Posts Tagged ‘Neil Marshall’

Film-making is not an exact science, and the exact length of the Minimal Acceptable Period Before Remake is one of those subjective things: it used to be at least twenty years, but recent developments have seen this being cut down quite considerably – Dino de Laurentiis took considerable stick for making two versions of Red Dragon only fifteen years apart, but the response to Sony doing Spider-Man’s origin twice in barely more than a decade received much more muted grumbling. Equally open to debate is that other cinematic figure, Optimum Period Before Sequel, although here there seems to be more of a consensus – two or three years is generally considered to be the ideal, although Disney have taken up something of an outlying position here, what with the 54 year wait between films about their supernatural dominatrix.

All of which brings us, more or less, to Neil Marshall’s Hellboy, which began its development as a sequel to the two films about Mike Mignola’s hell-spawned superhero made by Guillermo del Toro in the mid 2000s. The producers eventually decided not to ask del Toro back to complete his planned trilogy (good move, guys, I mean – it’s not like he’s done anything worth mentioning in the last couple of years, is it?), at which point the film was switched to being a remake, or relaunch, or reimagining, or whatever the buzzy word for doing a new version of something well-known is these days.

It almost instantly becomes obvious that del Toro’s studiously subtle and quirkily atmospheric sensibility has not survived into the new film, as we are plunged into a flashback to the Dark Ages – known as such for a ‘****ing good reason’, according to the narration – where King Arthur is battling an army of demons and monsters, led by the sorceress Nimue (Milla Jovovich – ignore that sound you think you can hear, it’s just alarm bells starting to ring). The film’s extravagant fondness for lavish CGI gore becomes apparent as King Arthur dismembers his opponent and has the various bits entombed in secret locations across the British isles – ‘this isn’t over!’ cries Jovovich’s severed head as it is thrust into a box, and as we haven’t even reached the opening credits yet, it’s hard to argue with that. (Suggestions that the new Hellboy shares a fair chunk of its plot with The Kid Who Would Be King seem to me to have some truth to them.)

Then we’re back in the present day, where Hellboy (David Harbour) is taking part in a Mexican wrestling match with a luchador who’s actually a vampire, which sets up various plot and character points. Any thought that this might actually be a continuation of the del Toro films is finally put to rest, as Hellboy’s adopted father is alive again, and this time played by Ian McShane. For no particularly credible reason, McShane decides to fill Hellboy in on his origins, as he has apparently not bothered to do so in the previous 75 years and Hellboy has seemingly never thought to ask. With this flagrant slab of exposition out of the way, Hellboy is packed off to the UK to assist an aristocratic bunch of British occultists deal with an infestation of man-eating giants. But there is more afoot than the giant feet of the giants! Someone is gathering together the various bits of Milla Jovovich, and if they can complete the set, she will rise again and unleash a terrible plague upon the world, possibly even worse than the Resident Evil movie series…

Apparently the main idea that Neil Marshall brought to this project was the idea that it would straddle the horror and superhero boundaries. (This may explain the weird mish-mash of superhero, fantasy and horror trailers running before Hellboy, which included the same trailer for The Curse of La Llorona twice.) Well, hmmm. I have to say that I have always felt rather indulgent towards Neil Marshall, as his films tend to have a great sense of fun and energy, even if they are often wildly OTT gorefests. And he has made one genuinely great horror film, 2005’s The Descent, a wrenchingly tense and scary movie. Generally speaking, though, he just doesn’t seem to have the patience involved in creating the right kind of atmosphere to properly frighten an audience, and settles for just grossing them out with blood and guts spraying across the screen. This is certainly the route that his version of Hellboy takes, and I’m not really sure how it helps the project much: it doesn’t exactly broaden the appeal of the movie, just reinforces the impression that it is primarily aimed at heavy metal fans.

Of course, this was the movie that drew controversy before production even began because of some of its casting choices were considered to be ethnically inappropriate – the actor initially cast as Hellboy was not actually a demon, thus depriving representation to performers who were genuinely from the abyssal realm. Then everybody sat down and had a good think and realised that a) you’re never going to please everyone when it comes to this sort of thing and b) once someone’s in the Hellboy make-up, you can’t really tell who they are anyway, so it’s best not to get stressed out about it. So they went with David Harbour anyway. Harbour is okay at playing the sulky teenager elements of the role, but struggles to do much more with it; his great good fortune is to be acting opposite Milla Jovovich, who makes most people look good in comparison. Jovovich’s contribution sets the tone for most of the acting in this film, by which I mean it is by and large quite lousy; McShane phones in a decent performance, though, and there is some amusing voice work from Stephen Graham as a fairy with the head of a pig.

