In my review of Avatar, I spoke about how American filmmakers have… MoreIn my review of Avatar, I spoke about how American filmmakers have historically struggled to do justice to certain kinds of stories, namely "stories about American settlers encountering natives, and stories about Man destroying the environment." American filmmakers have also traditionally struggled when it comes to tackling distinctly British stories, of which the legend of Robin Hood is a prime example.
Ridley Scott's Robin Hood made a good fist of medieval English politics but was let down by a lack of focus and Russell Crowe's wandering accent. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is at turns tedious and over-the-top hilarious, depending on whether Kevin Costner or Alan Rickman is on screen. Even the classic versions with Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn come up short in some capacity. The Disney version of Robin Hood is like many of its companions: it realises some of the story's potential, but there are plenty of missed opportunities along the way.
Before we begin examining the narrative merits of Robin Hood, it's worth remembering that the mythos of this famous outlaw is rather fluid. Most of the 20th century versions of Robin Hood are derived in some way from Howard Pyle's The Many Adventures of Robin Hood, a Victorian children's book which cemented our hero as a localised philanthropist. But the earliest versions of his story date back to 1450, with the only vaguely consistent elements being the Nottingham setting and the Sheriff - frankly, everything else is up for grabs.
The point here is that all the usual arguments about Disney being economical with the truth are perhaps not as valid here, given that the truth is so elusive to begin with. This is complicated further by the knowledge that Robin Hood was not originally intended to be about the character at all. Ken Anderson originally wanted to make a film about Reynard the fox, an anthropomorphic trickster prominent in medieval European literature. But Walt Disney overruled Anderson early in production, believing that a fox would not make an appealing protagonist unless he was fighting for a good cause.
Disney's version does include many of the most familiar and much-loved plot elements of the Robin Hood legend. The story is still set in Nottingham, our heroes are still reacting against King John's punitive taxation, Richard the Lionheart is still off fighting the Crusades, and John himself is still a pitiful coward. For those only familiar with the basics of the story, it earns a pass on this level, just as any version of The Hound of the Baskervilles might be praised so long as it's set on Dartmoor and has a lot of fog.
The film also possesses one really funny set-piece, which occurs during the archery tournament. There is something inherently funny about a chicken with a Scottish accent beating up half a dozen rhinos and then running off into the woods. Even if this doesn't appeal to you, the scene is well-paced and well-structured, with physical humour and slapstick that builds and escalates to a series of fitting punchlines, mostly at the expense of John or Sir Hiss.
Unfortunately, that's largely where the plaudits end with Robin Hood. Like most of the films Disney produced in the 1960s and 1970s, it is riddled with compromises, cost-cutting measures and a general lack of creative energy. I've talked to death in my reviews about the negative influence that Wolfgang Reitherman had on Disney's output, and his fingerprints are all over this both as a director and a storyteller.
For starters, the animation is very mediocre. Even if we make allowances for the more pastoral, understated environments that the story of Robin Hood demands, the backgrounds are very plain and lacking in detail. The colours look pale and faded, and as always with Reitherman there is a blatant recycling of footage from previous films.
Many of the character designs are derived in some way from The Jungle Book, with Little John being a straight copy of Baloo in body and in voice (both characters are voiced by Phil Harris). 'The Phony King of England' musical number is similar to both 'Bare Necessities' and 'I Wanna Be Like You', both in its orchestration and in the dancing of its characters. Likewise Hiss is a poor man's Ka, the young turtle is a lift from Snow White, and there are big hints of Dumbo in the title sequence.
The film is also tonally unsure of itself, something which is reflected in the voice acting. Some of the cast are in full-on pantomime mode, with Peter Ustinov hamming it for all his worth as King John and Terry-Thomas providing a fitting foil as Hiss. Others are earnest to the point of being bland, such as Brian Belford as Robin or Monica Evans as Maid Marian. Others still are behaving like the whole thing is a Western: the conflict between Pat Buttram (the Sheriff) and Andy Devine (Friar Tuck) is like a watered-down version of the banter before a bar-room brawl.
These points reflect the apathy that surrounded much of Disney's output in the 1960s and 1970s. Because the budget for Robin Hood was relatively low, at $1.5m, Reitherman stuck to what he knew, and in doing so removed many of the genuinely creative aspects that would have made the film more distinctive. While Anderson wanted to make the Sheriff a goat, Reitherman settled on the tried-and-tested wolf, missing an opportunity to move the Disney brand on a bit and experiment with different kinds of characters.
This apathy also manifests itself on a narrative level. While many of the familiar plot elements are there, the plot as a whole is a series of bits which don't really lead on from each other. The narrative is less episodic than The Jungle Book, but the film does feel like it has been thrown together quickly without due care and attention. Roger Miller's narrator is completely surplus to requirement, being included to plug the gaps between set-pieces (and provide a more American sensibility).
In spite of all this, it is possible to enjoy Robin Hood as a vaguely passible distraction. Like The Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, it is pretty innoucous fare, and its flaws are not so striking that they will offend the target audience. The more pantomime elements are amusing, the set-pieces are well-constructed, and while the score is repetitive it is also deeply forgettable. Like Pooh, it is the kind of film you show on a rainy afternoon, when nothing else is available to take your mind off things.
Robin Hood is an indifferent and innocuous effort from Disney which epitomises many of the company's flaws in this time period. It has its moments of fun and contains very little that could offend, but it's also a big missed opportunity which puts cutting corners above encouraging creativity. It's not Reitherman's worst outing as a director, but that's hardly a ringing endorsement.
Film fans have a very love-hate relationship with the Oscars. We love… MoreFilm fans have a very love-hate relationship with the Oscars. We love them, or at least put up with them, because they are a means of getting the general public to see more adventurous, unusual or sometimes challenging films, and they form the perfect icebreaker for film-related conversation. Likewise, we hate the Oscars for being a bad advert for the film industry, being out of touch, smugly self-satisfied, and usually getting it very, very wrong.
In this manner, Oscar buzz has to be handled the same way every year: acknowledged, but taken with a pinch of salt, in the knowledge that the best picture probably won't win Best Picture. This year, however, is different, because for once the Academy got it right. 12 Years a Slave is a truly transcendent piece of film-making which cements Steve McQueen's burgeoning reputation, and is perhaps the most deserved Best Picture win for a decade.
In the past, films which have explored the subject of American slavery have tended to be from the white man's point of view. Films like Amistad, Lincoln and Amazing Grace have noble intentions and often a lot of talent behind them, but they tend to view slavery as an issue that noble-minded, morally-upright white men must resolve, in opposition to less noble-minded, morally-upright white men. In doing so the people whose cause they claim to be championing are unduly and often unintentionally marginalised.
McQueen's film, by contrast, is told very much from from the slaves' point-of-view. It's very easy to put this down to his status as a Hollywood outsider: being a British director who started out as a visual artist, one could argue that he brings an objectivity to the subject that no American filmmaker could have done. As compelling as this argument may seem, however it does ignore both the transatlantic nature of the production and McQueen's own ancestry, which includes many victims of slavery.
More important than McQueen's background or status is his sensibility, which is key to the film's success. He has a recurring interest in dehumanisation or the abuse and degradation of the human body. Having handled starvation in Hunger, and sex addiction and attempted suicide in Shame, he now gives us the commodification of human beings into property, and the physical abuse given to slaves in the form of lashes, attempted hanging and rape. The film is deeply emotional but also disturbingly clinical, a very rare trick to have pulled off.
McQueen establishes this approach with the opening shots: a cold open on a sugar cane plantation in media res, and then a sex scene between two slaves which is the very definition of unsexy. We see our two participants in close-up, moving slowly against each other but with not a shred of joy or love on their faces. In doing this, McQueen shows how slavery strips people of their humanity, to the point where even the most sacred and joyous of acts have become empty and devoid of meaning. Like Naomi Watts' masturbation scene at the end of Mulholland Drive, sex has become the act of those who are hollow, desperate and defeated.
Much of 12 Years a Slave looks at the means by which people become institutionalised into slavery. The film goes to great lengths to show how hard it is to escape being a slave, with Solomon Northup being robbed of his identity and becoming little more than a portion of labour that can be bought, sold and mistreated at will. Much of the film is concerned with the brutality inflicted upon the slaves by their masters, and as in his previous work McQueen never pulls any punches.
Even by the standards of a generation raised on so-called 'torture porn', 12 Years a Slave is an incredibly brutal film. It's arguably the most violent mainstream film since The Passion of the Christ, the difference being that the violence doesn't drown out the deeper message, as it does in Mel Gibson's work. The characters are so well-written and sensitively portrayed that every violent act perpetrated against them carries great weight and brings the appropriate response of repulsion. The scene where Patsey is repeatedly whipped is one of the most flinch-inducing moments in modern cinema.
Scenes like this reflect the film's nuanced understanding of how the power relationships between masters and slaves are structured. It acknowledges that hard power in the form of whippings and rape were not enough to guarantee obedience; slaves were also institutionalised by adopting the customs of their masters. By behaving like their captors, and being rewarded for their obedience, their desire to rebel and escape is steadily eroded, much like the prisoners in The Shawshank Redemption.
This is played out in the film on at least three occasions. Firstly, we see Solomon play his violin at a dance for Mr. and Mrs. Epps: the joyful tunes he played as a free man are honed into the respectable, formal melodies of which they approve. Secondly, we see Shaw's plantations, where slaves are treated like country ladies, being plied with tea and cakes to make them accept their lot in life. And thirdly, in Patsey's whipping, where Epps invites Northup to beat his own kind, forcing him to embrace and appropriate the very form of violence that would be used against him.
The film is also very interested in the hypocrisy of religion. Christians were very prominent in the abolitionist movement later in the 19th century, and yet both Ebbs and the more moderate William Ford use scripture to justify their actions. Ford leads his slaves in services and prayers in his gardens, while Ebbs views an outbreak of cotton worm as a plague from God. Both men see slavery as their Biblically-sanctioned duty, something which in Ebbs' case extends to abusing them as well.
In lesser dramas, these characters would be painted in broad strokes as blind, deluded morons who should be ridiculed. But both McQueen's direction and John Ridley's fantastic screenplay constantly invite us to question things more deeply, and challenge our own beliefs in the process. Both Ford and Ebbs' behaviour are perversions of Christianity, neglecting Christ's teaching of compassion and forgiveness in favour of out-of-context Old Testament brutality. But we are still invited to view them as flawed men rather than dismiss them as madmen, no matter how easy that would seem.
