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Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

Never mind your Schrodinger’s Cat, if you really want to talk about indeterminacy, we need to get onto the topic of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli’s retirement. As previously noted on this blog, the announcement, after the production of The Wind Rises, that Miyazaki was knocking film direction on the head due to his advanced years was met with a howl of anguish from world-cinema-friendly theatres which was matched only by that marking the release of – allegedly – the final Ghibli film of any kind, When Marnie Was There, in 2016.

And yet what gives? Not only did a Ghibli co-production sneak out last year (the bold human-chelonian romance The Red Turtle), but now Miyazaki has decided he hasn’t actually retired after all and is hoping to get a new movie, How Do You Live?, finished in time for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. Perhaps most confuzzling of all is the appearance on the scene of the new Japanese animation house Studio Ponoc, which appears to be largely staffed by former employees of Studio Ghibli.

Studio Ponoc’s first movie is Mary and the Witch’s Flower, directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (director of When Marnie Was There and key contributor to a couple of other recent films), and I don’t think it’s overstating the case that the new movie is coat-tailing Ghibli in order to secure the kind of major international release not normally received by the debut movies of non-Anglophone animation houses. The Ghibli influence begins with the choice of source material: in this case, a 1971 novel by the noted English writer Mary Stewart, although the title has been changed from The Little Broomstick, possibly to make it just a little bit more reminiscent of another series of films and books (we will come to this).

We are in fairly classic territory here, anyway – one of the characters wears a hoodie, another is rocking a baseball cap, but there is virtually nothing in the story that would be out of place if the film was actually set fifty years ago. The Mary of the title is a lonely and restless young girl (voiced in the English dub by Ruby Barnhill) who has just been sent to the country to live with her great-aunt (a perhaps unexpected but by no means unwelcome appearance by Lynda Baron of Open All Hours fame). Left to her own devices, one day she wanders off into the woods and makes a couple of surprising discoveries: a mysterious glowing plant, and an old broomstick.

Yup, we are off into a child-friendly tale of rather traditionally-conceived magic and mysticism, for Mary finds that the plant charges her with supernatural power, and the broom whisks her off into another world and deposits her at the Endor School for witches and warlocks. Here she is greeted by the head teacher, Madame Mumblechook (Kate Winslet), and her deputy Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbent), who hail her as a prodigy amongst young witches, a shoo-in as a new student, a potential head girl, and so on. But do the duo have an ulterior motive for delivering such fulsome praise? And does Mary’s own family have a connection to the history of the witch school…?

I remember first seeing the trailer for Mary and the Witch’s Flower and the feeling of bafflement it immediately provoked: the look of the thing is, at first glance, so utterly indistinguishable from an actual Studio Ghibli movie that you wonder what the point of the rebranding is. Never mind Studio Ponoc, they might as well have called it Studio Jubbly or Studio Giblet. Of course, the upside of this is that Ghibli make the most beautiful traditionally-animated movies in the world, and Mary and the Witch’s Flower is also an exceptionally good-looking film. Perhaps it isn’t quite as exquisite as some of Ghibli’s films, and there are a couple of moments where I thought a little more fine detail wouldn’t have gone amiss, but this is still very much business as usual, in a good way.

The question is to what extent this is also true in the story department, for once again you could be forgiven for finding a fair bit of the story to be, well, not exactly burningly innovative. A school for witches and warlocks? With a menagerie of magical beasts? And a lovably Scottish-sounding member of the support staff? To which a lonely child finds themselves transported? Fair enough, they’ve covered themselves by basing the movie on a book which was published when JK Rowling was still quite tiny herself, but it still seems very much like they’re gunning for that lucrative audience hungry for all things which are just a little bit Potter.

I’m not familiar with the Mary Stewart novel, but the script of this movie at least is not really in the same league as those in the other franchise to which I have been alluding. This feels like a movie specifically aimed at quite a young audience, with thin characterisation and a very straightforward story, and in the early stages in particular it ambles along at an amiable pace without a great deal of incident. I found myself in genuine danger of actually falling asleep during the film at one point in the middle; I did go to see an afternoon showing towards the end of a fairly long week, but even so, I don’t think this is a good sign.

I am glad to be able to report that the story does pick up a bit as the film builds towards its climax, with some very engaging sequences: visually it gets very interesting, with a definite steampunk feel to some of fantastical alchemical equipment on display, and also a lot of the… do you know, I very nearly wrote ‘trademark Ghibli surreal grotesqueness on display’. Well, it’s true, this movie does make use of the Ghibli house style – it’s just not a Ghibli movie, officially at least. But the thing is that I don’t believe the change of marque is really going to fool anyone. This is a nice, well-made, inoffensive kid’s animation – I’m not sure it really holds as much for the discerning adult filmgoer as the average Miyazaki movie. What makes it distinctive are its attempts to not be distinctive at all: to emulate pretty much every detail of the Studio Ghibli style of film-making, along with a fair few elements of JK Rowling’s famous stories too. Not a bad film at all, but essentially the cinematic equivalent of high-class karaoke.

