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Posts Tagged ‘John Cleese’

You often hear people talking about proverbially unfilmable books – Ulysses, or A Suitable Boy, or whatever – although, of course, there is a long history of ‘unfilmable’ stories actually making quite decent and occasionally exceptional films, given the right treatment. What seems to me to be less commented-upon is the phenomenon of certain novels being endlessly adapted for film and TV, but never both well and faithfully.

We’re usually talking about ‘classic’ literature here – though it’s getting to the point where certain superhero comics also qualify – and I’m thinking particularly of 19th century Gothic Horror. There have been umpty-tump versions of Dracula, to say nothing of sequels and spin-off movies, and generally the ones that have really succeeded have been the ones with a less reverential approach to the source. The same goes for Frankenstein: this is one of those novels which, in many ways, defines the modern age, and yet I’ve never seen a film adaptation of the book which has really impressed me. (The best version I’ve seen was a TV mini-series from 1973, with Leonard Whiting and Michael Sarrazin in the two lead roles, and even this diverged a lot from the novel in many respects.)

Still, until recently I hadn’t seen the 1994 version of the story, helpfully titled Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to distinguish it from all those other stories with the same name by other people. Or, perhaps more fully, Francis Ford Coppola’s Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as this was the key talent involved as producer and director.

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Ken Branagh being Ken Branagh, he naturally casts himself as Victor Frankenstein, here a precocious young scientist (there’s no mention of him being nobility this time around, but he is still clearly rich and posh). And Branagh being Branagh, the cast list is also stuffed with British thespians: this does actually resemble a dress-rehearsal for a Harry Potter movie, so many of the performers here moved on to that series.

This movie sticks to the original structure, which opens at the North Pole with some explorers happening upon a desperate Frankenstein being pursued across the ice by… what? Scenes of sled dogs meeting a sticky end suggest we may have wandered into Mary Shelley’s The Thing by mistake, but no. Frankenstein tells his story, with accompanying flashback: traumatised by the premature death of his mum (Cherie Lunghi) – a motivation-bolstering amendation of Shelley – a youthful Frankenstein puts aside his romantic feelings for his adopted sister (Helena Bonham-Carter) and heads off to university, where he finds himself drawn to forbidden areas of research. Despite the misgivings of his mentor (John Cleese, playing it straight behind some rather peculiar dentures), he sets about manufacturing a perfected form of human life – and when that mentor is pointlessly murdered, Frankenstein instantly sees a way for his patron to live on. Well, bits of him, anyway…

The artificial man created by Frankenstein’s experiments is not quite what our hero was expecting, and in the context of the movie he cuts a striking, unusual figure, mainly because he is played by Robert de Niro rather than another of Ken’s luvvie mates. Frankenstein tries to get rid of his creature almost at once, and believes it has perished in a cholera outbreak. Henceforth swearing off unholy experiments and demarcation disputes over the provision of the vital spark, our man heads home to marry his sister. Sorry, adopted sister.

However, the Creature has survived, and wandered into an 18th century episode of The Good Life. Hiding out in the pig sty of elderly smallholder Richard Briers, the Creature learns to read, speak, and generally make sense of the world around him. Yes, this bit does stretch credulity a bit, but the film tries hard to make it work, and I think there’s an even dodgier subplot in the book about a fleeing Arabian princess which has actually been cut. Eventually the Creature decides he has not been treated properly by his creator and sets off to demand reparations…

This is a good-looking, pacy movie, and for the most part reasonably faithful to the book – much moreso, it has to be said, than either of the most famous versions from Hammer or Universal. The cast is good and there is nothing particularly bad about the script or direction either.

And yet I couldn’t really say this was a great Frankenstein. I know this film has drawn a good deal of sniggery criticism for the sheer number of scenes in which Ken Branagh runs around in leather trews with his shirt off, the suggestion being that this is evidence of a certain self-regard on the the director’s part. I’m inclined to cut Ken some slack on this front, not necessarily because there is something thematic about overweening vanity going on – though I’ve heard this argued – but because it does tie into a sort of Romantic hyperactivity which is central to this film.

Ken’s a bright bloke and he has clearly settled on the famous connection between Frankenstein and the Romantic poets as being a worthwhile line of attack. And so it is that the emotional pitch of this movie is never knowing understated. People are never happy in this film, they are convulsed with ecstatic joy; they never just dance, they hurl themselves across the screen while the camera swoops around them; they never just grieve, they are consumed with devastating, paralysing despair. The film is always turned up to 11, and considering how fast the story rattles along the results are desensitising, not to mention exhausting – you never have a moment to catch your breath and really think about what’s happening in the story.

This is a shame, as Frankenstein is obviously a story loaded with ideas, and this version of it doesn’t really get a chance to explore them. The handling of the relationship between Frankenstein and the Creature is, surely, central to whether or not a version of this story works – and this one is just about there, but no more, simply because they don’t really share enough screen time.

And this doesn’t really work as a horror movie for most of its length, either. The film tries hard to be credible and avoid the cliches of other versions – but substituting the iconic bolt of lightning with a shoal of trained electric eels is not a decision I would personally have gone for. The moment in which the eels are let loose is central to all of the creation sequences in this film and I suppose it’s a minor miracle they do not become unintentionally funny as a result. Needless to say, the eels are not in the book; nor is a sequence in which Frankenstein and the Creature find themselves in a very strange love triangle with a ‘bride’ character. This is the bit of the film which actually does work as a piece of horror, all about twisted passions and dangerous obsessions – but it comes very late and it’s over too soon.  (In contrast, the major plot point that Frankenstein is in a quasi-incestuous relationship with his adopted sister is barely explored.)

So I would say this movie is okay, both as a movie and as a version of Frankenstein. I suppose this is a bit of a disappointment given the magnitude of the talents involved in making it, but there you go. Full marks for trying to be faithful to the novel (eels excepted), and also to Ken for finding an interesting new take on the original material. But it doesn’t quite (ha, ha) bring Frankenstein or his creation fully to life.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published January 8th 2009:

Hello, everyone, and welcome to yet another unlikely reappearance by the film review column that just won’t take a hint. Ye Constant Editor can breathe easy, however, as I’m only back in the realm of English-language cinemas for a couple of weeks—being away from the big screen is just about the only part of my current lifestyle I don’t enjoy, but it’s a real pain. Apart from a couple of months in the summer when I was back in the UK, I’ve only been to the pictures three times all year, and even then I had to limit myself to films which looked like having fairly straightforward plots. So, in Italian I watched Alien Vs Predator 2, which while being on its own merits acceptable, still marks the debasement of two quality franchises to something like the level of Planet Terror, and Iron Man, which seemed pretty spiffy even if I lost all the sparkling dialogue and the dubbing was lousy. More recently we trundled off to the kino in Bishkek to see Marc Forster’s Quantum of Solace, which I’m certain at some point involved a DVD player being hooked up to a video projector. Suffice to say my (beginner level, according to my teacher) Russian was not quite up to the task of following the story and I came out completely baffled, though I was relieved to hear friends and family in the UK had similar experiences.

Having watched the film again in English I have to say I don’t quite think it deserves the bad press it’s been getting from some quarters. It is, as if you need telling, the 22nd film in the mighty James Bond franchise and the second since the Daniel Craig-fronted reboot of the series. Fleming fans may be disappointed to hear that this doesn’t follow the plot of the original story very faithfully (Bond goes to cocktail party and hears about someone’s unhappy marriage). For the first time since the very early seventies, Quantum of Solace follows on from the previous instalment as lovable sociopath Bond commences his campaign against the shadowy organisation who killed his lover and, more importantly, gave his knackers a right good whacking in 2006’s Casino Royale. After a couple of frenetic chases around Italy he winds up in the Caribbean on the trail of dodgy entrepreneur Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric, who seems to be some sort of French Steve Buscemi clone). Greene is up to no good in South America, and Bond’s operations are inevitably hampered by both the connivance of his American associates and the all-pervading nature of the network Greene himself represents…

On one level it’s easy to see why this film’s got a bit of a lukewarm response from some sections of the audience. Most people, myself included, enjoy the slightly larger than life elements of most of the Bond films, and so for this film to feature not a single goon in an orange boiler-suit, hollowed-out volcano base, or satellite death ray, and in fact revolve around an attempt to take over a country most people can’t find on the map is arguably a bit of a risk. Well, you could argue the same was true of Casino Royale, and I take the point; but that had the advantage of novelty value and generated considerable excitement simply because this was James Bond done in a totally new way. This isn’t an origin story and I think people were expecting more of a traditional Bond movie, which this seems very uncomfortable being. For example, Bond is given a female sidekick with an utterly ridiculous name, but it’s never actually said in full on screen, and Bond’s incidental rumpo feels a bit crowbarred in (so to speak) as well.

