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Posts Tagged ‘Toby Kebbell’

All movie monsters are metaphorical, but few of them are quite so up-front about it as the title character of J. A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls, a film which has already earned the coveted title of First Thing I Saw In A Theatre In 2017. This is not even the most distinguished plaudit to be heaped upon the movie, for it has already been described as ‘the best film of the year’ – though which year we’re talking about is, perhaps intentionally, a little unclear (was it the year it was advertised in or the year it’s being released in?). I’m not sure I would go that far myself but this is still an interesting and accomplished film.

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This movie is based on a novel by Patrick Ness, who I was previously only really aware of as the head honcho of the online Doctor Who spin-off Class, about which perhaps the less said the better. Lewis MacDougall plays Conor O’Malley, a young boy with serious issues far beyond the fact that his name is arguably spelt wrong. His mother, played by Felicity Jones, is very seriously ill – yes, I know, it’s getting to the point where Jones has less chance than Sean Bean of getting to the closing credits of a film – and Conor has to some extent been thrown on the mercies of his severe and distant grandmother (Sigourney Weaver, imported to help with that crucial US distribution, and deploying a pretty decent English accent) and largely-absent father (a rare performance by Toby Kebbell that remains untouched throughout by prosthetics or CGI).

What with also being viciously bullied at school, it’s all getting a bit much for the lad, and his tribulations are accompanied by the manifestation of a huge monster (voiced by Liam Neeson), who, it must be said, does look rather like Vin Diesel’s character from a certain hugely popular Marvel sub-franchise. The monster insists that he has been summoned for a purpose, and that there are important tales to be told and deep secrets to be revealed in the days to come… (At no point does Sigourney Weaver appear in a fork-lift truck and start battling the monster, which I kind of guessed was never going to happen – it was still a tiny bit disappointing, though.)

I wasn’t really aware of Bayona prior to seeing this film, though of course it turns out he’s handled some fairly major releases, but while watching it I completely assumed he was an English director, so convincing is its depiction of the texture of British life and society. I was rather surprised, therefore, when the closing credits rolled and it turned out everyone in the crew had names like Enrique and Pedro: yup, this is an Anglo-Spanish co-production, partly even filmed in Spain (other bits filmed in my old haunt of Preston, somewhere not frequently mistaken for the Iberian peninsula). Perhaps this explains the script’s occasional, very slightly distracting lapses into American English (Mom instead of Mum, for instance).

But, as I say, you don’t really notice any of this while you’re actually watching the film. This is the kind of film where it’s more or less clear from the trailer exactly what’s going to go on: a wrenching tale of how harsh and cruel life can be, counterpointed by a fantastical metaphor that serves to give the thing a bit of life and imagination and stop it from just being utterly soul-stampingly grim. And for the first part of the film, this was exactly what I was given, to the point where I got a bit restive and started to wonder just what all the critics had been getting so excited about.

Then a few things happened: the script got slightly more sophisticated than I’d expected – ‘honestly, this is just a dream, can we get on with it,’ says Conor at one point during a visit by the monster, proving he is just as clued up as the audience – while the animation used to realise the stories told by the monster is genuinely beautiful in its own right. And the story – well, I’m not sure that there’s anything strikingly original about it, to be honest, but it’s told with such skill and sincerity that it doesn’t feel like something that you’ve seen before. (Well, perhaps with one exception – quite apart from the monster looking like Groot’s dad, there’s a key scene in this film which is almost a reprise of an equally important one in Guardians of the Galaxy.)

I think mostly it comes down to the performances, which are uniformly excellent. Lewis MacDougall gives a quite astonishingly assured and mature performance as Conor, in no way upstaged by playing scenes opposite heavyweights like Neeson or Weaver. (It was only after seeing the film that I learned the young actor suffered a close family bereavement shortly before making it.) Even Toby Kebbell, who I really assumed was only working so much because his head was a convenient shape for sticking those motion-capture ping pong balls to, gives a very solid turn.

In the end it all goes together to make a film which does pack an emotional wallop and tackles some serious themes and material in a manner which never feels too heavy or laborious at all. I found myself at distinct risk of having an emotional reaction in the cinema, and judging from the amount of stifled sobbing and sniffling coming from the seats around me, other people had been affected even more powerfully. Not the best film of 2016, if you ask me, but if it does turn out to be the best one of 2017 that wouldn’t mean we’re not in for a good year. An extremely fine and moving piece of work with some profound emotional truths at its heart.

 

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Every family has its own little traditions; that’s part of what it means to be a family, I suppose. One of ours was that, every Christmas, someone would pore over the TV guide until we had located what time they were showing the 1959 version of Ben-Hur (they invariably were). Then, having made a careful note of exactly when it was on, we equally carefully didn’t switch on until a couple of hours later, because we were only really interested in the bit with the chariot race. I strongly get the impression that there was a similar tradition in the house of the makers of the new version of Ben-Hur, because in some ways this whole film feels like the work of people who are only really interested in the bit with the chariots.

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Yeah, they’ve actually gone and done a remake of Ben-Hur, bemusing though the decision is. Has the well of inspiration really run so dry? Is nothing safe from the curse of the pointless reimagining? What next, a remake of Jaws? A remake of West Side Story? A remake of Back to the Future? A remake of The Magnificent Seven? (Oh, hang on a minute.) Showing a rather sweet naivety, everyone involved insists this is a new adaptation of the Lew Wallace novel and has nothing to do with the other film versions (there have been several) whatsoever, in the apparent belief this means their movie will not be compared to death with the 1959 film, one of the most famous and successful films of all time. Good luck with that, guys.

The plot is, obviously, rather familiar: Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is a privileged Jewish prince in the first century AD, no particular friend to the occupying Romans, but not intent on driving them out either: he just wants a quiet life. Things are complicated by the fact his adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) is an ambitious Roman officer, and the time eventually comes when Ben-Hur must make a choice between loyalty to his brother and his people. He opts for the latter, and as a result finds himself framed for an attack on the Roman governor. His mother and sister are imprisoned and he is packed off to become a galley slave.

Still, you can’t keep a good Hur down, and one nightmarish sea battle later he is loose and working as a vet for charioteering impressario Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), all the while pondering how to exact vengeance against Messala, despite his wife’s pleas for him to move on (Mrs Ben-Hur is played by Nazanin Boniadi). Then Ilderim comes up with an idea for a way for Ben-Hur to safely take on Messala – and wouldn’t you know, it involves a chariot race…

I’m sure that many people outside my family also basically think that the chariot race sequence is the sine qua non of the 1959 version of Ben-Hur – well, whether it is or not, you could argue that in some ways it definitely is of this new film. The chariot race is in the poster, the film opens with a taster of the climactic race sequence, which is heavily foreshadowed throughout the first two acts of the film, and the closing credits are animated so the names of cast and crew gallop around the circus amidst clouds of dust. The problem is that if you’re going to pitch your movie so much on the strength of one set-piece sequence, it’s really got to be something special – and while the race here is good, it’s not great, not least because it’s so clearly been achieved with CGI where the 1959 race was staged ‘for real’.

Then again, doing stuff with CGI is the speciality of director Timur Bekmambetov, who is in charge on this occasion. Bekmambetov is the guy who gave the world Wanted, a demented thriller about superpowered assassins acting at the behest of precognitive knitting, along with Abraham Lincoln – Vampire Hunter, a film which is every bit as strange as it sounds. Unfortunately something about this project seems to have cowed Bekmambetov a bit, for his usual irrepressible insanity is nowhere to be seen and, apart from during the sea battle and the chariot race, his style is rather anonymous and pedestrian.

But the overall impression one takes away from the new Ben-Hur is of a small film with aspirations to be a big one. Morgan Freeman is the only cast member most people will have heard of, and he goes all-out to provide some gravitas. Jack Huston is clearly trying his socks off too but there is no avoiding the fact that he is in the shadow of a colossus with no chance of escape. Whatever you think of Charlton Heston’s politics, he was one of the most charismatic film stars of all time, and he had more screen presence in one of his earlobes than Huston has in his entire body.

Nobody else makes much of an impression either, except, perhaps, Toby Kebbell. Kebbell has made something of a career out of doing bad guy roles where his face is never seen – he was an evil chimp in the last Planet of the Apes film and Dr Doom in the calamitous version of Fantastic Four last year – and actually appearing on screen must have been a nice change for him. Good though he is, his slight resemblance to a Vernon Kay who’s worried that Tess has been checking his SMS history again was rather distracting for me.

Messala is a rather more sympathetic and less malevolent character in this version of the film, which has had various nips and tucks performed on the plot, removing some elements of the plot entirely and building others up. This isn’t truly a grandiose epic of the old school, but something clearly aspiring to be grounded and emotionally real, with a predictably hard modern edge.

And perhaps something more too… In many ways the new Ben-Hur reminded me of Risen, a fairly obscure film I saw earlier this year which purported to be another sword-and-sandal drama, but actually turned out to be some sort of evangelical tract. There’s money in the Christian movie-going audience, provided you can get them on side. Hence we have a message about the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation rather than vengeance, a conclusion I can only describe as sappy, and – perhaps most significantly – a rather bigger role for Jesus in the story. Jesus is played by Rodrigo Santoro, an interesting choice given he is probably best known for playing the huge-and-jingly-and-rather-suspect god-king-villain in the 300 movies. Still, he does a perfectly fine job, and if we can have a Maori Jesus, why not a Brazilian one?

Unfortunately, it’s quite hard to get people to accept your film is about a Christian message of redemption and forgiveness when it’s being marketed almost entirely on the strength of one balls-to-the-wall CGI action sequence, and this may explain why this new version of Ben-Hur just hasn’t been doing the business at the box office. I’m not really surprised, because this is one of those films where virtually everyone’s first reaction to learning it exists is ‘Really?!? What’s the point?’

This film isn’t a disaster and it does have things of merit in it – but its general aura of redundancy, and the fact it clearly can’t decide whether it’s aimed at mainstream action movie fans or the Christian audience, result in something that’s a fairly lacklustre and colourless experience. Or, to put it another way: liked Ben, not so keen on Hur.

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Wouldn’t it be nice if they instituted a quota where, every year, each big studio was obliged to do at least one major blockbuster which was an original story? Not a sequel, not a remake, not a reboot (whatever one of those is supposed to be), not based on a comic, a novel, another movie, or a computer game. I know it’ll never happen, but imagine how it would transform the cinema landscape.

I say this, of course, as I survey a release schedule prominently featuring a new Tarzan movie, a movie based on Assassin’s Creed, a fifth Bourne movie, an Independence Day sequel… I mean, not that I’m not going to see most of these films – you have to admit another Damon/Greengrass Bourne is a tasty prospect – but even so. In much of the publicity material, all the talk is of ‘the latest instalment’ and ‘incredible visual effects’ with next to no mention of story, characters, ideas.

Front-loading a review of Duncan Jones’ Warcraft: The Beginning with all this stuff is probably bad form as it probably tips you off as to the general tenor of everything I’m going to say. This is the adaptation of the juggernaut computer gaming franchise which has been floating around in development for about a decade. Now, given the quality of Jones’ other movies (Moon and Source Code) you would usually be quite optimistic about the prospects for this one. On the other hand, this is a big-budget fantasy movie, something which even the best directors have struggled with, and a computer game adaptation, a genre which has produced more utter disasters than any other.

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The film opens with Generic Fantasyland being invaded by Orcs from another dimension, much to the concern of the locals. Some of the Orcs are a healthy apple-green sort of shade. Others are more your regular flesh tone. Generally, the colour of your Orc seems to reflect their morality: greener Orcs seem to be more evil. Does this constitute racism towards Orcs on the part of the film-makers? I’m not sure. Either way these are big chunky Orcs with hefty tusks and a love for big hammers and improbable costume jewellry. An especially pink, and therefore decent, Orc (mo-capped by Toby Kebbell), is along for the invasion, but troubled by the unhealthy magic employed by their leader.

Meanwhile, the residents of Generic Fantasyland are in a bit of a tizzy as the nature of the Orc threat becomes clear. Leading the defence is Sir Generic Fantasyname (Travis Fimmel – no, me neither), and a bunch of other characters who are an awkward mixture of archetype and stereotype. Actually going into detail about the plot is quite tricky, I’m finding – there’s a lot of riding about and fighting and people growling tersely to each other, and a lot of flashy CGI magic that looks like something from a Harry Potter film or a Marvel superhero movie, but in terms of actual plot and character development… it all just slips through the fingers of my memory. I saw this movie less than twelve hours ago, as I write, and yet most of the details of it seem to have slipped through the fingers of my memory.

What exactly do I recall? Well, there’s a bombastic, Poledouris-esque score from Ramin Djawadi which I quite liked, huge amounts of garish CGI, a bizarrely decorous scene of Orc childbirth, Paula Patton in a Raquel Welch-ish fur bikini…

Actually, I feel obliged to mention that Patton’s character is both friendly and very green, thus proving the general green-is-bad principle does not always hold. The thing is that Patton has, for want of a better expression, greened up to play the part. Given all the fuss about there not being any actual Egyptian performers in the forthcoming (over here) Gods of Egypt, should we be surprised at the lack of an outcry over the lack of genuine Orcs in Warcraft? Is this another example of anti-Orc prejudice on the part of the film-makers?

…where were we? Oh, yes. Well, the art direction is quite good, though not what you’d call understated, and in the end the story takes a few odd turns you wouldn’t normally expect from a film of this kind – some people die whom you might expect to live, and some people make it to the end credits who you’d normally expect to croak it. I’m not sure this is necessarily a good idea, because stories tend to be the shape they are for a reason, but it does a tiny amount in the way of making this film distinctive.

Many years ago I was lucky enough to interview a fairly successful writer of thrillers and horror novels who was at pains to make it clear that he did not write fantasy, because he considered it to be the equivalent of cheating at cards to win paper money. I was reminded of his words while watching Warcraft: The Beginning, because this is the most heftless and bland kind of fantasy. Here we are in the city of Stormwind. Why is it called Stormwind? Well, it’s just a cool name, isn’t it? The King of Stormwind can call on the assistance of the mystical guardian Medivh (Ben Foster), who commands all sorts of spectacular mystical forces. Why do they have this arrangement? How did he get the job? How exactly does magic work in this world? Well… it just suits the plot that things are as they are, doesn’t it? And here’s young Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), a mage from the flying city of Dalaran… why does it fly? Do all these names have any kind of thought-through etymology to them? Or are they just composed with the assistance of the Scrabble bag?

In short, there’s no sign of any consistent underpinning to the world of Warcraft, no coherent conceptual basis. If this place has any kind of detailed history or back-story to it, it’s not made clear in the film at all. All we’re left with are just people racing about waving swords and hammers and the CGI bill racing upwards at supersonic speed. As a result the story feels arbitrary and contrived, and the film is almost impossible to engage with as an actual drama, as opposed to simply a colourful, kinetic spectacle. (Films like this do at least remind you of what a miracle Peter Jackson’s original Lord of the Rings films were.)

Warcraft is a fairly joyless, gruelling experience, summoning up memories of a plethora of dodgy fantasy films from years gone by – everything from Dungeons and Dragons to Eragon. (I’d compare it to Krull, but it’s frankly not nearly as much fun.) But the most depressing thing about it is that there is no sign of Duncan Jones in it – his other films were smart, imaginative pieces of SF, built around strong central characters. This is just an amorphous glob of generic stuff, seemingly directed by a computer programme, with one eye firmly on the franchise: note, for instance, that subtitle, plus the fact that the story just stops rather than actually reaching a conclusion. Technically proficient though this movie is, I strongly doubt it has the potential to appeal to anyone not steeped in the computer game, and I also doubt that audience is big enough to turn this film into a hit. I just hope this doesn’t turn out to be another instance of a promising directorial career being utterly derailed by a brush with a big budget.

