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Posts Tagged ‘Ian McKellen’

Cinema is an emotional art form, and it can make you feel many things: awe, excitement, wonder, anger, compassion, terror. What doesn’t happen quite so much is a trip to the movies making you feel young, but I am happy to report that this is the effect that going to see Bill Condon’s The Good Liar had on me. I should make clear that this has relatively little to do with the quality of the film itelf, and much more to do with the fact that I went to a weekday matinee showing. It’s very unusual, these days, for me to be the youngest person at the showing of a movie (unless I’m the only one there), but I felt positively spring chicken-esque on this occasion. There was a very good turn-out for the movie (far more people than were at the teatime showing of Midway the previous day), and all in all it was an interesting opportunity to see how the more mature generation approach film-watching etiquette. So it was that I settled down to enjoy the new movie, doing my best to ignore the faint whistle of hearing-aid feedback, the less faint murmuring of people attempting to explain the plot to each other, the flashing and buzzing of un-switched-off smartphones, and the flagrant disregard of the allocated seating system.

Why so many oldies at this particular movie? Well, I suspect it’s mainly because of the two leads, Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren, who are both there or thereabouts when it comes to much-loved national treasure status, in addition to knocking on a bit themselves. One of the many slightly odd things about this film is that it does appear to be pitching very much to the older generation, but on the other hand it also contains a lot of things that this same generation reputedly have issues with, specifically graphic violence and fruity language.

The Good Liar opens with both McKellen and Mirren joining an online dating website for older folk, and it is almost immediately made clear that neither of them is being absolutely honest in their responses. But they seem to hit it off, even after they both come clean about the fact that they are not, as advertised, Brian and Estelle, but actually Roy and Betty: he is a distinguished gent with a vague, military background, while she is a former Oxford academic now enjoying life as a rich widow. They have a very pleasant lunch together and then go their separate ways, Betty leaving with her grandson (Russell Tovey).

The movie stays with Roy, however, which if nothing else allows us to enjoy more of McKellen’s performance. This is shaping up to be something really quite special, with the actor at his most sly and impish. Rather than toddling off home, he heads to Stringfellow’s nightclub, where it soon becomes apparent he is a professional fraudster engaged on a very slick long con with his partner Vincent (Jim Carter). His involvement with Betty is obviously also part of the build-up to another swindle.

But as the con proceeds and Roy does his best to dispel the suspicions of Betty’s grandson, it almost seems that he is starting to have genuine feelings for his intended victim. Could it be that the old rogue is finally growing a conscience and beginning to have second thoughts about his plan…?

Well, you know, Bill Condon is one of those people with a shockingly variable track record – he wrote and directed the rather good Gods and Monsters, back in the 1990s, and more recently was behind the camera for The Fifth Estate and Mr Holmes, both of which I thought were pretty decent movies. However – and here you must imagine the authorial voice of the blog taking on its gravest and most sombre tone – the case for the prosecution is arguably much more significant. Not only was Condon the perpetrator of the final couple of Twilight movies, he was also one of the writers of the bafflingly popular diversity barn-dance The Greatest Showman. So the question must be: which way is this particular movie going to turn out?

Confusingly, the answer to this may be ‘both’, as while The Good Liar is utterly ridiculous, it is also highly entertaining, although probably not in quite the way the film-makers had in mind. Condon and his associates were probably aiming to produce a gripping and unpredictable thriller, with quite a hard, dark edge to it. This they have not managed to achieve, because you would have to be a fairly undemanding viewer not to figure out which way this film is going well in advance of the denouement. On the other hand, the film does feature a lot of very good actors who are clearly having a whale of a time having fun with some rather ripe material. McKellen, for instance, is front and centre for most of the movie, and his twinkliness and smarminess are both set to maximum throughout. This is such a big performance – I would say he was overacting, without actually being hammy – that it does almost unbalance the movie.

Of course, I suspect the reason McKellen is being quite so extravagant with his performance is because he realises the film needs it in order to function. The film, as mentioned, does aspire to a considerable level of twisty-turniness, but the twists and turns are generally quite absurd and impossible to take seriously. There’s no point trying to be subtle and naturalistic in a story as daft as this one: you may as well go all in and at least try to have some fun with it. This is the approach that McKellen (and, eventually, Mirren) appear to be going for.

