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Posts Tagged ‘Rufus Sewell’

What are we to make of M Night Shyamalan? Does he, in fact, get an unfairly raw deal from critics and commentators, for reasons which may have nothing to do with the quality of his work? (I myself have done jokes about his name in the past, which I am rather uncomfortable about now.) Many of the man’s films have been very successful; there’s a sense in which he rarely repeats himself; and he’s shown a willingness to be creative in his storytelling which a lot of less-mocked directors don’t.

But on the other hand, his work is maddeningly inconsistent, his early reliance on plot twists of variable quality has become the stuff of folklore, and some of the films are just plain bad. (This is before we even get to his insistence on casting himself in his films, often in significant roles he shows no real sign of being able to carry off.) It’s got to the point that with each new Shyamalan release, you wonder which version of the guy will have been responsible – the one who made The Sixth Sense and Split or the perpetrator of After Earth?

Well, he’s back again with the first post-Covid film I’ve seen on the big screen (this may explain some of the film’s formal minimalism), Old. It’s based on a Swiss graphic novel, but – not for the first time with Shyamalan – may strike some viewers as resembling an episode of The Twilight Zone stretched out to feature length.

Gael Garcia Bernal and Vicky Krieps play Guy and Prisca, an outwardly-successful professional couple (he is an actuary, she a museum curator) just beginning a holiday at a luxury resort hotel with their children. But, needless to say, there are soon signs of something strange and unsettling afoot. (Not least the fact that he is Mexican and she is from Luxembourg but their children both speak with neutral American accents.) The smarmy resort manager offers them a chance to go to an exclusive private beach on the other side of the island, and naturally they accept, despite the fact the guy driving the bus is a very bad actor (yes, it’s Shyamalan again).

They find themselves there with a doctor (Rufus Sewell) and his family, and another couple played by Ken Leung and Nikki Amuka-Bird (all those years of playing useless establishment types in dodgy BBC sci-fi have finally paid off). Also on the scene is a rapper (Aaron Pierre).

But is someone watching them from way up on the cliff top? Why are the children suddenly complaining of discomfort? And why does anyone trying to leave the beach seemingly faint? It soon becomes apparent that, due to a freak geological effect (it says here), anyone on the beach ages at the rate of a year every thirty minutes. This could be the holiday of a lifetime… it’s just that the lifetime may be over much sooner than anyone expected.

So, you know, an interesting premise for a movie, if nothing else. I must confess I wrote a little book about the horror genre not long ago (something to do during lockdown) and one of the things I discussed was the nature of those basic, primal fears that everyone shares. I think that deep down, everyone is a bit frightened of senescence, the slow and inevitable physical decline that’s part of the deal that comes with continuing to breathe. But because it’s so incremental and slow, we manage to thrust it from our minds, most of the time at least. Old, in theory at least, should be an interesting vehicle to force us to confront this particular issue.

The only problem is that – how can I put it? – nobody in Old actually gets that old; at least, nobody who wasn’t old to begin with. Primarily this is because Shyamalan clearly feels obliged to keep an eye on the narrative underpinnings of his high-concept story and try to ensure it all stays relatively plausible. Someone asks, quite sensibly, why their hair and nails aren’t growing at an accelerated rate, and the answer is that the acceleration effect only works on living cells. This is bafflegab, really, only there to facilitate the story (the director doesn’t want to mess about with everyone having hair down to their knees and two-foot-long fingernails), but one consequence of the very-quasi-scientific approach Shyamalan takes is that it rules out the use of proper prosthetics and other make-up to give the impression of extreme old age (the extent to which people actually look older is limited).

In short, the director can’t find a way to make the process of dying of old age very rapidly into something visually interesting and cinematic. Nevertheless, the structure of this particular kind of film requires a succession of – to put it delicately – striking deaths, along with other arresting goings-on. He just about manages it, but the result is a film supposedly about dying of old age where most of the characters are actually murdered, or drown, or fall to their deaths, or undergo spectacularly nasty demises due to chronic medical conditions running out of control. So it’s arguably a bit of a chiz on that front: the central conceit is fantastical, but the film feels inhibited about really running with that notion.

It does not help much that the script is a lot less clever and subtle than Shyamalan probably thinks it is: virtually the first piece of dialogue we hear is a mother telling her daughter not to be in too big a hurry to grow up, but there’s so much stuff in a similar vein very early on that it topples over from being a neat foreshadowing of the subtext to simply too on-the-nose. And in places it’s vague, too: the children grow from being pre-teens to being on the cusp of middle-age over the course of a day and a night; what’s not at all clear is whether they remain children in adult bodies, or if they mature intellectually and emotionally too. I think the film eventually inclines towards the latter, but why this should be isn’t really addressed.

We must remember Shyamalan was working under sub-optimal conditions with this film and there are still some good things about it: the various transitions between the different actors playing the children as they age are neatly handled (some of the switches in actor are almost imperceptible – The Crown this ain’t), horror fans will enjoy one or two memorably gruesome moments, and the whole thing does eventually hang together on its own terms reasonably well (there’s not so much a twist, more a sort of reveal of what’s been going on). The problem is that those terms, the ones that make it a coherent thriller, are the same ones which undercut the film’s effectiveness as a film about how people deal with the ageing process. For once, a more fantastical approach would probably have resulted in a better film. In the end, Old isn’t one of Shyamalan’s worst films, but it’s just mildly diverting tosh when it could have been something genuinely unsettling and thought-provoking.

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I was moved to ponder, not long ago, the somewhat vexed issue of whether it might not be a good idea to institute a licensing system whereby film-makers, etc, would not be permitted to use a really good title unless they could first prove they were capable of doing it justice. This idea may have first crept into my head in the summer of 2009, when I wandered into a branch of a well-known bookseller and happened upon Seth Grahame-Smith (‘and Jane Austen’)’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Another winning title, embodying a genuinely funny concept. Unfortunately the book itself was, possibly predictably, and certainly appropriately, rotten.

And so I approached Timur Bekmambetov’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter with a level of misgiving. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies did well enough to prompt a slew of similarly improbable mash-ups, ranging from Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, to (good grief) Android Karenina. Grahame-Smith himself knocked out Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and has written and exec-produced the movie. So, cause for apprehension there. On the other hand, this film is a product of the same creative vision that gave us the rampantly insane excess of Wanted, an everyday tale of weaver-hitmen and their precognitive loom that did more than any other to epitomise the summer of 2008 for me. So this is a movie which looked like it might go either way.

Perhaps it takes a director of Kazakh origin, like Timur Bekmambetov, to cast such a new and original light on one of the most central and iconic figures in American history. But in this case I sort of doubt it. Semi-professional Liam Neeson lookee-likee Benjamin Walker plays the great man himself throughout most of his life (not the very early bits though), in a story which purports to reveal that Honest Abe actually had a few startling secrets in his hinterland. We first meet Abraham Lincoln as a lad, and even at this young age he is fiercely committed to justice, equality, fairness, etc, etc. You know the drill. Unfortunately this indirectly ends up putting his family on the wrong side of a shady character, who chooses to work his issues out by chowing down on Mrs Lincoln’s blood vessels. That’s right, he’s a vampire! Yowser! Who’d have seen that coming?

Naturally, when he grows up, Lincoln sets out to avenge his mum, only to discover he is not up to the task. He is taken in hand by the mysterious Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper), who teaches him the forbidden lore of the undead and equips him for the battles to come. To be honest, Abraham Lincoln is a back-to-basics kind of vampire hunter and usually turns up packing only what is technically known as a damn great axe (with a silver edge, of course). When not thinning the ranks of the undead of Illinois, he dabbles in the law and with politics, and embarks on a rather sweet romance with a charming local girl (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, as winsome as ever). However, as his battle with the forces of darkness and their leader (Rufus Sewell) intensifies, he begins to realise the full extent to which the injustices of slavery are intertwined with the vampire presence in the southern states. Could it be that he will have to take a more public role if he is to fully eradicate the menace he has dedicated his life to destroying?

Well, look, before we go any further, I’m English and the limit of my knowledge of Abraham Lincoln is basically: top hat, chinstrap beard, freed slaves, Gettysburg Address, ‘Apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?’, Henry Fonda in Young Mr Lincoln, got speared to death in an episode of Star Trek. To any of our former-colonial friends reading this and feeling outraged, I would ask you to supply a brief essay on the life of Oliver Cromwell (not derived from Wikipedia) with your complaints, and we’ll take it from there. What I’m basically trying to say is that I know very little about Abraham Lincoln as a historical character, which some might consider a handicap when attempting to intelligently review a Lincoln biopic.