As it is, the Bond this really resembles is 1989’s License to Kill, hardly the most glittering of antecedents (and I’m saying that as a fan of Timothy Dalton’s take on the character), but in its fascination with high tech telecommunications, brutal fights in seedy hotel rooms, and depiction of governments and intelligence agencies being fundamentally compromised, it really much more closely resembles the last couple of Bourne movies. Now, once again, I’m a massive admirer of that particular franchise (and that guy who, er, wrote a rather lukewarm review of The Bourne Identity back in 2002 wasn’t me, okay, it was an impostor), but a Bond movie is a different kind of animal: as long as Bond is a government agent it’s impossible for this series to be as critical of modern western policies and methods without fatally undermining their hero. I’m not sure people go to these movies looking for the same thing, anyway— Bond movies should be a bit more fun, you should want to be James Bond in a way you’d never want to be Jason Bourne.

Daniel Craig gives another good performance as Bond, given the material he has to work with, although his ultra-deadpan delivery of most of his one-liners means they tend to fall a bit flat. This may be partly due to Forster’s direction, which really isn’t anything particularly special. The plot is okay and does actually make sense, as long as you pay it due attention. Olga Kurylenko is rather good as Bond’s sidekick (hardly a Bond girl as such, given that they don’t, y’know, thingy) and giving an especially charismatic turn some way down the cast list is Jeffrey Wright as Felix Leiter. Wright manages to make Leiter more than simply just Bond’s American gofer, and it’s a shame he doesn’t get more to do. Hopefully he won’t get fed to sharks again for a good long while.

In my review of Casino Royale I talked about how it had dynamited away all the baggage and formulae which had encrusted the Bond character over the years to reveal something fresh and interesting. I still stand by that, but to me this film, with the Bond theme reduced to an occasional motif, iconic gun-barrel sequence bumped to the closing credits, no gadgets, no Q, no Moneypenny, seemed very uncertain of what to replace all these things with. As a thriller, Quantum of Solace is okay, although a bit low-key and occasionally unsure of itself. As a Bond movie, it’s sorely lacking in the magic and swagger of the franchise at its best. Thinking caps on at Eon, perhaps.

Well, anyway, only being back in the UK for less than a fortnight it was obvious I would have to be highly selective in my choice of viewing matter. Clearly, only the most sophisticated and enriching films could be considered as worthy of my time. But then I forgot about all of that and went to see Transporter 3, directed by Olivier Megaton (which is surely a made-up name, but still quite cool). Anyone remembering the glory days of this column will recall that I enjoyed the original Transporter much too much on its release nearly six years ago. Original sort-of director Louis Leterrier has gone to (fairly) greater things ( well, he directed the last Hulk movie, anyway), while ludicrous star Jason Statham (and I say that with all affection) has really let it define his career. Is the magic still there the third time around?

Mmm. Baldy motorised mercenary Frank Martin (my man J, like you need telling) appears to be trying to ease himself out of his chosen career, seemingly so he can spend more time fishing with his best mate, dodgy cop Tarconi (Francois Berleand). However, trouble strikes when his chosen protégé louses up on a job, and the dischuffed client (Robert Knepper) insists on Frank taking over the assignment. This involves driving a couple of big bags from Marseilles to Odessa in the company of extraordinarily freckly babe Valentina (Natalya Rudakova), both of them having been fitted with exploding jewellery. In the meantime other stuff is going on involving a cargo ship filled with cartoon toxic waste and a Ukrainian government minister (Jeroen Krabbe) getting blackmailed by nasty Big Business. I would say not to worry and that it all makes sense in the end, but it’s really so obvious from that start what’s happening that I won’t bother.

People don’t go to a Transporter movie for the plot, anyway (at least I don’t); they go for ridiculous stunts and chases, Jason Statham administering a good kicking to identikit goons, and more likely than not the leading lady administering a good kicking to the English language. Happily, all these things are fully in place for the new instalment. I’ve written in the past about how the trajectory of a successful franchise tends to go from originality to tradition, and then from tradition to formula (and normally to box office extinction). There was nothing terribly original about the first movie which may be why this series seems to be fending off creative hardening of the arteries passably well. Frank is still particular about his wardrobe, possibly because he often ends up taking his clothes off in the middle of a fight, and is permanently grumpy, but this is the essence of the character. The gay subtext to Transporter 2 (which I personally missed, probably because of what Jason got up to off-screen with Qi Shu in the first one) is gone this time around, but there’s the usual range of vehicular-based mayhem and the set-piece fight where Frank takes on about six people simultaneously.

I was personally sort of pleased that Megaton hasn’t broken the conventions of the franchise (or indeed the recent films of the Luc Besson canon, which of course this belongs to) by encouraging the actors to, er, act. The developing romance between Frank and Valentina is performed with all the passion and allure of a liaison between Stephen Hawking and an I-speak-your-weight machine. There’s a mind-boggling scene where they get to know each other by Frank asking her what her favourite meal is, in quite astounding detail. She seems happy to oblige (it’s actually a wonder she stays so thin as most of her dialogue revolves around food) and the effect is not so much romantic as reminiscent of an episode of Masterchef with a particularly surly host.

