portal seems relatively less weird when it first appears.

Not that this makes the presence of John Malkovich himself in the film any less astounding – getting him to participate at all is possibly its greatest achievement. ‘If the film is bad, my name’s not just above the title, it is the title,’ Malkovich reportedly complained to Jonze, ‘and if it’s any good, everyone’s just going to assume I am this character.’ It’s not even as if this is a particularly flattering depiction of Malkovich – there’s a running joke about how he is universally acclaimed as a great thespian, but none of the other characters can actually name any of the films he’s appeared in. The fictional Malkovich takes himself very seriously, too – which presumably the real one doesn’t, or he wouldn’t be anywhere near it (apparently the studio head would have preferred Being Tom Cruise, as well).

If you’re the kind of person who likes to try and guess what the theme of a film is before watching it, you would be forgiven for assuming that this is essentially a comedy about our contemporary obsession with fame – everyone gets their fifteen minutes of Malkovich, after all. And while this is a consistently funny film, if you come to it with the right attitude at least, I don’t think that’s all there is to it. It may sound like a comedy, but it doesn’t behave like one – neither the performances nor the direction do anything to suggest that this is anything other than a straight drama, admittedly one with an outlandish element of fantasy, perhaps even of horror: after all, the plot resolves itself as ultimately being about a secret immortal who has hit upon a method of vastly extending his life by overpowering the free will of unsuspecting victims. Only the deadpan seriousness of the presentation makes it funny (an engaging paradox).

You can’t fault the film for its entertainment value, or endless inventiveness – as Roger Ebert said at the time, this is one of those incredibly rare films which is as surprising in its last thirty minutes as it is in its first. It is consistently funny, surprising, and… well, I’m not quite sure I’d call it thought-provoking, but it does delight in throwing strange ideas at the audience. The problem is that the price of this is that the film departs from any kind of recognisable dramatic structure – who’s the protagonist? Who’s the antagonist? Just which way is this going to go? Bereft of any of the usual signposts or markers, my memory of this movie after my initial VHS encounter was one of a collection of wildly disparate individual bits rather than a coherent narrative, and I’m not sure meeting it again on DVD has done much to change that impression. A very well-made, very funny film, but a total oddity on nearly every level.

Read Full Post »

Further extracts from The Lacklustre Film Blogger’s Guide to Behaving Badly at the Cinema:

June 10th, in the Earth Year 1997 – your correspondent and a bloke called Pete are leaving Huddersfield’s premier fleapit cinema, having just watched Luc Besson’s new sci-fi spectacular, The Fifth Element.

‘I really don’t know what to make of that,’ I said. ‘That was either one of the greatest, most imaginative films I’ve ever seen, or a massive load of poo.’

Pete considered this for about a quarter of a second. ‘Poo,’ he said.

I gave his answer equally careful appraisal. ‘Yeah, you’re probably right,’ I said.

Earlier Today – and, despite my experience a couple of decades ago, I make it to the front of the queue for Luc Besson’s new sci-fi spectacular.

‘Hello. One for Valerian and the Unnecessarily Long Title, please.’

I have to hand it to the serving minions at the city centre multiplex, they’re getting quite used to this sort of thing, and I got my ticket with barely a raised eyebrow. I note that even the exhibitors agree with me on the name thing, for on the ticket it’s just called Valerian.

The full title is Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and it is based on the long-running French SF comic strip Valerian and Laureline. As you might therefore expect, this is a distinctly pulp-SF influenced movie, all served up with the restraint, self-awareness, and iron narrative control that are the hallmarks of a Luc Besson movie (NB: irony is present).

The movie is set in the kind of universe where you expect everyone to have ‘Space’ in front of their job titles just to make it absolutely clear what’s going on. After some prefatory goings-on, we meet Space Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Space Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne), who are space government security agents. They are initially engaged in retrieving an extremely endangered space animal from the clutches of space gangsters in a very peculiar market, surrounded by space tourists, and things become a little awkward when Valerian gets his arm stuck in another dimension.