As an exercise in outrageous camp, The Good Liar passes the time very entertainingly, although I must say again that some key plot developments are very predictable. There is also the issue that the film was obviously conceived as a serious drama with a dark and quite vicious edge to it: there are moments of significant violence which jar very strongly with the overall tone of the movie. (I should also mention that the film indicates that the British obsession with events during and just after the Second World War also shows no signs of abating.) There is also something which feels a little incorrect about the structure of the climax: the thing about a good twist is that you should really be able to work it out in advance, and in this case that simply isn’t true.

Nevertheless, it’s a spry and fairly slick movie, and I suppose the nature of the story means that the predictability of some of the plot isn’t really a problem (it also compensates for the absurdity of much of the rest of it). I enjoyed watching the actors do their stuff, even if I was probably laughing in the wrong places and for the wrong reasons most of the time.

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Tommy Wiseau, perhaps infamously, paid for The Room to run in a Los Angeles cinema for two full weeks, simply (or so the story has it) so it would qualify as a potential nominee for the Academy Awards. Well, you can’t argue with optimism, can you; needless to say The Room did not overly trouble the Oscars that year. Other films also pitch their release with an eye on the awards season, perhaps with better reason, and yet still struggle to make an impact. This brings us to Kenneth Branagh’s All is True, starring – and this may not come as a surprise to you – Kenneth Branagh.

Branagh is known as one of the great cinematic interpreters of Shakespeare of our time (as well as the fellow in charge of the first Thor; the one with the crazy moustache in that film on the train; and the guy in charge of the giant mechanical tarantula in Wild Wild West – this is what you call an eclectic CV), but on this occasion he turns his attention to the man behind the plays. The film opens in 1613 with Shakespeare’s beloved Globe Theatre just having burned down when the special effects turned out to be a bit too special. Now he returns home to Stratford-upon-Avon and a wife (Judi Dench) and two daughters to whom he is essentially a stranger.

Shakespeare decides to create a garden in memory of the son who he still has such fond memories of, despite his dying of the plague nearly twenty years earlier. Elsewhere, scandal threatens to engulf the family on a couple of occasions, there is a brief visit from his former patron the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen), and scenes depicting Shakespeare’s continuing concerns about his legacy, both financially and artistically.

Perhaps the key thing you need to understand about All is True (NB: title is almost certainly not accurate) is that it is the work of Ben Elton, not a man especially associated with the traditional style of costume drama. Elton’s own place in posterity has long been assured simply by his work on the various iterations of Blackadder (and some musicals, if you insist); most recently, though, his highest-profile offering in the UK has been the sitcom Upstart Crow, a comedic take on the life of… William Shakespeare.

I haven’t been able to find much out about the origins of All is True (the film was virtually made in secret) but it’s impossible to believe that Elton’s research for the comedy show hasn’t informed and possibly inspired elements of this film. However, one does get a sense of the writer being hyper-alert to people drawing comparisons between the two, or perhaps with Shakespeare in Love (is it twenty years already? Mercy), and this being the reason why All is True seems to go out of its way to not be remotely funny practically all the way through.

This is the main problem with the film: almost totally bereft of lightness and largely shot in drab, naturalistic colours, with Branagh making much use of long, static shots, it feels like very hard work. Maybe the director was going for a theatrical feel – but instead it just feels inert and mannered, lacking in vibrancy or interest. This is really compounded by the material that Elton has to work with. We still know relatively little about Shakespeare the man – this is one of the reasons why the debates about the authorship of his plays have creaked on into their third century – and what we do know is relatively quotidian. The film makes the point of the fact that Shakespeare led a very ordinary life considering his status as one of the greatest artists in history – here, he is obsessed by his social standing, worried about money and his reputation, and so on. There’s only one really interesting part to the whole of Shakespeare’s life, namely the death of his son Hamnet (five years or so before the writing of Hamlet), and virtually every piece of fiction concerning his later life includes this as a key point; All is True is no exception. As usual, the film smoothly obfuscates the difference between the generally-established historical facts concerning Hamnet Shakespeare and his relationship with his father, and the dramatically fictionalised version of the story Ben Elton has dreamed up.

Oh well. The least you can say about the film is that it looks good (it’s a British costume drama, so no real surprises there) and there are certainly some good performances. There’s nothing wrong at all with Branagh as Shakespeare, even though he is saddled with some slightly iffy prosthetics so he more resembles our image of the great man. Judi Dench is solid in support, while contributing a typically classy cameo is Ian McKellen, who I have to say slightly resembles Vincent Price in Witchfinder General on this occasion. It does seem to me that the film is stretching a bit to cast big names in these supporting roles – Mrs Shakespeare was a bit older than her husband, it is true, but not by the twenty-plus years that separate Branagh and Dench – was there not a slightly younger actress with a bit of gravitas they could have employed? (I’m tempted to suggest Anne Hathaway might have been a good choice.) When it comes to McKellen as the Earl… well, the movie adopts the theory that there was indeed something going on between Shakespeare and Southampton, and that the nobleman was indeed the ‘fair youth’ mentioned in the sonnets. Fair enough, but on what planet would Kenneth Branagh ever refer to Ian McKellen as a youth of any kind? He’s old enough to be his father, whereas the historical Earl was nearly a decade younger. The film awkwardly tries to negotiate its way around this by having McKellen declare ‘I grew old’ but it really doesn’t fix this problem.

Still, at least Branagh’s scenes with McKellen serve to lift the film a bit – much of the rest of it is genuinely quite dull, not helped by the turgid directorial style Branagh has chosen to adopt and the lack of any real incident for long stretches – there’s a lot of gardening, and a slander case, and a scandal about one of Shakespeare’s sons-in-law, and some tensions about the fact that the other is a Puritan in favour of closing all the theatres – but if it was about anyone else but Shakespeare, this story would never have been filmed. I am not really surprised this film has failed to make much impression, either critically or with the wider audience, despite all the talent involved. The problem is that the reason we remember Shakespeare is not because he led a fabulously interesting life and did many interesting things, but because he lived a fairly quiet life sitting in a room writing brilliant stories. The best way to do a movie about Shakespeare is to tell one of those brilliant stories, not make up a distinctly so-so new one about the man himself. I still don’t believe the title of All is True is accurate, but even if it is, it just goes to illustrate why writers are sometimes better off making things up.

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They say that one of the hallmarks of a truly great fictional character is that they have a sort of chimerical quality, being almost infinitely open to new interpretations. If so, then Sherlock Holmes definitely qualifies – over the years, as well as relatively ‘straight’ adaptations, we have been treated to Young Sherlock, Coke-fiend Sherlock, Gay Sherlock, Superhero Sherlock, Borderline-Aspergers Sherlock, and – most improbably of all – Stupid Sherlock. It was only a matter of time before Old Sherlock turned up, which has now happened in Bill Condon’s Mr Holmes.

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Sir Ian McKellen brings all of his skill and star quality to bear as a frail and failing Great Detective, long retired to the Sussex Downs and the study of bee-keeping. The year being 1947, he has outlived all of his contemporaries, and is very reliant on his housekeeper Mrs Munro (Laura Linney, very nearly doing an ooh-arr accent) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker).

Holmes’ struggles to cope with the infirmities of old age take a number of forms – research into strange medicinal compounds, for one, in the hope this may revive his mental faculties, but also attempting to write a true account of his final case (Dr Watson having provided an inaccurately happy ending, as usual). The case concerns a worried husband, a troubled wife (Hattie Morahan), and hydrocrystalophone lessons, but Holmes’ own shortcomings as a judge of human nature also play a central role. Can Holmes remember what actually led to his retirement, and will it help him come to terms with himself?

My first thought, when hearing about the premise of Mr Holmes, was that it was a great idea for a movie, but when exactly would it be set? The poster, depicting McKellen in Edwardian or Victorian gear, did not bode well. However, Sherlockian purists – I wouldn’t call myself one, but I’m certainly some kind of fellow traveller – can relax. Well, up to a point. Doyle’s only precise reference to Holmes’ age has him a sixty-year-old in 1914, which Mr Holmes faithfully adheres to by making him 93 in 1947. On the other hand, Doyle also had Holmes retire to Sussex in 1903, whereas the film shows him still practising in Baker Street after the First World War. (Let’s not get into the whole issue of when and how many times Dr Watson got married, which the film also gets itself tangled up in.)

Looking on the bright side, this gives McKellen, who (if you were wondering) is 76, the chance to play Holmes at the age of 64 as well as 93. I would say this was certainly a case of a great actor having a crack at one of the great roles, rather than an era-defining Holmes: McKellen being McKellen, he brings his customary drollness, playfulness, and sardonic wit to Holmes – he’s always quite clearly the smartest man in the room, and knows it, but perhaps he’s just a bit too pleased about it. Certainly you can’t imagine him spending two days in a depressive funk. Regardless, it is a great performance, and the central column around which the rest of the film is constructed.

In any case, the film carves itself out some room for maneuver by adhering to the customary trope that Watson’s stories featured a slightly fictionalised Holmes, and that this is the slightly-different genuine article. So the deerstalker and pipe were just inventions of the illustrator, Holmes and Watson lived somewhere other than 221B, and so on. Holmes being aware of his own legend makes for some nice moments, especially when he goes to see a film based on his adventures (the big-screen Holmes is not played by Basil Rathbone, as you might expect, but a game Nicholas Rowe – the deeper joke being that Rowe himself played young Sherlock in the 1986 film of that name, in which he was cast apparently because of his resemblance to Rathbone!).

All of this is really peripheral stuff, only really of interest to die-hard Sherlockians: what is the film like as a piece of entertainment? Well, describing it as an account of Holmes’ last case, as some of the publicity very nearly does, is a bit misleading – I went to see the film with a friend who was expecting a conventional crime thriller, and what they got was something disconcertingly different. Mysteries are solved, but not really crimes – what the film is really about is Holmes’ relationships with those around him. The film is structured so that most of the iconic figures from the canon don’t really appear – no Watson (not really), no Mrs Hudson, no Lestrade, no Irene Adler or Moriarty, the only exception being Mycroft (Holmes’ older brother is played by the 62-year-old John Sessions, but let’s not go there) – and so it revolves around his dealings with the Munros, the figures in the case, and a Japanese family. (A very striking subplot concerns a visit by Holmes to American-occupied Japan, such an unexpected juxtaposition that it instantly becomes fascinating.)

It is very much a character piece rather than a thriller or detective story, and a thoughtful and touching one, with the relationship between Holmes and Roger being especially poignant. The different subplots drift past each other, striking odd and unexpected connections, but the film is really driven by its performances, which are excellent.

Another way in which the film is a recognisably 21st-century take on Sherlock Holmes is its decision to interpret Holmes’ lack of interest in human emotion as being symptomatic of some kind of personal flaw, rather than simply a personal choice. Doyle certainly didn’t seem to be writing about someone sociopathic, but that seems to be the default interpretation of the character these days, and it’s certainly one which Mr Holmes adheres to. Then again, if you’re trying to do a personal drama about a character who’s essentially a thinking machine, I suppose you have to find some kind of chink in the armour.

The film is handsomely mounted, with polished direction and a fine score, and the actors are served well by the script. As a fan of the character, I enjoyed Mr Holmes a lot: it shows just the right amount of respect for the source, while still finding a way to tell its own story distinctively. A fine, thoughtful, mature drama.

 

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It almost goes without saying that the trilogy of Hobbit movies has, outside of the confines of the hardcore Jackson-Tolkien axis fanbase at least, had less of a cultural impact than the Lord of the Rings films they are so clearly meant to emulate. Not, I suspect, that the bean-counters at Warners, New Line and MGM will be overly worried: it’s hard to be too upset about a ten-digit box office return, after all. Perhaps there has just been something a bit too openly mercenary about the way in which a slight and quirky children’s story has been pulled about and bloated to enable just that same return. Nevertheless, I suspect that the final episode, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, will earn itself some goodwill, especially from those of us who have been along for the ride all the way since December 2001, when Jackson released his first film set in Middle-Earth (one which this film dovetails with perfectly, as you might expect).

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Viewers of the last film may be somewhat discombobulated to see that the menace of saurian psychopath Smaug is dealt with practically before the credits have finished rolling, leaving the uninitiated to wonder exactly what’s going to happen for the next two and a bit hours. Well, here is where the story of The Hobbit takes the darker and more cynical turn that sets it apart from most children’s literature.

With the dragon dead, claimants to his vast hoard of treasure start coming out of the woodwork with astounding speed. Already on the scene and in possession are Thorin (Richard Armitage) and his dwarves, but Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) and the people of Laketown quite reasonably want some recompense for having their homes incinerated, while the King of the Elves (Lee Pace) also has a few outstanding debts he wants clearing up. Unfortunately, all the gold seems to be going to Thorin’s head, with the result that everything seems to be on the verge of turning nasty…

Even worse, also bearing down on Smaug’s former residence are not one but two armies of Orcs in the service of Sauron, who recognises the strategic location of the dragon’s former lair. With Bilbo (Martin Freeman) unable to make Thorin see sense, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) still a prisoner in Dol Guldur, and inter-species relations rapidly turning hostile, the future for Middle-Earth looks bleak…

It is true that in the past I have occasionally been a bit lukewarm about earlier installments of the Hobbit series, mainly for the reasons touched upon earlier. Well, what’s done is done, and one may as well just enjoy the rich stew of elements Peter Jackson brings to the table for this final offering. The appetiser (I warn you now, this metaphor is going to be horribly overstretched) is Smaug’s devastating visit to Laketown, with which the director serves notice that he’s going to start with the sound-and-fury knob turned up to ten and only get louder and bolder (not just overstretched but somewhat mixed as well, it would seem). Another early treat is a sequence in which Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee and Sylvester McCoy show up like Middle-Earth’s answer to the Avengers: and it really is glorious to see Lee, at the age of 92, getting one more moment of scene-stealing awesomeness to add to one of the most distinguished careers imaginable.

There are few longeurs early on in the film, but these really just mark the director carefully getting his ducks in a row for the second half of the film, which really and honestly does live up to its title: the titular clash dominates the movie, and feels like it goes on for hours. Peter Jackson is at his most uninhibited here, and it really is his conception of The Hobbit that we see, rather than Tolkien’s. In fact, it’s tempting to view this film as really a summation and celebration of everything that has made Jackson’s realisation of the Professor’s work so very memorable and justifiably beloved.

True, there is some very questionable comic-relief, some disconcerting stunt casting – Billy Connolly’s voice is instantly recognisable even when he’s covered in prosthetics – and some of his amendments to Tolkien really don’t ring true – a dwarf shouting ‘You buggers!’ at the Orc hordes I can just about accept, but another telling a comrade ‘I’ve got this’? I think not. A seeming cameo appearance by the Sandworms of Dune is just peculiar. And, of course, parts of it are cringemakingly sentimental, verging on the schmaltzy.

But set against this we have all those sweeping helicopter shots of tiny figures in epic landscapes, the stirring crash-bang-wallop of the panoramic battle scenes, the endless invention of those intricately choreographed action sequences, the sheer thought and attention to detail that’s gone into making Middle-Earth feel like a real place. He even manages to take performers not perhaps noted for their dramatic range, and invest them with a certain presence and charisma: and if this means giving Landy Bloom another load of outrageous fight scenes like something out of a computer game, so be it.

You could probably argue that somewhere in all the chaos and frenzy, Tolkien gets lost completely, and also that for a book called The Hobbit, Bilbo himself actually gets sidelined for long stretches of the movie. But, looking back over the last thirteen years and the assorted wonders he has treated us to, Peter Jackson has earned the right to indulge himself just a little, especially at Christmas (and who’d have thought it – I seem to be getting a little sentimental myself in my old age). No-one has ever made this kind of fantasy film as well as Peter Jackson, and I think it will be many years before we see its like again. It may not be the greatest film he’s ever made, but it’s a very fitting conclusion to his work in this milieu, and a terrifically entertaining ride.

 

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Seven films in fourteen years is a pretty impressive workrate, and one thing you can’t accuse the makers of the X-Men movies of is laziness. There has been an X-Men film out more often than not in recent summers, which suggests that this is a franchise with a solid audience. Not bad given the original X-Men was, by blockbuster standards, a cautiously low-budget offering (largely because the studio had taken a massive bath on Fight Club the previous year).

The director of the first two X-movies, Bryan Singer, returns for the latest instalment, the evocatively-titled X-Men: Days of Future Past (well, evocatively-titled if you’re familiar with the classic storylines from the comic series). If you’ve ever seen and enjoyed an X-Men film in the past, then there’s a very good chance you’ll enjoy this one – not least because it’s bound to have your favourite character in it somewhere.

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Days of Future Past opens in a nightmarish near-future – two parts Terminator to one part Matrix – with the remnants of humanity and mutantkind oppressed by robotic enforcers called Sentinels. The last few outposts of resistance are gradually being crushed, despite the best efforts of the defenders. The war has been lost, and all hope with it.

Well, perhaps not quite. A faint glimmer remains, as Professor X (Patrick Stewart) has a cunning plan to prevent the whole crisis from happening in the first place. He intends to project the consciousness of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back through time to the early 70s. The Sentinels began as a US government mutant control project, and if the project can be shut down at an early enough stage the future can be saved.

Key to this is averting the assassination of military boffin Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), but to do so Wolverine is going to need the help of the 70s versions of both Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), each of whom has troubles of their own – Xavier having lost his self-belief following the events of X-Men: First Class, and Magneto being in a maximum security cell under the Pentagon following his arrest for a slightly surprising crime. Still, when you’ve got to get the band back together, you’ve got to get the band back together…

First things first. Post-credit scene? Yes. (It seems to gradually be becoming the norm for all the Marvel comics movies, not just the Marvel Studios ones.) This one sets up X-Men: Apocalypse, due in 2016, but how much you are stirred by it will depend on your familiarity with the comics in the late 80s and after.

The first purpose of any X-Men film is, obviously, to make truckfuls of money for 20th Century Fox, and I suspect this one will do so. Beyond this, one of the main things Singer seems to be looking to do is stitch together the disparate elements of the X-Men franchise – hence, actors from what I suppose we can call the original trilogy (Stewart, Jackman, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, Shawn Ashmore) appear alongside the ones who appeared – sometimes in the same roles – in First Class (McAvoy, Fassbender, Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult). If you’re really obsessive about the detail, the film doesn’t quite manage to square this particular circle: the major beats of continuity are okay, but there are just too many little details that don’t match up, too many inexplicable resurrections and duplications of characters. Nevertheless, the time-travel storyline is very engaging (one shouldn’t criticise it for ripping off The Terminator too much, given the original comic came out in 1981) and allows the movie to include the best elements from all the previous films.

The results are supremely entertaining. I’ve always been ever-so-slightly lukewarm about most of the X-Men films in past, particularly the two Singer directed, not liking them as much as I wanted to and always feeling that Singer was actively shying away from the more colourful comic book elements of the stories. But this time he really gets it right, drawing on specific comic-book plotlines to conjure up a story that’s about as comic-booky as you can get (superheroes, time-travel, giant robots) with seemingly no reservations at all.

This is one of those rare blockbusters which seems to get virtually everything right – the action is spectacular and superbly staged, but the plot (on its own terms) hangs together almost seamlessly, and the script finds appropriately dramatic material for the many fine actors appearing in those increasingly outlandish (and in Lawrence’s case, unforgiving) costumes and prosthetics. There are a lot of familiar faces and big names in Days of Future Past, and – a few people who just turn up to cameo excepted – all of them get their moment to shine. (That said, it’s somewhat confounding that Anna Paquin, who’s on-screen for literally about two seconds, is sixth-billed in the credits.)

Of the returning stars, it’s again Michael Fassbender who really dominates the film as the younger Magneto – he manages to put Ian McKellen in the shade, which is no mean feat – and there’s something very exciting about seeing him square off against Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, as happens at a couple of points. The film’s big innovation, character-wise, is Quicksilver, played here by Evan Peters. The level of wit and invention in his sequences raises the bar for how this kind of character should be presented, and with another version of Quicksilver due to appear in Avengers: Age of Ultron (basically, for obscure reasons he is covered by both the X-Men and Avengers rights licences), it will be interesting to see how Marvel Studios respond.

Days of Future Past may not succeed in unifying the X-Men continuity, but that’s a moot point, not least because said continuity is substantially rewritten in the course of the film anyway (the joys of time travel plotting). In every other respect, though, this is a film which succeeds magnificently – it’s thrilling, funny, witty, and occasionally moving, with great performances and visuals. Not only is this the best blockbuster of the year so far, but – and I should probably stop saying this – it’s the best X-Men film yet, as well.

 

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And so it sprawls amidst the stupendous pile of treasure which dictates its every action, like some great segmented worm, bloated, grotesque, and yet somehow rather majestic… on the other hand perhaps I should stop being quite so rude about Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. It is, as they say, all simply a question of perspective.

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This second whopping slice of prequel action is subtitled The Desolation of Smaug, after the region of Middle-Earth in which its final movements take place. Obviously, it takes ages and many helicopter shots of scale doubles yomping across hillsides before we actually get there, of course. The action opens more-or-less where the previous film left off, with timorous burglar Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), wise old wizard Gandalf (‘he’s a bad role model, and he’s lazy’) the Grey (Ian McKellen), smouldering dwarven prince Thorin (Richard Armitage) and their followers on the run from a pack of orcs.

What follows is, for the most part, a picaresque piece of epic fantasy: the company enjoy the hospitality of a werebear, brave the giant-spider-infested depths of Mirkwood, fall foul of the Elves of the region… I’m sorry, this is turning into the bridge section of Leonard Nimoy’s The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins. Anyway, they eventually end up at Erebor, the ancient dwarf city currently being squatted in by the dragon Smaug (voiced by Cumbersome Bandersnatch). Without spoiling the ending, let’s just say that an equally lengthy final chapter is on the way this time next year.

As I say, I was distinctly luke-warm about the first Hobbit movie twelve months ago, rather to the derision of some friends of mine who were delighted simply to see the Tolkien-Jackson axis back in operation again. And, admittedly, it is with some ruefulness that I recall my own glowing response to the first Lord of the Rings movie, which I praised mainly on the grounds that Jackson did not feel himself overly bound to be reverent towards the book. Can I then criticise Jackson for departing too far from the original text of The Hobbit and hope to retain any shred of integrity or credibility?

Well, I would argue there’s a difference between cutting and rewriting stuff to bring a huge story down to a filmable size and comprehensible shape, and just adding everything and the kitchen sink simply because it strikes you as being cool. Nevertheless, I have come to accept that these movies are not, in any real sense, a straightforward adaptation of The Hobbit, but rather a palimpsest of it: by which I mean they are a wholesale rewriting of the story, through which vestiges of the original can still occasionally be glimpsed.

To his credit Jackson and his writers manage the transition between the different kinds of material rather deftly, and I doubt anyone unfamiliar with the book will be able to tell apart the sections which feel impressively faithful to the novel (some sections of the spider fight, Bilbo’s initial conversation with Smaug), those which are derived from what was implicit in the book (such as what Gandalf is up to most of the time), and stuff which has been stuck in simply because Jackson thought it was really cool (a full-scale action sequence with Legolas (Landy Bloom) tackling a pack of orc commandos in Laketown).

I am sort of reminded of the old joke asking where an eight-hundred pound gorilla sleeps – the answer being wherever he damn well pleases. When it comes to these films, Peter Jackson is very much one of the eight-hundred-pound gorillas of the film directing world, and I get a very strong sense of him doing things just because he wants to throughout this movie. Luckily, it seems that what he wants to do on this occasion is simply to make a really good fantasy epic. His penchant for idiosyncratic casting persists (no Andy Serkis this time around, nor Christopher Lee and the guy who doubles for him in wide shots, but in addition to the usual crowd there is Stephen Fry as the Master of Laketown, Evangeline Lilly as a somewhat token-ish female elf, and perennial bellwether of dimbo action movies Luke Evans as Bard), but his facility with astoundingly ambitious and intricately-choreographed action sequences remains, as does his capacity to create a real sense of otherworldly scale and wonder. The best scenes of Desolation of Smaug do bear comparison to the highlights of his earlier sojourns in Middle-Earth, although some elements of the new film do feel rather contrived and implausible – an Elf-Dwarf romance being the most obvious. (And for a film called The Hobbit, there are quite long stretches where Martin Freeman as Bilbo seems a bit sidelined!)

It’s becoming increasingly obvious that this series are prequels to the Lord of the Rings movies as much as anything else, and this is a major influence on the film – virtually the first thing that happens in the film is an in-joke that only fairly dedicated fans of the first trilogy are going to get, while imagery and themes from those films become increasingly dominant as it goes on. Tolkien later tried to retrofit The Hobbit as a prelude to The Lord of the Rings – Jackson obviously has a much freer hand in doing so. He persuasively presents Middle-Earth as a patchwork of different principalities and domains consumed by petty rivalries and political feuds, with everyone oblivious to the apocalyptic threat which is slowly taking shape in a remote part of the wilderness.

The question, of course, is quite how far Jackson is going to go down this road in the final chapter. But that’s also a question for next year. Until then, I really am happy to report that The Desolation of Smaug indicates that both the director and this series are back on form. I turned up to this one with a mental attitude of ‘come on then, impress me if you can’ – along with a side order of ‘I hope the giant spider sequence doesn’t give me a heart attack’ (I am a bit of a megaarachnophobe) – and found myself, for the most part, engrossed and entertained throughout. Is it in the same league as any of The Lord of the Rings movies? No, but it’s still probably one of the half-dozen best epic fantasy films ever made, with the single best dragon ever seen in movie history (Vermithrax Pejorative has had a long run at the top, but…). In most respects, this is a vastly accomplished and very enjoyable film.

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Everyone does things when they’re young that they look back on with a degree of regret and maybe even embarassment – I myself am still reluctant to talk about the time that I [redacted on legal advice], let alone those other occasions when I [redacted], [redacted], and then, to top it all off, [definitely redacted]. And film-makers are no exception. I’m sure that Steve McQueen didn’t appreciate being reminded of doing The Blob, just as Scarlett Johansson doesn’t do many retrospective interviews about Eight Legged Freaks. And when it comes to Michael Mann, celebrated creator of Miami Vice and director of Manhunter, Heat, and Collateral, I suspect talking about his 1983 movie The Keep is something he’d rather avoid.

keep

This is a shame as the film in question is interesting, if nothing else. It opens in the remote mountains of Romania at the height of the Second World War. The area is under German occupation with the senior officer in the area being Jurgen Prochnow – he is one of those honourable non-Nazi German soldiers whom it is acceptable to like. Prochnow seems to have accepted that the ultimate German triumph is inevitable and is resigned to his current assignment – occupying an ancient castle, which seems to be the object of superstitious dread on the part of the local peasants.

Prochnow is slightly bemused by the huge number of metal crosses embedded in the walls and the fact that the fortress seems to have been build to contain something from within, rather than keep external invaders out, but doesn’t realise he’s in a horror movie. Nor do two of his men, who proceed to try and loot the place, tearing one of the crosses from its fitting. Unfortunately, this opens a passageway to what appears to be an immense vault beneath the keep, and releases what is held within: a malevolent, initially incorporeal entity…

The spook proceeds to bloodily kill several of the occupying Germans, and Prochnow receives reinforcements in the shape of SS major Gabriel Byrne and his men (these guys are proper Nazis so it is okay to dislike them). The Germans all assume that local resistance fighters are responsible for the deaths, but the discovery of strange, arcane graffiti leads them to call in the only academic to have studied the site, Cuza (Ian McKellen). Cuza, a Jew, is quite glad to have been temporarily let out of a death camp, and assumes the graffiti is a ruse on the part of the villagers to help him escape. But it is not…

The entity rescues Cuza’s daughter from a bunch of Germans with ungallant thoughts on their mind and makes him a proposition: it needs someone to do the heavy lifting and carrying while it reacquires physical form and offers him the job. In return, it will not only use its supernatural powers to rejuvenate him but carry out a ghastly reign of terror amongst the Nazis Cura hates so much. But little does anyone realise that someone else is coming to the Keep, intent on putting an end to the creature permanently…

Well, I think you’ll agree that this is a movie which shows some promise in its premise – the prospect of a clash between a supernatural manifestation of absolute evil and a mob of Nazis – as close to ‘real’ historical evil as you’re likely to get – is inherently interesting. And some of this potential is realised, mainly through the treatment of Ian McKellen’s character, whose hatred of the Nazis is so great he is prepared to overlook the true nature of what he is allying himself with. Unfortunately most of the rest of it is good-looking, vacuous cobblers.

Michael Mann is a noted stylist as a director, and the film is stylish if nothing else, but too often this comes at the expense of coherency in the plot. This is the kind of film where two people meet for the first time and within two minutes are engaged in passionate, energetic sex – no real reason is given for this plunge towards carnal exuberance, and one suspects that it’s mainly just because Mann had some cool ideas about how to shoot such a sequence. At other points the film seems so preoccupied with striking, stylish visuals that actually explaining what’s going on gets forgotten about.

Mann doesn’t seem to have devoted much time to actually directing his actors, anyway – Scott Glenn is weirdly robotic as the putative hero of the piece, and almost impossible to empathise with, we learn so little about who and what he is. And at one point in the film, I found my jaw dropping open as Ian McKellen definitely seemed to be giving the worst performance of anyone involved, covered in ageing make-up (at this point I couldn’t figure out why – McKellen was only in his mid-40s when he made this) and giving us a dodgy and inappropriate American accent. McKellen improves considerably as the film goes on, by  the way, but I still doubt this film gets a prominent place on his showreel.

The Keep is not a terribly good film, its almost total lack of humour meaning it’s hard to enjoy even ironically. One can understand Mann’s decision not to risk inadvertantly reducing the whole thing to camp spectacle, but it does take itself very seriously and the (apparently well-regarded) soundtrack by Tangerine Dream almost comes across as pretentious.

On the other hand, it does seem to me to be pointing the way to a slew of other 80s fantasy and horror movies it sort of vaguely resembles. The over-stylishly-directed tale of a lone, mysterious hero on a barely-coherent mystical quest really anticipates Highlander (which, crucially, has a rather more crowd-pleasing set of tunes), while the story of a disembodied evil seeking an accomplice to assist in its resurrection surely prefigures Hellraiser. It’s certainly an example of a Hollywood horror film attempting to move beyond what I suppose we must call the Judeo-Christian settlement in terms of its mythology. This was made in the same year as the resolutely biblical Omen: The Final Conflict, after all (though I suppose The Keep does still have all those crosses in it).

This is another one of those 80s genre movies which my uncle really likes but I find it very difficult to get excited about (he also likes Highlander, Streets of Fire, and The Coca-Cola Kid, none of which I especially rate, but then again he’s the only other person I know who likes Trancers). It is, I suppose, just about interesting enough to be worth watching on its own merits – but I would only really recommend it to McKellen completists and lovers of early 80s synth music. The Keep? Thanks, but you can keep it.

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