12 Years a Slave is centrally a story of survival. It avoids falling into the trap that Schindler's List did, namely attempting to fashion a heroic story out of circumstances which didn't deserve it; in the words of Stanley Kubrick, "Schindler's List is about success. The Holocaust was about failure." Northup does very little that could be considered heroic: he doesn't liberate his fellow slaves or challenge the system to its core. He is very fortunate to survive, based upon the people he meets, and when he is swept off he is forced to leave Patsey behind.
On top of its thematic richness and brilliant storytelling, the film looks absolutely splendid Sean Bobbitt has collaborated with McQueen on both his previous films, as well as lending his eye to the underrated Byzantium. At times the plantations on which Northup works have a distinctly lyrical quality, reminiscent of the best work of Terence Malick. But as with Byzantium, there is plenty of room for harshness amongst the lavishness, and McQueen never lets the beautiful colours dominate proceedings or sanitise the violence.
The performances in 12 Years a Slave are very hard to fault. Chiwitel Ejiofor is amazing in the lead role, rivalling his performance in Dirty Pretty Things for its emotional depth and sensitivity. Newcomer Lupita Nyong'o thoroughly deserved her Oscar; she makes Patsey a complex, wounded lady who never fails to break our hearts. Michael Fassbender continues his winning streak with McQueen, turning in another powerhouse performance as Ebbs, and there is good support from Paul Dano and Benedict Cumberbatch, as John Tibeats and William Ford respectively.
12 Years A Slave is an utter masterpiece and a worthy winner of the Best Picture Oscar. It is a fantastic, mesmerising creation which is at turns a gruelling endurance test, a profound mental stimulant and a powerful emotional drama. McQueen's status as a great director of our time is assured, as is its status as an essential piece of filmmaking. It is, quite simply, astonishing, and a shoe-in for the best film of the year.
When I reviewed the first Percy Jackson film, I took great pains to… MoreWhen I reviewed the first Percy Jackson film, I took great pains to put the film in context, particularly regarding its relationship to the Harry Potter series. I spoke about how many fantasy franchises were launched on the back of the success of The Lord of the Rings, and how the vast majority of these fell short either of Peter Jackson's groundbreaking trilogy or the eventual success of Harry Potter.
With Harry Potter now done and dusted, and The Hobbit films failing to match the critical reputation of their predecessors, Sea of Monsters stands more of a chance at competing both for the hearts and the money of its core teenage audience. If previous records are anything to go by, Chris Columbus' lack of involvement this time around should lead to some kind of improvement. And sure enough, a slight improvement is what we get, showing if nothing else what difference a decent director can make.
One of the big problems with Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief was Columbus' approach to the source material. Throughout his career he has always been relunctant to place any kind of creative or artistic stamp over and above the source material, preferring to slavishly reproduce the story for fear of offending the fans which are his target audience. Chamber of Secrets, the second Harry Potter film, is particularly guilty of this, but Philosopher's Stone is just as careless in many aspects, taking so long to set things up that the experience becomes less magical.
Thor Freudenthal's directorial career is not exactly glittering in comparison, his previous efforts being Hotel for Dogs and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. He is a nuts and bolts filmmaker who understands working with children and special effects, but at the very least he has the confidence to make changes to the story where they are necessary for the medium. While Sea of Monsters still has a great many problems, it is more cinematic than its predecessor both visually and narratively.
Make no mistake, there are huge aspects of Sea of Monsters that look or feel derivative. The entire attack on the woods which takes place early in the film is very close to the woodland scenes in Deathly Hallows Part I, with touches of the Battle of Hogwarts from Part II. The visual sensibility is still very close to the Potter films, including the prominent blue tones to the cinematography. Throw in the familiar character dynamics, with romance and rivalry abounding, and it's easy to feel that we've been here many times before.
But while Sea of Monsters isn't groundbreakingly original in either its story or its characters, both aspects are engaging enough to make us either forget or overlook its resemblances to Harry Potter and other fantasy franchises. While it never makes enough of an argument to stand entirely on its own, it does feel more confident about its identity and what it wants to do. The film is a decent, solid, generic popcorn blockbuster, nothing more, nothing less.
One aspect in which Sea of Monsters scores over The Lightning Thief is how it handles all its references to Greek mythology. The Lightning Thief contained a number of fitting reimaginings of classical figures or places in Greek mythology - for instance, Medusa's lair as a garden centre full of statues, or the Den of the Lotus Eaters as a casino. But Columbus struggled to marshall these images or set-pieces into a non-episodic plot, resulting in a film of several promising moments but precious little else.
Sea of Monsters works all of its touches more fittingly into its plot. Having Hermes as the busy CEO as an Amazon-esque corporation could have been just a pleasant throwaway gag, but the script gives time to see exactly how Hermes operates and thereby adds weight to Luke's disdain for him, which manifests in his search for the Fleece. The same goes for Stanley Tucci's delightful role as Dionysus, with more effort going into fleshing out his role at Camp Half-Blood alongside the jokes about Jesus turning water into wine.
The film also makes a lot more of the Prometheus myth, which runs through both of the stories. While not specific to Percy's arc, both The Lightning Thief and Sea of Monsters revolve around human individuals (or half-humans at any rate) who arrogantly deprive the Gods of something essential to their power and authority. Prometheus' original theft of fire is substituted for a lightning bolt or the Golden Fleece, just as in Sherlock the journal of Dr. John Watson becomes a blog.
While The Lightning Thief barely touched upon the myth or its implications, Sea of Monsters explores the themes of Prometheus' story in a little more detail. The story of the characters is a battle between hubristic arrogance, on the part of Luke and Clarisse, and the more selfless position to Percy, Grover, Annabeth and Tyson. While the arrogance of the former party puts them at a short-term advantage in battle situations, they ultimately do not have the ability to control the power they are willing to unleash. The only departure from the original story is that humans rein in this power with the Gods' assistance, rather than the Gods acting alone.
By bringing the themes of the story more to the fore, Sea of Monsters makes it easier to bond with the characters, or at least to understand their motivations enough that we go along with their actions. The dynamic between Percy, Grover and Annabeth is largely unchanged, but we do get a little character development on the latter's part with the revelation about the cyclops. It's also refreshing that Clarisse isn't just presented as a lazy romantic rival for Percy's affections; she may be unlikeable, but she does at least get to be unlikeable under her own steam, and for her own reasons.
The main performances in Sea of Monsters are all pretty decent. Logan Lerman isn't as good here as he was in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but he does make Percy a believable protagonist even if he isn't always the most charismatic. Leven Rambin, who appeared briefly in The Hunger Games, provides a welcome spark with Clarisse: she is an unlikeable character, but her performance is memorable. Stanley Tucci is the highlight of the adult cast, bringing a weariness to Dionysus without looking like he doesn't want to be in the film.
The other big plus with Sea of Monsters is its improved special effects. The film is shot by Shelly Johnson, known for his collaborations with director Joe Johnston stretching back to Jurassic Park III. He's used to working on CG-heavy blockbusters, and he manages to bring a little more weight to the set-pieces. His task is more difficult considering the amount of water involved - water being very hard to digitally replicate - but the film is a lot more integrated and a little more physical through his efforts.
Having trundled along rather nicely for most of its running time, the film does somewhat drop the ball when it comes to its big final set-piece, involving Luke's resurrection of Kronos. While the effects are pretty decent and the broken fairground setting is appealing, in all other aspects it's a straight lift from Raiders of the Lost Ark. While we're not treated to any melting faces or shouts of "keep your eyes shut!", it follows the sequence pretty much beat-for-beat.
The other slight fly in the ointment is Tyson himself. While Annabeth's character development is welcome, he always feels like something of a spare part, being either played for comic relief or written into the background whenever the plot doesn't require him. As a result his death scene doesn't have as much weight as perhaps it could, and Douglas Smith's delivery often feels flat and unemotional.
Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters is a decent popcorn blockbuster which improves on its predecessor without making compelling arguments for a further film. The improved direction and effects, along with a more rounded approach to storytelling, keep us entertained long enough for its flaws and derivative qualities to be less of a problem. If there is to be a third film, the series will definitely have to up its game, but for now it's perfectly harmless fun.
There are many reasons why a given film's reputation may be inflated… MoreThere are many reasons why a given film's reputation may be inflated or exaggerated in light of subsequent events. Whether through the impact it has on the aesthetic of other films in its genre, the acting careers it may launch, or the audience hysteria it may cause, there are numerous examples of films which are praised to the hilt on these grounds but don't entirely deserve their hype upon closer examination.
Into a camp which includes Star Wars and The Exorcist, we can now add Dracula, a horror film of undeniable cultural significance which is regarded as the definitive Bram Stoker adaptation of its time. The film is responsible for immortalising Hammer Films as a horror studio and for launching the career of Sir Christopher Lee, something for which we should all be thankful. But while there is much about the film that remains creepy or interesting, it doesn't quite deserve its glowing reputation.
During a Q&A session at University College Dublin, Lee was asked about his work on the Hammer films and what he wanted to bring to the character of Dracula. He responded that he had always tried to play the character as it was written in the novel - namely an old man becoming younger, dressed "entirely in black from head to foot without a single speck of colour". Lee's disatisfation with the various departures from the character became apparent in later films in the series: his character doesn't speak in Dracula: Prince of Darkness because he refused to say any of the lines that were written for him.
Lee is certainly correct in certain respects. Not only does his character not get younger over the course of the film, but the manner of his death is very different to the novel, with Van Helsing driving him into the sunlight rather than slitting his throat and piercing his heart with a dagger. But in other aspects, this version is fairly faithful: even if all the little details aren't correct, it follows the plot of Stoker's book pretty closely. Certainly it's an accessible adaptation, which provides a nice contrast to more histrionic versions (like Francis Ford Coppola's, for instance).
One of the most common comments made about the Hammer vampire movies is their sexuality. Lee remains adamant that it was not his intention to play up the character's sexual connotations, but there can be little denying the raunchiness that Terence Fisher brings out in his direction. His camera is repeatedly drawn to Mina's exposed neck and heaving bosom, Dracula's phallic fangs and the slow, almost seductive motions by which he devours his victims. While these scenes are pretty tame by today's standards (or by Coppola's, for that matter), the subtext is still there for all to see.
The film is also interesting for its attitude towards Dracula from a class point of view. Part of the lasting appeal of Hammer villains is their aristocratic elegance: they are people of good breeding who are suave and debonair as much as they are diabolical and ruthless. Fisher depicts Dracula as being at the top of the food chain, both as a literal predator of human beings and in terms of his wealth and status. We are drawn to respect the Count in his initial scenes, admiring the opulence and grandeur of his castle home.
There is an interesting comparison in this regard between Dracula and the equally low-budget Andy Warhol's Blood for Dracula, directed by Warhol's close collaborator Paul Morrissey. The latter film is something of a Marxist work, depicting Dracula as an upper-class parasite who deprives working women of both their souls and their labour: the eternal servitude of the proletariat to the landed gentry and bourgeoisie is analogous to the deathless fate of Dracula's brides. Dracula, by contrast, is more reverential towards its aristocratic villain, refusing to condone his crimes but having a grudging respect or admiration for the manner in which he goes about commiting them.
Like Morrissey's film, Dracula is an example of low-budget cinema at its best. Filmed on a budget of £81,000 in 1957 (around £1.6m in today's money), the film possesses pretty decent special effects for its time. One of its most startling effects involves Lee's Dracula peeling off layers of his skin as he is exposed to sunlight, an effect achieved by painting Lee's face entirely in red make-up and then covering that in layers of morticians' wax, which could then be raked off with fingernails. Having been lost for decades, this sequence is now available in full on the recent Blu-Ray release.
Even without this set-piece, however, Dracula does make pretty good use of its budget. The costumes are reasonably opulent, the lighting is simple but effective, and the location shots don't look like obvious backdrops or matte paintings. If you're looking for Black Narcissus levels of craft, you won't quite find it here, but crucially the setting and trappings are effective and evocative enough that you aren't constantly obsessing over where money was saved or how a particular effect was achieved.
The ace in the hole with Dracula, as with so many Hammer films, are its central performances. While not his finest role by any stretch, Lee is brilliant as the title character, towering over his co-stars and capturing the more tragic elements of the Count in his earlier scenes with Harker. Peter Cushing, his long-time friend and co-star, is very good as Van Helsing, bringing both elegance and determination to the part as well as a sense of academic detachment. There's also good support from Michael Gough (later Batman's butler) and from Carol Marsh as Lucy.
Having praised it in line with its reputation thus far, we now turn to the aspects of Dracula which haven't held up quite so well. The first and biggest of its problems is one that blights many older horror movies: it isn't that scary anymore. This may be down to a change in audience attitudes or expectations, but the film is more creepy or tense than out-and-out scary. Even the more esoteric parts of Stoker's novel have an intimidating quality to them, and the film doesn't successfully replicate this tone on a consistent basis.
Like many horror films of the period, Dracula is frequently over-reliant on its score. James Bernard had previously scored The Curse of Frankenstein for Hammer, and his style of clashing melodies and distinctive motifs has been praised by many in horror circles. But after 56 years it's a little too vampish and over-the-top, with the soundtrack being used all too consciously to cover up less exciting bits of coverage or amplify the actors' reactions. In short, it's trying to create more of a response than a given scene deserves, something that may have worked in the 1950s but doesn't hold so much water now.
The film also falters when it drifts from the directly scary scenes, such as those with the innkeeper or the border guard whose barrier gets destroyed by the coach. The tonal departure between these scenes and the scenes with Dracula is surprisingly big, so much so that when the latter happens it almost comes across as comic relief. The aesthetics of horror and comedy are very close, which may help to explain why many older horror films become unintentionally hilarious with age. Dracula doesn't fall into this trap, but it comes close to inducing a chuckle on occasion.
Ultimately, whether or not you accept Dracula comes down to the level of affection one has for Hammer and its approach to the material. There is something distinctly British and quirky to Dracula which makes it appealing in amongst its flaws, particularly in this age of cookie-cutter horror with rather anaemic vampires. While it's not the most faithful to its source material or the most adept in its execution, it does make something interesting and memorable out of its central character, and that is something of an achievement considering the abundance of Dracula adaptations out there.
Dracula is a milestone in British horror which remains a must-see even if it's no longer worthy of its reputation. It's unquestionably a product of its time, and possesses the same shortcoming as many Hammer productions of that era, but it still has several creepy moments and nice touches thanks to both Fisher and its cast. If nothing else, it remains a good example of low-budget horror made with a distinctly British twist.
I've spoken a lot in my reviews about how biopics have a tendency to… MoreI've spoken a lot in my reviews about how biopics have a tendency to overrearch in their narrative ambitions. Films which go from the beginning to the end of a character's life are easy to sell to studios, and they do lend themselves more easily to creating a three-minute trailer which gives everything away. But as is so often the case in Hollywood, the method that produces the greatest mainstream success is not always the best way to go about something.
The last biopic I reviewed was The Look of Love, Michael Winterbottom's shallow, flimsy and unfocussed look at the life of Soho impressario Paul Raymond. Because it was attempting to cover so much in what was clearly an eventful life, the film didn't have anything to anchor it and began to bizarrely evade its central character. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom fares a great deal better with both its central character and its subject matter, but it's still riddled with all-too familiar flaws.