All this resolved, the duo head off to Alpha Station, which is basically the International Space Station, shoved off into deep space when it became too big and unwieldy (look, just go with it). Now it is the titular hub of galactic diplomacy and commerce, but a mysterious force is threatening to destroy it. Space Commander Filitt (Clive Owen), Valerian and Laureline’s space boss, has summoned them (and the space animal) as he thinks it may help in resolving the crisis. But before they can get anywhere, the meeting of top space brass comes under attack from mysterious aliens…

I feel I should go on record and reiterate that I am genuinely a fan of Luc Besson and his uniquely uninhibited style of film-making – whatever else you can say about the Besson canon, the movies themselves are rarely dull. That said, my experiences watching The Fifth Element, together with the fact that Valerian (I’m not typing that whole title every time) has already been declared a box ofice bomb in the States, did lead me to lower my expectations in this particular case. Was this justified? Well…

Actually, for the first few minutes I had real hopes that the States had got it wrong, for the opening sequence of Valerian is very nearly magical: Bowie plays on the soundtrack, and Besson moves from the manned space missions of the 1970s into a lavishly imagined future depicting the human race spreading out into the galaxy and befriending alien races. It’s rare to come across something so unashamedly optimistic in modern SF, and it’s quite charming.

However, from here we go to the alien CGI planet of Mul, where androgynous aliens do peculiar alien things while conversing in an alien language. All of this eventually turns out to be relevant to the plot, but while you’re watching it, it just seems like a lot of rather smug CGI aliens prancing about endlessly, and all that goodwill rapidly drains away.

The introduction of our two heroes doesn’t help much, and here I feel we must digress momentarily to issues of casting: Valerian appears to have been written as a loveable, wisecracking rogue, someone who on the face of things is a slightly dubious character, but who’s really a reliable and principled hero when the chips are down. The part is really crying out for someone like Guy Pearce – perhaps I’m thinking of him because his performance from the 2012 Besson movie Lockout would have been note-perfect here – or another actor who can do that effortless, tough guy charisma. Instead, they have cast Dane DeHaan, a capable actor but one whose most distinctive quality is that he always gives the impression he’s in dire need of a nice hot meal and a long lie down.

On the other hand, one of the notable things about Valerian is that it reveals Cara Delevingne to be a rather engaging screen presence – she shows every sign of being able to act a bit, unlike many other MTAs, and (obviously) the camera seems very fond of her, especially when she’s working with the right hair and costume people. Just goes to show you shouldn’t judge anyone on the strength of their contribution to Suicide Squad, I guess, and given she’s at least as integral to the action as DeHaan’s character, I wonder why the whole movie isn’t called Valerian and Laureline? Hey ho.

That said, DeHaan and Delevingne are not noticeably gifted with chemistry when they’re sharing the screen, which is a problem as many of their scenes revolve around Valerian’s somewhat febrile eagerness to take their relationship to the next level, and her problematic reluctance (I guess rank has lost some of its privileges in the future). Lack of chemistry, a shortage of snap in the supposedly snappy dialogue, and the fact that the two experienced space security agents seem to be characterised as snarky Millennials meant that it took me a long time to warm up to the duo.

In the end, what successes the film has are largely down to its visual imagination – this is a vast, whimsical galaxy that isn’t obviously derived from any single source, although there are obviously touches of the stellar conflict franchise, Flash Gordon, Guardians of the Galaxy and The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy sprinkled across it. It all looks very lavish and vibrant, even in 2D, but if you have an issue with endless CGI characters and backgrounds this is not the movie for you. There is lots of creative imagery and some inventively silly high-tech weaponry on display.

How much you enjoy Valerian will probably boil down to your ability to just lie back and enjoy the look and feel of the thing, while ignoring the many and serious issues with the plot and scripting. I’ve been assimilating every book on story structure I can lay my grubby little protuberances on recently, so perhaps I’m over-sensitive to this kind of thing, but given Luc Besson is credited with writing nearly fifty movies, Valerian is strikingly shoddy and haphazard in the script department. The plot is about trying to stop the destruction of an imaginary place we don’t know much about by an abstract force, the hero seems more concerned with his love life than any weightier concerns, and there are vast rambling detours away from the main plot – a major, lengthy sequence featuring Ethan Hawke as a space pimp and Rihanna as a shape-shifting space pole dancer could be totally excised without materially affecting the actual story of the film.

People have a go at the stellar conflict prequel movies for focusing on CGI and spectacle over actually having a coherent narrative, but only at their very worst are they quite as self-indulgent and lacking in focus as Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Now, I like this kind of sci-fi (I’m on record as preferring the prequel trilogy to the recent Disney-Abrams stellar conflict offering), but even so I find it quite hard to say anything especially positive about Valerian beyond vaguely praising its incidental imagination, and of course Cara Delevingne’s hair. I’m not sure any audience will be quite captivated by the film’s impressive visuals sufficiently to overlook its serious shortcomings in the storytelling department.

 

Read Full Post »

Wonder Woman! Wonder Woman!

All the world is waiting for you

And the power you possess

Fighting for your rights

In your satin tights

And the old red white and blue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »