Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Ian McKellen’

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.

mr_holmes_ver2_xlg

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.

 

Read Full Post »

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).

The-Hobbit-Battle-of-the-Five-Armies-poster-9-691x1024

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.

 

Read Full Post »

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.

xdays

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.

 

Read Full Post »

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.

smaug

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

So, truth be told, I enjoyed Ron Howard’s 2009 movie Angels & Demons much more than I was expecting to, and on a greater number of levels – which is another way of saying this is an unironically fun movie as well as a crazed piece of unbelievable nonsense. Bearing this in mind, the sensible thing to do was obviously to check out the other film from the same team, The Da Vinci Code.

This was music to the ears of my landlady, who was very resistant to letting me view Angels & Demons anyway, complaining that ‘it’s the sequel, you should watch the other one first’. I riposted that the two books the films are based on take place in reverse order, so it wasn’t likely to make a lot of difference, and following an interesting and heated discussion resulting in only a small rent hike I settled down to watch the movie of The Da Vinci Code, from 2006.

da_vinci_code_final

Tom Hanks again plays maverick symbologist Robert Langdon, who, in time-honoured movie style, proves his academic credentials by giving a thematically-relevant public lecture at the top of the film. One of the pitfalls of doing this kind of thing is that someone always turns up intent on sending you off on an adventure of some kind. In this case it is the French police (Hanks is visiting Paris, not that he seems much inclined to parley the old Fronsay), who are principally embodied by the marvellous Jean Reno (giving another masterclass in ambiguity).

The curator of the Louvre has turned up dead, his body arranged in the manner of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man and with a strange arcane sigil inscribed on his chest in his own blood. Hanks believes he has been summoned to lend his professional assistance, but passing police cryptographer Sophie (Audrey Tatou), who also happens to be the dead man’s grand-daughter (yup, we’re only just setting up the plot and already everything is creaking like hell), reveals he has actually been framed for the killing.

So, obviously Hanks and Tatou go on the run from the cops, trying to work out why the murder victim was trying to attract Hank’s attention and who actually did the dirty deed. The audience is several steps ahead at this point, as we already know who the killer is. I had hopes for The Da Vinci Code being just as uproariously daft as its sequel, and the early appearance of the ever-watchable Paul Bettany as a (deep breath) self-flagellating albino assassin monk named Silas promised great things in this department. Hanks has already figured out the death is connected to an heretical secret society known as the Prieure de Sion, and Bettany is attached to a militant chamber of the Catholic Church which is intent on wiping this group out and destroying their greatest secret: the Holy Grail itself…

Well, there’s a lot of running and driving and flying around to various places, not to mention the doing of lots of anagrams and other word puzzles. Alfred Molina pops up as a morally-compromised Cardinal, while the veteran Grail-hunter Hanks and Tatou turn to for help is played by Ian McKellen, who appears to be having a quite inordinate amount of fun. So the performances all round are actually pretty good.

And – and my antipathy towards the original book and scepticism towards its sources make this slightly tough to admit to – this seemed to me to be, in many ways, a much better and more classy film than Angels & Demons. (Not having antimatter bombs exploding in the Roman sky and free-falling pontiffs is always a help in the credibility department, I suppose.)

This is, of course, only my opinion, and it’s true that on one level this is every bit as implausible a movie, and equally as much an Indiana Jones pastiche with a very thin veneer of erudition brushed over the top of it. Indeed, the resemblance to the third Indiana Jones is very striking indeed, given both films concern a search for the Holy Grail, and both scripts talk about this mythic artefact using very similar language.

The two films’ takes as to what the Holy Grail actually is vary somewhat, of course, with The Da Vinci Code opting for a less traditional concept. This element of the film is famously derived from the blockbuster ‘conspiracy’-expose The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, which proposed that… you know, I think that would probably constitute a spoiler. (By the way, you should not let your opinion of this theory be affected by the fact that one of its authors used to write scripts for Doctor Who.) One of the rather impressive things about this movie is the way in which it seizes upon this rather complex and convoluted theory and serves it up for mass consumption in an accessible and cinematic way.

On the other hand, you could equally argue that this is a rather strange Hollywood thriller, in that the spaces which would normally be filled by high-octane action sequences are here occupied by lengthy and lavish flashbacks – some of them to the personal lives of the characters, others to key moments in church history (whether real or apocryphal). Making these as interesting and engaging as they are is a bit of an achievement. Personally, I’m interested in philosophy, theology, and history, and so a big movie largely revolving around these things was always going to appeal to me on some level – if, on the other hand, you’re more in the market for car-chases, things going bang, and end-of-second-act whoh-ho-ho you may find this particular film more wearing.