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Is there really any doubt remaining? In ten years, Marvel Studios have risen from nowhere to become the world’s dominant makers of blockbuster entertainment. Once-mighty rival franchises have stuttered, wobbled, and stalled: the Marvel project forges on implacably. Most film series have to operate at full stretch if they produce a movie every year – Marvel are now at the point where they seem comfortably able to release three: having already come up with the year’s most successful film so far (Black Panther, still showing in some cinemas), they now look set to surpass themselves once more, in the form of the Russo brothers’ Avengers: Infinity War.

Marvel have opted to release this movie under their Avengers marque, but it is really quite a different kind of film from most they have done before. Josh Brolin (an actor due to spend a hefty chunk of the year kicking super-powered butt, one suspects) plays Thanos, a benevolent cosmic titan who is not afraid to take those difficult decisions and make himself unpopular in the service of the greater good. His current idea is to solve most of the universe’s problems by the simple expedient of removing fifty percent of its population, entirely fairly and completely at random.

To do so he needs to lay his mighty purple hands on the six Infinity Stones, the embodiment of fundamental cosmic forces, and as the film opens he has acquired one from the planet Xandar and is in the process of retrieving another from the refugees late of the destroyed world Asgard, administering an admonitory smack or four to the Asgardian king Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in the process.

From here it’s off to Earth, a unique world in that it currently hosts two of the Stones, one being in the amulet of master sorcerer Dr Strange (Cumbersome Bandersnatch) and the other lodged in the head of android superhero Vision (Paul Bettany). The silly little super-people of Earth are currently in disarray, following the falling-out between Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) and Captain America (Chris Evans) a couple of years ago, but the appearance of Thanos and his followers serves to focus their minds rather wonderfully, and there are various skirmishes in New York and Edinburgh.

While this is going on, Thor has hitched a ride with space-going ne’er-do-wells the Guardians of the Galaxy and is intent on exacting vengeance on our hero. Meanwhile, the defenders of the Earth are gathering to make their final stand in the enigmatic African nation of Wakanda, where Captain America’s old friend Bucky has had his old codename of Winter Soldier retired (which makes sense, as there’s no winter in Africa) and taken the new one White Wolf (which doesn’t make sense, as there are no wolves in Africa, either. At least not white ones). Can Thanos get the rest of the stones and save the universe, or will these insect-like pests conspire to drag him down?

(Well, it’s kind of true. One of the startling things about Infinity War is that you can view the film in this way and it still makes a lot of sense; it does seem to be a deliberate choice.)

As I say, this is billed as an Avengers movie but really works as a summation of everything they have been doing for the last ten years and in the previous eighteen movies (well, almost: there are a couple of characters, one of them fairly prominent, who they simply couldn’t squeeze in, even to a movie as big as this). So, as you may have surmised, there are lengthy sequences based around characters from the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, while Iron Man spends most of the movie engaged in a snark-off with Dr Strange and Spider-Man (Tom Holland). Even by Marvel’s standards, this is a blockbuster on an immense scale, bringing together dozens of characters and half a dozen separate storylines.

So the question is, how can they possibly make it work? At least one of the previous really big Marvel films, Age of Ultron, felt like it was in danger of buckling under its own momentousness. Well, I’m not quite sure how they’ve pulled the trick, but Infinity War really does work – provided you’ve been following along, at least. I can think of no surer way of creating total bafflement than to stick someone uninitiated in front of this film. For the true believer, however, this is a kind of pop opera, spectacular entertainment on an unprecedented scale.

One of the smarter moves of the script is to establish right from the start, in the most emphatic manner imaginable, not just the power of Thanos, but also the movie’s willingness to take a scythe to the ranks of the established characters from these films. It really does seem like no-one is completely safe, no-one has script immunity, and Thanos is a potentially deadly menace to virtually everyone else. (The Avengers and their allies spend most of the movie frantically trying to come up with a way to foil Thanos without having to confront him directly.) This results in a genuinely tense experience: there were various gasps, wails, and cries of ‘Oh no!’ in the screening I attended when one character took a sword to the gut near the end. It’s a scene that makes it clear this movie starts with its intensity and scale already cranked up to 10, and it stays there for most of the following two-and-a-half hours.

The danger, of course, is that audiences will not find themselves swept along by a thrilling adventure, but battered into submission by sheer bombast instead. They manage to avoid this by making a film which is surprisingly light-footed as it shifts between its various plotlines; it also does an exceedingly fine job of capturing that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby alchemy – almost without fail, an absurdly grandiose moment of cosmic spectacle will be neatly followed by a knowing one-liner, somehow offsetting it without undermining it.

Still, you may be thinking, with so many continuing characters, surely someone has to lose out in terms of simple screen time? Well, yes, up to a point this is true – but no-one feels especially ill-served (except for the people who don’t appear at all, anyway), and everyone gets at least one moment to shine. That said, the only character to get much in the way of genuine development is Thanos himself, most of this coming by way of his relationship with his adopted daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana). One of the themes of the film is the question of what sacrifices people are prepared to make for the greater good, and Thanos is not exempt from this.

Is this the best movie that Marvel Studios has made to date? Much as I enjoyed Infinity War, I think not: it’s a tremendous ride, not quite like anything I’ve seen before, but the sheer scale of the thing robs it of some of the humanity and emotion that characterise the best films in this series. Perhaps it’s trying to go just a bit too big – there’s at least one unexpected cameo from a returning character which just feels odd rather than a pleasant surprise. The knowledge that there’s another Avengers film out in twelve months will inevitably colour people’s response to the climax of this one, too, well-handled though it is.

