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Posts Tagged ‘Julie Andrews’

I’m not going to beat around the bush – I’m just going to come straight out and tell you this. Julie Andrews, movie legend, international treasure, beloved (it would seem) of millions, has decided to lend her talents to her first live-action movie in nearly ten years. Now, if you had told me this a couple of days ago, I would have said ‘Ha ha! Secret cameo! But of course. It was inevitable,’ in the full and certain knowledge of which film she was coming out of (semi-)retirement for. But I was wrong. She is not in the movie you would expect her to be in. Instead, Julie Andrews is playing a giant kaiju-esque sea monster living in a mystical subterranean ocean in James Wan’s Aquaman. This is one of those facts that causes me to wonder if I am having some kind of psychological episode, or at the very least have eaten the wrong kind of cheese.

On the other hand, it does give you a general sense of the kind of tenor of Aquaman, which is in no way the film I would have expected a year or so ago. With Marvel Studios cheerfully pumping out three films a year on a regular basis, it feels – perhaps unfairly – a little surprising that their rivals at Warner Brothers/DC should basically have taken most of 2018 off, as we’ve seen nothing from them since last November’s could-have-been-much-worse Justice League. On the other hand, the DC movie line has routinely been met with such eviscerating reviews (I put my hand up unashamedly) and use of words like ‘omni-crisis’ that it’s entirely understandable they should take a breather, listen to what people are saying, and rethink what they’ve been doing. Aquaman is definitely a change of gear.

Thirty-odd years ago, lonely lighthouse keeper Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison) is startled to find a woman (Nicole Kidman) in an outlandish outfit washed up during a storm. After  a bumpy start (she eats his goldfish and sticks a trident through the TV while Stingray is showing – clearly not a Gerry Anderson fan) romance blossoms between the two of them. It turns out she is Atlanna, queen of Atlantis, in self-imposed exile to avoid an arranged marriage. The pair of them end up having a kid, before her past resurfaces (sorry) and she is forced to leave them both and return to the underwater world.

The child is named Arthur and grows up to become the definition of a strapping lad (Jason Momoa), who leads a fairly carefree life when not appearing in other movies as ‘the metahuman known as the Aquaman’ (note the addition of the definite article – which I don’t recall ever seeing applied to the comics version of the character – in an attempt to somehow make him seem more mature and portentous), as he can swim at incredible speeds, breathe water, and talk to fish (historically the source of some embarrassment to writers of Aquaman), in addition being very big and tough.

The movie has been practically dancing along so far, but at this point the plot kicks in, which is fair enough – but as much of the exposition is delivered by Dolph Lundgren, with CGI magenta hair, while riding on a prehistoric sea monster, I was rather distracted and not in the best state to take it all in. Basically it goes a little something like this: Arthur’s younger half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) is intent on uniting the various splintered kingdoms of Atlantis and having himself declared Ocean Master. His plan to achieve this is to provoke a war between the people of the ocean and those living on the surface. Already King Nereus of Xebel (Lundgren) has signed up.

However, Nereus’ daughter Mera (Amber Heard) and Orm’s vizier Vulko (Willem Dafoe) recognise a mad scheme when they hear one and have a plan to stop it. This involves persuading Arthur to press his claim to the throne of Atlantis and go off on an epic quest to retrieve the magic trident which is one of the symbols of power in the sunken city. Orm, naturally, is not pleased when he learns of all this, and despatches a high-tech pirate calling himself Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) to stop them…

Now, I became aware of Aquaman at a fairly young age, along with most of the other core DC characters. At this point he was still a fairly nondescript chap in an orange shirt whose signature ability (talking to fish) didn’t really match up to running at the speed of light, having an invisible plane, or being able to shoot heat rays out of your eyes. Various attempts to make Aquaman a bit more interesting as a character ensued over the years, with the most effective (if you ask me) being the one done by Peter David (credited on this movie) in the middle 1990s – this would be the version of Aquaman with the attitude, the beard, the gladiator vest and the hook replacing one of his hands. Do I detect the influence of the David Aquaman on this movie? Well, Momoa obviously has the beard and the attitude, so maybe, although ultimately they go back to the orange shirt costume, and don’t bother with the hook (someone did point out it would make it difficult for Aquaman to go to the bathroom, although I’ve never been able to work out how the sanitation in Atlantis would function anyway).

Momoa basically plays Aquaman (or Ah-quaman, as some of the people here pronounce it) as a not-especially-bright bro, a take on the character which works in this context even if it’s not particularly authentic to the comics. It’s a perfectly good, charismatic performance, although I suspect the best he can hope for is a Chris Hemsworth level of stardom, where people will flock to see him only if he’s playing one particular role. Perhaps I’m damning with faint praise, for Momoa does do the heavy lifting when it comes to carrying what’s a big, hefty movie.

Anyone expecting the kind of industrial gloom of something touched by the hand of Zach Snyder will be in for a big surprise, for there is a very different sensibility at work here: this is a light, fun fantasy epic, somewhat influenced by a bunch of other recent blockbusters (and not just ones from Marvel Studios), with its own very distinct aesthetic – there are garishly-coloured vistas throughout, and all manner of unlikely CGI critters (including, and we mustn’t forget this, Julie Andrews). Perhaps they are overcompensating somewhat, for the grim-and-gloomy of the earlier films has been replaced by a tone which is often as camp as Christmas (shrewd choice of release date, guys), sometimes absurdly so, with a rainbow-hued fluorescent colour-scheme.

In the end, popcorn fun results, thanks to a script which hangs together well and doesn’t worry about too many other DC references (there’s an attempted HP Lovecraft in-joke at one point, but they seem to have chosen the wrong book). The film has an interesting, eclectic cast who do good work, on the whole – personally, I can’t believe I’ve turned up to see a major Hollywood release featuring Dolph Lundgren two weeks in a row. His appearance here isn’t as good as the one in Creed II, but could we nevertheless be seeing the start of a Lundgrenaissance? Fingers crossed. I’m not entirely sure what Black Manta contributes to the movie beyond a major second-act action sequence, but then again the character is saddled with an especially silly costume design.

Aquaman is such a change of pace for the DC movies series that I’m genuinely curious to hear what fans of these films make of it – apparently there were a lot of complaints that Joss Whedon’s cut of Justice League was just too entertaining and faithful to the comics, and that Snyder’s depressing and misconceived vision should be respected and preserved. We’re off into a whole new world of camp nonsense with this film, and on its own terms it works just fine – I imagine it will do rather well for itself, although this does seem like an unusually crowded Christmas for aspiring blockbusters (in the absence of a stellar conflict movie, everyone seems to be piling in). I’m not sure if this approach will work for any other characters in the DC stable, but then again maybe the trick will be to not worry about the consistency of tone which has been such a mixed blessing for the Marvel films. I don’t think Aquaman has quite the same quality as Wonder Woman, but it’s still a very enjoyable piece of silliness, much better than any of the other recent DC films – fingers crossed they can keep this standard up in future.

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Alfred Hitchcock’s reputation as a master artist largely rests on the films he made in the 1950s and early 1960s. In these films, he manages to take the stuff of everyday life – taking a shower, catching a train, birdwatching – and imbue it with suspense and excitement. Unfortunately, the thing about Hitchcock’s later films is that they are not about everyday life, but the world of international espionage and intrigue, and here his great talent seems to be functioning in reverse: starting with a milieu which you might expect to be swimming with tension and exciting developments, somehow Hitchcock manages to tell stories which feel inherently dull and pedestrian, often in defiance of common sense and logic.

torn-curtain

I’ve already written about Topaz, which is pretty hard going – and very nearly as bad is Torn Curtain from 1966, which at least has a slightly less laborious and convoluted narrative. The story gets under way aboard a cruise liner in Scandinavia, where a scientific congress is underway. Also aboard is top US boffin Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman), who has another sort of congress on his mind – as the film opens he is upholding the finest values of academia, as we find him in bed with his assistant Sarah (Julie Andrews). She wants to talk about their wedding, he’s just interested in colliding neutrinos. They are clearly made for each other.

However, Armstrong receives a cryptic telegram, after which he starts acting highly suspiciously, and Sarah eventually finds him on a flight to East Berlin, where he seems to be intent on defecting to the Communist Bloc! Lawks! Paul Newman a commie traitor? Say it ain’t so!

It ain’t so. It transpires that Armstrong is intent on a bit of private spying to help the American effort, and is only pretending to defect so he can pick the brains of a top Soviet boffin before redefecting back to good ol’ Uncle US of Stateside. You’d think he might have told his girlfriend, but no, and so now he is stuck with having to look after her as well. It’s not even as if she does any singing in this film either. Well, as you might expect, Armstrong’s grasp of spy tradecraft is frankly not up to the task, and he is forced to kill his Soviet minder for the good of the mission. But can he get the information he needs before the communist authorities realise what has happened?

I’m kind of used to the idea of Hitchcock as the king of his own little world, getting everything he desired, but apparently this was not the case by 1966. Apparently in this instance Hitchcock did not get the stars he wanted, and in fact had both Newman and Andrews imposed on him by the studio (Andrews was straight off Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music and was the biggest female movie star in the world at the time, but her limited availability as a result apparently added to the pressures on production). You can perhaps sense Hitchcock’s distaste at being treated this way, for both lead characters are oddly drab and colourless, interesting more because of what happens to them than for who they are. Instead Hitchcock opts to surrounded them with ‘colourful’ character turns, mostly by thickly-accented European performers who are seldom in more than a couple of scenes each, and the results are odd – it’s as if the film can’t quite settle on a focus, or wants to be a weird anthology or travelogue.

The movie does have one outstandingly memorable sequence, however; the one in which Armstrong’s minder Gromek is killed: this was made around the same time that Connery’s Bond was despatching goons in seconds flat, and in contrast it takes Newman and the young woman he is in league with absolutely ages to get rid of Gromek: they stab him, try to strangle him, hit him with a shovel, gas him… it goes on for minutes and is more or less played as black comedy, completely unlike the rest of the film.

Which is not to say that everything else is completely conventional. The film’s other big set piece, for want of a better description, is a fairly lengthy sequence in which Newman and Andrews travel from Leipzig to Berlin on a fake bus under the control of anti-communist rebels. Public transport has rarely taken on such a crucial role in a major spy movie. Will the authorities figure out the fake bus is not what it seems? Will they be able to stick to the posted bus timetable? Are there enough tickets in the ticket machine? Not even Alfred Hitchcock can make intercity bus travel genuinely suspenseful, it would seem.

He’s not helped much by some fairly primitive filming techniques: in the – um – bus chase and elsewhere, there’s a heavy reliance on back projection that probably had nobody convinced back in 1966, let alone today, while another key sequence takes place in a park. Rather than going out and actually filming in a park, this is realised by building an astonishingly fake-looking park on a soundstage and filming it there. The production values in this sequence are so low that they distract completely from what’s a turning point in the story.

The story doesn’t really convince as a realistic piece of espionage, but at the same time the story is so odd and low-key it hardly qualifies as a rip-roaring spy adventure either. Both stars seem a bit at sea, as well, and you almost get the sense that Hitchcock isn’t trying that hard either. Perhaps at this point the director was being swallowed up by his own legend – rather than being a subtle little in-joke, for instance, Hitchcock’s cameo is telegraphed by the soundtrack playing the theme tune from his TV show when he appears. It’s tempting to say that the rest of the film shows an equal lack of subtlety when it comes to achieving its objectives, but the problem is it’s often not quite clear exactly what those objectives are. A story certainly unfolds, but is it meant to be a romantic adventure, or have comic overtones, or be tense and gritty? Nobody involved seems to know or really seems that bothered. The result is a film which for the most part only very occasionally lingers in the memory, and for the wrong reasons.

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