It was always going to be difficult to bring Nelson Mandela's life story to the big screen. Whether you believe that he deserves his pedestal or not, he remains an iconic figure, and his recent passing has only brought his legacy into sharper focus. Indeed, the fact that Mandela passed away just before the film was released should not just be viewed in terms of convenient publicity: it is a fitting way in which to understand the intentions of the film.
There have been instances in which films based on real-life events have undergone big changes mid-production as a result of other real-life events. Zero Dark Thirty was originally going to be about the failed attempt to capture Osama Bin Laden in 2001, but Bin Laden's execution mid-way through scripting resulted in huge re-writes and a drastic shift in emphasis from failure to victory (albeit a seemingly pyrrhic one). While this is an extreme example, it's fair to assume that had Mandela been made several years after the death of its subject, it may have been a little more even-handed.
To the film's credit, it manages to be positive in its depiction of Mandela without falling too much into Hollywood caricature or the British trap of being overly respectful. There isn't the same awkward distance that there is in Gandhi, with the reputation of the character only becoming important towards the end of the story when he is released from prison. Director Justin Chadwick clearly respects Mandela as a person, but he's not sycophantic in his approach to the material, and when the uglier side comes to the fore it's a welcome intrusion.
The acid test of any biopic is the same as it is in any documentary: it must engage someone who knew nothing about the individual or their story, getting them interested in something or someone in which they had previously expressed no knowledge or interest. From that point of view, Mandela would work very well for people coming to Madiba for the very first time. It gives a good grounding of the political situation in South Africa, painting in strokes which are broad but not insultingly so, and weaving Mandela's personal motivations into the situation in which his people find themselves.
One thing that the film does get right is depicting a struggle which is bigger than our main hero. In a overly Hollywood-ised biopic or historical drama, the struggle of black South Africans would be viewed only by having Mandela as a messiah figure, as though their liberation would never have come about were it not for him. While Mandela's role was significant, the film has the guts to downplay his role when it was limited, and to show his distance from key actions of the ANC, including some of the bombings that took place.
The film is well-served by the central performance of Idris Elba. Having proven his chops in out-and-out entertainment, like Pacific Rim and Luthor on TV, he is given more room here to stretch himself as a dramatic actor. He manages the accent absolutely fine, and he's aided by a certain amount of convincing make-up as Mandela ages through his time in prison. But Elba also captures the physicality of Mandela, whether it's the energetic fist-pumping of his early ANC days or the more familiar, slower posture that he exhibited in office.
Elba is balanced very nicely by Naomie Harris as Winnie. Like her co-star, Harris is being given more dramatic room for manoeuvre after a series of solid genre roles in 28 Days Later, Miami Vice and Skyfall. She provides a more emotional counterweight to Elba's increasingly thoughful, almost mellow performance, and she avoids the obvious trap of making this emotional state solely the effect of her gender or position as a mother. It's a fine performance which gives the film credulity, even if her character isn't explored as deeply as we would like.
This brings us onto the central issue with Mandela, namely its lack of genuine depth which stems from a desire to cover everything. It deserves a certain amount of praise for wanting to address periods of Mandela's life which haven't received so much attention: we've seen how big his cell was on Robben Island, but how he passed the time there has not been so widely documented. While the intentions are admirable, the film tries to cover so much ground that it would probably work much better as a TV mini-series.
The obvious comparison is with Invictus, Clint Eastwood's film which begins more or less where this one ends, with Mandela being swept to power and South Africa's eventual triumph at the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Invictus was by no means a perfect film - it did give into sentimentality in its final third, and Elba is far more convincing as Mandela than Morgan Freeman was. But Eastwood's film had one key advantage: it was focussed. It knew what it was about, and used the microcosm of that one event as a springboard into a deeper study of a divided country.
There are whole sections of Mandela which would work really, really well if they were told through hour-long episodes rather than being compressed into two-and-a-half hours. The film could easily be segmented, with different episodes covering a key phase of Mandela's life: his early years, his early marriage to Winnie and greater involvement with the ANC, his terroristic period and sentence, his time in prison, and his eventual release. Seeing the film as it is, it feels like edited highlights of an unmade TV series, in which we get enough of a narrative outline to form an emotional bond but not enough to hold up to further enquiries.
In reality, the biopic to which Mandela is closest is The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. Both films benefitted from a hrace of good central performances, and both were admirable in their intentions regarding their complex protagonists. But in both instances, you felt like you were watching the action on fast-forward, as though the filmmakers wanted to show you more but were being constrained by the nature of their medium. Even the latter's device of Peter Sellers playing many of the other characters in his life didn't give us the insight we felt that we deserved from this kind of story.
This lack of great depth leads to niggles about the depiction of the central character. In other words, the sense that there is more to the story than meets the eye makes us suspicious that Elba's portrayal is a little rose-tinted. There's nothing wrong with being sympathetic with your protagonist, but you have to keep providing reasons beyond admiration for their goals or an underlying sense of trust. While the film never falters to such an extent that we lose interest, it's a small frustration which prevents the drama from being entirely compelling.
Put simply, the story of Nelson Mandela mirrors that of South Africa as a whole, transitioning from a mentality based upon violence, tribalism and warfare to a more peaceful, forgiving and democratic attitude. In surer hands, this film could have explored the deep cultural divides that Apartheid created, and relied less on stock footage of the West's response with the 'Free Mandela' campaigns. What could have been a great film is reduced to an average one by an emphasis of plot over substance.
Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom is an admirable failure, which serves as a useful introduction to Nelson Mandela but fails to dig deeper when it's really necessary. Chadwick directs competently and the central performances are both very good, but the film ends up spreading itself too thin by not having a narrative focal point to drive the story. As far as biopics go, you could do a hell of a lot worse, but there's still that niggling feeling that this could have been a great deal better.
Once a film franchise has established itself, other similar franchises… MoreOnce a film franchise has established itself, other similar franchises often follow it, haging on the coattails of its success and trying to cash in by appealing to the same audience. The fantasy genre has been rife with this in recent years, with the huge success of The Lord of the Rings prompting new adaptations of The Chronicles of Narnia as well as smaller works like Stardust and Eragon. Crucially, while the quality of these films varies, none of them quite come close to the series that blazed the trail.
We find ourselves in a similar situation with Percy Jackson. At the time of its release, the Harry Potter series was winding down, with Deathly Hallows Part I in production and Part II not being far behind. Its release date was clearly timed to plug the gap between Potter films, giving teenage fantasy fans something to snack on in between meals. But despite any admiration for the story's intentions and its interesting nods to Greek mythology, the Lightning Thief is ultimately mediocre.
Try as we might, there's no getting around the comparison between Percy Jackson and Harry Potter. No matter how popular the source materials may be among teenage audiences, there is a strong argument that this film would not have been made without the financial success of the Potter franchise. Whatever you may think of them, both Harry Potter and Twilight demonstrated the commercial mileage in teenage/ young adult fantasy films; their consistent commercial success resulted in the likes of Percy Jackson and The Hunger Games being brought to our screens. Without their success, Jennifer Lawrence might still be a nobody.
This comparison becomes all the more inevitable by the involvement of Chris Columbus, who directed the first two Potter films (Philosopher's Stone and Chamber of Secrets) before transitioning into a production role on Prisoner of Azkaban. While the Potter series really took off after Alfonso Cuarón took over the reins, Columbus has since failed to replicate his earlier successes, turning in embarrasing failures like Rent and I Love You, Beth Cooper. One could almost view his involvement here as a form of regret, trying to atone for what he sees as a mistake (though almost no-one else shares his view).
There's no denying that Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief comes at you with the very best intentions. However good or bad its execution, it deserves some credit for attempting a noble task, namely trying to repackage the classic Greek Myths to inspire a new generation. From this point of view the film is attempting the very same thing that Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat attempted with Sherlock, or that Kenneth Branagh was doing when he made his great Shakespeare adaptations.
In each case, the creative forces behind the projects recognise the hardy nature of the tales they are telling: the Greek Myths are as indelible and influential a force on our culture as Sherlock Holmes, Shakespeare or Count Dracula. But equally, the creative parties recognise that young people will not fall in love with these stories purely on the basis of their reputations: they have to be told these stories in a way which resonates with the world in which they find themselves. These stories are to be respected, but they have to earn that respect by being brought to life in a compelling and imaginative way.
Unfortunately, while their intentions may be similar, that is where the comparison ends as far as Percy Jackson is concerned. For all the times that Branagh has slipped up, and all the complaints I have lodged against Sherlock in recent times, Columbus has never come close to matching their talents or aspirations. He is at his most basic level a bean-counter, someone who directs with an eye on the box office rather than the storytelling, and who will purposefully compromise the finished product to avoid the wrath of fans. By attempting to cram in every last detail of the book, Chamber of Secrets ended up being overly long and frequently tedious.
There are a number of nice little touches throughout Percy Jackson which succeed in bringing elements of the Greek Myths to life. It makes perfect sense that the winged sandals of Perseus would now be winged sneakers: both reflect the agility of their central protagonist in a popular manner. It also makes sense for the Den of the Lotus Eaters to be a Las Vegas casino: both are symbols of the power of greed and the dangers of valuing material satisfation over higher virtues. These touches aren't that different from the changes made in Sherlock, retaining the nature of the source material in a way that fans will recongise.
These touches are also reflected in the film's casting. Uma Thurman is usually very wooden, but she's very well-cast as Medusa; if nothing else her lingering delivery comes across a lot better than her work as Poison Ivy in Batman & Robin. Sean Bean is the natural choice for Zeus, exuding charisma even though he doesn't have a great deal to do in the story. Steve Coogan also makes the most of Hades, though he's very much in the shadow of James Woods, who gave a memorable performance in Hercules.
The problem, however, with Percy Jackson is that these nice little touches are not always executed with enough panache. It's all very well having nods to mythology here and there, but if these nods are not combined with a compelling story, or integrated into it, then all they amount to is a pretty surface, like delicate patterns of milk on a cold cup of burnt coffee. Columbus simply isn't good enough to use these creative elements to lift the more generic aspects of the plot, resulting in a film which isn't memorable enough to stand on its own.