But these are the special pleasures of the Transporter franchise, which you’ll either appreciate or you won’t. It’s not quite as breezily mad or as beautiful to look at as the first two movies, but it does the business where it counts. I’m well aware that some people will complain about the many enormous holes in the plot or the utter silliness of much of the climax, or indeed the dreadful acting of virtually the entire cast. I don’t care. I really enjoyed it.

If you’d told me a few years ago that I would be reviewing a remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still, starring Keanu Reeves and John Cleese, then probably your next utterance would have been ‘Please stop screaming’. However, so it has come to pass, with Scott Derrickson’s new version currently showing at a cinema near you. (Unless you live in Kyrgyzstan, of course.) I approached this one with the gravest misgivings, as is inevitable when it’s one of your favourite films they’re updating. I reviewed the original movie back when the A-numbers only had six digits, at the dawn of time (or at least the dawn of 24LAS), something I’d completely forgotten about until I sat down to write this!

However, let’s concern ourselves with the new version, which initially sticks reasonably close to the original movie’s plot. An extraterrestrial object is heading for Earth at immense speed, but rather than being the planet-busting meteor everyone is anticipating, it turns out to be a sort of giant luminous marble (cos if you put flying saucers in movies these days you get laughed at) which touches down in Central Park. Before the waiting scientists and military, the marble disgorges a small slimy alien and a giant shiny robot. This being America (I’m sorry, it’s such a lazy joke) the small slimy alien is promptly shot. The boffins are somewhat surprised to discover that under the slime is actually Keanu Reeves (starting to show his age a bit). Reeves plays Klaatu, an emissary from a federation of local alien civilisations who are a bit concerned with the situation on planet Earth. Naturally the Americans want to know exactly what their plans are and turn Klaatu over to the CIA for proper interrogation. However, he is sprung with the help of principled astrobiologist Helen (Jennifer Connolly) and sets out to determine the fate of mankind…

You will note I said ‘initially’ at the start of the synopsis, and sure enough after a bit the plot deviates enormously from that of the original movie. It’s not exactly faithful to begin with, but the early additions and changes (sticking in a prologue set in 1928, making Helen a scientist rather than a secretary, giving Klaatu psychic powers), are all understandable in that they attempt to explain things that a modern audience might find a little bit difficult to credit (although a sequence where Klaatu contacts a fellow alien who’s been living incognito on Earth for decades seems a little irrelevant). Later on the creators just seem to be following the internal logic and demands of their own story, which is entirely reasonable, and they still manage to fit in a couple of iconic moments from the original: Klaatu’s meeting with Professor Barnhart (John Cleese playing it straight) and a visit to Arlington with Helen’s son (Jaden Smith, who’s not too bad in a fairly tricky part). However, the actual bit with The Earth Standing Still is entirely reconceived, as is Gort’s role in the proceedings, and for some reason they decided not to include ‘Klaatu barada nikto!’ this time.

As you might expect, this means the alien-as-Christ subtext which was at the heart of the original film has been completely removed and there isn’t really much to replace it beyond some fairly indistinctive waffling about saving the environment and how people are really horrible but also rather lovely too. However, it doesn’t take itself completely seriously, and rather surprisingly this is mostly due to a light-footed performance by Keanu Reeves, who’s able to put his usual— er— semi-detached style of acting to good effect here. He’s startlingly good and has clearly let Michael Rennie’s original performance as Klaatu inform his own. Even more surprising is the way that, whenever he’s off-screen, the IQ of the movie seems to drop about 30 points, with much more feted performers like Connolly and Kathy Bates all at sea with some painfully obvious expository dialogue.

So while this new version isn’t perfect, it’s not far from being as good as I could realistically have hoped for, and it certainly isn’t the travesty I was almost expecting. The special effects are perfectly competent, low-key enough not to jar, though I would’ve liked to see more of Gort in his original incarnation, and this is a polished and professional movie. I’m not entirely sure what you’ll make of it if you haven’t seen the original, but I suspect it’ll pass the time engagingly enough. Not a classic, but not a disaster either.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published July 24th 2003: 

Odd things occasionally happen to foreign movies when they reach the west – the original Godzilla had thirty minutes of wholly superfluous Raymond Burr edited into it, for example – so it’s hardly surprising that strange fates sometimes befall English language cinema when it ventures abroad. Most commonly these take the form of eccentric re-titling: in Hong Kong, A View to a Kill was renamed The Indestructible Iron Man Fights The Electronic Gang, and the Lancaster/Douglas comedy Tough Guys got the less succinct moniker Archie And Harry, They’re Too Old To Do It Anymore. But the most famous of these occurrences is the South Korean version of The Sound of Music, which the distributor decided was far too long and, in a stroke of genius, shortened to a more acceptable length by cutting out every last one of the songs.

