Posts Tagged ‘Olivia Thirlby’

I have commented in the past on the dangers of giving your movie a punchy, catchy one-word title: other people may have the same idea, which can be terribly confusing. Twilight, Steel, Roadkill: all of these titles have been round the block a few times and have wildly different movies squabbling over possession of them.

Short titles can be equally problematic: just now I noticed that The Black Hole was on TV, but rather than the 1979 Gary Nelson stellar-conflict knock-off, it turned out to be a Ken Badish Z-movie with Kristy Swanson. In a similar vein, I wonder how many people are going to check into their favourite streaming site and decide to watch The Darkest Hour, comfortably settling down to enjoy an Oscar-winning turn from Gary Oldman, oblivious to the fact that they have actually made a fairly significant mistake?

Not that this is likely to long remain the case, for I cannot imagine anyone watching much of Chris Gorak’s 2011 movie The Darkest Hour and long remaining under the impression it is Joe Wright’s 2017 movie Darkest Hour. One of these films has an embattled Winston Churchill trying to keep the cause of liberty and freedom alive. The other features attractive young people being chased around Moscow by invisible monsters. A definite article can make a big difference sometimes.

These days it’s a little hard to imagine a US-Russian co-production quite as brazenly commercial as this one, but there you go, the past is another country. (As is Russia. Presumably the past of Russia is several different countries simultaneously, but I’ve no idea how that would work.) Prime mover behind this enterprise appears to have been Timur Bekmambetov, reigning nutcase behind such family favourites as Wanted, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and the remake of Ben-Hur, and though someone else is left to do the actual directing, followers of the Bekmambetov oeuvre will know more or less what to expect.

Things get underway with aspiring young American entrepreneurs Sean (Emile Hirsch) and Ben (Max Minghella), who arrive in Moscow (everyone uses the American pronunciation, by the way) to try and find investors for their new website-stroke-app. But zounds! It turns out their perfidious Swedish business partner, Skyler – is this a common Swedish name? – has done the dirty on them and ripped off their idea. (The evil Swede is played by Joel Kinnaman, by the way.)

To drown their sorrows, Sean and Ben retire to a swanky nightclub where they meet feisty backpackers Natalie (Olivia Thirlby) and Anne (Rachael Taylor). You know, I wasn’t aware that Moscow was such a hub on the international backpacking scene, but it just goes to show you. Even Skyler ends up in the same club, where he is as objectionable as earlier.

But then! Following a mysterious power failure, everyone stumbles out into the street to see strange aurorae appearing over Moscow, and swirls of glowing light raining down onto the city. It all looks very pretty, until it becomes apparent that the swirly light things are all people can perceive of vicious alien gits intent on invading the city and disintegrating everyone in their path. There’s only one thing for an appealing young ensemble cast to do at a time like this – hide in the cellar for a day and a night!

Making their rather cautious return to the streets 36 hours later, our heroes discover that Moscow is largely deserted, with everyone either having fled or been eaten by the invisible alien monsters. Everyone decides to go to the US embassy (even the Australian and Swedish characters), but what hope is there, with aliens still on the prowl and no apparent hope of escape…?

Anyway, The Darkest Hour is an example of the kind of middle-of-the-road genre movie which occasionally slips past me at a busy time of the year: I didn’t see it back when it came out, and can’t remember a particular reason why not. Must just have been occupied with other stuff – this is certainly the kind of film I can imagine me going to see, what with it being an alien invasion SF-horror movie and all. I may have been persuaded to knock it down my list of priorities by the notices it drew at the time, which ran a fairly negative gamut from tepid to eviscerating.

This is understandable, as – and perhaps you have been able to glean this from the customary synopsis – The Darkest Hour is unlikely ever to win any awards for its blazing originality, in any department. The capsule description of this movie – ‘the one with the invisible monsters in Moscow’ – also contains every distinctive feature that it possesses, with the possible exception of the fact that it scores unexpectedly high on the ‘on their way to very slightly better things’ department – Olivia Thirlby went on to appear in Dredd (in addition to some TV stuff), Rachael Taylor has carved out a tiny niche for herself sort-of playing Hellcat in the Marvel TV shows, Joel Kinnaman later found work in the Robocop remake and Suicide Squad, and so on.

B-movies are not what they used to be. It used to be the case that in a B-movie you were more or less guaranteed substandard, or (let’s be charitable) overambitious special effects, but you kept your fingers crossed that the film-makers would do their best to make up for this by using their imagination and wits when it came to the script, and the actors would likewise try to compensate for giving interesting performances. These days, however, thanks to the development of cheap high-end computers, the one thing you are pretty much guaranteed in even a low-budget movie is that it will have good-looking special effects. On the other hand, your chances of happening upon a script which does more than hit the minimum benchmarks are much lower nowadays, and the cast often seem to be deliberately trying to be as anonymous as possible.

