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Posts Tagged ‘Terence Stamp’

I must confess that my fondness for the Phoenix, my local art-house cinema, has taken the odd knock over the last few years, mainly because with each new refurbishment (there have been several) it seems to have become more and more bland and corporate and just a little bit less charming. Admittedly, the complete rebuild of the smaller theatre is a vast improvement, but then the big one has also been totally redone and it didn’t really need it. Hey ho; that’s progress, I guess. One reason to still love the place is its habit (on the verge of becoming a tradition) of digging out a classic fantasy or horror movie to inaugurate the start of every Christmas season. Last year it was the wonderfully nasty Blood on Satan’s Claw, and this year it was Neil Jordan’s 1984 film The Company of Wolves, based on a story by Angela Carter.

Looking at this film now inevitably takes one back to a lost age of the British film industry, a time when companies like ITC were cranking out movies like Hawk the Slayer and The Dark Crystal on a fairly regular basis, while the hip young gunslingers at Palace Pictures, who started out by distributing art house movies from abroad, were chancing their arm with projects like Mona Lisa and and Absolute Beginners. The Company of Wolves is an ITC-Palace production, of course.

This is one of those movies which it is rather difficult to give a capsule synopsis for, but let’s have a go anyway. The story opens in what appears to be the real world, with a well-off couple (David Warner and Tusse Silberg) returning home to their rather expansive country home and their two daughters. The elder (Georgia Slowe) is packed off to rouse the younger (Sarah Patterson) from her attic bedroom, but it quickly becomes apparent that there is tension between the sisters. The younger girl continues to sleep, and suddenly the atmosphere darkens, the vista beyond her window becoming that of a dark, fairytale world.

She dreams of her sister becoming lost in the woods, initially encountering giant sized, animated toys, and then – as the forest itself becomes more grotesque and fantastical – a pack of wolves, which pursue and set upon her (this is still a very creepy and effective sequence three decades later). But the dream continues, and makes up the rest of the movie, as she herself appears as a young girl named Rosaleen, along with her parents, and her grandmother (Angela Lansbury, back in the days when she was much less controversial).

What follows is a kind of adult fairytale, very loosely following the plot of Little Red Riding Hood, but with many discursions and embellishments along the way. Quite apart from the main plot (which concerns a wolf menacing the village, and also, not to put too fine a point on it, Rosaleen’s incipient sexual awakening), there are a number of shorter stories woven into the film, usually as tales told by either the grandmother or Rosaleen herself, most of them taking a lupine bent – for example, a young woman marries a ‘travelling man’ (Stephen Rea), who disappears on their wedding night while answering, ha ha, the call of nature (there is a full moon), while a village girl dishonoured by a local aristocrat turns up at his wedding party to exact a startling revenge on the degenerate nobility there. Most of these are not much more than vignettes – one of them, featuring an uncredited Terence Stamp as the Devil, materialising in a white Rolls Royce, is very short indeed – and all of them are rather impressionistic and allusive.

Then again, this is the sort of film where everything seems to allude to something else. There are layers of meaning heaped upon each other as the film goes on, and in a rather ostentatious way. This is not the sort of film where the allusions and symbolism contribute another layer of meaning to the story – this is the sort of film which makes virtually no sense unless you accept that it is intended as a kind of coded parable, to be interpreted as such. At one point Rosaleen, hiding in the forest from an amorous boy, climbs a tree to discover a stork’s nest full of eggs. The eggs all spontaneously hatch out into tiny homunculi. On the face of it this is just weird, but it is clearly a moment of deep importance.

So, to coin a phrase, what is The Company of Wolves really all about? Well, for all that it occasionally resembles a rather superior Hammer horror pastiche, made with 1980s production values, I don’t think I would call this an actual horror movie as such – though, as mentioned, there are plenty of unsettling sequences, gory moments, and bits you wouldn’t necessarily want to show your own granny. It is clearly framed as a combination of fairy story and folktale (hence this revival, as part of a season of films in that kind of vein), and as for its central theme…

Well, to begin with, the stories all have a cautionary bent – not quite Beware of the Dog, but certainly Beware of the Wolf – the wolf in question often having something to do with aggressive male sexuality (I have an essay on the topic of lycanthropy as a metaphor for toxic masculinity in a book coming out next year, but what do you know, The Company of Wolves was there decades ago). All men are beasts, especially ones whose eyebrows meet in the middle (and this film was made years before the Gallagher brothers became famous).  The thing is, though, that as the film progresses, it becomes quite clear that everyone’s a little bit lupine occasionally – it doesn’t shy away from accepting the existence of female desire, nor is it treated as something wrong or shameful.

I suspect that one of the reasons the film remains so oblique and obscure in its meaning is because the structure established at the beginning is never really resolved. Normally, when a film opens in the ‘normal world’ and then moves to a dream reality, the conclusion sees the main character waking up and putting the lessons they have learned from the dream into reality – the classic example being, of course, The Wizard of Oz. This does not happen here: the end of the film sees a pack of wolves breaking through the walls of the dream, into the bedroom where the ‘real’ Rosaleen is still sleeping, but then abruptly concludes on an unresolved note of menace. I was not surprised to hear a group of people a couple of rows behind me discussing the film and admitting that they had no idea what the frame story was supposed to mean.

Nevertheless, this is a handsomely mounted and atmospherically directed film, even if the fairy-tale forest is fairly obviously a soundstage somewhere in Shepperton. There is also an undeniable pleasure in seeing people who are undeniably proper star actors (Lansbury, Warner, Rea) rub shoulders with folk you’d more normally see on the telly – Brian Glover is in it (his second British-made werewolf movie of the decade), so is Graham Crowden, so is Jim Carter (uncredited). Sarah Patterson, on the other hand, is so good in what was her movie debut that it’s genuinely surprising she didn’t go on to have a much bigger career. For what was a fairly low-budget movie even in 1984, it looks rather good, although some of the special effects – I’m thinking here particularly of the flayed werewolf transformation – have not aged particularly well.

I have to say I didn’t enjoy seeing The Company of Wolves again quite as much as I did The Blood on Satan’s Claw last year, but that’s probably because the latter is a (no pun intended) full-blooded supernatural horror movie, while the former uses some of the trappings of the genre to explore its own areas of concern. While the results are thought-provoking, it’s also a film where the narrative is there to service the author’s ideas and message. As a result it’s a film which is clearly at least as interested in making you think as it is in entertaining you – not that there isn’t a lot here to entertain, anyway. If nothing else, it’s a reminder of a time when British films were not afraid to be properly ambitious, experimental and imaginative.

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In recent years I’ve come to look upon the Steven Soderbergh collective as one of the safest pairs of hands in the business: I turn up to a new Soderbergh picture in the firm expectation of a slick, stylish, and thoroughly intelligent and enjoyable piece of work, whether that’s a genre movie or something more off the wall. However, it’s easy to forget that, following a striking debut, the first ten years or so of Soderbergh’s career were marked more by misfires than successes: this is the period when Soderbergh’s name was appearing on obscurities like Schizopolis, Kafka, and The Underneath, none of which really troubled the box office much.

The Limey comes from the time when Soderbergh was turning this around, following Out of Sight and preceding Traffic and Erin Brockovitch. This is one of those films which does a good job of looking like several other movies simultaneously – most of them quite good ones, but still.

Terence Stamp plays Wilson, a professional criminal from London who arrives in sun-drenched Los Angeles on a personal quest. His daughter has recently died, apparently in a car accident, but one of her friends (Luis Guzman) gives him reason to believe otherwise. She was involved with record producer Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda), a man not without some shady connections of his own. As any caring father would, Wilson vows to take Valentine out – but decides that his target must first understand why, which complicates matters a bit.

So, you’ve got a mildly existentialist LA thriller, somewhat in the vein of Point Blank. At the same time, the gangster-on-a-family-vendetta plotline can’t help but bring to mind the original Get Carter, one of the greatest British crime movies ever. And this film being a product of its time, the shadow of Tarantino rests across it (so we get lots of slightly tedious conversations about peanuts and playing pool from small-time criminals).

The terrible shame is that The Limey isn’t as good as any of those films. Not that it’s a full-on clunker, it just feels extremely slight and underdeveloped. The plot is utterly straightforward – the summary just up the page covers just about the whole thing – with only a handful of characters and no subplots worth mentioning. This isn’t necessarily a problem – you could say almost the same thing about Soderbergh’s last movie, Haywire, which shares the same writer as The Limey, but that didn’t feel as obvious as it does here.

And somehow it lacks the polish and verve of more recent Soderbergh projects. A lot of the time it resembles some sort of semi-improvised experimental drama, with two characters in a room rambling on at each other in front of a handheld camera. Given there are some big names in this film, the acting is not that convincing, and some of this must be blamed on the script.

I heard Steven Soderbergh being interviewed a while ago where he revealed that Don Cheadle doesn’t like to visit the UK, simply because of all the stick he gets for the dreadful faux-rhyming slang the Ocean movies require him to deliver. The Limey suggests that Soderbergh’s fascination with Cockney dialect runs deep, as Wilson cheerfully comes out with the stuff all the way through this film too. Even so, he just doesn’t convince as a British heavy abroad – ‘You were the one who wrote me about my daughter,’ he growls early on. ‘Wrote me’? No Englishman of Stamp’s generation would say that: ‘wrote to me’, surely. Then, virtually his next line is ‘Who snuffed her?’ Oh, dear, no. The great mystery to me is why Stamp agreed to say his lines as written, because the dialogue has all the verve and deftness of someone in greasy oven-gloves trying to make balloon animals. But then Stamp seems curiously unengaged throughout: he looks great and has terrific presence, but much of the time he’s a cryptic cipher. On the other hand, sometimes he appears to be trying to play it for laughs, with mixed results.

Possibly in an attempt to make up for the slenderness of the narrative, when The Limey doesn’t look like a low-budget improv project, it opts for a rather avant-garde approach to editing. Fragments of moments already seen and still yet to come briefly appear, the same images appear time after time, dialogue from one scene plays over the visuals of another. The result is a film which veers between naturalism and a fractured, dreamlike quality, and it’s a mixture of styles which never quite coheres – it never feels like the editing is justified except as a device to obscure how linear the plot is.

One gets the impression that The Limey is trying to say something about the way we perceive the Sixties. While it’s true that Terence Stamp has worked fairly solidly in movies for fifty years now, his place in history will – with all due appreciation for his turn in the Superman franchise – be as an iconic face of Swinging London. The same is essentially true of Peter Fonda, who will forever be tied to his starring role in Easy Rider. Fonda goes on about what the Sixties were like in The Limey, too, while we even get to see Terence Stamp in his prime: in another startling creative decision, footage from the 1967 Ken Loach film Poor Cow is used here as flashbacks of Wilson as a young man. But does any of this inform what’s ultimately a rather cold and introspective revenge thriller in any meaningful way? I can’t see how. Once again, it’s tricks and whistles rather than anything substantial.

I thought this film was rather disappointing – and while I’ve been quite dismissive of the arty editing and other off-the-wall choices, I have to say these were the only things that stopped it from being rather dull and boring. The Limey is a coming together of all sort of interesting creative people and storytelling ideas – but somehow they all seem to neutralise each other, with the result being a film which is neither distinguished nor, I suspect, especially memorable.

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You know, I have abandoned any real hope of romance, pretty much forsworn general society, and have more or less relinquished any genuine creative ambitions. And yet I still trip hopefully along to the cinema every time a new adaptation of a Philip K Dick story comes out, despite the knowledge that the track record in this area is somewhat regrettable. I suppose I must simply be an incurable optimist.

The latest cause of this somewhat uncharacteristic behaviour is George Nolfi’s The Adjustment Bureau, which has arrived trailing the asking-for-trouble slogan ‘Bourne meets Inception‘. I suspect at least half of this is due to the presence in the leading role of Matt Damon. He plays up-and-coming politician David Webb Norris, whose career is experiencing a bit of a set-back. Then he has a brief encounter with faintly kooky dancer Elise (Emily Blunt), who inspires him to revitalise his career.

Years later he meets her again, seemingly by chance. He is delighted – but almost straight afterwards he encounters the peculiar agents of the titular Bureau. Possessed of the power to warp reality, they have been charged with seeing the Plan is correctly executed – basically, that everyone meets the correct destiny. Norris’s destiny is rather a prominent one – but Elise has no place in it, and their romance will not be tolerated. Norris’s protestations about this cut no ice and only the result in the assignation to his case of the ruthless and implacable adjuster Thompson (Terence ‘Kneel before Zod’ Stamp)…

Is this movie really ‘Bourne meets Inception‘? No, of course not. It doesn’t have anything like the lethal edge or sophistication of either, nor at heart does it really want them (I would suspect). Does that necessarily make it a bad movie? Well… no again. It’s polished and interesting and the leads are both very good. Attentive readers may recall the unkind things I said about Matt Damon around the time of the first Bourne, but he has grown on me considerably and is very good here. I enjoyed Emily Blunt’s performance in My Summer of Love very much, and it’s nice to see her getting on. In the early stages of the film they work wonders to keep it grounded and credible.

This is particularly important, because as it goes on the movie gets progressively loopier and more fantastical. There’s a chase sequence involving a magic hat (no, really) that almost seems to have been spliced in from a different picture entirely, but by this point you’re so invested in the characters you’re prepared to cut the film some slack. Well – to be completely honest you have to cut the film some slack right from the very start, but it rewards this by being fun and rather quirky in an understated way.

The plot is ever so slightly repetitive – Damon and Blunt repeatedly meet but are separated – and at times the film becomes a little trite and saccharine, particularly when it comes to the handling of the adjusters and their agenda. Some of the time they’re just guys doing a job, in a way which rings very true with the Dick canon in general – but Norris befriends one of them (played by Anthony Mackie) who info-dumps what’s going on in terms which manage to be bland and vague, but nevertheless suggestive of a feel-good spiritual message. The film never attacks the issue of what the objective of the Plan is, or what the real deal is with free will or the true nature of what’s happening, opting instead for a slick and fun romantic adventure. It’s not ‘Bourne meets Inception‘ as much as ‘The Matrix Reloaded meets an above-average rom-com of your choice (with a dash of A Matter of Life and Death thrown in)’.

So it’s not a great movie, but it’s more than passable entertainment. However, the fact remains that it is based on a Phil Dick story. Cards on the table: I revere Philip K Dick. I think his short stories in particular are mystifyingly, almost incomprehensibly brilliant – which makes the fact that most of the movies based on his work are lousy all the harder to accept. (No, I don’t even like Blade Runner much.) I suppose it’s partly because the short stories, by virtue of their very nature, deliver a concentrated hit of intense, mind-rattling weirdness. Blowing one of them up to the size of a full-length movie inevitably results in them being diluted and conventionalised and implacably dumbed down.

The story on which The Adjustment Bureau is based, Adjustment Team, has had the crap adapted out of it (as you will see should you check it out – being out-of-copyright, it’s freely available in various places on t’internet) and in some ways the very freeness of the adaptation softens the blow. The movie retains some of the paranoia and existential oddness of the best of Dick, but you’re not constantly reminded of the original story by character names or odd, fleeting plot elements (as in Total Recall, a particularly egregious offender). It’s essentially Dick Lite, but that’s better than no Dick at all, I suppose. And, as I said, on it’s own terms it’s a good bet for a fun night out.

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