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Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

It’s easy to forget that, about three years ago, predicting the imminent failure and embarrassment of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy was a popular pastime amongst a wide range of respected and sensible industry commentators: Marvel couldn’t keep on making huge hits, after all, and this was a step into the unknown for the studio – a comedy SF adventure featuring quite possibly the most obscure group of Z-list superheroes ever committed to the big screen? With Vin Diesel playing a tree? Come on.

Of course, following critical acclaim and a box office take of nearly $775 million (not to mention a bunch of other substantial hits in the interim), no-one is saying the same kind of thing about Gunn’s sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: quite the opposite. Expectations have risen to a level that might give some folk pause. But not, it seems, Marvel Studios – the new movie has received the plum late-spring release date, even ahead of the new Spider-Man film, a considerable vote of confidence. But is this justified? Are people going to stroll out whistling the soundtrack, or not even stay for the first couple of post-credits sequences (there are a lot of these)?

James Gunn has never really been one to avoid unusual creative decisions, and the first of many in Vol. 2 is to explicitly set the film in 2014, even though the story has only the most marginal connection with anything happening on Earth. (All this achieved, really, was to make me wonder what the timeframe and chronology is as far as all the other Marvel films is concerned – do they take place in real time? On-screen evidence suggests otherwise. Drawing attention to this topic may be a mistake.) Anyway, that the new film is going to really be more of the same is indicated almost at once, as the opening credits showcase a dance routine to ELO, occurring in front of a backdrop the likes of which Jeff Lynne can surely never have dreamed.

Having been successful in their latest mercenary exploit, Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and the currently pot-plant-sized Groot (Vin Diesel, apparently, not that you can actually tell) head off, intent on turning Gamora’s insane sister Nebula (Karen Gillen) in for a substantial bounty. However, the kleptomaniac tendencies of one of their number land the Guardians in serious trouble, and result in their former associate Yondu (Michael Rooker) being hired to hunt them down.

Help of a sort arrives in the unexpected form of mysterious space entity Ego (Kurt Russell) and his assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff). Ego reveals he is actually Star-Lord’s long-estranged father, and whisks him off to his domain to explain his true heritage and tutor him in the use of his cosmic powers. However, Yondu and his band of ne’er-do-wells are closing in… but is all quite as it seems?

It does not take too much effort to interpret much of Vol. 2 as a resounding ‘Ha-HAH!’ from Gunn, directed at all those people smugly predicting the first film would be a disaster and that he was just not suited to directing mainstream movies. All the things that made the first film tonally distinctive, not to mention odd – the garish production designs, the 70s and 80 pop cultural references, the oddball, tongue-in-cheek humour – are here again, and more prominently than before.

However, one change which has not been much commented upon is the fact that Gunn has written and directed this film single-handed, whereas the script of the first volume was partly the work of Nicole Perlman. One of the reasons the first film worked so well was that all the weird stuff was built around a story with an absolutely rock-solid structure, and I am compelled to assume that most of this came from Perlman’s initial work, not least because (having seen Slither and Super) narrative discipline is not something I would necessarily associate with Gunn, and it’s certainly absent from long stretches of Vol. 2.

The film opens strongly, but relatively soon feels like it’s losing direction – there’s no sense of what the story is actually about, or where it’s heading. This is partly necessitated by the nature of the plot, I suspect, but perhaps that just suggests the plot itself is inherently flawed. Instead of a sense of progression in the narrative, the film proceeds through a succession of eye-catching directorial set-pieces, somewhat earnest character scenes, and outrageous comedy sketches.

Now, let’s not get confused about this: the film looks great, is filled with fine actors doing their stuff, and when it’s functioning as a pure comedy it is often very, very funny (though certainly not a film to take small children to see) – Vol. 2 doesn’t fail to entertain, distract, and amuse. However – and here’s the ironic thing – it feels more like a compilation tape than a movie in its own right. All the stuff you really enjoyed from the first one is here, and turned up to the max; but many of the less-noticeable elements that helped to make it function so well as a satisfying movie have been a bit skimped on.

In short, it’s a mightily self-indulgent beast, though forgiveably so for the most part – though new viewers (and even some casual ones) are likely to find it slightly baffling. Some of the characters seem to be here more because Gunn likes them than out of any necessity to the plot: here I’m looking particularly at Nebula, to be honest. Speaking of self-indulgence, as is not unusual in this sort of film, the final battle/climax seems to go on forever, and is followed by a lengthy and somewhat sentimental coda that I’m not sure the film works hard enough to justify. Then we’re off to all five of the post-credits sequences, if you can believe that.

There’s something not-unimpressive about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2‘s adamantium certainty that the audience is going to be utterly beguiled and swept along by it, but at the same time it does almost feel a little bit smug, especially given the lack of narrative impetus in that long middle section. This movie is by no means a failure, because it does function as a spectacle and a comedy (Dave Bautista is, by the way, consistently the funniest thing in it), and it’s by no means the weakest of the sequels that Marvel Studios have released. But it’s not in the front rank of the movies that they’ve released, by any means. Cut it a degree of slack and you’ll have a good time watching it – and rest assured that no matter how much slack you cut it, that’s still almost certainly less than the amount of slack it cuts itself. In the end, this is only a moderately awesome mix.

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I know, I know: you go seven years without a single review of an AIP Vincent Price movie, and then three come along in as many months. Blame the lucky dip nature of my DVD rental service (still waiting for Tiptoes, alas) – still, these are AIP Vincent Price movies, so there’s only so disappointed you can legitimately be. This week they sent me The Raven, a 1963 movie directed by (but of course!) Roger Corman, from AIP’s series of Poe movies.

This time around, the movie is based on a poem rather than a work of fiction, but otherwise the formula is wholly intact. Here is a screenplay from the great Richard Matheson. Here is Vincent Price, brooding over his dead wife’s picture. Here is a supporting cast featuring some unexpectedly big names, given the kind of movie that this is. Here are some pretty decent production values. It’s basically rather like an American Hammer movie, except slightly more genteel and with fewer hard edges.

The Raven is set in a rather fantasticalised version of the 16th century (historical accuracy is extremely low on the movie’s list of priorities), with Price playing Erasmus Craven, gentleman, scholar, and magician. Erasmus has withdrawn from the society of his peers and has become a bit of a recluse, partly because he objects to the plotting and scheming of his fellow adepts, and also because it gives him more time to brood over the portrait of his dead wife Lenore (Hazel Court, which may tip you off to the fact that Lenore is not as dead as originally advertised), somewhat to the concern of his lovely daughter Estelle (Olive Sturgess).

Then, one dreary midnight, as Erasmus sits, weak and weary, pondering over a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore (oh yes, I know a thing or two about Poe, and also how to Google the text of a poem), a raven turns up, knocking at his window. Erasmus lets the bird in, and, as he is played by Vincent Price in a Roger Corman movie, beseeches the bird thusly – ‘Shall I ever hold again the radiant maiden whom the angels call Lenore?’ The raven departs from Poe by responding ‘How the hell should I know?’, which pretty much sets the tone for what follows. (Apparently this was a departure from the script, as well as Poe, as Peter Lorre (who voices the bird) was much given to ad libbing on the set.)

It turns out that the raven is actually Erasmus’ fellow magician Adolphus Bedlo (Lorre), who has been magically transformed into a bird following a magical duel with the Grand Master of the Brotherhood of Magicians, Scarabus (Boris Karloff), the arch-rival of Erasmus’ dead father. Erasmus is happy to help Bedlo return to human form, but doesn’t want to get mixed up in the squabble between Bedlo and Scarabus – until he mentions that he has seen a woman resembling the supposedly dead Lenore in Scarabus’s castle. Erasmus pooh-poohs this idea, and offers to show Bedlo Lenore’s body, which he keeps in a box in his hallway (‘Where else?’ deadpans Lorre), but he is shocked to see she has been replaced by that of someone else. Desperate to learn the truth, Erasmus agrees to go to Scarabus’s castle with Bedlo, accompanied by his daughter and Bedlo’s son Rexford (John J Nicholson, who could have had a pretty good career if he’d just stuck with low-budget horror movies). Perhaps another clash of magics is on the cards…

The immediately previous movie in the Poe cycle, Tales of Terror, had as its centrepiece The Black Cat, a darkly comic, more than slightly outrageous tale co-starring Price and Lorre, and Corman and Matheson apparently enjoyed making it so much that they decided to have a go at making a full-length movie in a similar vein. Most of The Raven was invented whole-cloth by Richard Matheson, there not being quite enough material in a 108-line poem to sustain a movie even of only 86 minutes. I think it’s really stretching to describe The Raven as an actual horror film, even by the standards of the early 1960s – it’s more of a very tongue-in-cheek fantasy adventure, impossible to take seriously.

It does make full use of Price’s ability as a comic actor, of course, and also – I’m tempted to say – his generosity as a performer, as he tends to be outrageously upstaged by Peter Lorre in every scene the two of them share, with Price very much the straight man of the duo (‘I think you need something for the cold,’ Erasmus declares to Bedlo, as the two of them prepare to depart, which prompts his guest to head straight for the drinks cabinet). Boris Karloff’s performance is less showy, but then the sheer understatedness of it is much of the fun. He’s up against it when competing with the other senior members of the cast.

If the overall quality of The Raven‘s cast isn’t quite clear yet, let me put it this way: one of the actors in this movie has received more Oscar nominations for his work than any other man in history. Yes, really. It’s not Price, Lorre, or Karloff, though – playing Lorre’s son, in case you haven’t worked it out, is Jack Nicholson (yes, that Jack Nicholson), who turns up in a lot of AIP movies from this period, partly because his father James H Nicholson is the executive producer on them. It’s fair to say that there is not much sign here of the movie legend Nicholson would eventually become – although there’s a sequence where he is briefly possessed by evil magic, and does the same face made famous by The Shining – but he does give a very game performance, dashing about the set in tights, cape, and feathery hat. I doubt this movie was ever very prominent on his showreel, though.

The silliness of much of The Raven doesn’t prevent it from having a more intricate plot than you might expect, nor indeed an unexpectedly sound narrative structure, with a proper character arc for Vincent Price to work his way through. It may be a disposable comedy, but Matheson has clearly taken the writing of it very seriously, which is probably why it still stands up so well today. Corman directs with his usual efficiency, and comes up with at least one outstanding sequence, the final magician’s duel between Erasmus and Scarabus, which in addition to being witty and inventive, even has some pretty decent animated special effects.

I still think The Masque of the Red Death is the zenith of the Corman-Poe series of movies, but it’s a very different kind of film to The Raven, and very definitely a genuine horror-fantasy. The Raven is much more knockabout entertainment, but the strength of the script and particularly the comic performances means there is still a huge amount to enjoy about this movie even today.

 

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It’s strange how ignorance can sometimes be a source of shame and sometimes a badge of honour: just the other day I was slightly embarrassed to have to admit to a friend that I’d never actually seen, read, or otherwise experienced any version of Ghost in the Shell prior to seeing the new movie, whereas in another conversation I happily informed anyone who’d listen that I had only the scantiest knowledge of the original Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.

This is possibly just an age thing, as the Rangers were aimed at an audience at least one generation younger than me when they were first unleashed upon the world in the 1990s. We are basically talking about a TV show with an attached line of toys (or possibly vice versa, I suppose), all concerning a team of superheroes (if doing karate while being a different primary colour from the person next to you is enough to qualify as a superhero these days) fighting unlikely monsters. Needless to say, it had its origins in a Japanese TV show entitled Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger, and the US adaptation went on to be terribly successful. And as we are now living in 2017, where nothing which was once popular is ever allowed the luxury of a quiet and dignified death, the whole concept has now been revived and generally polished up for a movie, directed by Dean Israelite.

Things get going on prehistoric Earth, where Power Ranger Zordon (which is a fine name for a pulp SF character) has just received a whupping from the evil Rita Repulsa (which, um, isn’t). Zordon and Rita are played by Bryan Cranston and Elizabeth Banks, who are both very capable and respected artists and thus presumably either being extremely well remunerated or forced to perform at gunpoint. Zordon cops it, but not before putting Rita’s plans on hold, in the hope that a new team of upstanding Power Rangers can be assembled in the meantime.

We then skip forward to present day California and the town of Angel Grove, where a quintet of disparate (and, of course, carefully diverse) teenage misfits find themselves coming together seemingly at random. (They all have various relatable teenage issues, of course.) The location for this is an old quarry, where they eventually discover some multi-coloured ‘power coins’ stashed there by Zordon 65 million years earlier, at the start of the film. Odd things start to happen, such as them finding themselves suddenly able to jump over houses in a single bound.

Another visit to the quarry leads them to Zordon’s old spaceship, which is in remarkably good nick, and a comedy-relief robot. Together the robot (Bill Hader) and Zordon’s CGI head handle the necessary exposition – buried under Angel Grove is the ‘Zeo Crystal’ (uh-huh) a semi-mystical object intrinsic to the existence of life on Earth (uh-huh) and Rita Repulsa’s target. As chance (and the demands of the plot) would have it, Rita is back in the area (uh-huh) and planning on building a giant robot out of tooth fillings (uh-huh) to dig the Zeo Crystal up, with horrible consequences for everyone (uh-huh). Our troubled teens have been selected to take on the roles of the Power Rangers, provided they can master the necessary skills. ‘Tell me, have you ever morphed before?’ enquires Zordon, gravely. ‘Only in the shower,’ replies Black Power Ranger (Ludi Lin). (In case you’re wondering, our teenage heroes are played by actors who are 20, 22, 22, 23, and 29.)

Well, I tell you, folks, despite hearing a generally positive buzz about this film, I spent quite a few happy minutes thinking of some zingy put-downs to sling its way if it turned out to be a load of gruelling old rubbish: ‘don’t go-go anywhere near it’ for one; ‘only watchable under the influence of morphine’ was another. I share these with you now, because I can’t actually use them – Power Rangers is, um, surprisingly non-terrible. Well, that’s not quite true, but it’s terrible in the best sort of way.

Can I even call it terrible? Some of it is actually pretty good, particularly the playing of the young cast, who do have chemistry together. Seeing the trailer for this movie, my first thought was ‘This looks rather like Chronicle‘ (a 2012 superhero-SF movie), and this does carry through into much of the actual film (Max Landis, who wrote Chronicle and worked on this one for a bit before being fired, felt the same way, apparently): this has a bit more heart and a bit more grit than you might expect, all things considered.

Then again, this is a Power Rangers movie, and you do have to worry about things like tonal appropriacy – I saw this film in the ‘family matinee’ strand down the local multiplex, with the rest of the audience made up entirely of very young boys and their fathers. This may be the core audience for Power Rangers, in which case you have to question the appropriacy of the 12A UK certificate, the inclusion of jokes about lamb-shanking bulls, a subplot about sexting, and so on. Despite the premise, this often feels like a film aimed at a young-adult (or maybe even older) audience, with lots of hot-button topic issues being touched upon – Yellow Power Ranger (Becky G) has a minority orientation, Blue Power Ranger (RJ Cyler) is somewhat autistic (‘I’m on the spectrum,’ he declares – ‘Is that a workout programme?’ asks Red Power Ranger (Dacre Montgomery), who’s a bit of a jock), and so on. Pink Power Ranger (Naomi Scott) is still a girl, though.

This emphasis on characterisation (and, as you can perhaps see, some decent jokes) means that Power Rangers doesn’t quite feel like a traditional superhero origin movie (which is basically what it is) for most of its running time. All the mighty morphin’ is held back until the third act, at which point the film basically turns into a massive advert for toys, but by this point you should be interested enough to stick with it until the end regardless.

The film has been somewhat tongue-in-cheek prior to this point, and Elizabeth Banks has clearly figured out that hers is a role that requires the kind of performance which registers on the Richter scale, but… ‘Tell me where the Zeo Crystal is!’ demands Rita, threatening to kill one of our heroes. ‘It’s under Krispy Kreme Doughnuts!’ squeaks Blue Power Ranger, who has somehow figured this out. ‘What is this… Krispy Kreme Doughnuts?’ hisses Rita, before setting off to activate her tooth-filling robot. ‘Guys, we have to stop her before she reaches the Krispy Kreme Doughnuts store!’ cries Red Power Ranger. (Things go on in a similar vein at surprising length.)

Now, I love doughnuts as much as the next person – actually, that’s a lie, I love doughnuts to the extent that my dietician is constantly in a strop with me – but the sheer brazenness of the product placement for Krispy Kreme in this film is utterly jaw-dropping. The film even pauses for a moment so Rita Repulsa can eat a Krispy Kreme doughnut within the store itself. I have no idea what percentage of the budget of Power Rangers Krispy Kreme stumped up for, but putting the brand at the very centre of the plot in this way is… either it’s an inspired bit of insanity that probably means this film is guaranteed to become a campy cult classic, or it topples the whole thing over into absolute absurdity.

Power Rangers’ heady mixture of teen angst, dubious jokes, plastic karate, epic over-acting, and blatant product placement really should not result in a functioning movie. And yet somehow it does, because this is consistently entertaining all the way through. Certainly, much of the film does not make any sense whatsoever, and the rest of it only makes sense in a way which is completely ridiculous, but you are carried along by some winning performances and clever direction, not to mention just how knowing most of it is. I imagine some people will sneer about this film on principle, but if this was a new property released under the auspices of Marvel Studios or even DC, I suspect it would have smash hit written all over it. All things considered I’m very glad I went-went to see it.

 

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Well, with the Oscars out the way, the decks are clear for an onslaught of releases which a few years ago would have been cheerful, unpretentious genre movies. These days, of course, everyone wants a slice of the megafranchise action that Marvel Studios has been concocting over the last few years, regardless of whether or not their material really fits the bill: out in a couple of months is a DC comics movie that for once looks like it won’t be actively painful to watch, while we are also promised the actual real first episode of Universal’s, er, Universal Monsters franchise (Dracula Untold has apparently been stricken from the record), while first off the blocks, representing Legendary Pictures’ rather similarly-titled MonsterVerse (put those lawyers on standby!), is Kong: Skull Island, directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts.

The year is 1973, and the Vietnam War is coming to its messy conclusion. ‘Things are never going to be this messed up in Washington again,’ declares Bill Randa (John Goodman), which at the very least is a felicitously knowing first line for a movie these days. Randa is high-up inside a secret agency named Monarch, whose mission statement is to hunt down Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (or giant monsters to you and I). However, Godzilla’s visit to San Francisco is still forty years off, and to pass the time until then Randa gets himself and his team onto a US government mission to a newly-discovered island in the Pacific, surrounded by a perpetual storm system and – perhaps – containing a bizarre ecosystem the likes of which no-one has even suspected before.

Providing a military escort for the explorers is the possibly-unstable Colonel Packard (Samuel L Jackson) and his helicopter squadron, while also along for the ride are photojournalist Mason (Brie Larson) and ex-SAS guide James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston). Randa’s list of things to do on their visit to Skull Island, when they finally get there, starts with ‘drop bombs everywhere’ (the wafer-thin pretext is that this is to assist with a geological survey), which annoys at least one of the island’s inhabitants: one of the chopper pilots barely has time to say ‘Is that a monkey?’ before the squadron is involved in a pitched battle with…

Well, come on guys, the movie is called ‘Kong’, who do you think it is? It’s a bit of a divergence from standard monster movie grammar to wheel on the big beast in the first act, but the movie pulls it off, I would say. In the aftermath of the battle, the survivors regroup and start to think about getting home alive. But, naturally, it’s not going to be that easy, and many discoveries await: lurking on the island are all sorts of monsters, which seem intent on eating our heroes, and also John C Reilly as a stranded Second World War airman, who seems intent on eating all the scenery.

You could be forgiven for turning up to Kong: Skull Island with a degree of trepidation, for quite good reasons – 84 years on from the original movie, King Kong remains a movie icon like few others, but he’s an icon with a singularly poor track-record when it comes to appearances in subsequent movies – if films like King Kong Lives and King Kong Escapes have any value at all, it’s simply as glorious trash. You could also argue that to do a remake of King Kong which completely omits the tall building-related section of the story, and takes place entirely on the island, is also a rather bizarre choice.

However – and I can hardly believe I’m typing this – Skull Island is actually a really fun fantasy adventure film, with a lot going for it. The problem other King Kong projects have tended to encounter is one of tone – they either end up as silly, campy nonsense (the Toho and De Laurentiis projects, for example), or take themselves absurdly seriously (my main problem with Peter Jackson’s take on the great ape). Skull Island gets the tone just about right: it knows when to play things straight, and when to relax and have a little bit of fun with the audience.

There seems to me to be no pressing reason as to why this movie is set in 1973 (there’s some dialogue about how Kong is young and ‘still growing’, presumably to prepare us for a rather bigger present-day ape in a subsequent movie) – there are no overt references to the 1970s King Kong remake, anyway. It mainly seems that the film-makers thought it would be a cool wheeze to make, essentially, a Vietnam war movie that includes a load of giant monsters of different kinds. All the iconography of guys with assault rifles wading through swamps, and helicopters skimming low over the jungle canopy is here, and while it is just dressing-up with no thematic depth, it definitely gives the film its own identity (the classic rock soundtrack is also a definite bonus).

Kong himself (mo-capped by Terry Notary) is rather impressive, both terrifying and sympathetic at different times, as the story requires, and it seems to me the makers of this movie know their stuff when it comes to both this character and the whole giant monster genre – there’s a scene which seems to me to be a call-back to Kong’s love of calamari (first established in King Kong Vs Godzilla), and another which may be either a reference to a deleted scene from the original Kong, or an unexpected appearance by a new version of the Toho monster Kumonga (the fact that Kumonga is not one of the characters for whom Toho receives an on-screen credit – oh, yes, readers, there are big-name Toho monsters in this movie (sort of) – suggests the former). All in all, it’s an engaging new take on the character.

Even the stuff in this movie which is not especially brilliant doesn’t particularly detract from it as a piece of entertainment – Tom Hiddleston has an air of slightly detached bemusement throughout, as though he signed on for the movie without bothering to read the script, and I found this rather funny rather than annoying. I have to say that most of the actors are content to do big character turns rather than anything too subtle and nuanced, but again this is exactly what the piece requires.

If I’ve been at all excited by the prospect of Legendary’s planned monster franchise, then it’s really been more in hope than expectation – but Kong: Skull Island gets so much right that I’m actually really looking forward to future films in this series, provided they handle the tone and subject matter as deftly as this one. It’s certainly a much more nimble and straightforwardly entertaining movie than Gareth Evans’ Godzilla, to which it is technically a prequel. In fact, in terms of technical accomplishment, dramatic success, and ability to channel the spirit of the original film, I would say this movie gets closer to the original King Kong than any other featuring the character. An unashamedly big, crazy, fun monster movie, and a very pleasant surprise.

 

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The continents drift along in their stately way, the zodiac processes across the heavens, and the cinematic calendar continues its own slow evolution. When I first got into this ‘paying serious attention to cinema’ game, it was all much simpler: you had serious movies as the majority of releases right up until Oscar Night, at which point the more lightweight fare and genre movies would pop up to fill the gap until the big blockbusters appeared round about the time of Memorial Day in the States. These days, of course, everything is up in the air: the genre movies have been joined by blockbusters much earlier in the year, some of them even before the Oscars have been handed out. It doesn’t help matters that the line between the two appears to become a bit blurred – was Deadpool a genre film or an aspiring blockbuster? How about the imminent Logan, or the new King Kong movie?

Or, for that matter, Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall? The film’s $150 million budget, along with the presence of an A-lister like Matt Damon, would seem to suggest a film with the biggest of ambitions. Set against that, on the other hand, is… well, decide for yourself.

great-wall

The film appears to be set around the 11th century, and opens with European mercenaries William (Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) leading a small group of adventurers into the remote wilds of the east. (Pascal is allowed to use his native Spanish accent, Damon attempts a rather optimistic, not to mention variable, Irish brogue.) Things look grim when the rest of their party is killed by a weird and mysterious beastie, and hostile local horsemen drive the duo onwards until they encounter something awesome – the imposing sight of the Great Wall of China (which still isn’t visible from space in the 11th century, despite what everyone says)!

