Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Sam Elliott’

George McCowan’s 1972 film Frogs doesn’t exactly have a fridge title, as our amphibious friends are certainly heavily featured throughout it – but at the same time it really feels somewhat misnamed. Certainly for a horror movie, which is what this theoretically is – it doesn’t achieve quite the immortal bathos, title-wise, of The Killer Shrews, but it’s getting there, especially when you consider the poster is theoretically attempting to communicate that this film is supposed to be a scary one, jokey slogan notwithstanding.

Now I don’t think much of the poster for Frogs, and yet it does seem to have embedded itself in the minds of people who’ve seen it, even if they haven’t seen the whole movie. I mentioned I’d seen Frogs to a couple of friends of mine, quite independently, and they both mentioned the poster and – in one case – they were able to describe it in some detail. It is certainly eye-catching but I would suggest that it doesn’t quite capture the tone of the movie, which is admittedly rather odd.

The movie itself starts off looking more like a wildlife documentary, as various swamp creatures are given their close-up; within the film itself, their snaps are being taken by photojournalist and ecology expert Pickett Smith (Sam Elliott), who is canoeing around the swamp in question. Snakes, lizards, frogs, all of them get their picture snapped. But gradually the images change to ones of pollution in the swamp: garbage, pollution, and chemical waste. Yup, we are in one of those nature-bites-back eco-horror films.

Now, let’s be fair, while this is a cinematic tradition going back quite a long way, it is also one which it can tricky to pin down. One very accessible list of eco-horror films includes things like the original Godzilla and Creature from the Black Lagoon, both of which are  – I would say – rather different animals (sorry). I’m thinking of things without your actual monsters, just normal creatures which have become extremely irascible, and with some sort of obvious message about the environment incorporated into the story, although this is possibly optional – most people would credit Hitchcock’s The Birds as having a significant influence on this sub-genre, although part of that film’s eerie atmosphere comes from its refusal to explain just exactly what is really going on.

Frogs is a bit more on-the-nose in this department, as well as many others. Pickett Smith gets dumped into the swamp by a speedboat driven by a couple of the ugly rich, but they are duly apologetic and take him back their family’s palatial plantation house, where the whole clan is gathering for the birthday of the patriarch, a fierce old man played by Ray Milland (whose presence in a film of this calibre is somewhat mystifying).

It turns out there are various elements of toxic family politics in play, to say nothing of the fact that the family business has been dumping pollution into the swamp on, for want of a better expression, on an industrial scale. It’s a miracle that the croaking of the frogs surrounding the house is as deafening as it is…

This is the kind of movie which has a slow build-up, or would have if it ever felt like it was actually building up to anything – the pacing remains stolid and stately throughout. Various scenes of family members engaging in soap-opera bickering are intercut with Smith wandering about doing odd jobs for Milland’s character, and of course numerous close-ups of frogs: these appear at the top of many scenes, with the camera pulling back to reveal the human beings going about their business and blithely ignoring the ubiquitous amphibians. But Smith discovers that one of Milland’s gofers has met with a mysterious death in the swamp…

To be honest, the movie is just marking time until it is able to get busy with the set-piece deaths of various unsympathetic rich people, and finally this moment arrives. One young man is out in the forest when he accidentally shoots himself in the leg; strange animate moss appears to engulf him, and if that wasn’t bad enough, it’s tarantula-infested moss. Another of the family is working in a greenhouse when a lizard deviously knocks over several containers of poison, creating a toxic miasma which bumps him off. A butterfly-loving matron unwisely chases a rare breed and ends up falling into leech-infested waters, from which she emerges only to be bitten by a rattlesnake. Her husband, when he goes in search of her, falls in the swamp and is attacked by an alligator. And so it goes on.

The astute reader may well be reading this and thinking ‘moss, tarantulas, lizards, leeches, snakes, alligators… there’s something missing from this picture.’ And this is absolutely the case: for a horror movie called Frogs, which features an apparently man-eating frog on the poster, all the heavy lifting when it comes to actually killing off the cast is done by other herptiles and species resident in the swamp. In other words, the characters may be croaking, but they’re not being croaked by the frogs. I can only assume that the frogs had a much better agent than the rest of the wildlife in the film.

The one positive thing about this anomaly is that it does make Frogs marginally more interesting than would otherwise be the case. This is a movie without many (or perhaps even any) layers of subtlety to it. The subtext and a general sense of how it’s going to go are obvious to the switched-on viewer very early on, and it’s not even as if the story is especially well-executed: there’s a lot of lousy acting, especially during the death scenes, and while Elliott has presence, it’s not as if he does a great deal (he may just be trying to keep a low profile so people don’t mention his presence in this film in a disparaging context should he get all tetchy and start grumbling about Jane Campion movies many years later). Milland’s okay, but clearly knows he’s slumming it. Bits from near the end of it jump out at you – someone gets killed by a turtle, for God’s sake, Elliott hands a pump-action shotgun to a small child during their low-octane escape from the frogs, and the film’s three non-white characters all apparently die together off-screen –  but this is a film with only one real idea to it, and one which it doesn’t communicate with much in the way of grace or deftness.

Read Full Post »

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published  17th July 2003:

When it comes to the big, mega-profitable, summer event movie blockbusters, who would you say was the most influential man in Hollywood right now? Spielberg? Nah. His last few films have shown an edginess which, while welcome, is rather uncommercial. Lucas? Give me a break. The man’s head is wedged firmly up his own thermal exhaust port, and in any case, the original Star Wars owes a clear debt to the work of the real big cheese – octogenarian comic book writer Stan Lee.

My evidence? Four of the most financially successful action movies of the last year or so: Spider-Man, Daredevil, X2, and now the long-awaited adaptation of Hulk, directed by Ang Lee (no relation) – all of them fruits of a relatively brief period of extraordinary creativity for Lee, nearly forty years ago. Co-created, like the X-Men, with legendary artist Jack Kirby, the Hulk has always been the darkest, strangest, and most morally ambiguous of the big-name superheroes. The fame of the character, in the UK at least, is largely due to the TV series of the late 1970s, where a rather domesticated and wimpy Hulk travelled America as a kind of hitch-hiking social worker. Lee’s film returns to the original comics, with impressive results.

Hulk opens with a sequence set in the 1960s, as army scientist David Banner struggles to artificially augment the human immune and regenerative systems. Forced to test his work on himself, he is shocked when his wife gives birth to a son, Bruce, who possesses a unique genetic anomaly – and his attempt to rectify his mistakes will have tragic consequences for all three of them. Thirty-five years later, the now-grown Bruce Banner (played, slightly confusingly, by Eric Bana) is a civilian researcher in the same area, though unaware of his past – or that his girlfriend Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly, once again playing the love interest to a genius with a split personality) has a distant connection to it. But Bruce is forced to confront his personal demons as his father (now played by Nick Nolte) reappears, and an accidental dose of gamma radiation leaves him rather green around the gills. And everywhere else…

This film has taken a fair bit of stick for being overly long and wordy and slow to get going. And to be totally honest, this is not entirely unfounded. It’s over half an hour before the Hulk puts in an appearance, and prior to this it is quite talky, with Ang Lee seemingly obsessed with close-ups of lichen growing on rocks. This is nothing like as faithful an adaptation of the comic as, for example, the Spider-Man movie, but given the extent to which the Hulk changed in the early years of his career this was probably inevitable. It’s to the script’s credit that nearly all the regular characters from the early books appear (no sign of Rick Jones or the Grey Hulk, though) and it wholeheartedly adopts the psychological take on the relationship between Banner and the Hulk which Peter David brought to the comic in the early 1990s. This is why the film takes its time to begin with – establishing Banner’s character and inner turmoil is crucial to the story it wants to tell.

But once the Hulk does appear, things pick up pace rapidly. This is the real deal, the comic-book Hulk – all the movie retains from the TV show is the iconic ‘Don’t make me angry…’ line, and even this is given an arch twist. (Oh, and TV Hulk Lou Ferrigno cameos alongside Stan Lee himself near the start.) The CGI Hulk is hugely impressive, both in the action scenes – demolishing redwoods during a startlingly brutal fight with irradiated pit-bulls, casually ripping tanks apart, leaping miles at a time – and in the quieter moments when he confronts Betty or his father. It’d have been nice if the big guy had been given more dialogue, but I suppose you can’t have everything. (The perennial question of ‘Why does the Hulk’s shirt fall off but not his trousers?’ is also sort-of addressed, a source of much sniggering during the screening I attended.)

The film stutters a bit in its closing stages. Clearly recognising the similarities between the Hulk and Godzilla – both the result of accidents with radiation, both slightly morally ambiguous, both very bad news for insurance companies – the film-makers give him an opponent worthy of his mettle in the final reel (the lack of which was one of the main flaws in the Emmerich Godzilla of five years ago). Without wishing to spoil it too much, the villainous character is essentially new, but his superpower should be very familiar to long-time comics fans. However, his actual agenda and motivation are rather unclear and – while undoubtedly spectacular – the actual battle is too brief and poorly lit to be really satisfying.

This doesn’t detract too much from a satisfyingly meaty and intelligent action movie. All the main roles are solidly played – with the possible exception of Josh Lucas’ slightly hammy performance as Banner’s rival Glen Talbot – and Ang Lee directs with impressive pace and energy, using split-screen and a range of imaginative cuts and wipes to great effect. This possibly isn’t a movie to take small children along to see, as it is a slow starter and what humour there is is subtle and quite black – but with its brooding intensity and emphasis on characterisation it fully does justice to the source material. Now all we need is for the Hulk to fight Wolverine in the sequel, and a spin-off starring Michelle Rodriguez as the She-Hulk, and I can die a happy man.

Another one for the ‘rather over-enthusiastic and over-generous’ file, I fear…

Read Full Post »