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Posts Tagged ‘Jared Harris’

When a film opens with a bunch of characters arriving at a place called the Hill of Death, you can be quite sure that one of two things is on the cards: a film with a potentially smug sense of its own ridiculousness, or something which is going to be painfully on the nose from start to finish. When the main character, a sickly-looking Jared Leto, is told ‘Maybe you should see a doctor!’ and responds ‘I am one,’ any hope that we may be in for Option One quickly fades.

For yes, this is Daniel Espinosa’s Morbius, here to tide over anyone who objects to having to wait four-and-a-half months between proper Marvel comic-book movies. Leto is playing Morbius, whom we quickly learn is a polymathic genius afflicted with a genetic disorder causing agglutination of the blood cells (or something like that, anyway). We even see him getting a Nobel prize for his work on artificial blood. It is also established, without a great deal of subtlety, that he is largely motivated in his studies by his desire to save his best friend (Matt Smith), and that the pair of them have been mentored by the doctor who’s been looking after them since childhood (Jared Harris – this is a good movie if you drew ‘Jared’ in the name sweepstakes).

Well, this being a Marvel movie (even an ‘in association with’ Marvel movie), Morbius’s plan is to pop off to the Hill of Death and capture a load of vampire bats, which in the world of this movie are apparently savage, pack-hunting apex predators, not the mostly-harmless and actually quite altruistic little creatures you and I share a biosphere with. He then decides to inject his own body with vampire bat DNA in the hope it will cure him. What could possibly go wrong?

I mean, it’s not the dumbest superhero origin story in history, but still. Even the fact that the human tests have to take place in secret, on a freighter in international waters, does not lead the brilliant brain of Morbius to clock that this is a bad idea. On the other hand, this does enable a bit of early mayhem as we are invited to assume the freighter crew are all despicable bad guys whom Morbius, now afflicted with the curse of blood-lust (not to mention the curse of being followed around by intrusive CGI swirls), can off with a clear conscience.

Yes, Morbius now has superhuman speed and strength and some of the powers of a bat, though IP law means the film tiptoes very carefully around what the obvious code-name for him would be. He has bigger issues than plagiarism to worry about, however, as the synthetic blood he is using to keep his hunger at bay is losing its efficacy, while his best friend has got his hands on the serum too, and quite fancies all the superpowers and CGI too…

So, just to recap, Morbius has speed and strength and can (somehow) fly, and he has sonar, which soon develops into full-blown super-hearing. I imagine that for most of the film the main thing his super-hearing is picking up is the sound of Sony frantically grabbing at every Marvel character they still have the rights to and shoe-horning them into this film.

For the uninitiated: Marvel Studios (the makers of the ‘official’, and generally pretty good Marvel films) have managed to reclaim the rights to most of their characters, in some cases by simply buying the companies that had previously held them. However, Sony have managed to hang onto the Spider-Man characters, and Spider-Man’s appearances in MCU films have been the result of finicky horse-trading between the two companies. Hence the two Venom films with Tom Hardy, and now this vehicle for Morbius, a character declared by one website to be no less than the nineteenth-best Spider-Man villain.

Needless to say, they crowbar a reference to Venom into this movie, from which I suppose we are invited to assume that this is set in the same world as they are. There is also some multiversal madness with a late showing by Michael Keaton, well-known for playing another kind of bat man, but here reprising his role as the Vulture from an MCU movie a few years back. It all feels rather contrived and put me much in mind of Amazing Spider-Man 2, which seemed so obsessed with setting up spin-offs and cross-overs it almost forgot about the movie in hand. It is clear that linking to the massively popular MCU films is very important to Sony’s plans, but also that they’re quite prepared to abandon sense and logic in order to do so.

It’s not like Morbius doesn’t have its own problems, not least that he isn’t an especially interesting character to begin with. He laments his fate and broods on rooftops a lot, and frankly it’s been done before, a lot. He gets the line ‘Don’t make me hungry, you won’t like me when I’m hungry,’ which made me laugh if only for its sheer impudence, but apart from that this is a fairly earnest film populated by dull characters who never do or say anything unexpected, saddled with borderline-inept storytelling: great chunks of exposition are handled by more on-the-nose voice-overs.

The biggest problem is that the film’s script serves its structure, rather than vice versa. Stuff happens for no real reason other than to progress the very thin plot – the disposable mercenaries on the freighter is one example of this, Matt Smith’s character deciding to go all in on being evil is another. Police check the surveillance cameras in a car park, but apparently not the ones in a hospital. Even the structure itself is not that great – it vaguely reminded me of Josh Trank’s reviled Fantastic Four movie, in that watching it I had the odd sense of having missed a big chunk of the story – it seems to have part of the second act missing. Suddenly we were in the final battle of the film and I was genuinely wrong-footed, but not entirely ungrateful.

It probably sounds masochistic of me to say this, but sometimes it’s nice when a really bad superhero movie comes along, because it surely makes one appreciate how solidly entertaining the Marvel films usually are just that little bit more. This has a silly story, thin characters that even a good cast can’t do much with, too much intrusively garish CGI, and a general refusal to acknowledge its own daftness. Morbius is definitely not of the first rank, and is comfortably quite as bad as the last couple of X-Men movies. The degree to which it succeeds or fails should tell us something interesting about quite how far the magic touch of the Marvel marque extends.

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I very rarely go and watch a modern horror movie. Virtually the only thing which will get me out of the house for one of these things, if we’re completely honest, is the involvement in the production of the current incarnation of Hammer Films, a studio I have been an enormous fan of for most of my life. Hammer’s current revival shows no signs of running out of steam, happily, which is why I trotted along the other day to see John Pogue’s The Quiet Ones.

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As usual, this is a Hammer horror with a period setting, though the period in this case in 1974 (the producers have missed the opportunity to show the characters going to watch Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires at the cinema, and instead establish the timeframe by simply playing Cum On Feel The Noize every time someone switches on the radio). The story concerns slightly louche academic Joseph Coupland (Jared Harris) and his determination to put the study of poltergeist phenomena and associated mental problems on a properly rational footing. To this end, he and his students are intent upon encouraging a troubled young woman (Olivia Cooke) to manifest the psychokinetic forces she has long been a martyr to, so they can be properly studied and then safely vented. Or something. To be honest, the professor’s methodology struck me as a bit vague from the start, but then again you just know this sort of experiment isn’t going to go according to plan.

Along to document the proceedings is youthful cameraman Brian (Sam Claflin), who soon finds himself developing an emotional attachment to Jane, the test subject. This is an issue, but then so are developing tensions within the team, Coupland’s obsessive determination to prove his theories, and the fact that everyone is full of ideas on how to summon up a poltergeist, but hasn’t really thought about how to then get rid of the damn thing again…

It does sometimes occur to me that my devotion to the latterday incarnation of the Hammer marque is a little foolish, given it is little more than brand name with no material connection to the glory days of Michael Carreras or Terence Fisher. However, I feel justified in making a point of seeing each new Hammer release simply because they are generally pretty good movies (the rotten American-made The Resident being the sole dud to date this century). I have to say that The Quiet Ones is not up to the standard of The Woman in Black or Wake Wood, but then neither is it a waste of time.

Putting my thoughtful-analytical-cultural-historical hat on (it’s a big hat, obviously), The Quiet Ones is an interesting attempt to blend some of the classic tropes and themes of British horror (mostly TV horror, it must be said) with a modern transatlantic approach to the genre. The plot distinctly recalls things like The Stone Tape and Ghostwatch (claims that this is based on true events are spurious; particularly as the film-makers seem rather evasive as to which true events they’re talking about), while stylistically the film does make its obeisance to Hammer of the past – Jared Harris gives a proper old-school Hammer central performance as a rather untrustworthy scientist; you could easily imagine Peter Cushing or Andre Morell in the part. The younger actors are attractive but mostly bland, which I suppose is also a bit of a Hammer tradition (Cooke, I should say, is an exception: she is genuinely good in a part where the temptation to ham it up must have been considerable).

On the other hand, when it comes to generating scares The Quiet Ones adheres with great devotion to the formulae of many modern American horror films – especially the quiet-quiet-quiet-LOUD trope. The fact that the protagonist is a cameraman sets us up for a lot of quasi-found-footage, too, which I found a little bit tedious (especially as it’s established that none of the footage survives to get found in the first place). But I suppose you can’t blame the studio for following the market, and the mix between the classic Hammer motifs and the modern tropes is handled fairly deftly.

But is it scary? Well, there are plenty of jump scares, but these are mechanically achieved and not particularly noteworthy. The ideas of the film are not especially original – to be honest, some of them were well-worn back in the time when this film is set – and the plot really lacks the strong central hook of its most obvious sources. As a result, the film is technically competent but not really engaging or memorable. The climax is pleasingly overwrought, but there’s a definite sense of the denouement unravelling rather than unfolding.

Still, as I say, this is a competent modern horror movie that isn’t too hobbled by its obvious low budget and features some very accomplished performances. It should do okay for the studio. That said, most of the recent Hammer releases have been either spook stories, psycho-thrillers or folk horror – what chance a proper monster movie, guys? But in the meantime, a film like The Quiet Ones is no disgrace to the House of Horror.

 

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Back we go again to that beloved world where old war wounds migrate, snakes are partial to milk, martial arts styles are somewhat fictitious and first names are oddly mutable: yes, it’s time for a look at Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, directed as before by Guy Ritchie. Portraying the immortal characters involved are, once again, Robert Downey Jr as Holmes, and Jude Law as Doctor Watson, while Eddie Marsan, Rachel McAdams, Kelly Reilly and Geraldine James briefly reprise their roles from the first film as Lestrade, Irene Adler, Mary Morstan and Mrs Hudson respectively. New to proceedings this time around are Stephen Fry as Mycroft, Paul Anderson as Sebastian Moran, and Jared Harris as Professor Moriarty.

Only very loosely following on from the previous movie, this film finds Moriarty behind a Machiavellian plot to start the First World War twenty years early (pretty much the same plan he had when he appeared in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie, but I am in no position to criticise his lack of imagination as I used the same joke on that occasion too). Holmes and Watson are, of course, on the case, only mildly distracted by Watson’s looming nuptials. Their pursuit of the master criminal leads them across Europe, from Paris into Germany, and beyond, to a final confrontation high in the Swiss Alps.

The story is a very, very, very loose adaptation of The Final Problem, but you have to be on the ball to really spot this, as the signs are mostly hidden beneath many layers of comedy squabbling between Downey and Law, and also spectacular action set-pieces. Nevertheless this is still an improvement on the wholly original and somehow slightly unsatisfying story from Sherlock Holmes. And it’s very apparent that the writers have done their research and really delved deep into Conan Doyle’s works – there are so many little details in this film which add nothing to the story, but will mean the world to Sherlockians (Holmes’ birth year is got right, as is the name of Moriarty’s most famous work), that it would be very difficult to give this film a completely hard time.

Nevertheless, I still don’t think either of the Ritchie films are really premium Holmes, though for a while I struggled to settle on why. I don’t think it’s entirely down to the presentation of the two leads (though I do find Downey’s Holmes to be a bit too mad and dishevelled, and Law’s Watson a bit too irascible, for either to really convince), but more the way that the scripts of these films cheerfully detonate the structure of the original stories. You know – Holmes and Watson are enjoying breakfast in Baker Street, someone arrives with a seemingly-inexplicable problem, Holmes springs into action, etc, etc. Holmes as a martial artist and self-employed gentleman adventurer is by no means utterly inconsistent with Conan Doyle, but the very texture of the stories in these films is not recognisable as that of the classic Holmes canon.

Indeed, in this film there’s a sequence where Holmes and Watson have to machine-gun their way out of an enemy base which is much more like a Bond film than anything else. The action in this movie is well-mounted and the whole thing has been lavishly put together, with sumptuous production values and cinematography. And the movie is stuffed with moments verging on the brilliant – every time Holmes and Moriarty have a scene together, for example – even if things do occasionally get a bit silly (some of Holmes’ disguises stretch credulity to its utmost limits).

And whatever you may make of the two lead roles, there is some fantastic acting going on here – Noomi Rapace is a bit underused as the female lead, but Stephen Fry is terrific as Mycroft (revealing yet another new side to his talents), and Jared Harris is even better as Moriarty.

Our time is curiously blessed – received wisdom has it that in years gone by, every generation had one and only one Sherlock Holmes worthy of consideration, whether that be William Gillette, Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing or Jeremy Brett. And yet we are lucky enough to have both Downey’s version of the character and Benedict Cumberbatch’s to enjoy, the latter in Sherlock.

Sherlock comes back on TV in a few weeks, promising its own take on The Final Problem, and it will no doubt be interesting to compare the two. Sherlock may not have the big Hollywood money behind it, with the associated production values, but in terms of wit and intelligence and – above all else – fidelity to the original stories, for me it outguns the Guy Ritchie movies in virtually every department.

But, that said, this movie is an enjoyably frenetic and inventive way of spending a couple of hours, and certainly better than the first one. Is A Game of Shadows a classic interpretation of the Sherlock Holmes mythos? Absolutely not, but then I’m not sure it was ever intended to be. Is it a fun and satisfying piece of blockbuster entertainment? Yeah, pretty much – so I suppose we should settle for that.

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