Then again, I suppose you could argue that the actors can only work with what they’re given, which in this case is a fairly ropy script seemingly more concerned with lurching from one gory CGI set-piece to the next, with clunky exposition and iffy dialogue filling in the gaps. The saving grace of the new Hellboy is not that it brings us an important message or makes a great deal of sense, or even a small amount of sense, or even any sense whatsoever; it is that Marshall is clearly having a whale of a time smashing all these very disparate ideas together, doing so with great energy and even the occasional shaft of genuine wit (to pass the time before she is constituted, Nimue’s henchman piles her various body parts on a sofa, where she passes the time watching reality TV – it certainly provides motivation for her desiring the apocalypse).

The new Hellboy is not in the same league as either of the del Toro films, lacking their charm, subtlety or attention to detail; as mentioned, the actors are not well-served by the script, either. But I would be lying if I said it does not provide a certain kind of entertainment value. You really do have to indulge it a bit, though, and it may be that many people just won’t be prepared to do that. Which is fair enough. I don’t think any sane observer would claim that Hellboy is a great movie, but it’s a reasonably fun bad movie.

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Neil Marshall’s must-have list prior to making Centurion:

  • 1 copy of the Annals of Tacitus (for research purposes)
  • 1 DVD of Lord of the Rings (ditto)
  • 1 DVD of The Warriors (ditto again)
  • four dozen assorted javelins, swords, axes, spears, and other sharp implements
  • various assorted trained horses and wolves
  • twenty Roman legionary costumes
  • six jars face paint (blue)
  • two dozen severed heads, hands, legs, etc (rubber)
  • 500 gallons of blood (fake)
  • Olga Kurylenko’s phone number

Hmmm. By 2010 the scorecard for Neil Marshall’s directorial career stood as follows – Dog Soldiers: small-cast, small-budget horror – modest popular and critical success. The Descent: small-cast, not-quite-so-small-budget horror – significant popular and critical success. Doomsday: big-cast, big-budget SF horror – bit of a cock-up. So it’s fair to say Centurion was a movie with a lot riding on it in terms of the director’s reputation and future prospects. It may therefore be telling that Marshall chose to make a film which didn’t go mad splicing different genres together, was stuffed with the cream of British acting talent, and – perhaps most crucially – only cost about two thirds of what the previous movie did (our old friends at the UK Film Council were involved in the financing, too).

Set in Britain in 117AD, this is the story of gladiator’s son turned Roman centurion Quintus Dias (homme du jour Michael Fassbender), serving on the hazardous northern frontier of the Empire. The story is… hmm, there’s quite a lot of business in this film before we get to the actual story, most of it insanely macho and violent, so I suppose it counts as establishing the tone for the rest of the movie. Basically, Quintus gets captured by the local Pict tribe, escapes, and meets up with a Roman legion commanded by Dominic West, who’s been sent by the Governor to kill the Pict king. West is being assisted by Olga Kurylenko, who’s playing a native huntress (Kurylenko’s character is mute, partly as a character point, but also – I suspect – to avoid awkward questions about her Russian accent). However things do not go to plan when the legion is lured into a trap and massacred, with the general being captured. Left in command of a tiny group of survivors, Quintus is faced with a stark choice – should he lead the men towards safety – something far from assured, with the Picts still hunting them – or attempt to rescue the general from the clutches of the barbaric Celts?

Well, no prizes for guessing which he plumps for. My expert and informed reading of this film – well, the credits, anyway – leads to me to infer that this is, in fact, a homage to The Warriors, a 1979 movie about gang warfare in New York City, which was in turn based on a story from Xenophon (whatever props Centurion earns for crediting its inspirations are instantly lost when it spells Xenophon’s name wrong). However, the obvious plot similarities – small band of brothers have to battle their way home from deep within enemy territory – are sort of obscured by the fact that in many superficial ways Centurion much more closely resembles The Eagle from 2011.

The parallels with The Eagle are almost – ha, ha, you’ll like this one – eyrie. Not only do the films share a very similar setting and tone, but they’re based on the same historical event – the apparent annihilation of the Ninth Legion somewhere in Scotland in the early second century. You could even view The Eagle as an unofficial sequel to this film, as they don’t substantially contradict each other. Even beyond this, the structure and style of the films are very similar – although Centurion is a bit less soggy and authentic, for good or ill.

However, where The Eagle is thoughtful and does its best to be atmospheric, Centurion is a much more straightforward action movie. There’s a bit near the beginning which seems to be implicitly comparing the Roman presence in Britain with the present-day British presence in Afghanistan, but the film doesn’t pursue this in any meaningful way. Instead we get lots of Lord of the Rings-inflected helicopter shots of figures in a rugged landscape, and the odd bit pinched from elsewhere (believe it or not, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a notable donor).