The Wall is manned by a huge force of soldiers, apparently getting ready to enact some serious slaughter, but exactly what’s going on is not immediately clear, not least because the only senior officer who speaks English, Commander Lin (Jing Tian), is clearly suspicious of them. Her concerns are quite justified, as the Europeans have only come to China to steal the recipe for gunpowder – nor are they the first, for hanging around the place handing out exposition is Ballard (Willem Dafoe), survivor of a previous expedition with the same aim.

It turns out that the Great Wall is being manned to fend off an invasion of monsters which (the subtitles assure me) are called the Tao Te, a terrifying horde which arises once or twice every century to eat everything in their path. If the monsters are able to overrun the wall and devour the population of the Chinese capital, they will be well-fed enough to conquer the world! Things look bleak – can William put aside his mercenary, capitalistic principles long enough to join forces with the Chinese warriors in a proper piece of collective effort?

This is another one of those films which has received a bit of a savaging from the Diversity Enforcers, on the grounds that it supposedly perpetuates a slightly dodgy trope where a Caucasian protagonist swoops in to save the day for a bunch of incompetent supporting characters of a different ethnicity – the so-called White Saviour stereotype. On paper, you can see why this could be so, but I would argue that fears of this sort are groundless, for two main reasons.

Firstly, the film is largely the work of Chinese film-makers, with the distinguished director Zhang Yimou in charge, and Matt Damon is in this film for basically the same reason that Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen showed up in the last stellar conflict franchise brand extension (it shares one of the same writers, by the way) – to guarantee global ticket sales. The Caucasian presence is a business decision, not anything ideological.

And, secondly, IT’S MATT DAMON ON TOP OF THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA FIGHTING ALIEN MONSTERS WITH A BOW AND ARROW. GET A GRIP ON YOURSELVES AND STOP TAKING THIS FILM SO SERIOUSLY. I mean, really. There’s a time and a place to get righteously indignant, but doing it with this film just makes you look silly.

When word of The Great Wall first reached me, the impression I received was that this was going to be a genuine historical epic, supposedly concerning the fate of some of the Roman soldiers captured by Parthia at the battle of Carrhae in 53BC, who ended up working as mercenaries on the Chinese border. It’s one of the great ‘could it have happened…?’ stories of history, with some tantalising evidence (there is, for instance, apparently a village in western China where, once in a generation, a child is born with curly hair, as those Italian genes resurface). Needless to say, if this was ever the case, it ain’t true now, for this is… this is…

Actually, I’m genuinely unsure what kind of film this is supposed to be. It starts off not a million miles away from The Man Who Would Be King, in terms of the two main European characters and the tone of their relationship. But as soon as we reach the Wall itself, with its battalions of primary-coloured troop-types and CGI as far as the eye can see, it starts turning into something rather less interesting and more superficial. And once the major VFX sequences start rolling, with Starship Troopers-style swarms of monsters scuttling over the horizon (the script suggests these may genuinely be aliens), and female soldiers bungee-jumping off the top of the Wall to stab the monsters with spears… well, it’s like a cross between some kind of garish computer game and a comic book, and not an especially interesting one.

The characterisation is pretty thin, the CGI about as persuasive as Damon’s Irish accent, and it has none of the class or sophistication of the other films I’ve seen from Zhang Yimou, for all that it has the same underlying principles and fascination with colour as movies like Hero and House of Flying Daggers – I’m kind of reminded of Ang Lee’s Hulk, as another example of a director best known as an art-house darling taking a crack at something much more mainstream and just not quite being able to hack it. Not that this is Matt Damon’s finest hour, either: there may be a Chinese expression that describes just how far out of his comfort zone Damon visibly is for most of this film, but it certainly doesn’t exist in English.

To be honest, this looks like the kind of knowingly silly, CGI-heavy piece of fluff that should be starring a wrestler or possibly Gerard Butler, so the presence in it of proper actors is one of the most bemusing things about it (Andy Lau is also in the cast, by the way). But it’s just an odd, odd film overall, not really compelling as an American action movie or a Chinese fantasy. It neither convinces nor persuades, nor does it grip or thrill. But on the other hand, it’s mostly just silly rather than being actually bad, and of all the great walls currently being unleashed on the world, this is not the one people should really be complaining about.

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Only a visually-impaired person could look at the history of popular cinema over the last half-century and not notice the huge spike in the number of SF movies in the late 70s and early-to-mid 80s, courtesy of (need it even be said) George Lucas and his stellar conflict franchise. Many of these movies were hugely popular and quite accomplished in their own way – I’m thinking here of films like Alien, Flash Gordon, Moonraker, The Terminator, and so on.

However, what I think gets forgotten sometimes is that the big SF boom sort of obscures an equivalent spike in the number of fantasy films that were made at the same time (Lucas’ project being fantasy at least as much as SF, after all) – in some respects a more notable trend, as SF films had a fairly distinguished pedigree as a genre prior to 1977, while genuine fantasy films not aimed at children were much rarer. I know in the past I have occasionally expressed the opinion that the majority of ‘traditional’ fantasy films released before 2001 usually verged on the awful, but considering early-80s movies like Excalibur, Time Bandits, The Dark Crystal, and Krull… well, many of these films are not bad, to say the least. Also very much not bad is Matthew Robbins’ 1981 movie Dragonslayer, which I watched again recently for the first time in many years.

dragonslayer

Set in a conveniently vague region of Dark Age Europe, the story opens with supplicants arriving at the tower of the world’s last sorcerer, Ulrich of Craggenmoor (Ralph Richardson), begging for his help. The visitors are led by Valerian (Caitlin Clarke), who reveals that their home, the kingdom of Urland, has been ravaged by the ancient dragon Vermithrax Pejorative for decades. To placate the great worm, the king has instituted a policy where twice a year a virgin is selected by lot and sacrificed to the dragon. Feeling this is not satisfactory, not least because the wealthy have been quietly buying exemptions for their children, Valerian has led some of the common folk to ask for Ulrich’s help in killing the beast. (There’s a plot bit about Clarke having been raised as a boy in order to keep her from being subject to the lottery, but it’s not exactly central to the story, and as a twist it doesn’t quite come off – it’s quite obvious that Caitlin Clarke is a woman even before her revelatory nude scene).

Unfortunately, the villagers have been followed to Craggenmoor by Tyrian (John Hallam), a soldier of the king, and to the surprise of all involved he kills Ulrich before the journey even gets underway. However, Ulrich’s apprentice, Galen (Peter MacNicol), inherits his mystic powers, and promises to kill Vermithrax Pejorative himself…

The very least you can say for Dragonslayer is that it is solidly plotted, looks fantastic for most of its running time, and has a great supporting cast. You can forgive a certain degree of confusion on the part of the film-makers as to where exactly the film is set (there seems to be the implication that King Casiodorus is in some way Romano-British, which is rather at odds with other points suggesting an Irish setting), for there is a mostly quite authentic Dark Ages feel to the film. There’s also an interesting subtext to the film, which is essentially about the passing of magic from the world and the rise to dominance of a different kind of world-view: while initially happy to ask a sorcerer for help, by the conclusion of the film the villagers are all adopting the new faith of Christianity (an almost indecently young-looking pre-Palpatine Ian McDiarmid plays a missionary who meets a sticky end).

However, for this to really be effective, the contrast between the grimy quotidian mundanity of Dark Ages life and the fantasy elements of sorcery and the dragon would have to be somewhat better realised than it is here, and this is at least partly a question of special effects. Now, this is a 1981 movie, made using technology of that period, and I would still say that Vermithrax Pejorative is still one of the very best dragons in movie history, in terms of overall presentation – by which I mean it’s a beast of terror and mystery. It’s just that, well, the dragon’s big set pieces never quite grip or excite, although this may be down to the direction and editing as much as any shortfall in the effects. (It seems to me that Robbins’ handling of the dragon in the early part of this film was an influence on how Spielberg depicted the tyrannosaur in Jurassic Park, but that’s by the by.)

Some people have criticised this movie for having rather too much of a modern sensibility, at least in terms of its characterisation – the heroine is a bit too bolshy, the king rather too much of a politician, Tyrian too much of a brutal pragmatist – but I don’t think this is necessarily a problem, if you consider that the story is trying to subvert or undermine the traditional fairy-tale archetypes. If the film has problems in this department, they are two-fold – firstly, Ralph Richardson is the actor you really want to see, and he’s not in it enough (Richardson made a string of late-career appearances in genre movies, but never quite hit the jackpot in the same way as his peer Alec Guinness), and secondly… well, I’m not sure if this is a writing or a casting problem, but I’m talking about Peter MacNicol.

Peter MacNicol is one of those actors who is never less than interesting to watch, and of course he does eccentricity very well, but here he is called upon to play a character who in the course of the film is a young apprentice, a romantic lead, and an action hero, to name just three things. There’s plenty of opportunity here for the right actor to turn Galen into an unusually well-rounded fantasy hero, but unfortunately MacNicol is always just a bit too much of an odd little hobbit to really convince in the part. (Plus the romance between Galen and Valerian appears out of nowhere, between two characters who seem to have absolutely no chemistry together.)

Then again, it’s not entirely MacNicol’s fault – Galen and Valerian are somewhat sidelined during the climax, which promises the epic battle to the death between the world’s last sorcerer and its last dragon. That’s quite a big promise to make to an audience, the stuff of proper high fantasy, and whether it’s the gear-change from the decidedly low fantasy of the rest of the movie, or the limitations of 1981 technology, or the slightly laborious direction… it never enthralls or even really thrills you as it should, for the film to really deliver the ending it needs.

There’s a lot of stuff to enjoy in Dragonslayer, but most of it is ambient, if not completely incidental: the real strengths of this film are its atmosphere and many other things all going on in the background. It has an interesting and smart take on one of the great mythic tales, but the problem is that when it really counts, it’s just not quite convincingly mythic enough.

 

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All movie monsters are metaphorical, but few of them are quite so up-front about it as the title character of J. A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls, a film which has already earned the coveted title of First Thing I Saw In A Theatre In 2017. This is not even the most distinguished plaudit to be heaped upon the movie, for it has already been described as ‘the best film of the year’ – though which year we’re talking about is, perhaps intentionally, a little unclear (was it the year it was advertised in or the year it’s being released in?). I’m not sure I would go that far myself but this is still an interesting and accomplished film.

a-monster-calls

This movie is based on a novel by Patrick Ness, who I was previously only really aware of as the head honcho of the online Doctor Who spin-off Class, about which perhaps the less said the better. Lewis MacDougall plays Conor O’Malley, a young boy with serious issues far beyond the fact that his name is arguably spelt wrong. His mother, played by Felicity Jones, is very seriously ill – yes, I know, it’s getting to the point where Jones has less chance than Sean Bean of getting to the closing credits of a film – and Conor has to some extent been thrown on the mercies of his severe and distant grandmother (Sigourney Weaver, imported to help with that crucial US distribution, and deploying a pretty decent English accent) and largely-absent father (a rare performance by Toby Kebbell that remains untouched throughout by prosthetics or CGI).

What with also being viciously bullied at school, it’s all getting a bit much for the lad, and his tribulations are accompanied by the manifestation of a huge monster (voiced by Liam Neeson), who, it must be said, does look rather like Vin Diesel’s character from a certain hugely popular Marvel sub-franchise. The monster insists that he has been summoned for a purpose, and that there are important tales to be told and deep secrets to be revealed in the days to come… (At no point does Sigourney Weaver appear in a fork-lift truck and start battling the monster, which I kind of guessed was never going to happen – it was still a tiny bit disappointing, though.)

I wasn’t really aware of Bayona prior to seeing this film, though of course it turns out he’s handled some fairly major releases, but while watching it I completely assumed he was an English director, so convincing is its depiction of the texture of British life and society. I was rather surprised, therefore, when the closing credits rolled and it turned out everyone in the crew had names like Enrique and Pedro: yup, this is an Anglo-Spanish co-production, partly even filmed in Spain (other bits filmed in my old haunt of Preston, somewhere not frequently mistaken for the Iberian peninsula). Perhaps this explains the script’s occasional, very slightly distracting lapses into American English (Mom instead of Mum, for instance).

But, as I say, you don’t really notice any of this while you’re actually watching the film. This is the kind of film where it’s more or less clear from the trailer exactly what’s going to go on: a wrenching tale of how harsh and cruel life can be, counterpointed by a fantastical metaphor that serves to give the thing a bit of life and imagination and stop it from just being utterly soul-stampingly grim. And for the first part of the film, this was exactly what I was given, to the point where I got a bit restive and started to wonder just what all the critics had been getting so excited about.

Then a few things happened: the script got slightly more sophisticated than I’d expected – ‘honestly, this is just a dream, can we get on with it,’ says Conor at one point during a visit by the monster, proving he is just as clued up as the audience – while the animation used to realise the stories told by the monster is genuinely beautiful in its own right. And the story – well, I’m not sure that there’s anything strikingly original about it, to be honest, but it’s told with such skill and sincerity that it doesn’t feel like something that you’ve seen before. (Well, perhaps with one exception – quite apart from the monster looking like Groot’s dad, there’s a key scene in this film which is almost a reprise of an equally important one in Guardians of the Galaxy.)

I think mostly it comes down to the performances, which are uniformly excellent. Lewis MacDougall gives a quite astonishingly assured and mature performance as Conor, in no way upstaged by playing scenes opposite heavyweights like Neeson or Weaver. (It was only after seeing the film that I learned the young actor suffered a close family bereavement shortly before making it.) Even Toby Kebbell, who I really assumed was only working so much because his head was a convenient shape for sticking those motion-capture ping pong balls to, gives a very solid turn.

In the end it all goes together to make a film which does pack an emotional wallop and tackles some serious themes and material in a manner which never feels too heavy or laborious at all. I found myself at distinct risk of having an emotional reaction in the cinema, and judging from the amount of stifled sobbing and sniffling coming from the seats around me, other people had been affected even more powerfully. Not the best film of 2016, if you ask me, but if it does turn out to be the best one of 2017 that wouldn’t mean we’re not in for a good year. An extremely fine and moving piece of work with some profound emotional truths at its heart.

 

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