It’s difficult to see quite where Marvel can go from here, but the fact that they will be recovering the rights to many other of their most popular characters in the not-too-distant future suggests they will not be short of possibilities. It seems unlikely they can top Infinity War, but then ten years ago even the idea of a film like this one would most likely have been dismissed as absurd. And yet here it is, and it is supremely entertaining stuff. When it comes to this studio, all bets have been off for some time now.

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‘Are you a really big Wes Anderson fan?’ asked the ticketeer at the sweetshop, perkily. All at once I was gripped with shame, the same kind of senseless panic which grips me when everyone else starts talking about how great Blade Runner is and I have to admit I don’t rate it that much, or I have to confess I’ve never actually seen a Dario Argento film. Earlier that very day, I was pondering that very question. I was sure I must have seen a Wes Anderson film at some point, so I checked out his filmography on Wikipedia. Nope. We have managed to avoid each other entirely, with the exception of about ten minutes of Fantastic Mr Fox which came on TV while Film 4 was playing in the background. I know this sort of thing is unacceptable in polite society, but it is the truth: I had never seen a Wes Anderson movie in my life.

I mumbled words to this effect, casting my eyes floorward, trying to hide my burning cheeks, but rather to my surprise the ticketeer declared she was determined to give me an experience I would never forget. I was a bit worried about missing the movie for a moment, but it turned out this was what she was referring to, as she sorted me out with a free upgrade to one of the comfy seats in the imminent screening of Anderson’s new movie Isle of Dogs. So I suppose the message we can take away from this is not that ignorance is necessarily bliss, but that sometimes it can pay off in unexpected ways. It is a funny old world, after all.

 

An ignorant person would assume that any movie entitled Isle of Dogs must perforce be set on, or at least connected with, an alluvial peninsula in the east end of London. But apparently this is not the quirky way that legendary auteur Wes Anderson rolls: his movie is set in a somewhat dystopian near-future Japan, in and around the sprawling city of Megasaki (another fake Japanese city to go on the list with San Fransokyo from Big Hero 6 – does Neo-Tokyo from Akira also count, I wonder?). The evil mayor of Megasaki has a problem with man’s best friend, for (it is implied) long-standing ancestral reasons, and has hit upon a machiavellian plot to have all dogs deported from the city to Trash Island, a polluted wasteland just across the bay.

The plan goes like clockwork and soon enough packs of starving and disease-ridden dogs are roaming Trash Island, struggling to stay alive. One such pack consists of Rex, King, Duke, Boss, and Chief (voiced by Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, and Bryan Cranston respectively) but the dogs find themselves with a new problem when a twelve-year-old boy crash-lands his stolen plane on the island. It turns out he is the mayor’s ward and nephew Atari, and he has come in search of his dog/bodyguard, who has been exiled to Trash Island along with all the others.

Chief is apparently unmoved by the boy’s story, once the dogs figure it out (being dogs, they don’t speak Japanese and can’t actually understand what Atari is saying), but the others reason that the job of a dog is to take care of twelve-year-old boys and decide to help him with his quest.

Meanwhile, back in Megasaki, the principled members of the Science Party are doing their best to have the machinations of the mayor overturned, while an American exchange student (Greta Gerwig) is also trying to save the canine population. Could it be that the dogs’ lives are about to take a turn for the better?

There is, obviously, something deeply sentimental about Isle of Dogs, mainly in the way it depicts the dogs themselves. This is clear even to someone like me – I am hardly a dog person (not a cat person, either, come to that). And yet this element of the film is deeply buried under so many layers of mannered artifice and ironic detachment that it is far from obvious. Despite the sentimentality of the film’s message, and its frequently fantastical story, I can’t really imagine anyone mistaking this film for a more mainstream animation. There is all that artifice and irony, for one thing; the subject matter of the story, and occasional elements of its tone, for another – I wouldn’t call this a particularly violent movie, by any means, but it is still oddly graphic in places. If there is a thin line between wit and outright pretentiousness, then I suspect this film skates close to it at times – lending her vocal talents to a brief cameo is Yoko Ono, playing a character named – wait for it – Assistant Scientist Yoko Ono. (Not all the humour is quite so rarefied; there are some moments in this film which even made me laugh.)

Even at the moments when the film seems to be in danger of becoming just a bit too smug, it remains quite captivating to watch, simply because of the enormous skill and attention to detail with which it has been made. The puppets and scenery don’t have the warmth of Aardman-style clay figurines, but they are still very engaging and characterful, and the nature of the production – the dogs constantly seem to be twitching and bristling as a result of the animators’ fingers moving their fur – means they have a real sense of life and energy about them. And this film you get to see things like stop-motion taiko-drumming, and stop-motion sumo-wrestling, which doesn’t turn up on the big screen all that often.

This is all to do with the film’s Japanese setting, naturally. There doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason for the film to be set in Japan, particularly, and it is a very emblematic kind of representation of the country; one assumes it is simply because Anderson is a fan of Japanese culture and movies (and why not). This becomes explicit at a couple of points, with one character looking rather like the iconic Japanese movie legend Toshiro Mifune, and the soundtrack featuring excerpts from Fumio Hayasaka’s magnificent score from Seven Samurai (in which Mifune of course starred). There are other Kurosawa references in the movie, too.

On the other hand, and I’m tempted to say ‘wouldn’t you just know it’, all this means that the film has come in for stick from some quarters for its supposed ‘cultural appropriation’ and unflattering depiction of many of its Japanese characters. Well, I suppose there may be grounds for criticism on the latter point, but for me the film’s sincere and encompassing affection for Japan and its culture was almost palpable, and adds enormously to the charm and atmosphere of the film. And it’s not as if this is the only movie borrowing from Japanese culture at the moment: if it weren’t for Godzilla, Ultraman, and the tokusatsu genre in general, there’d be no Pacific Rim, and Ready Player One would likely be unrecognisable with all the references to Japanese elements extracted. There’s also a criticism that the character voiced by Greta Gerwig is in some way an expression of the ‘white saviour’ trope – although as I have seen the label of ‘white saviour’ movie slapped on everything from The Matrix to La La Land, I’m honestly moved to wonder if this isn’t a concept which has been stripped of meaning through overuse (angry mobs with burning torches, please form a queue at the usual place).

I can’t honestly say that I’ll be rushing to catch up with the rest of Wes Anderson’s back catalogue, but Isle of Dogs certainly hasn’t put me off checking out more of his work. If nothing else, the obvious skill, intelligence, and talent which has gone into this film is impressive, and the results are always engaging and frequently very amusing. It’s good to see a film which is so obviously the product of a singular creative vision (because this movie certainly doesn’t scream crossover mainstream hit) getting such a wide release and attracting a significant audience. Dog lovers and Japanophiles will almost certainly have a good time with this movie, probably other people too.

(* To be clear – get on the c2c train in Barking, stay aboard for two stops until it reaches Limehouse, then switch to the Docklands Light Railway. The seventh stop from here is Crossharbour, from where it is a two minute walk to the Isle of Dogs. Simples.)

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Maintenance of aim is terribly important in any undertaking: if you’re a surgeon doing heart-surgery, for instance, it is generally accepted that changing your mind halfway through and embarking on a tonsillectomy is not best practice. This kind of goes without saying in most walks of life, and is not normally a problem when it comes to film-making, anyway; any decent movie, once it enters serious production, has all the agile manoeuvrability of a fully-laden oil tanker – it’s just too complicated and expensive to start changing things. (Many a famous flop is the result of clashing creative visions causing a bad movie to go soaring over budget.)

Movies are a bit more vulnerable at the scripting stage, of course, and a spectacular example of just how badly things can go wrong at this point appears to be John Hough’s 1986 film Biggles (released in the US a couple of years later, under the title of Biggles: Adventures in Time). Now, anyone familiar with W.E. Johns’ famous boy’s-adventure hero could probably have guessed that the producers of this movie had set out on a slightly rocky path: doing Biggles authentically would involve dealing with a lot of problematic material, mainly due to the character’s origins during the dying days of the British Empire – there are some fairly unreconstructed attitudes on display from time to time, if not outright racism.

Nevertheless, you could certainly imagine a Biggles movie kind of working, provided it was sensibly scripted to catch the spirit of the stories – lots of courageous aerial derring-do, all in the cause of righteousness, naturally – in fact, you could imagine the 1983 Tom Selleck movie High Road to China serving as a template for a fairly successful Biggles film. And apparently Hough’s movie started life as just such a rousing period adventure, in the Raiders of the Lost Ark style. However, and this is the point at which the catastrophe started to unfold, while the film was being scripted – it may even have been while it was in production, such are the timescales involved – key figures on the project noted the success of various science-fiction films, particularly Back to Future, and the decision was made to try and attract the same audience to the Biggles movie.

So it is that Biggles, a film supposedly about a British First World War flying ace, is primarily about Jim Ferguson (Alex Hyde-White), a New York City yuppie living in the middle 1980s. Ferguson’s job is running a company that produces fairly rancid-looking ready meals (he keeps getting dragged out of meetings by people declaring ‘there’s a glitch with the mashed potatoes!’) but his life is generally quite ordinary, except for the fact he is being stalked by a mysterious old man (a frail-looking Peter Cushing, giving it all he’s got).

Well, all this changes one night when Jim, apropos of nothing much, finds himself in 1917, saving the life of a British airman when his biplane crashes (this, needless to say, is Biggles, played moderately well by Neil Dickson). And then he’s back in New York, none the wiser. This happens a number of times, until he decides to sort it all out by tracking down the old man, who seems to be connected to this odd phenomenon. Cushing’s character actually lives inside Tower Bridge in London, for no very good reason, and turns out to be Air Commodore Raymond, Biggles’ commanding officer during the war. This would make him about a hundred years old, and the uncharitable would say Cushing possibly looks it, but the film skips daintily over such things.

Well, Cushing is saddled with the exposition, and reveals that Ferguson and Biggles are ‘time twins’ and that apparently ‘time travel is much more common than people think.’ This is the sole rationale for the movie, and not even Peter Cushing can sell it, I’m afraid. Anyway, every time Biggles is in danger, Ferguson finds himself plucked back through time to help him out, and spends most of the film ping-ponging back and forth. There is a plot about the Germans having developed a new weapon that delivers a devastating sonic attack (all together now: ‘You will feel dizzy, you will feel the urge to vomit’, and so on), which most of the action revolves around.