But mostly what you get is violence. Lots and lots of it. On the strength of this film I get the impression that Neil Marshall can’t walk past a throat without slitting it or sticking an axe in it (note to libel lawyers reading this: I mean in a creative context). I thought Doomsday had some heavy violence in it, but this is possibly even stronger stuff. In the opening ten minutes you get a gory massacre, someone’s arm being skewered to a table with a knife, a bar brawl, and a prisoner being carved up by his captors. And it doesn’t really let up for most of the rest of the film – there’s a battle scene at one point which feels like it consists of dozens of quick shots of people being impaled on spears, shot in the eye with burning arrows, having their heads smashed with axes, chopped to bits by swords, etc, etc. I had thought that exposure to the collected works of John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, the Hammer guys, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez had left me almost completely desensitized to this sort of thing – but no, there were a few bits in this film which made me go ‘Ooh,’ and grimace.

Now I’m not saying this in itself makes Centurion a bad film. But at the end I came away with the impression that there’s not much else to it except the violence: the story is so basic – dare I say it, perfunctory – that nothing else really lingers in the memory. This is a real shame as there is some top acting talent in this film. Fassbender is, of course, probably too classy an act to really be in this kind of film, but does his best regardless. Also appearing are the likes of David Morrissey, Liam Cunningham, Noel Clarke and Riz Ahmed, but those that make an impression do so by sheer force of charisma rather than as a result of the parts they have to play. Imogen Poots pops up as the love interest, and is as charming as usual, but once again she gets little to work with and the story demands she appears too late to really make an impact.

Centurion seems to have been an attempt at a serious historical action movie with an appropriately dour tone – indeed, at one point it looks as if the ending to this movie is going to be as dark as that of The Descent. It looks good and the actors are talented, but the problem is that the script can’t find anything really interesting for anyone to do for long stretches at a time, and the relentless gore makes this look like much more of an exploitation movie than is probably the case. I missed the SF and fantasy elements of Marshall’s other movies, too: isn’t there room in the world for a Roman soldiers vs. zombies film?

Oh well. Centurion is probably a better and more coherent film than Doomsday, but at the same time not quite as interesting. No word yet as to what Marshall’s next project is going to be, but the list of ‘planned films’ in his Wikipedia entry suggests he will not be going too far out of his comfort zone (suppliers of Kensington Gore up and down the land rejoice). The jury is still surely out as to whether The Descent was the one really great film Neil Marshall had in him: I hope not.

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One of the more interesting phenomena in cinema is when power and success goes to a young director’s head somewhat, with the results generally being interesting, if possibly not that person’s best work: the ensuing films are ambitious, startlingly off-the-wall, but also frequently overblown and audience-unfriendly. It happened to Spielberg with 1941, it happened to Edgar Wright with Scott Pilgrim vs The World, and – I recently discovered – it happened to Neil Marshall with the 2008 film Doomsday.

This was the (relatively) big-budget follow-up to Dog Soldiers and The Descent, a couple of pared-down but effective and well-received horror movies about people going off to the woods and being jumped on by monsters. The events of Doomsday take place on a wider canvas. When a lethal and highly-contagious viral outbreak takes place in present-day Glasgow (the exact cause is not delved into, but I expect someone tried deep-frying something they shouldn’t have), panic and violence rapidly spread. The British government quickly order the construction of an armoured wall separating Scotland from the rest of the UK, and leave the country to its own dark fate (all this, by the way, without any bickering over referendum dates or wrangling about a possible ‘third option’ – food for thought there for Alex Salmond, methinks).

Anyway, in the year 2035 Scotland is a barren, desolate, uninviting wasteland (insert your own joke here), while the aftereffects of the catastrophe have transformed England into a decaying, repressive autocracy, ruled over by grasping crypto-fascists like the prime minister (Siddig el Fadil) and his advisor (David O’Hara), and policed by security chief Nelson (Bob ‘Oskins) and his top agent, Eden Sinclair (Rhona Mitra). When there is another outbreak of the virus, this time in central London, disaster looms. But there is one slim hope: there are signs that human life has survived north of the border, in which case they must have discovered a cure. Sinclair and a crack team of squaddies are loaded into a couple of APCs forthwith and packed off to the ruins of Glasgow in search of a top virologist (Malcolm McDowell), left behind there during the quarantine. Sinclair’s orders are clear: come back with the antidote or not at all!