I’ve never seen this promising-sounding edit but I was reminded of what it might be like while recently watching Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, which resembles nothing so much as an hour and three quarters of MTV with all the actual music excised. And most of the plot, too, now I think of it. Like its predecessor, this is un film de McG.

This kind of misappropriation of the possessive credit is usually one of those things I get oddly irritated by but in this case it seems very nearly justified as without McG’s frenetically glossy direction there wouldn’t actually be a film to review. The plot is gossamer-thin gibberish, kicking off with Cameron Diaz riding a mechanical bull in a Mongolian bar and concluding with Demi Moore swooping through the streets of Los Angeles in a bat-winged frock, rather like the Wicked Witch of the West. In between there’s a lot of to do about some rings with secret info on them (McG probably stands for McGuffin), not that it matters much or makes any kind of sense.

What this film is all about is outrageously flashy camerawork and editing, and manoeuvring our three fully emancipated heroines into as many different improbable disguises and situations as possible – vets, wrestlers, nuns, lap dancers (this bit isn’t dwelt upon nearly enough, if you ask me), motocross racers, car-wash attendants, rodeo riders, and surfers, to name but most of them – before forcing them to engage in fight sequences from the Gerry Anderson school of kung fu. Even then the movie is utterly shameless in going off on wild tangents to incorporate a wide range of guest stars – Luke Wilson, Carrie Fisher, surly popstrel Pink, Matt LeBlanc, Bruce Willis, the Olsen twins – or engage in sledgehammer satire of other action movies, or even just grind to a halt for a dance routine paying homage to MC ‘Reverend’ Hammer. John Cleese plays Lucy Liu’s father, and Bernie Mac plays Bill Murray’s brother: that’s the level of credibility we’re operating on here.

Personally I found it all rather enjoyable: this is a film with no pretensions to depth or art whatsoever, but everyone involved is clearly giving of their best. McG’s hyperactive direction has no truck with things like sense or credibility, just as his action sequences ignore trifling concerns like logic or the laws of physics: one startling shot has the three butt-naked Angels erupting out of a marble frieze within which they have somehow secreted themselves, only – seconds later – to have found themselves sturdy yet stylish T-shirts and jeans, ready for the next bout of ass-whuppery. Bullet-time, slo-mo, impossible zooms, ridiculous wirework – yup, they’re all here and the film rather profits from trading style for substance.

Of the leads, Producer Angel Drew Barrymore appears to have pulled rank and secured for herself virtually all the serious dramatic material that the film possesses, while Blonde Angel Cameron Diaz once again displays a hugely impressive talent for self-mocking ditzy slapstick. Quite what Ethnic Diversity Angel Lucy Liu brings to the mix, I’m not certain: her role is rather akin to that of Emile Heskey in recent England sides, in that it’s not really clear what she’s doing, but one is certain it’s in some way fundamental to the whole success of the undertaking. She does get the film’s funniest scene, breathlessly recounting her latest escapade to an appalled Cleese, who – understandably – is under the misapprehension his daughter is a high-class call girl.

Most of the guest stars acquit themselves fairly well – Justin Theroux’s terrible Oirish accent notwithstanding – but a few words about one in particular seem justified. Ever since her mid-90s heyday I’ve followed the career of Demi Moore with a kind of appalled fascination. Her movies have been one creative train-wreck after another, yet she has always emerged with her profile and salary somehow boosted. Her relentless pursuit of stardom, powered only by sheer willpower and the efforts of her personal trainer, inevitably elicits my horrified respect. Here she turns in another performance carved of the finest Formica, but she does get a kung fu fight with Diaz, and if you’re not going to go to the cinema to see that, what are you going to go and see? You will probably be pleased to hear that the ‘Demi, if it was artistically justified, would you consider keeping your clothes on in a movie?’ joke is still not past its use-by date.

Full Throttle really turned out to be pretty much what I was expecting it to be – a bizarre amalgam of Carry On film, live-action Bugs Bunny cartoon, and hair-care products commercial. The cinematic equivalent of drinking a crate of Bacardi breezers and then pummelling yourself into a coma with a glittery handbag: it may seem like fun at the time, but in the long term it surely can’t be healthy.

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