But, as I say, I enjoyed it much more than I expected to, and in a mostly non-ironic way. Bettany doesn’t really get a huge amount to do as the self-flagellating albino assassin monk, and in any case the whole action-thriller-innocents-on-the-run aspect of the plot gets resolved a surprisingly long time before the climax. At this point the film really does become more about ideas and philosophies, and ancient secrets being revealed – and on these terms it’s surprisingly effective. Given this is a film which is explicitly about symbols and symbolism, it seems to be working on an almost symbolic level itself, as the characters descend into ancient vaults, decode musty old manuscripts, and generally seek for truth in chaos and darkness. You could quite easily argue that the movie itself is heretical, or anti-Christian – especially anti-Catholic –  and I suppose this is to some extent quite true. Here, however, we find ourselves at one of those fault lines, or barriers, which is in a very real sense impermeable – either you treat the Bible as, er, Holy Scripture, or you don’t, and rational discussion isn’t going to change anyone’s mind about that. You will either be willing to consider the central thesis of The Da Vinci Code (and The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail before it), even if just as a thought experiment, or you won’t. Personally I didn’t find this aspect of the movie risible or offensive – and the almost-subliminal fantasy elements it brought to the story just added to its appeal – but I’m well aware others may strongly disagree.

Here again, though, we’re in slightly odd territory in that this film, more than the vast majority of mainstream Hollywood output, treats the existence of God – or belief in this  – as an important fact in the world, and central to its story. And yet, arguably for this very same reason, the film has been criticised and boycotted by Christian groups worldwide. Sometimes the converted don’t want to be preached to, I suppose. It may well be that my own tendency to view the likes of The Da Vinci Code as not much more than barnstorming escapist entertainment, with perhaps a little intellectual meat to add flavour, is just another sign that I have an appointment in the Sixth Circle of Hell when I eventually shuffle off there. Fine, as long as they don’t show a non-stop series of Paul W.S. Anderson movies in that section of the afterlife. In the meantime, a movie like The Da Vinci Code eases the suspense until I find out very pleasantly: it’s slick and it’s fun and it’s just a bit silly, but it also has a surprising amount of soul and intelligence to it, too.

Read Full Post »

It was, as I recall, a Tuesday afternoon in the Autumn of 1998 and I was flicking through the latest issue of a popular SF and fantasy magazine during the drive home from work.

‘Ooh,’ I said. ‘It says here that they’re making a film of The Hobbit.’

‘Oh,’ said my father, who was driving. ‘Where are they going to film it?’

‘Well,’ I said, perusing the (rather minimal) article in more detail. ‘It’s not official yet, but it says that locations in New Zealand are being scouted… some people say they’ve heard they’re going to make a movie of The Lord of the Rings. But that’s silly, of course, The Lord of the Rings is unfilmable, and anyway you’d want to do The Hobbit first, wouldn’t you? It’d only be sensible. They must be making The Hobbit. That’ll be interesting.’

‘That’ll be interesting,’ my father agreed.

Well, how wrong can you be? Peter Jackson did not want to do The Hobbit first. The Lord of the Rings is not, it would appear, unfilmable. And the film version of The Hobbit is…

Hang on a minute; it is interesting. But the big question – the absolutely key, inescapable question, in every respect – is, how does it compare with Jackson’s monumental, decade-defining version of the Rings?

JRR Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, a fairly lengthy children’s book, in 1937 and you could be forgiven for assuming that Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first installment of an adaptation of the same. I would argue it is not, or at least not entirely: what it is, is an attempt to use material from this book to form the basis of a prequel to the movie version of The Lord of the Rings. For many people this may be too fine a distinction; I hope I can persuade you otherwise.

HOBBIT-POSTER-570

The bulk of this film is set sixty years prior to the previous trilogy and recounts the youthful adventures of the titular home-loving Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). For slightly obscure reasons, Bilbo is recruited by the enigmatic wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to assist a band of itinerant Dwarves led by exiled prince Thorin (Richard Armitage). These Dwarves are displaced and dispossessed, their home kingdom of Erebor having fallen to the terrible dragon Smaug. Ignoring the misgivings of many of the finest minds in Middle Earth, Gandalf is intent on helping Thorin get his throne back – and he’s also quite insistent that Bilbo come along on the journey too.

Well, there are Trolls and Orcs and Goblins along the way, along with ominous portents of a dark power resurgent in the realm – none of which seems particularly connected to the Dwarves’ quest, until Bilbo happens upon a magical ring in the course of his travels…

I have to say I turned up to watch this first part of The Hobbit almost out of a sense of obligation, without much genuine excitement and with my expectations dialled down very low. Quite why this should be I can’t really say – I was genuinely excited when it looked like Guillermo del Toro was going to be directing a diptych of Hobbit films, but the news that Peter Jackson was going to do three just made me very dubious.