Doomsday is one of those movies where you can spend a lot of time thinking ‘I’ve seen this bit before… and this bit… and this bit…’ While the opening scenes clearly owe a debt to the 28 … Later movies, as the film progresses the influence of John Carpenter (particularly, Escape from New York) and George Miller (Mad Max, rather than Babe) becomes rather more dominant – though to be fair the film openly acknowledges its sources by naming a couple of minor characters after the directors in question. To begin with, at least, the film manages to take all these elements and mash them together to make something with a semblance of originality to it, and the first act of the film is rather engaging. It reminded me most of all of the original Cursed Earth comic strip from the British comic 2000AD, and it strikes me that the producers of the new Judge Dredd movie have really missed a trick in not getting Marshall involved in the production: on the strength of this film, he has exactly the right kind of sensibility for it.

Possibly best not to let him write the script, though: the first-act set-up is perfectly serviceable here, but as the film goes on it increasingly falls to bits, with elements included seemingly on a whim or because Marshall thought they would look cool, and key elements of the plot not properly articulated. Most fundamentally, the driver for the narrative here is the search for the cure – and when Sinclair finally catches up with Macdowell’s character, he rather vaguely waffles on about how ‘natural selection’ has given him and his followers ‘immunity’ to the virus. That, I think you’ll agree, is a stroke of good luck, given he’s an expert on viruses and all (even if it makes sense, which I strongly doubt). We’re talking about a Maguffin, obviously, but does it have to be such a blatant one?

One gets a sense that narrative cohesion was less of a priority for the film-makers than the startling excesses which run through this film from beginning to end – right at the start, the tone is set when someone gets shot, but they’re not just shot: their hand is messily blown off. Dismemberments and decapitations are frequent, rabbits get blown to pieces, well-known British actors are barbecued alive and eaten, and so on. (To say nothing of the scene with the naked blonde packing a pump-action shotgun.) I don’t have a problem with any of this stuff per se, but it does make Doomsday very difficult to take seriously as an actual SF action movie rather than a lurid piece of exploitation junk.

Matters are not helped by the fact that the senior members of the cast (and here I’m thinking of Hoskins and Macdowell) don’t get a great deal of screen time. (Adrian Lester is lumbered with a curiously underwritten role as the main character’s sidekick.) The bulk of carrying this movie falls on the shoulders of Rhona Mitra, who is agreeable enough to look upon, but not conspicuously equipped (on the strength of this performance) with either acting ability or screen presence. She is basically playing an undistinguished exponent of that tedious mainstay of the dimbo SF/horror action genre, the Ass-Kicking Babe – much like Kate Beckinsale in Underworld and its sequels, Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil and its spawn, or Sanaa Lathan in Alien vs Predator.

Those last two examples should be setting alarm bells ringing in the heads of right-minded folk, as they are both part of the oeuvre of the king of the trashy mid-budget genre movie, Paul W.S. Anderson. Even though I wasn’t much impressed with the way Doomsday unravelled throughout its length, eventually becoming not much more than a lumpy pastiche of its sources, I am still hesitant to describe it as basically resembling a Paul W.S. Anderson film, for fear of sounding too harsh. The fact remains that it does – an unusually imaginative and well-mounted Paul W.S. Anderson movie, to be sure, but still part of the canon. I suppose that if Anderson himself was responsible I’d be praising it as a great step forward – but he wasn’t, Neil Marshall was, and as a result Doomsday, though fairly entertaining, is inevitably a bit of a disappointment.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published June 21st 2005:

How times change. A few years ago it seemed that nearly every British horror movie had a khaki tint to it, and one of the best of these was Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers. This year’s horror a la mode tends toward subterranean horridness, with the trail ickily blazed by Creep back in February. And now we have The Descent, a quite similar (but definitely superior film) written and directed by Marshall, again. This guy’s gonna get typed…

Trying to recover from a personal tragedy, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) embarks on a sort of adventure holiday with five of her feisty girlfriends. They spend the start of the film drinking, swearing, being spunky and generally acting like they’re auditioning for a commercial for feminine hygiene products. And then the main event of their trip gets underway: an expedition into a cave system underneath the Appalachian mountains. As you can probably guess, things do not go According To Plan, as they find themselves sealed in, short on supplies, and increasingly aware that there are some very foul things in the deep places of the earth…

Well, you always know pretty much what’s coming at any given point in The Descent, but that doesn’t stop it being the most twitchily effective horror movie I’ve seen in a very long time. It grips like a vice from very near the start and doesn’t relax until the surprisingly low-key ending arrives – groans and moans drifted around the theatre where I saw it, so it wasn’t just me. Marshall expertly ratchets up the tension – it isn’t until nearly halfway into the film that he wheels on his real nasties, but all the scenes with the characters trapped underground, caught in rockfalls, dangling over bottomless abysses, and suffering grisly accidental injuries were quite nerve-shredding enough on their own.

