Basket Case

Saturday November 15, 2008 in recent cinema | horror

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.

Edward Woodward in the Wicker Man

“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.

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Here Be Dragons

Tuesday November 4, 2008 in recent cinema |

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.

Christian Bale in Reign of Fire

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.

Tim Roth

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.

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The Golden Compass

Tuesday December 18, 2007 in recent cinema | children

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.

The Golden Compass

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.

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28 Weeks Later

Sunday November 11, 2007 in recent cinema | horror

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.

28 Weeks Later

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?



Monday September 10, 2007 in films | recent cinema

The film of Ian McEwan’s Atonement is a masterpiece – a true cinema classic.

Keira Knightley in Atonement

The 2001 novel is a favourite of mine, and Joe Wright (director) and Christopher Hampton (screenplay) lose nothing of the power and potency of the book. In many ways they succeed in improving upon it.

A blistering hot afternoon like yesterday might not be the best time for a trip to the cinema, but I have to take these chances when they come, and besides – like McEwan’s opening chapters the film brilliantly recreates a very similar summer day in 1935. Hot, still days where people think nothing of plunging into cool water; which is essentially what kickstarts the events in Atonement.

A young girl called Briony (Saoirse Ronan) witnesses three incidents that lead her to form conclusions surrounding a fourth. When her cousin is assaulted, she accuses a young man called Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) of the brutal deed. Wright emphasises the strength of fiction in Briony’s word and how her imagination can filter the truth into something else. The sound of typewriters echo through the film’s soundtrack, their sound hammering their importance in this story into us. And is is the typed word that gets Robbie into trouble; when a sexually explicit letter to Briony’s sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) accidentally falls into Briony’s hands and she later witnesses a sexual encounter between Robbie and Cecilia – in a library, another world of fiction and shaped truths – her imagination goes into overload.

Following Robbie’s arrest the film jumps ahead to the wartime settings of London and Dunkirk. Anyone who has read the book knows to expect that things continue not to be as they seem and Wright really begins to shine here as an artist. The long sweeping shot of troops on the beach at Dunkirk is already becoming something of legend and it really is that good; the scene of Robbie walking through this hell-like vision is breathtaking – visually stunning and also managing to add to some of the intellectual themes of the book. Soldiers play at an abandoned funfair, a broken doll’s house sits abandoned, a ferris wheel turns oblivious to the devastation around it. I want to see this part of the movie again and again to fully appreciate its brilliance.

The film (like the book) will no doubt attract some criticism for its ending, which features Vanessa Redgrave as the now dying Briony, now a celebrated author, in the present day. We’re asked bluntly to think about truth and fiction, what we have just witnessed for two hours, how we would possibly want Briony’s ending to be any different. There is a stunning scene involving the 18 year old Briony (Romola Garai) – now a nurse in wartime London as part of her self-imposed atonement – and a dying French soldier that I think holds the key to the whole story. It’s about misunderstandings and lies, and how sometimes we can do nothing other than give in to them.

What’s best about the whole experience is that a great novel is turned into a fantastic and cinematically clever film. Visually, water plays a part in several key scenes. Cecilia diving into a pond to provide the beginning to Briony’s misunderstandings, Briony jumping into a river to force Robbie to rescue her, a final tragic scene during an air raid in London and the two lovers on an empty beach, embracing as the waves rush around them. This last image one of the most moving I have seen in cinema for some time.

Please see this film – there are excellent performances all round and Joe Wright is a director to watch in the future. It’s unadulterated rich, stunning cinema.

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