So it is with The Darkest Hour. It has one slightly curious quirk – the moss-cow setting – and one potentially interesting feature – the invasion of invisible energy beings – and while the scenes in a devastated Moscow are predictably well-staged in visual terms, the film has little else to offer beyond a formulaic runaround. It’s not that difficult to work out who amongst the original five is not going to make it to the closing credits, and in which order they’re going to get zapped, but the thing is that you don’t really care either, so thinly characterised are they. Only Olivia Thirlby demonstrates she has genuine chops as an actress by genuinely making you worry about her survival.

I’m not sure what to make of the fact that The Darkest Hour goes to all the trouble of being a Moscow-set SF movie, without including a single leading Russian character. It kind of reduces the setting to a painted backdrop, which I doubt was the intention of the Russian producers. I suppose you could argue that Gosha Kutsenko and Veronika Vernadskaya both appear in supporting roles and are very Russian indeed, almost to the point of stereotype, and that this makes up for a lot. Maybe.

In the end it doesn’t really make up for just how generic and forgettable The Darkest Hour is. Like a lot of movies at around this point in history, it was originally released in the odious 3D format, something which seems to have become slightly less common, but I doubt yet another gimmick would have helped its cause much. The thing about it is that this is one of those movies which doesn’t have a single element in it which you could genuinely call actively bad, but it’s so totally lacking in anything really distinctive and (apart from the effects and a single performance) actually accomplished that it simply fails to register in your head much. It’s not awful – being awful would actually make it more memorable. It just is, in that it exists – it just does very little more than that.

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‘Judge Dredd is going onto the stairwell to confront his suspects. Anyone with a sensitive disposition should look away now.’ – John Wagner, Judge Dredd – On The Job

I don’t remember ever walking out of a film which I have paid to see; this is probably a result of desensitisation, informed choices of viewing, persistent optimism and (mostly) stinginess. Others are not so dedicated and I especially recall the way in which David Cronenberg’s Crash and Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris managed to drive audiences out mid-showing. Usually, though, people walking from films is quite rare – so far as I notice these things – but my attention was caught by two people departing from Pete Travis’s Dredd round about the midway point. I wonder what it was about this film that impelled them to leave – quite how was this film different to their expectations? Did they go in on a whim, with no preconceptions as to what was coming? Or were they perhaps the two people in the world who actually enjoyed the Sylvester Stallone Judge Dredd movie, and had expected a remake?

(The need to put some distance between itself and the deservedly vilified 1995 movie is, presumably, the reason why this film doesn’t use the full title of the 2000AD comic strip it’s based on. Fair enough, but it’s still rather like releasing a Captain America movie just called America or a Superman movie just called Man. I suppose anyone who’s a Dredd fan will be sufficiently aware of the new movie for it not to make much difference.)

Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I must be upfront and reveal I have followed the Judge Dredd comic strip for well over a quarter of a century; my shelves groan under the weight of nearly thirty volumes of collected editions of Dredd stories. So I’m the target audience for this film, and have awaited it with a considerable degree of anticipation. One big plus for this film is the casting: Karl Urban plays Dredd himself – a competent performer for this kind of film, but more significantly someone familiar enough with the strip to understand the importance of keeping his helmet on and his face covered throughout. You never see Judge Dredd’s face in the comic – it’s one of the things that the 1995 film disregarded and drew enormous flak for. The new movie seems more concerned with being faithful than being commercial, which is partly what makes it interesting.

Some time in the not too distant future, America has become an irradiated wasteland, with hundreds of millions of people crammed into Mega-City One, a hellish metropolis on the east coast. What order exists is maintained solely through the efforts of the Justice Department – the de facto government, consisting of ruthless, brutal Judges with the power of instant sentencing. Foremost amongst these is Judge Dredd (Urban), who spends his days cruising the streets on a machine-gun-toting motorbike, administering justice via the six types of special bullet his side-arm dispenses. As the film opens, Dredd is given a special assignment: the assessment of rookie Judge Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), whose fitness for duty is questionable, but whose mutant telepathic abilities could make her a useful asset. Their patrol takes them to Peach Trees, one of the city’s massive residential blocks. They discover the block is being run by vicious gang boss Ma Ma (Lena Headey) as a private fiefdom, and apprehend a suspect who could testify against her – but before they can drag him off for interrogation, Ma Ma seals the block and unleashes the local gangs against the two Judges…

At this point we should probably address the whole ‘Dredd and The Raid: Separated at Birth’ issue. Yes, there is a striking resemblance between the plots of these two films, and yes, they are both notable for some of the most intense, uncompromising violence seen in any recent action movie. But that’s really it: I really think this just an odd case of convergence rather than a conscious rip-off, and stylistically the films are very distinct (Dredd also owes something of a debt to Die Hard and Assault on Precinct 13). The Raid was a lean, stripped-down, almost raw piece of work, while Dredd is much more obviously stylish and designed – and while The Raid‘s violence was balletic and fluid, in Dredd it is crunching and weighty, almost industrial.

Perhaps this is the reason why the couple at the screening I went to decided on an early night, as this movie is a strong 18 and, as such, is considerably bloodier than the typical comic-book adaptation. Characters get skinned alive, set on fire and have their eyes gouged out on-screen, and there’s another startling sequence where more than one person gets a bullet through the face in slow motion. The evident care and attention which has gone into making these moments visually distinctive and, from a certain point of view, rather beautiful, suggests firstly that the director has a rather idiosyncratic outlook on life, and secondly that a lot of people are going to find this film deeply objectionable and quite possibly morally reprehensible.

But then I suppose this is just another demonstration of the movie’s fidelity to the comic, which was for many years driven by the tension between Judge Dredd’s dual role as both main character, and fascist enforcer of a totalitarian regime. For the most part the movie soft-pedals the latter element, but when it does address it, it does so with a much harder edge than the comic traditionally has: we see Judges summarily executing prisoners, and at one point Dredd embarks upon beating information out of a suspect. For me the film doesn’t have the knowing self-awareness of its own contradictions that the strip has in its best periods, but I suspect the makers were desperate to avoid appearing arch or self-mocking.

It’s interesting that the movie departs quite substantially from the detail of the comic, while still somehow retaining much of its essential tone. The movie dials the Mega-City’s weirdness and futuricity down to a startling degree: the vehicles and clothes could be contemporary a lot of the time, while the buildings and structures also have a contemporary look to them – very much a more Ron Smith take on the aesthetic than a Carlos Ezquerra one. Similarly, while the Dredd costume is instantly recognisable, it’s much more like an early Brett Ewins Dredd than the classic Mike McMahon visualisation of the character. There are lots of little changes to the background and characters, as well – most obviously, the comic’s swearing-avoidance technique of using made-up profanities like ‘Drokk!’ and ‘Stomm!’ is dispensed with – but also a lot of background in-jokes aimed solely at people like me. This is almost wholly confined to the set-dressing, though: Dredd strongly reminded me of Batman Begins in the way it takes a sprawling, often preposterous mythology and pares it down to something plausible and serious. For fans, it’s notable just what this movie doesn’t include: Dredd’s clone heritage, the origins of his world, any supporting characters other than Anderson, or indeed any of the major Dredd villains – none of these feature or are even mentioned.

And yet the character up on screen is indisputably the real Judge Dredd. I was a little dubious when I first heard that Karl Urban would be playing Dredd. Did he have the chin for the part? More importantly, would he sound like Dredd? At which point I realised I’d no idea what Dredd’s voice actually sounds like, but that I’d still know instantly if they got it wrong. Well, Urban pretty much gets it right, and not just the voice. To begin with I thought he was not quite laconic enough, or deadpan enough, but his performance definitely grew on me. Towards the end he was throwing people out of windows and declaring himself to be the law, and I realised that I’d bought into it completely: this is about as good a performance as Dredd as one can imagine.

I’m not so sure about the film’s version of Anderson, to be honest – Olivia Thirlby is pretty good, but beyond the fact she’s a blonde female telepath this is a different character from the one in the comic. (Anderson’s appearance has changed a lot in the thirty years she’s been in the strip – the Brett Ewins version in particular had a definite formative effect on my adolescent libido – but I don’t recall her ever looking much like Thirlby.) Nevertheless, if this film does well enough in the US to earn a sequel, it’s difficult to imagine her not being in it. Attempting to justify Stallone taking the helmet off in 1995, Danny Cannon made the point that Dredd himself isn’t really a character, he’s a monolithic icon – it’s easy to tell stories with him, but difficult to tell stories about him. A full-length film narrative needs a human being in it, hence the more humanised Stallone Dredd. Much as I enjoyed Urban’s performance as Dredd, I can’t see him carrying a film solo – you need another character for the audience to identify with.