And the monsters themselves are very effective too – okay, so they’re very nearly Gollum-a-likes, but these Pellucidarean chavs look and behave convincingly and the rationale behind them, though barely given, is just about plausible. My only real criticism of The Descent, other than to mention some duff but forgivable CGI, is that it’s set in American caves rather than under, for example, the Yorkshire Dales (even though it was filmed in the UK). Either this is a peculiar attempt to appeal to the US market (a lead character is American, which may be for the same reason) or Marshall just can’t bring himself to take the idea of monsters under Wharfedale seriously (clearly he hasn’t met the locals). As it is his film does seem rather like an extra-length and extra-gory episode of The X Files, which isn’t necessarily a problem but does mean it feels rather more derivative than it absolutely needed to.

Well, anyway. It’s an impressively well-mounted film, and the acting is up to scratch. As someone who’s done a tiny amount of caving, I was tremendously impressed by the fact that Marshall managed to make a film underground at all, let alone one as effective as this, because I was totally convinced it was shot in a real cave system. But apparently the whole thing was done on sets, so I suppose I should just be tremendously impressed with the production designs instead.

In the end The Descent is just a very simple and very effective film, made with considerable panache and energy. It doesn’t have a deep subtext or a subtle, misleading plot. It doesn’t have tremendous depths of characterisation or fantastic virtuoso camerawork. But what it does have is the burning desire to scare the audience nearly to the point of trauma, and the skill to very nearly achieve this. Recommended.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published May 23rd 2002:

 I turned up to watch Neil Marshall’s new movie Dog Soldiers with some misgivings. For one thing, low budget horror movies don’t exactly have a diamond pedigree, especially not the recent British crop. And for another, this has got Sean Pertwee in it; a man who’s CV does not suggest first-rate quality control. But I’m always hoping to be pleasantly surprised and so in I went.

After a bit of scene-setting the story kicks off with a six-man army patrol being dumped in the Scottish highlands to take part in exercises. It’s led by tough but caring Sergeant Wells (Pertwee) and his mate Private Cooper (Kevin McKidd from Trainspotting). While they have a pleasant time yomping through the heather the prospect of a ‘Bad Movie’ looms before the audience as the dialogue is unconvincing and cliched, characterisation consists of a single trait per squaddy, endlessly repeated, and it’s clear the director has watched Predator, Aliens and The Blair Witch Project too many times: big, hairy, howling monsters are on the loose and pretty soon come after our heroes.

But things improve rapidly once they fetch up in a remote cottage with a secretive and ruthless Special Ops officer (Liam Cunningham), who’s in the area on a secret mission, and a comely young zoologist (Emma Cleasby) who claims to know what the things chasing them are: werewolves. While the audience is not shocked, the W-word being all over the poster, the soldiers are. But as the monsters encircle the cottage they’re forced to believe as the battle to survive begins.

Well, I won’t tell you any more of the plot, suffice to say that Evil Dead joins the list of ripped-off movies, along with John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. Actually, if you’ve seen Assault then you pretty much know the plot of Dog Soldiers already, it owes Carpenter’s film that big a debt. To be fair, there’s a twist near the end that’s original to this film, but it’s not a very good one and blows several large holes in the plot. This is just the most obvious of several problems with the script: several squad members are indistinguishable, there’s a lot of fairly ropey dialogue, and it’s really not very subtle writing when one character says to another, ‘Don’t lose this knife, it’s solid silver‘, within two minutes of the movie starting.

This is a low-budget movie and a lot of the time it shows. The werewolf costumes are distinctly variable, but my main problem was that sunlight clearly shines in through the cottage windows when most of the film is set at night. But this is a minor quibble as there is much here to enjoy. There are some very effective moments (and you can have fun spotting which other films they’ve been nicked from) and there’s a mordant wit at work. The comedy is jet black but nevertheless effective and fans of gore will find quite a bit to entertain them (this is only rated 15 in the UK, which amazed me). I learnt new things about superglue, too.

There are some fun performances: McKidd is surprisingly effective as the hero, very dour and committed. It’s an effective contrast with Sean Pertwee, who is – as usual – shamelessly, frenetically hammy but nonetheless highly entertaining. Emma Cleasby is okay in a fairly thankless role, too.

I quite enjoyed Dog Soldiers in the end. It’s no frills, down and dirty stuff, but that suits the subject matter very well. In the end it’s almost exactly the sum of its parts – so it’s lucky that most of those parts were in pretty good films to start with.

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