Part of this is just mathematical – The Hobbit is about the same length as one of the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings. I can see how you’d justify a nine-hour movie trilogy based on a 1200-page epic novel. I can’t see how or why you would want to make a nine-hour movie trilogy (which is what this promises to be) out of a 350-page children’s story.

Except, of course, this isn’t what Jackson’s doing. Where Lord of the Rings still had to have great chunks chopped out for the screen, The Hobbit has had to have large quantities of new material added just to (delete according to taste) expand the story onto a larger canvas / bloat the running time sufficiently to justify making people pay for three movie tickets. Some of this is extrapolated from stuff mentioned in the novel, other bits are derived from additional material in the appendices to The Lord of the Rings itself (it looks like Jackson and his team may not have the rights to all of Tolkien’s peripheral material, as they don’t appear able to use the names Alatar and Pallandro), and quite a lot of it looks like it’s completely new.

Now, in some ways this is not necessarily a bad thing, as it allows Jackson and his crew to open out their vision of Middle Earth even further, and it is – of course! – lovely to see people like Cate Blanchett and Sir Christopher Lee coming back to reprise their characters (even if it is fairly obvious that Lee has a stand-in most of the time he’s not in close-up). We also get the pleasure of Sylvester McCoy giving a very – er – Sylvester McCoy-ish performances as the psychedelically-addled wizard Radagast (Peter Jackson is apparently a big fan of McCoy, which makes you wonder why he’s made the actor perform all his scenes covered in birdshit). Take this as you will, but Landy Bloom is being held in reserve for later installments in this trilogy.

But the upshot of all this new material is that the narrative focus of the film is all over the place – it’s baggy and saggy and strangely paced, and, for a film called The Hobbit with an actor as good as Martin Freeman playing the Hobbit in question, the protagonist gets relatively little chance to shine. Freeman is good in his opening scenes, and again in the riddle-game sequence playing opposite Andy Serkis as Gollum, but too often the rest of the time he’s either lost in a crowd of Dwarves or not on the screen at all – there’s so much other stuff going on that Bilbo Baggins largely shrinks almost to obscurity.

It’s a shame, especially when you consider that the filming of these movies was very eccentrically scheduled simply in order to allow Freeman to appear here while still honouring his commitments on Sherlock. That, if nothing else, exemplifies why I have a problem with this movie – it’s just fundamentally very self-indulgent film-making, and too often this shows.

I suppose when you’ve won over a dozen Oscars and made over a billion dollars, you’re entitled to exert a little clout in future projects: so why not film on different sides of the world and shut down and restart production just to meet the availability of some of your key cast members? Why not write characters in just to satisfy your  existing fanbase (I can’t think why else Elijah Wood appears as Frodo in this film)? Why not throw everything but the kitchen sink into the narrative?

Certainly, telling Tolkien’s original story doesn’t seem to have been a major concern. I popped into one of my favourite restaurants for a buffaloburger before seeing this film, and got chatting to the waitress. It turned out she was considering seeing The Hobbit herself, but hadn’t seen The Lord of the Rings. I confidently assured her that, as this story took place earlier, no prior knowledge was needed. This is not the case, I suspect: the way the film is written and played seems to me to assume you already know who Frodo is, who Saruman and Galadriel are, the significance of things like Mordor and ‘Morgul blades’, and so on.

I know I have been very negative about The Hobbit, and this honestly pains me, partly because the Lord of the Rings movies are so special, but also because, in many ways, this film is technically brilliant (even in 24FPS 2D on the small screen with the inadequate rake at the Phoenix). There are breathtaking visuals, striking effects sequences, a stirring score and some memorable performances – but even here it seemed to me that the film was just aping the style of its distinguished predecessors. Thorin comes across as a brooding heir-in-waiting in a very Viggo-esque manner, while the big action sequence with the Dwarves escaping from the Goblins hits so many of the same beats as the Moria section of the first film.

There are enough good things about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey to make me excited about seeing the other films in the series, and not even regret promising to see it again in the not-too-distant future. But it’s a bloated spectacle rather than a compelling story. The Lord of the Rings films were so special partly because they seemed to be taking a leap into the unknown and tackled bringing epic fantasy to the screen with ceaseless originality and imagination. The Hobbit, on the strength of this first outing, just feels like an exercise in ticking boxes in order to meet the requirements of a pre-existing formula – in many ways a beautiful formula, but a formula nevertheless. The toxic miasma surrounding the words ‘prequel trilogy’ still lingers, somewhat.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »