Everybody loves The Wicker Man. The 1973 film, that is, and not the 2006 remake starring Nicolas Cage. From what I can gather, everyone hates that Wicker Man. But what exactly was wrong with it? Was it just another case of a bad remake of a classic film (just like with Psycho and Get Carter)? Is it really that bad? Against my better judgement, I recently spent an evening with the Cage Wicker Man.
According to its director Robin Hardy, the 1973 original was treated badly by its distributors. The film was edited fairly brutally and eventually released as a B-movie to support Don’t Look Now. Rumour has it that some of the deleted scenes were buried under the M4. The film drifted in obscurity for a while and then began to gain something of a cult following, receiving frequent tv showings, and eventually a director’s cut DVD release. Hardy can’t really say the film is ignored any more. It’s rightly cited as a classic and is possibly the only British film made in the 70s that continues to receive five star reviews in film guides and listing magazines. Its own star, Edward Woodward, is now always asked about the film in interviews and recently made a short documentary with the film critic Mark Kermode where they revisited the original locations. Christopher Lee, who also appeared in the film, says it is his best role and can’t stop talking about it.
“Oh God! Oh no!”
The Wicker Man sits awkwardly alongside the horror films being made in Britain at the time, and this is probably why it has endured so well. For the first half, it’s possible to be forgiven for thinking that this isn’t horror at all. Woodward plays a devoutly religious policeman who’s lured to a remote Scottish island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. He finds a cut off yet seemingly self sufficient pagan society, laughing at his Lord and indulging in sexual ritual (some of it looks fun, especially when Britt Ekland gets her kit off, but Woodward’s having none of it). The Wicker Man stands up to repeated late night viewings, both for its careful build up to a dreadful ending and for its most unusual and wonderful soundtrack. It’s the role of a lifetime for Woodward and probably Lee as well.
Surprisingly for a Hollywood movie, the new Wicker Man doesn’t change an awful lot, although what it does change leads to its ultimate downfall. Cage plays a cop (Edward) who’s called to a remote island … yes it’s the same. But the alteration is that the missing girl (Rowan Woodward – geddit?) is revealed as his daughter, thus altering the original premise that the policeman – a king-like, willing fool – was pure for sacrifice (a virgin). Director Neil LaBute also decides to make his island a feminist nightmare – run by women where the men are mute and dominated. This is one of the reasons why the film was slated, especially as Cage enjoys throwing a few punches, and it’s difficult to defend this plot change, although it was effective to have a woman (Ellen Burstyn) in the Lee role.
But I found the reception to this Wicker Man far too unkind. There is an underlying creepiness to the film, and the end is almost as effective as the original (I was on the edge of my seat because I really thought they were going to fudge it and have Cage rescued). And really strangely, there are a few fleeting references to Don’t Look Now with Cage pursuing a small child in red. Perhaps they forgot at times which film in the original double bill they were remaking. Now this film has earned its place in late night tv slots, I suppose LaBute will take Hardy’s place in moaning about its treatment. Although I can’t see this one being hailed as a classic in 35 years. But everyone who loves The Wicker Man, the 1973 one, should give it a chance.
Beware. There are odd and madly scheduled movie channels that you will only find in hotel rooms. This is where slasher movies appear at lunchtime (I caught part of a particularly disturbing film called Ginger Snaps) and kids movies come late at night (Babe: Pig in the City). Oddest of all is this entry in the CV of Christian Bale. Reign of Fire (2002) is set in a post apocalyptic near future (alarm bells are already ringing when I discover that this imagined future is only 2020 – I hate it when post apocalyptic films are so short sighted). It’s an English future, and Christian Bale is in charge, clumsily equipped with a Dick Van Dyke cockney accent and wispy beard. Perhaps Mr Bale was advised that people will talk with this odd approximation of a London twang in the future, and perhaps they will, especially in a future where fire breathing dragons are terrorising the human race into extinction. Yes, it’s that kind of film.
Reign of Fire was a nice little starter to prepare me for The Dark Knight. I’d heard a lot about this, mostly regarding Heath Ledger’s turn as The Joker. In a dull, monotonous and pointless film he’s certainly the best thing in it. But even saying that, once I’d sat back I was forced to conclude that any half decent actor would make something out of The Joker, wouldn’t they? And sadly, director Christopher Nolan doesn’t make enough out of The Joker to make it a truly great movie. What is best about Ledger’s interpretation is that he’s deadly serious, which cuts out the ham element which befell Jack Nicholson. Ledger is not much of a joker at all really, although certainly insane. But there’s only a hint of just how dangerous this man is, and the scene reminiscent of The Silence of the Lambs where the dangerous criminal is ensnared is only a pale comparison to the greater movie. And in such a long film they should have spend a little more time on the mad villain’s capture and escape.
Taking its hype into account, The Dark Knight is one of the most disappointing films I’ve seen in years. The sterling cast is wasted; Gary Oldman in moustache and glasses just gives a passable impersonation of Dr Robert Winston, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine wake up, rub their eyes and turn in their usual roles. And Christian Bale opts for the gruffest of gruff voices when he’s dressed up as Batman, sounding like Clint Eastwood forgetting to gargle after a night on the cigars.
I think it can all be traced back to a problem with the whole ethos of DC Comics, which will never be a patch on Marvel, and for me the recent Incredible Hulk is far superior a film to The Dark Knight. For one thing, it does have something of a sense of humour, although there are too many references to the 70s tv series (a glimpse of Bill Bixby, Lou Ferrigno supplying the Hulk’s voice) and we get the inevitable and now tedious Stan Lee cameo. But The Incredible Hulk rockets along like a superhero film should do. Edward Norton, who I normally find particularly nondescript, is fine as Bruce Banner, and William Hurt and Tim Roth make excellent baddies. And I hope that Christian Bale was taking notes, as Mr Roth has the most excellent London accent.
As a fan of Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy I was looking forward to The Golden Compass, the film of the first instalment Northern Lights. After seeing it, I wasn’t disappointed or let down, but I wasn’t excited either. It’s something of a Goldilocks film, just okay, and I’m not sure if this makes The Golden Compass good, acceptable or only mediocre.
It was my fantasy film expectations that were eventually satisfied more than my literary ones. The special effects were very good, especially the cinematic realisation of Pullman’s daemons, where the people in his alternative world are accompanied by the animal embodiment of their souls. Like the novels, what at first comes across as weird and unsettling is in fact very easy to get used to. By the end of the film you will be looking for the daemon of every new character you see, and judging that very character by their daemon. You will be wary of the ones with dogs or wolves, suspicious of the man with a grasshopper, respectful for Lord Asriel’s leopard and fearful of Mrs Coulter’s monkey.
Nicole Kidman brought life to the Mrs Coulter, who has already lived in my imagination for a long time. From the moment we see her I knew she was going to get the characterisation right, both for me and and for anybody who hadn’t read the books. Kidman let you know right away that Mrs Coulter was one to watch out for. In the cinema, my daughter leant over to me and whispered “she’s bad, isn’t she?” and The Golden Compass does exceed with its choice of cast. There’s the usual company of skilled British thesps, including the excellent Tom Courtenay, Jim Carter and Derek Jacobi. Even Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee, who you would think are growing bored with this sort of thing, make their contribution. But its the lesser knowns who are good too such as Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra. With a bad Lyra this would have been nothing more than a Christmas turkey.
What is strange about The Golden Compass is its confidence that today’s cinema audience can expect their entertainment to be episodic. Weaned on Tolkein and Harry Potter, they consume their films in instalments and, being the first of three, this opening to The Dark Materials goes nowhere. We are literally left up in the air. What’s even stranger is the casting of Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel. Something of cinema’s golden boy since Casino Royale (but a very fine actor nevertheless), you would expect him to have made more than the couple of the brief appearances he makes. No more than a days work for Mr Craig, who still manages, strangely, to have a shave halfway through the film. Was there a continuity problem, or will his loss of beard be explained in the next film?
The Golden Compass has been accused of toning down its take on theology, and coming to it straight from The God Delusion I was interested in seeing what truth there was in this. The answer is that I really don’t think there’s a place for such intellectual and philosophical debate in a family film, and anyway – it’s all there for you to read into. The Magesterium and authority, those who question it and are themselves questioned when they decide to seek out the real truth. Science and religion, those old chestnuts. I’m glad this film didn’t try to spell out any message too much. I was far too busy cowering from Nicole Kidman.
As I’ve said, this could have been more polished and accomplished but it could also have been far, far worse. It’s a film that would have been difficult to imagine pre Lord of the Rings, but it’s also a film that takes this genre (literary fantasy?) and pushes it a touch further forward in terms of visual spectacle. I just hope it’s successful enough to allow the next two books in the trilogy to be filmed, otherwise it will remain an inconsequential oddity. And by the way, don’t rush out of the cinema at the end and stick around for Lyra, the rather excellent theme song from Kate Bush.
28 Weeks Later is the much anticipated sequel to the 2002 film 28 Days Later. Danny Boyle’s original is very hard to follow, mainly due to the outstanding opening scene where the hero Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up in hospital and then proceeds to stagger through an eerily deserted London. Westminster Bridge with litter fluttering in the wind, an overturned bus or two. Countless post-9/11 photos plastered everywhere and pleas for the missing.
What’s going on? A rather nasty virus has taken just four weeks to turn everyone into crazed zombies who have learnt the neat trick of moving in fast motion. But don’t turn away just yet. We don’t see these movie monsters until the shots of an empty and silent city are fully milked. And brilliantly executed it is too. How did they manage to film this? How were thay allowed to? Getting up early on a Sunday morning I suppose, and there is the feeling of dawn breaking on a hopeless and bleak new day that comes across very well. New director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo and his crew must have risen really early as the deserted London theme is explored brilliantly in 28 Weeks Later. Tower Bridge, Docklands, The Gherkin are all revealed in their abandoned nakedness.
We get to see a lot more of a startling different and quite beautiful London. In this film, the area has been closed off to starve out the virus, American troops now patrolling nervously as the capital is slowly repopulated. Why isn’t London used more for film locations? I suppose because in the past it hasn’t been done very imaginatively, and I’m thinking of the red bus movies of the 1960s, where producers thought that a red bus appropriately positioned would get bums on seats. Red routemasters = swinging London. Films still continue to use red buses lazily. I loved Atonement, but there is appallingly unimaginative use of red buses to try to convey wartime in London. Come on, at least the bus has to be on its side to be worth including.
Perhaps it’s just too difficult and too costly to film in the smoke; it’s true that Bristol often serves for a more convenient stand-in for film and tv locations. But when it’s done well it can be breathtaking, and another of my favourite recent films is the dystopian gem Children of Men, which uses London to great effect.
Buses aside, 28 Weeks Later doesn’t try to change anything that was good about the original. It uses the same excellent incidental music and the zombies still run in their fast motion style. As executive producer, Danny Boyle is clearly steering his original vision in new and interesting directions. A theme that’s introduced is that the virus has mutated; in rare cases people can become only carriers of the disease. Which unfortunately leads towards a rather unwelcome outbreak…
What was best about this film, and what made it surpass the original for me, was how it played on real human fears and weaknesses. Donald (Robert Carlysle) abandons his wife to the crazed zombies of the English countryside at the beginning of the film. There’s no question about this; he runs away and leaves her to die to save himself. He’s a coward. He has to live with his guilt and then has to lie to his children about what happened when they are reunited. He tells them that he saw their mother die, although in reality he didn’t hang around for long enough to find out. Standing up to the opening of the first film that I admire so much, it’s an attention grabbing and gripping start.
Carlysle, who you might expect to be the hero of the film, becomes something of a despicible character, and it’s his skill as an actor that makes it so believable. I still asked myself the question would I have run too? And this is what makes 28 Weeks Later a great movie. There’s real and very personal horrors that might catch up with us.
I doubt if it’s over yet though. As Fresnadillo is a Spanish gentleman, and as we get a glimpse of Paris right at the end, I suspect there will be a Euro flavoured film coming soon to complete the trilogy. 28 Months Later?
Somewhere in my record collection is a blue vinyl copy of Short Circuit: Live at the Electric Circus, a record featuring performances by The Fall, John Cooper Clarke, The Buzzcocks and Joy Division. This 1978 event is recreated in Anton Corbijn’s new film Control, with an amusing cameo from Clarke playing his younger self. It’s good to see him again; thirty years older but still on fine form. I didn’t spot any other such appearances and I was grateful; there were enough in-jokes in 24 Hour Party People, the other film telling the story of Ian Curtis and Joy Division and a film that was just a little too pleased with itself.
Control is a far more mature piece of cinema, based on the book Touching From a Distance by Deborah Curtis and filmed in stark black and white by Corbijn (who was responsible for many of the memorable monochrome stills of the band taken in the late 70s). Control tells the true story of four friends – Ian Curtis, Peter Hook, Bernard Sumner and Stephen Morris – who form a band after seeing the Sex Pistols perform in Manchester. The most enigmatic of the four was the now legendary Curtis, who spiralled into despair after being diagnosed with epilepsy. He committed suicide in 1980 aged 23 on the eve of Joy Division’s first US tour.
Control, attempts to unravel why such a young man – and one with such an unusual talent – chose to end it all on the brink of major success. The Joy Division story is a well documented one and I’m a huge fan of the music, and would cite them as one of the most influential bands of all time. You can hear the distinctive sound in new music today, and the established group The Killers cover a Joy Division song in the closing credits of Control. You can just tell they see this an the greatest of honours. But putting the lagacy of the music aside, the film still revealed for me a hidden side to Ian Curtis as it tries to piece together what went wrong.
I did know Curtis left a wife and young child behind when he died; I didn’t realise that they were barely out of school when they married. I also hadn’t really considered his ordinary working class Macclesfield background. The tower blocks of his youth and the cramped house he shared with his wife Deborah add to the sense of claustrophobia we see in him. There’s also the dual nature of his existence; the post punk icon writing lyrics at home in a break from decorating his living room, the enigmatic band leader returning home to face nappies and bottled baby milk. One scene shows him walking down a street in smart clothes and a tie at the height of the punk movement. The camera moves round to show the word hate daubed on his back. The scene ends with him entering the premises of his day job – the labour exchange. Such contradictions in his life can only have served to push him further into despair.
Sam Riley as Ian Curtis and the other actors playing the members of Joy Division radiate sheer energy in performance and are compelling to watch, although the film gives equal time to the singer’s home life. Domesticity takes a desperate turn when Deborah learns of his affair with a Belgian journalist. As, I suppose fittingly, Love Will Tear Us Apart plays in the background we see her rifling through her husband’s things. Boxes of Bowie and Lou Reed clippings, books full of lyrics and poems. She finds a name and number scribbled on an album cover. As their life begins to crumble, the life of Ian Curtis appears reduced to a few treasured possessions; the influences on his writings and music. In his final hours he plays a copy of Iggy Pop’s The Idiot. There is something about getting inside the mind of Curtis that preoccupies this film. We see his bedroom as a teenager covered in Bowie posters, there’s even a book of military uniforms by his bedside that hints at the band’s supposed flirtation with fascism (although the film doesn’t go on to explore or question this). Mostly, Curtis continues to remain a mystery. Deborah finds it hard to connect with him or his band; when she turns up at a gig heavily pregnant they, along with Factory boss Tony Wilson and the group’s mouthy manager Rob Gretton, are taken by complete surprise. Watching the band in performance she can only look on in wonder and she becomes the key figure in this film as we realise we can’t penetrate either the mind of this intensely introverted artist. Ironically, we see Joy Division in the studio recording the song Isolation- although I immediately thought of Deborah rather than Ian.
Control is a great movie thanks to the performances of Samantha Morton as Deborah and in particular Riley as Ian Curtis. His portrayal is stunning but it’s much more than just an impersonation. He can do the strange Curtis dance perfectly, he can do the facial mannerisms, but he also he brings across the sadness of an ordinary guy who’s life is torn in too many directions, and who faces life with an unbearable illness. Someone who wrote great lyrics but couldn’t appear to communicate with anyone directly. Despite this, Control isn’t depressing. It’s very sad, and what happened is indeed tragic but I always feel inspired when I hear the music of Joy Division, and this is the lasting feeling I’ve had from seeing this film. See it for the music, but also for the impressive photography and brilliant perfomances. And it’s not all doom and gloom, there’s also a lot of humour in the film. After all, they were all just ordinary lads.
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