 

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Where, oh where, is one to start when it comes to Josh Trank’s new adaptation of Marvel’s venerable Fantastic Four? The first and perhaps most obvious thing to say is that this movie is currently experiencing the doomsday scenario when it comes to media coverage; the story is not the fact that the film has been made, the story is the fact that the film has been made and is a creative disaster. There is a definite note of gleefulness in the recounting of the various travails of the production, now it is officially awful, and critics of all stripes seem to be competing to put the boot into it in the most extravagant way possible.

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As ever, when this happens, you might be forgiven for drawing the conclusion that this is a film without any redeeming features whatsoever. Of course, that isn’t the case, but it would be a real stretch (no pun intended) to describe this film as being actually entertaining to watch.

The comic origins of the Four date back to 1961 and are so tied up with then-contemporary concerns like the Cold War and the Space Race that they are virtually impossible to plausibly update (as the makers of the 2005 film discovered), and so the new film draws more on the retooled story from Marvel’s Ultimate imprint. So we get to meet brilliant but dweeby science prodigy Reed Richards (Miles Teller) and his rough-diamond best friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), who together manage to invent a dimensional teleporter for their school science project.

This gets them into the Baxter Institute, a hothouse for young genii, where Reed is put to work on a full-size version of the same device, working alongside fellow young scientist Sue Storm (Kate Mara) and her brother Johnny (Michael B Jordan) – somewhat to the chagrin of the project’s initiator, older student Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell).

Needless to say they all get the thing built, and needless to say their first trip in it does not go according to plan – their visit to ‘Planet Zero’, as the place in the other dimension is christened, sees them bombarded with strange energies. Doom gets left behind and the others return to Earth mutated in a variety of horrible ways. Luckily the caring folks of the US Army are there to look after them, weaponise them, and restart work on the dimensional travel project, because there’s no possible way Doom could have survived and been transformed into a genocidal supervillain…

The new Fantastic Four movie does one absolutely astonishing thing, something I would’ve said was virtually impossible – it manages to make the 2005 and 2007 films about the quartet look like masterpieces of authenticity and faithfulness when it comes to this particular comic. There is a case to be made that Fantastic Four #1 marks the point at which modern superhero comic-books came into existence, its success paving the way for all Stan Lee’s subsequent riffs on the idea of troubled superhumans: the Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor, the X-Men, Daredevil, all of them followed the Fantastic Four.

And yet the book has been singularly ill-served in its cinematic adaptations – there was the 1994 version, produced as the movie equivalent of an ashcan copy and never intended for release, and the 2005 and 2007 films, which were hamstrung by a number of problems, not least a fatal uncertainty of tone. I have a feeling that following this latest fantastic farrago, it will be declared that the Fantastic Four is inherently unadaptable for the big screen. Personally I don’t think so – ten years ago you could have said the same thing about Captain America, considering the lousy films based on that character up to that point – but, for good or ill, I don’t run a major studio.

Unfortunately, in this case the tail seems to be wagging the dog as there is a suggestion that the troubles of the film may be partly responsible for the FF’s comic being cancelled earlier this year. Putting it very simply, this is again to do with the complicated legal status of many of Marvel’s best-known characters when it comes to screen adaptations: Marvel Studios has the film rights to the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man and so on, but the rights to the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and a few others were sold off long ago, which is why these movies don’t cross over with the others (and why there was great excitement in fannish circles when it was announced that Sony were effectively leasing Spider-Man back to Marvel Studios, following the underperformance of Amazing Spider-Man 2).

There was a suggestion that Marvel actually wanted Fantastic Four to fail, in order to leverage their buying back the rights here as well, and that the comic’s cancellation was part of this. Personally I doubt this was the only cause, as – for whatever reason – the book was selling very low numbers anyway. But, if Marvel wanted a failure, they certainly seem to have got one, as this movie is apparently bombing.

This is not really surprising, given that – in an impressive display of the belt-and-braces principle in action – Fantastic Four manages to be terrible in two completely different ways. First of all, the movie is sub-competent in terms of its basic film-making and story-telling: it’s poorly scripted, sluggishly paced, with some extremely variable special effects work. There seem to be three or four different stories fighting for supremacy, resulting in a distinctly odd narrative structure and some weird shifts in tone across the movie. It starts off, for instance, looking like the friendship between Reed and Ben is going to be one of the key elements of the story – but then Jamie Bell vanishes out of the film for quite a long time, and while later scenes make reference to the guys’ relationship, you never really feel it.

But what really kills the film is the seemingly-deliberate way it sets out to actively avoid providing anything you might expect from a Fantastic Four movie. The comic, at its best, is bright and funny and wildly imaginative – Stan Lee’s gift for knowing comedy and Jack Kirby’s penchant for cosmic grandeur never found a better outlet, but on the other hand ‘cool’, ‘dark’ and ‘edgy’ are never words you could use to describe it. Trying to make it any of those things is doomed from the start. (A friend of mine casually said that he never cared for the Fantastic Four, but he was excited about the profane, cynical, and graphically-violent adaptation of Deadpool coming next year.)

And yet we end up with a film with a predominantly grey and metallic colour palette, and a mid-section which treats the Four’s powers as the stuff of Cronenbergian body-horror rather than superhero fantasy. Any sense of joy and fun is ruthlessly hunted down and crushed, and there’s barely any sense of the characters even liking each other, let alone being a team, or a family. And some of the creative decisions are virtually incomprehensible: the character set out on the journey that will give them their super powers for reasons which are entirely self-centred and rather petty (not to mention that they’re drunk at the time). The Invisible Woman doesn’t even get invited along for the trip. (It’s hard to think of a moment when Sue and Ben even talk to one another, to be honest.) Most jaw-dropping is the choice to reveal that Ben’s catch-phrase (‘It’s clobbering time!’) is what his abusive elder brother used to say before beating him as a small child.

And, of course, the film gets Dr Doom as spectacularly wrong as the previous version, once again crowbarring him into the team’s origin story and completely reinventing the character. (He’s only referred to as Dr Doom once, and that’s meant to be ironic.) I suppose that Dr Doom represents everything that makes the Fantastic Four ‘difficult’ to adapt for the cinema. Quite apart from the fact that he was the proto-Darth Vader, he’s an operatic, grandiose, OTT villain of the purest kind, perfectly at home in an operatic, grandiose, OTT book. Just as this film bears no meaningful connection to the book, so its version of Doom bears no meaningful resemblance to one of comics’ greatest bad guys.

You can kind of see why the studio wanted Josh Trank, director of the really-quite-good Chronicle, in charge of this project, but looking back on it now it’s easy to pick out the signs of things going horribly amiss: Trank telling the cast not to bother reading any of the comics, as this had nothing in common with them, being the one that immediately leaps to mind. As if his career wasn’t in enough trouble right now, Trank has probably not won many friends by taking to Twitter and blaming the studio for ruining his film. This does look like a film which has been badly messed about, but there’s very little evidence that there was ever much to get excited about going on here.

Never mind audiences, the source material deserved better. As it is, I suspect the only chance for the Four now is for the crashing flop of this movie to persuade Fox to cut their losses and sell the rights back to Marvel – and even then I suspect the toxic aura of the last three movies may dissuade even them from making another attempt for the foreseeable future. Looking at the big-screen versions of this comic, I’m reminded of what Gandhi said when asked what he thought of Western civilisation: he said it would be a good idea. What do I think of the film adaptation of Fantastic Four? I think it would be terrific if somebody actually had a go at it, because this film doesn’t even make the attempt.

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