If part of Dredd‘s success is down to the presence of Thirlby as Anderson, then it also owes a debt to the striking visual style it possesses. Much of this is enabled through the plot device of a narcotic which slows down the perception of time – hence some remarkable slow-motion 3D sequences, a couple of which are extremely grisly. Finding a replacement for this gimmick will be another challenge, should the sequel go ahead, and there are a few other areas where this film could be improved upon – in particular, there’s a subplot here about corruption inside Justice Department which didn’t feel like an organic part of the story.

I turned up to this film with rather more foreboding than anticipation, bad memories of Stallone and good memories of The Raid both lingering. However, even before the title card, Dredd‘s bleakness and energy and evident love of the source material had started to win me over. I saw this movie very much from the point-of-view of a Dredd fan, but as luck would have it I was accompanied by my good friend Shaolin Rasta, who was completely unaware of the character beforehand. He enjoyed it too, even if he blanched a bit at some of the more extreme violence: which to me suggests that this film will find a mainstream audience, though possibly a limited one. This is very much a hard-core action movie with some neat SF trappings draped around it, and a slightly unusual central character, and as such it’s very successful. The challenge for any future productions with this team and this world will be to take all the very real virtues of Dredd and use them to tell a story with genuine ideas and something to actually say for itself. But this movie is a good first step and a terrific introduction to the character.

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Watching awards ceremonies is like eating junk food: enjoyable in an unmemorable way, but even while you’re doing it you know it’s no good for you. They’re all either brazenly political or hopelessly populist, and the BAFTAs last night were no exception. While surely no-one could object to Sir Christopher Lee being honoured (and didn’t he look frail? I could never have imagined Christopher Lee being frail, it’s just not in the essence of the man – it’s like Lady Gaga being demure or Ed Milliband being dynamic and authoritative (sorry Ed). At least the voice is still there), anyone who did take the proceedings seriously would surely be peeved by the absence of major gongs for Inception (I guess releasing it in the summer killed its credibility) or for Barbara Hershey’s turn in Black Swan.
So, anyway, I went for a bit of a ramble on t’internet today and found myself on Barbara Hershey’s Wikipedia page. While I was there I took the opportunity to add a link to one of her films which had been overlooked (Kevin O’Connor’s barking-mad picture-postcard action-comedy, Trial by Combat – almost unknown, but one of my favourites) and wanted to…

Well, look, as you may know, the thing about Wikipedia is that everything on there needs to be sourced. Not necessarily a good or famous source (I‘m listed as an authority in the article on The Chrysalids, for heaven’s sake), but something external. And I tried to find an appropriate source on t’internet, but I couldn’t. However:

Okay, on the left we have a picture of the American actress Barbara Hershey, taken (I would guess) in the late seventies. The picture on the right – which I think you will agree bears something of a resemblance – is of the American peace officer and sometime-head-of-state, Barbara Hershey, who first came to prominence in the late seventies (she is, as you may have guessed, fictional).

It seems very obvious to me that fictional-Hershey is clearly based on real-Hershey (the name and appearance are surely something of a giveaway), but without a signed statement to that effect from John Wagner and Alan Grant (fictional-Hershey’s originators) you can’t say so on Wikipedia without sparking one of those tedious outbursts of Wikipedantry that normally stop me from contributing to the site.

Still, digging through the internet I found lots of interesting stuff out about a film which it’s not impossible that fictional-Hershey may in fact be appearing in, Pete Travis’s Dredd. I knew this movie was on the way, but I wasn’t aware it was actually shooting – it is, in South Africa – and it’s due out next year. (Like Dark Knight Rises, Avengers, Man of Steel, Gareth Edwards’ take on Godzilla, Bond 23 and half-a-dozen others weren’t already enough to get me somewhat overexcited already.) [Some of these movies were later postponed, obviously. – A]

Quite why the makers of Dredd have opted for that title I’m not entirely sure; it seems a little obtuse, not to mention superfluous as everyone still calls, and will continue to call it, the new Judge Dredd movie.

You probably already know who Judge Dredd is if you’re reading this, but I suppose there’s a chance your exposure has been limited to the 1995 movie starring Sylvester Stallone in the title role, which nobody in the world appears to like. Okay then: Judge Dredd is the title character of a long-running British comic-strip set in a dystopian future version of America. Atomic wars have reduced most of the planet to poisonous wasteland and the human population is confined to autonomous city-states. Horrible living conditions and mass unemployment have caused skyrocketing crime rates, which in turn have led to the adoption of a brutal, authoritarian political system, with the abolition of democracy and the law enforcers themselves being given the powers of judge, jury, and executioner.