And it is all almost indescribably awful. It’s not as infuriatingly, wilfully ugly as the Peter Rabbit movie, but this is the kind of film that made some people spend most of the eighties announcing the death of the British film industry. Cushing is the only person connected with this film who had any kind of movie career of note, and it was his last role. Everyone else has a solid background in duff TV, for it is full of faces from things like Allo Allo! and Roland Rat. Well, maybe I’m being a little too harsh on John Hough, who in addition to doing various episodes of The New Avengers and similar things also made Twins of Evil for Hammer and the original Witch Mountain movies for Disney. There’s a bit of a Hammer thread running through this movie, for in addition to the presence of Cushing and Hough, a Hammer subsidiary part-financed the film. It just shows the extent of the company’s fall from grace in the 1980s, I suppose.

I mean, the film verges on the downright incompetent when it comes to things like editing and pacing, to say nothing of the tranquilised quality of most of the performances – Hyde-White is a particular offender in this department. All this just compounds the flaws inherent in the basic conception of the film, which crassly hedges its bets by attempting to combine swashbuckling adventure with time-travel fantasy and broad comedy: Ferguson keeps time travelling at inappropriate moments, so his friends discover him dressed as a nun (ho ho!) or he finds himself inadvertently machine-gunning the London police (ha ha!). The casual profanity in this film, to say nothing of the gags about breast implants, just feels horribly wrong for a Biggles movie, but the uncertainty of tone is pervasive – we go from moments of near-slapstick to a bit where Ferguson’s girlfriend (Fiona Hutchison), for no very good reason, claws an incinerated corpse’s eye from its socket. Even in the bits which seem vaguely historically accurate, the synth-pop soundtrack destroys any chance of atmosphere (this film contains Queen bassist John Deacon’s only recordings outside the band, which may mean it is of marginal interest to obsessive fans).

The real problem with Biggles is that it doesn’t have an audience: I don’t mean that no-one would be interested in a film based on this character (I think that a serious film based on the earliest stories, which are darker and grittier, could be really interesting), but that the structure of the story is so slip-shod and weak it appears to be aimed at undemanding children, while much of its substance is clearly pitched towards a much older age-group. The result is a strikingly incompetent film with a very broad lack-of-appeal; other than Queen aficionados, it’s only likely to be of interest as Cushing’s final (non-CGI) big screen appearance, and even in those terms it’s a horribly unworthy valediction for the great man.

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I’m all for people getting a bit evangelical and sharing the things that they love, but even I have to admit there’s usually a time and a place. In recent years I have been regularly amused and bemused by the good folk at the Horror Channel’s attempts to bring Roger Corman’s 1964 version of The Masque of the Red Death to a new audience, mainly by screening it in wildly inappropriate time-slots: 11am during the school holidays, for instance, or eight o’clock on a Sunday morning. Prefacing the movie with the announcement that ‘this film contains scenes which may be unsuitable for younger children’ hardly gets them off the hook; there would be nothing more certain to make me settle down in front of the screen as a younger child than hearing such a disclaimer. (Though it is of course not just this film that gets eccentrically scheduled: The Devil Rides Out has turned up as the Monday matinee in the past, while Quatermass and the Pit was on in the Sunday teatime slot just the other week.)

I suppose you could argue that it’s the ideas, not the visuals, of The Masque of the Red Death that make it the film that it is, and that your average nine-year-old isn’t going to pay much attention to those – I first saw this film as a teenager, and while I was blown away by some of the more fantastical imagery, the film’s musings on good and evil and the fate of the world sort of went over my head. Even then, though, it clearly seemed to me to be by far the best of the Corman-Price cycle of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, which it comes near the end of.

The film is set in late-mediaeval Italy, with the land ravaged by plague. Local despot Prince Prospero (Vincent Price, obviously), making one of his usual trips to terrorise the peasantry, is horrified to see that the dreaded red death has begun to spread amongst the villagers of his domain, and resolves to retire within his castle walls until the disease has run its course. Mainly to pass the time, he takes with him pious young peasant girl Francesca (an 18-year-old Jane Asher, in her pre-cakes Macca’s-girlfriend period); the prospect of destroying her faith in God amuses him (also he plans on having her boyfriend and father fight to the death for the entertainment of his cronies).

Prospero, as you may have been able to gather, is a toweringly nasty piece of work, but in his own way he is equally devout in his beliefs: it’s just that he is a devil-worshipper who believes that God is dead and Satan holds dominion over the world. Cruelty and viciousness are practically religious duties for Prospero, and he has done his best to encourage others in the faith – particularly his lover Juliana (Hazel Court), who is not best pleased when Prospero brings another woman home with him.

Well, Prospero sets about educating Francesca in what he sees as the deeper truths of existence, while at the same time planning for a grand masquerade ball to be held in the castle. Meanwhile, Francesca’s presence has made Juliana contemplate making a deeper commitment to Satanism, while another subplot concerns a dwarf acrobat planning a cunning revenge on another nobleman who has been cruel to his lover. Also occasionally glimpsed is a figure robed and cowled and cowled in crimson, who speaks somewhat cryptically of deliverance and fate. Could it be that Prospero’s dark master will be putting in an appearance at the masque? Or has he inadvertantly summoned up something even worse?

This movie was made in the UK, largely using home-grown talent (as well as Asher, stalwart character performers like Nigel Green, Robert Brown and Patrick Magee appear, with an uncredited John Westbrook doing really excellent work in the title role), which results in a well-played and very good-looking film, even if the slightly garish depiction of mediaeval life is a bit cod-Hollywood (the cinematography was the work of a fairly young Nicolas Roeg).

Historical realism is not really on the agenda, anyway, as this is a much more thoughtful, impressionistic kind of horror film. The slightly facile way to describe Masque of the Red Death is that it looks like the result of a torrid get-together between Ingmar Bergman and the people at Hammer Films (Corman repeatedly delayed production, as he was aware people would assume he was ripping off The Seventh Seal), but the truth is that this film is the product of a slightly different sensibility than the one at Hammer: Hammer were making classy costume dramas which they sold to a youthful audience by the inclusion of elements of gore and fantasy, but Corman mostly eschews fake blood and easy shocks.

Instead, the success of the film comes from a consistently-maintained atmosphere of moral and intellectual decadence, and a strong sense of impending doom as the red death draws closer and closer. Prospero isn’t just evil: he’s clearly having a whale of a time being evil, and it’s this which is as disturbing as anything which happens in the film (and some fairly serious stuff goes down, especially considering this movie was made in 1964).

Much of the work on the script was done by Charles Beaumont, although the illness that would eventually kill him meant he was unable to complete the project. Beaumont is probably best-known for his work as one of the three main writers on the original version of The Twilight Zone, and there’s a very real sense in which Masque of the Red Death almost feels like an extended episode of that series, made in lavish colour. Personifications of abstract ideas stalk the land, characters engage in lengthy discussions about good and evil, there is a killer twist ending. And the dialogue has an extraordinarily poetic quality to it – ‘I want to help save your soul, so you can join me in the glories of hell,’ Prospero tells Francesca, while Juliana later declares ‘I have tasted the beauties of terror.’

It may look a little iffy written down, but delivered by these actors it really sings, and no-one gives a more operatic performance than Vincent Price. No-one, I would say, could have been better suited to this depiction of playful, apparently civilised evil; and Price is a good enough technician to leave the tiniest cracks through which the remains of Prospero’s humanity can be glimpsed – he seems genuinely moved and unsettled by Francesca’s faith, and the film’s big pay-off comes in his great moment of pride and hubris, when he comes to realise there may be limits to his wisdom and understanding after all.

Most of the Corman-Price-Poe films are competent entertainments or amusing diversions, but this one takes the series to a higher level, filled with memorable imagery and striking ideas. In the first rank of Vincent Price’s horror film career, the fact is that I’ve never seen another film quite like this one: if The Masque of the Red Death doesn’t qualify as a classic horror movie, I don’t know what does.

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Well, here’s something which has kind of snuck up on me: having recently watched Takao Okawara’s Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla II, I find myself in the position of having seen all thirty-two of Toho’s Godzilla movies. This has been a long road, to be perfectly honest: there were only seventeen when I started, back in 1990, and the fact that most of the recent films are very difficult to track down in the UK did not help much. Thank the stars for the internet. It seems quite appropriate that this should form the basis of the landmark 1002nd film review on the blog (look, I do literature, not mathematics).

Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla II was released in 1993, and was apparently intended at the time to mark a pause in production for films in the series: the first big-budget American Godzilla was believed to be imminent at the time (in the end it was another five years before it arrived, so Toho made another two movies before finally putting the series on hold). Watching the movie now I suppose you can just about discern the suggestion that things are being concluded, but for the most part it resembles the films around it, not least in the way it reintroduces famous characters from the films of the 60s and 70s.

The film gets underway with the United Nations Godzilla Countermeasures Centre unveiling their new weapon to sort the big lizard out once and for all: the severed robotic head of Mecha-King Ghidorah has been fished out of Tokyo bay (where it ended up at the climax of 1991’s Godzilla Vs King Ghidorah) and reverse-engineered so its futuristic technology can be employed in two new vehicles: Garuda, one of those flying tanks which seem to be common in tokusatsu movies, and Mechagodzilla, which is, um, a mecha which looks like Godzilla.

(There is a bit of a departure here from the original incarnation of Mechagodzilla, which – if memory serves – was basically a robot. Here it is essentially a somewhat outlandishly-designed vehicle. This take seems to have gained some traction, for the third incarnation of Mechagodzilla – the Kiryu version, from Tokyo SOS – sticks very close to the same concept. On the other hand, this may have something to do with the same guy, Wataru Mimura, writing all the recent Mechagodzilla movies.)

Flying Garuda, to begin with at least, is lovable lunk Aoki (Masahiro Takashima). In a piece of foreshadowing about as subtle as being hit by a truck, we are informed that Aoki is a huge fan of pteranodons, not that this particularly informs the plot much. However, quite early on he is redeployed to elsewhere in the anti-Godzilla corps, which if nothing else means he gets to wear a snappy cravat with a big G on it (this is actually part of the uniform).

From here we cut to a bunch of scientists on one of those remote Pacific islands which are such a common feature in these films. They are excited to have discovered some impressive pteranodon fossils, and also an actual intact egg. Excitement shifts to alarm when they realise that another egg has already hatched, and a giant pteranodon is roosting in the vicinity. The unlikely size of this beastie is explained by one of the boffins as the result of nuclear waste irradiating the island, though I’m not sure this entirely explains what pteranodon eggs are doing on a Pacific island in the 1990s.

(Now, the pteranodon is – obviously! – a new take on Rodan, one of the A-list Toho kaiju with a long and distinguished career which extends back to his own 1956 movie and is due to continue next year in a new Hollywood incarnation. The American dub of Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla II is unique in that it reverts to using Rodan’s Japanese name, Radon. I’m going to stick with Rodan, however, as it would feel odd not to.)

The scientists go beyond alarm into actual panic when the sea erupts and Godzilla himself appears on the scene. Godzilla and Rodan catch sight of each other and promptly begin to party like it’s 1964, laying waste to most of the island in the process of their rumble. The scientists take this as a cue to make a swift departure with the egg. Being such a pteranodon nut, Aoki turns up to check out the egg in the Kyoto lab where it ends up, meeting nice young scientist Azusa (Ryoko Sano) in the process. Psychic Miki (Megumi Odaka), a regular character in these movies, is also hanging around and discovers that – fasten your seatbelts, friends – some moss sticking to the egg is actually telepathically singing to it. (Well, of course it is.)

As a result of the discovery of the singing telepathic moss, the egg hatches out, not into another pteranodon but a baby godzillasaurus, which everyone refers to as Baby Godzilla. Baby Godzilla seems essentially benign and doesn’t appear to be especially irradiated, which just adds to his cuteness. It’s never really confirmed that Baby Godzilla and the full-sized version are closely related, but big Godzilla certainly seems to take an interest in the newborn and starts heading for Kyoto. There’s only one thing to do: stand by to launch Mechagodzilla!

Well, if nothing else, I feel like I’m beginning to understand why so many of the sub-par Godzilla movies of the 1990s and early 2000s feel so samey – it’s because most of them were written by Wataru Mimura (Tokyo SOS, which is the best of the post-1992 Godzilla films, was the work of someone else). Quite apart from a rather Gerry Anderson-esque take on Mechagodzilla, what these films have in common is a tendency to treat Godzilla like bad weather – one of those annoying facts of life people just have to come to terms with – rather than the terrifying menace he is in some of the other films. Godzilla just turns up and attacks places in this film whenever the plot slows down a bit.

I say ‘plot’, but the main problem with Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla II is that in a very real sense it doesn’t actually have a plot – not to the extent that it feels in any way structured or thought-through. Things just happen one after the other, frequently without much in the way of explanation or causality, to say nothing of occasional odd tangents. The film is reliant on things happening without any real explanation – where do the eggs come from? What the hell is the deal with the singing telepathic moss? Why does Baby Godzilla seem to have psychic powers? How come Rodan mutates into a more dangerous form halfway through the movie? I could go on.

One result of this is that something rather odd happens with audience sympathy in the course of the film. To begin with, Godzilla is the same ambiguous anti-hero as in all the movies since the 1984 relaunch of the series, and the operators of Mechagodzilla are heroic defenders of Japan. But by the end of the film, one finds oneself rooting for Godzilla – or at least expected to do so – as he takes a beating from characters who are theoretically the protagonists. The only catalyst for this is the fact that the bosses at G-Force are unspeakably cruel to Baby Godzilla, using him as bait even though he is so small and cute. I suppose if nothing else this speaks volumes about the famous Japanese vulnerability to anything cute with big eyes.

Oh well. There are a few good things about this film – Megumi Odaka, perennial second banana in this series, gets some good material, and the monster suits are generally excellent. The Rodan puppet in particular is extremely impressive. The initial battle between Godzilla and Rodan is also boisterously good stuff. Apparently this was choreographed as it was due to complaints that too many monster battles in the previous few films just consisted of monsters standing off and zapping breath-rays at each other – which makes it slightly odd that the other battles in this film consist of pretty much that exact same thing. (Although the traditional scene where the massed model planes and toy tanks of the JSDF trundle out to engage Godzilla and have no effect whatsoever also makes an appearance, and it’s like seeing an old friend when it does.)

In the end, though, one has to remember that this film is predicated on the idea that, having salvaged priceless technology from the future, the best thing the UN can think of doing with it is to build a giant cybernetic dinosaur with laser-beam eyes. Normal standards of logic and sanity are clearly not in effect. In the past I have spoken of the special pleasures of a Good Bad Movie – Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla II is not quite a Good Bad Movie, but it is at least an Okay Bad Movie, and the dedicated Godzilla audience it was clearly made for will probably find stuff to enjoy here.

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It increasingly seems to me that the process by which major movie awards are decided resembles that by which the Catholic Church creates new saints: every aspect of a prospective candidate’s past and character is meticulously examined for doctrinal and moral purity and correctness. Old skeletons are wont to get dragged out of cupboards like nobody’s business. There was much grumbling last year when Casey Affleck eventually won the Best Actor Oscar for Manchester by the Sea, given some controversies in his past; the same thing seems likely to impact Gary Oldman’s chances in the same category this year. It’s almost as though the gong is handed out not for the work in question, but their personal conduct throughout their lifetime.