However, as you may have possibly surmised, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is not strictly a by-the-book biopic. In fact, I suspect that a few people would consider the depiction of Lincoln as an axe-twirling bad-ass warrior to be tasteless and/or monumentally absurd. I’m not convinced about the former but it is certainly the latter. This film is impossible to take seriously, but – and this is the key thing – Bekmambetov seems to be fully aware of this, which stops proceedings from becoming actually annoying. The main problem I had with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was that it took an idea which was an amusing concept in its own right, and felt the need to try and funny it up by actually playing it for laughs, inserting rather creaky old jokes. The great strength of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is that it’s played absolutely straight (or at least as straight as possible, given it features the President of the USA standing on top of a moving train hitting vampires with an axe) – one never gets a sense of the director or writer winking at you and going ‘Ho ho, isn’t this wacky?’

Most of the time this works really well, particularly in the opening part of the film, which deals with Lincoln’s years before he rose to prominence. For a while it even seems as if Bekmambetov is trying to handle the historical biography as painstakingly as the action-horror, because there are a few non-vampire-hunting scenes which go on for what feel like a surprisingly long time. Problems start to set in, however, when Lincoln actually becomes president and grows the beard (both of these happen off-screen, the latter not surprisingly) – and all of a sudden we’re into the historical events of the American Civil War. Now, it may possibly be that my lack of familiarity with US history is to blame, but it seemed to me that the film was taking my comprehension of what was happening for granted here. There’s also the more serious point that the film is dealing with the deaths of real people – real people from 150 years ago, admittedly, but even so. As a silly romp the film is enjoyable stuff, but attempts to hit genuine notes of pathos and human drama just feel very uncomfortable and misjudged when they occur. Thankfully the film returns to its previously nonsensical vein for an appropriately uproarious finale.

Ultimately this is a very silly film, but the actors hurl themselves into it with impressive gusto, and the CGI-slathered recreation of 19th century America looks appealing. Bekmambetov indulges himself in his usual visually-inventive but utterly implausible action-business – fun to look at but not remotely convincing – for example, a chase through the middle of a stampede, the train fight, and so on. This is not a great action film, not a great horror movie, and (you’ll be surprised to hear) not the greatest telling of the story of President No.16 ever made, and it has nothing like the breathtakingly in-your-face bonkersness of Wanted (nor even, it must be said, that film’s inventiveness of plot). But Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is, for the most part, a fun and amusing piece of work which just about earns its right to such a catchy title.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 4th May 2006: 

Hello again everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column that’s looking to new horizons. As you may have noticed, as far as mainstream cinema goes we are currently becalmed in the post-Oscar, pre-Memorial Day boonies. This is the time of year when the studios traditionally wheel out the fare which they can’t see having much success while there’s anything more substantial or heavily promoted about: mid-budget thrillers and action movies, horror, offbeat drama and comedies. (There’s another patch like this in the autumn when we here in the UK tend to receive any blockbusters that seriously tanked across the Atlantic.) Quite which of these categories Kevin Reynolds’ Tristan + Isolde falls into I’m not entirely certain, but I’m positive it does trip up somewhere along the line.

Culture vultures will of course recognise this as the title of one of Richard Wagner’s grand Teutonic operas, but then again culture vultures almost certainly have better things to do than read 24 Lies A Second. Bearing this in mind, I shall refrain from showing off my in-depth knowledge of the Bayreuth maestro — suffice to say I do a mean summarisation of the plot of the Ring cycle. In any case this is, sadly, not a musical, just a fairly earnest adaptation of the original legend — greenlit, I would suspect, in the wake of the mega-success of Lord of the Rings, the Wagnerian connections of which are fairly well-known.

We find ourselves in the Dark Ages, with a divided Britain cruelly oppressed by the powerful Irish. (Any historical irony present in this scenario is steadfastly ignored by the movie which has its mind on nobler things.) The barons of Albion gather to forge an alliance and free themselves, but – as is traditional – a traitor amongst them has sold them out and the Irish crash the party looking for a fight. (You will, I hope, note that I too am steadfastly ignoring the opportunity to make cheap jokes based on dodgy ethnic stereotypes.) Orphaned in the scrap is Tristan, son of the leader of the Jutes, but he is adopted by the Cornish baron Marke (Rufus Sewell). Ten years later Tristan has grown up into James Franco, who you may recall from the Spider-Man franchise, and very strapping he is too. Equally strapping is Isolde, the lovely daughter of the Irish king – played by Sophia Myles, whom you may recall from the first Underworld, the big-screen Thunderbirds, and, retroactively speaking, this Saturday’s episode of Doctor Who.