Judge Dredd is, of course, foremost amongst the lawmen of Mega-City One, an analogue and amalgam of New York City, Washington, and most other major cities on the east coast of America. My description has probably made this strip sound excessively grim and downbeat, but the odd thing is that much of the time it’s almost written as a black comedy: one strip tells the tale of a citizen who tries to distinguish himself by growing his nose to enormous proportions, another deals with a brief fad for custard pie throwing, and a personal favourite of mine sees Dredd assigned to protect a famous football team following death threats made against them: the threats turn out to be bogus, but unfortunately by this point Dredd has already found grounds to arrest most of the players and the manager…

One of the things that distinguishes the strip is that, yes, Judge Dredd is a bastard. He shoots or arrests nearly everyone he meets, he treats the Law basically as God (‘law-fearing’ is the nicest thing he can find to say about regular citizens, which is interesting given that at one point ‘I am the Law’ was virtually his catchphrase), and most of the time he has no issues with being the chief enforcer for a totalitarian regime which practices savage population control (tranquiliser chemicals in the atmosphere and discreet euthanisation of the senile elderly) and deliberately rules through fear. (One story deals with the plight of citizens whose terror of Dredd has led to them becoming delusional and institutionalised. When informed of this, Dredd is indifferent, saying it’s the price they have to pay for law and order – things would be much worse in a democracy. And when the doctor involved asks why they should take Dredd’s word for it, Dredd tells him to watch his mouth or he’ll end up in a padded cell himself.)

In one famous 1982 strip, Dredd earned himself a special place in comics history by becoming personally responsible for the deaths of 800 million people, when he launched a nuclear strike against the Mega-City’s Russian counterpart (the ‘Sovs’, as they are called in the peculiar argot of Dredd’s world, were attempting to conquer Dredd’s home, so it was hardly an unprovoked assault – but it’s difficult to think of another fictional character who would both want and be permitted to do such a thing).

Dredd’s status as a brutal, relentless, inhuman figure is neatly encapsulated by the fact that, 34 years on from his first appearance, we still have almost no idea what he looks like. He wears his uniform helmet nearly all the time (even in the bath, according to some accounts) and his face has only been seen when it’s been temporarily altered or horribly scarred. (The face of the man Dredd was cloned from was pictured in one early story, but as the cloning connection was not established until much later, it’s generally accepted that this isn’t binding.) And in many stories he isn’t much more than a cipher or an incidental figure in the background, not unlike Morpheus in many of the best Sandman tales.

So Judge Dredd is actually a rather complicated and unusual figure, as comic-strip heroes go, both personally and narratively, and this may explain why the Stallone Dredd movie was such a disaster. These ambiguities of the character were ignored, along with the weirdness of much of his world, and – the crowning indignity – Stallone was permitted to take the helmet off. The question is, can the new movie do any better?

Can no-one make that helmet work as part of an actual costume? Oh, well. (Pretty sure the real Dredd always shaves, too…)

Well, early days yet, but everyone at least seems to be on the right page. The concept art for the movie strikes the right balance between the world of the comic and something that will appear credible on the big screen, and leading man Karl Urban seems to know where he’s coming from with the character (the helmet stays on). Rather than an epic adventure, the plot of the movie is instead a day-in-the-life type story, focussing on Dredd and a young trainee (Olivia Thirlby) he’s assessing.

As I’ve already mentioned, Dredd can be a difficult character to empathise with, and the inclusion of the trainee character will no doubt provide a figure the audience can actually identify with. What’s slightly surprising is that the trainee is a new version of Judge Anderson, one of the most successful characters to spin off from the strip (the many mid-Eighties panels of Anderson zipping and unzipping her figure-hugging synthi-leather catsuit, mostly drawn by Brett Ewins, played a pivotal role in my own development as a heterosexual male). Anderson is psychic, and I’m curious to see how the film handles this – it’s one thing that in some ways makes her less identifiable than Dredd. We see Anderson’s face rather a lot, too, and she doesn’t look much like Thirlby. Thirlby, if we’re honest, looks rather more like Judge Hershey – but there you go…

However, most of the Dredd fanbase seem happy with proceedings, and Dredd creator John Wagner has given it his seal of approval, which must count for something. As usual, I remain hopeful – I’m not sure that a single movie can do justice to the scope and richness of a character and a world which has been in development on a weekly basis for over three decades, but it’s surely worth a try, and a good Dredd movie would be easily capable of challenging any of the other big-name releases out next year, in terms of quality if not box office.

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