This applies to whole films as much as individuals, although in this case the vetting process can get a bit more abstract: one of the key obstacles which can rise up in a movie’s way is that of plagiarism, however you dress it up. Drawing particular flak in this department at the moment is Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. There have been allegations from the family of the writer responsible that this film draws unacceptably heavily from the plot of a TV play entitled Let Me Hear You Whisper. The acclaimed French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet has also weighed in, complaining that del Toro refuses to admit that the movie reuses elements of his own 1991 film Delicatessen.

This is really par for the course for many films these days. What I do find rather surprising is the fact that no-one is really saying much about the fact that The Shape of Water is essentially, if not a remake of Jack Arnold’s classic monster movie Creature from the Black Lagoon, then so heavily indebted to it as to have no significant independent identity of its own. Or perhaps it’s just the case that the homage is so very obvious that it’s not even worth mentioning: del Toro was in the frame to direct a remake of Black Lagoon at one point, and his new ideas for the plot were apparently where the idea of The Shape of Water originated. On the other hand, perhaps it is simply inconceivable for many people that an acclaimed critical darling with thirteen Oscar nominations could have been spawned by what’s still perceived as a trashy monster movie.

Del Toro’s movie is set, we are invited to infer, in the early 60s, and primarily concerns the doings of a lonely, mute woman named Elisa (she is played by Sally Hawkins). Her closest friends are the unfulfilled artist in the next apartment (Richard Jenkins) and her work colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer). She seems very ordinary, and only her startling behaviour in the bathtub while waiting for her boiled egg suggests she is a woman of deep passions. (I have to say that even as the opening scenes of the film were sketching in the details of her life, my companion – who was unaware of the whole plagiarism kerfuffle – was saying, ‘Ooh, this is like Amelie‘ – a well-received film directed by, you guessed it, Jean-Pierre Jeunet.)

Elisa is a cleaner at a government science facility, and one which shortly embarks on an unusual new research project: a new specimen arrives, captured in the Amazon by relentless intelligence officer Strickland (Michael Shannon) – an aquatic humanoid creature, basically a kind of gill-man (the creature is played by Doug Jones). The gill-man is brutally treated by Strickland and his team, who believe its unique properties can give the US an edge in the space race, but Elisa manages to make a more personal connection with him. When she learns that the gill-man’s life will shortly be put in danger by the demands of the project, Elisa finds she has to take steps to protect him…

Guillermo del Toro is one of those people whose career has shown sporadic flashes of utter brilliance ever since his first film, Cronos, appeared in the middle of the 1990s. Cronos was an iconoclastic vampire movie; he has gone on to make several brilliant superhero-horror movie fusions, the historical fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth, and the aspiring Japanese-culture blockbuster Pacific Rim. Even the films he hasn’t made sound unusually enticing: for a long time he was slated to direct the Hobbit trilogy, while his efforts to realise a big-budget adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness were ultimately scuppered by the appearance of the similarly-themed Prometheus. Could this be the moment where it all comes together and he produces the classic fantasy movie he has long been threatening to, and receives the accolades he surely deserves?

Well, maybe. There are certainly elements of The Shape of Water that recall earlier films del Toro has worked on: Doug Jones played a broadly similar gill-man character in the two Hellboy films, for instance, while anyone familiar with the wider canon of Lovecraftian horror-fantasy may find certain elements of the new film’s plot are telegraphed just a little too obviously. And if anything other than the homage/plagiarism fuss impacts on The Shape of Water‘s chances of Oscar success, then it’s that this is still very recognisably a genre picture of sorts, unashamedly featuring tropes from horror, fantasy, and monster movies.

Nevertheless, this is still a breathtakingly accomplished film, beautiful to look at, involving in its storytelling, and uniformly superbly acted. Del Toro’s ability to blend different flavours is notable: the general thrust of the advertising for The Shape of Water suggests this is essentially a lushly imagined romantic fantasy, and it certainly functions as such. But on the other hand, I would be very careful about who I took to see this film – the nudity and explicit sexual content is somewhat stronger than you might expect, while the horror element has a much harder, gorier edge than any of the publicity suggests. There are some properly grisly, uncomfortable-to-watch moments as the story progresses.

This is partly a result of the film’s ambitions to be more than just an escapist fantasy film, of course. We are back in Unique Cultural Moment territory here, and it is notable that the film’s main villain is Shannon’s straight-arrow by-the-book career army man, who would probably be the hero of a 50s B-movie. Here, of course, the focus is on the way he insists on dominating anyone around him who is less of a WASP-ish alpha male, and his casual brutality is set in opposition to the general sensitivity and decency of the characters who end up opposing him. The role is written and performed with just enough subtlety for Strickland not to come across as an absolute one-dimensional cut-out, but it remains the case that for me The Shape of Water‘s disparaged-minorities-unite-to-stick-it-to-The-Man subtext is just a little too on the nose. (I’m not sure the musical number in the third act entirely works, either.)

Nevertheless, this is still a tremendously accomplished and highly distinctive film. To tell the truth, I suspect this film may just be a little too far out there, and not overtly political enough, to really succeed with awards jurors in the current atmosphere, but I think it will be very well remembered in years to come. And, given the terrible troubles that Universal have been having, trying to get their monster-based franchise started, I suspect that people there will be seriously regretting not giving del Toro more freedom when he was working on movie ideas for them: it’s certainly difficult to imagine anyone daring to attempt another remake of Creature from the Black Lagoon for many years to come, let alone being so successful.

 

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