Well, what follows is extremely convoluted and rather implausible, and heavily reliant on coincidence and people casually popping back and forth across the Irish Sea apparently by rowing boat. But here goes anyway: the King of Ireland promises Isolde’s hand in marriage to his chief legbreaker. She is not pleased. But before nuptials can take place said legbreaker pops over to Cornwall to terrorise the natives a bit. But the Cornish have had enough and fight back. Legbreaker dies but not before stabbing Tristan with poisoned blade. Cornish people think Tristan is dead and push him out to sea in burning rowing boat. Boat does not sink but washes up on coast of Ireland where – what are the chances! – Tristan is discovered and secretly nursed back to health by Isolde. Rumpy pumpy ensues. She does not tell him her name in case he gets caught and rats her out. King of Ireland discovers killer of chief legbreaker is somewhere on the loose in Ireland. Isolde warns Tristan to push off still thinking she is trapped in arranged marriage. He goes back to Cornwall in different rowing boat. Separated young lovers brood for a bit. King of Ireland decides to stir British up a bit by making them compete for Isolde’s hand and big wad of cash, thinking this will destroy their unity. Tristan comes up with plan to derail this scheme by winning contest on Marke’s behalf then splitting the prize between all the British leaders (Marke still gets princess). Despite attempts to fix contest by Irish this plan succeeds but – alas! – too late Tristan realises who Isolde really is. Isolde marries Marke as planned, thus ensuring peace between Britain and Ireland (sh’yeah right!). More rumpy pumpy, between Marke and Isolde this time. Tristan looks tortured and noble (or possibly suffers from wind a lot – Franco’s performance makes it difficult to tell)…

…and all this in just the first half! No wonder they had to cut all the songs out. Anyway things progress along fairly predictable lines – conflict of duty and true love, guilty passion, treachery, machiavellian machinations, tragedy, big siege, you know the sort of thing. There is, so far as I can tell, only one proper joke in the whole thing, and not an especially funny one. It does take itself rather seriously, but it at least is rather less cheesetastic than Reynold’s previous swashbuckling opus Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves. Historical anachronisms are kept down to an acceptable minimum for the most part, as are silly costumes (that said Rufus Sewell does turn up to his wedding wearing what appears to be a chain-mail beanie). That ‘+’ in the title might suggest this is a radical and bold reimagining for a modern audience, but it’s all a bit dour and naturalistic for a movie pitching for the Rings crowd. At least it’s better filmed and performed than the terribly similar Sword of Xanten which you may have caught knocking around not long ago.

To be honest, even at two hours this film feels rather rushed and busy, and, crucially, the central romance never really ignites – this despite the fact that virtually the first thing Isolde does on meeting Tristan is to take all her clothes off and start rubbing herself up against him, Dark Age folk presumably being less inclined to beat about the bush (so to speak). What little sympathy the couple generate is solely down to Myles’ performance, who is a radiant screen presence with definite star quality. Franco’s a bit of a charisma black hole, though – he broods well but that’s about it. Noteworthy also is Myles’ Irish accent, which for once does not suggest an upbringing in County Leprechaun. Sadly all the British characters stick with velly proper RSC English – clearly America is not yet ready for the wonders of the Cornish accent, and come to think of it, given his origins on the map Reynolds thoughtfully provides, Franco should be Scouse!

This is a film without any really big names, but there are lots of faces you may recognise in it. Rufus Sewell does an extremely decent job as Marke, and there’s a solid turn from a wigged-up Mark Strong as a treacherous Glastafarian (possibly not precisely the correct name for his tribe, but you get the gist). It doesn’t completely fall down in any department, and in some – art direction, cinematography, fight choreography – it’s quietly rather impressive. But it never really hooks the audience or involves them in the story. It’s watchable enough, but I doubt it will linger long in the memory. A few enormous women in horned helmets belting out tunes might have made all the difference.

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