Much of the problem lies in the film's uninspiring CGI. Like any other kind of special effect, CGI is at its most effective when we're unable or unwilling to tell where the real world ends and the make-believe begins. If any one kind of effect is overused, it draws attention to itself and the suspension of disbelief is compromised. Percy Jackson suffers greatly from this, turning to CGI whenever the mood takes it and thereby coming across as rather cheap.
A lot of the effects in Percy Jackson are really poor. On several shots of Pierce Brosnan's centaur body, you can still see the rough brushstrokes where the CG artists finished the colouring process too quickly. Steve Coogan's transformations into Hades don't feel properly to scale, and in the museum battle the monster keeps changings size according to the demands of a given shot. There's nothing quite as horrendous here as in, say, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but errors like this really take us out of the drama.
As for the drama itself, it's rather tepid. Effects notwithstanding, the set-pieces in the film are pretty exciting and don't outstay their welcome. But the dramatic exchanges in-between are where the film retreats into generic convection and often gets bogged down. The script comes from Craig Titley, whose other credits include the first Scooby-Doo movie and episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars. In other words, he's much better at effects-laden set-pieces than character drama, and this film is crying out for more of the latter.
Much like I Love You, Beth Cooper, the main characters in Percy Jackson feel less like actual teenagers and more like outdated Hollywood stereotypes. They're far less obnoxious than their Beth Cooper counterparts, but they're still thinly written with not enough room for development. The three main players make a decent fist of their roles, and it's refreshing to have a female character whose relationship with her male counterparts isn't defined solely in terms of a potential romance. But ultimately there's nothing about Percy, Grover or Annabeth that's as memorable or entertaining as Harry, Ron and Hermione.
Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief is a disappointing and derivative blockbuster, whose admirable intentions are undone by leaden direction and lazy screenwriting. For all the little moments which successfully bring the Greek Myths to life, the film doesn't have enough dramatic energy to sustain itself, and its poor effects work against the power of its set-pieces. It's not terrible by any means, but it won't dislodge Potter from its perch any time soon.
In my review of the first Hobbit film, An Unexpected Journey, I… MoreIn my review of the first Hobbit film, An Unexpected Journey, I concluded by saying that we couldn't entirely judge it without the context of its subsequent sequels. I spent a lot of my time addressing audience expectations of the film rather than reviewing the film itself, something that I will correct when I inevitably revisit the trilogy however long after its completion next Christmas.
With The Desolation of Smaug (Desolation hereafter), we are now able to get a more accurate picture of the artistic and narrative intentions of the trilogy. The sequel to An Unexpected Journey does bring a number of improvements to the table, bringing out a little more subtext from the novel and solving some of the tonal problems. But it's still encumbered by the same narrative flaws of the first film, which the higher stakes unfortunately amplify.
On the good side, the film seems tonally a lot more sure of itself. One of the big problems with An Unexpected Journey was its flipping between the light-hearted frolics of The Hobbit itself and the darker, more serious matter gleaned from the Lord of the Rings appendices. Here, there is the underlying feeling of a gathering darkness, reflected in both the journey of the dwarfs and Gandalf's investigations of the Necromancer. The success of this latter section could also be used to justify Jackson's decision to draw on the appendices - but we shall come onto that a little later.
Through the darkening tone, the film illuminates the underlying theme of greed, which all the major characters come to embody. Bilbo's growing greed towards possession of the ring is matched by the Master's corrupt political hold on Laketown, Thorin's obsession with reclaiming Erebor, Smaug's proud hold over the dwarves' riches, and the Necromancer's business in Dol Goldur. The Middle Earth in Desolation is being gradually by self-interest in increasingly ruthless forms: its stories are driven and dominated by people who will do whatever they have to, by whatever means necessary, to obtain, increase or avoid losing what they want.
There is a political point in all of this too, illustrated by the position of the Mirkwood elves. The aloof isolationism practised by their leader Thranduil is contrasted by Tauriel's compulsion to intervene in other peoples' wars. The community is faced with a stark political choice: either they shut themselves in from the growing evil and hope to withstand it, or they actively fight against it to safeguard an unknown future.
The Lord of the Rings is often cited or described as an allegory for World War II, something which I explored in my reviews. While Tolkien did not intend for such conclusions to be drawn, there are parallels and through-lines throughout the work - for instance, regarding the two towers of Orthanc and Barad-Dûr as the twin mights of Germany and Russia, waging war on peaceful people from two sides. If we accept this logic, it is possible to view Desolation as a partial allegory for World War I; the events take place many years beforeLord of the Rings, and the Mirkwood elves' isolationism is akin to that practiced by the USA.
In addition to there being more subext, Desolation also benefits from better pacing. The first film badly dragged in a way that The Fellowship of the Ring didn't, possibly because it took a long time to adjust to Jackson's approach with weaving in the extra material. This film, by contrast, starts off very briskly and keeps the pace up all the way through. Even though it's still much too long, we aren't quite so conscious of it this time around.
As with the first film, the set-pieces in Desolation are generally very good. They do have more of a video game sensibility than their Lord of the Rings counterparts, being shot more from a first-person stance and with more unusual camera angles. But Jackson still has a knack for creating interesting character pains and deaths, something in which he has excelled since the days of Bad Taste and Brain Dead. The barrel sequence is especially fun, particularly Bombur's antics of rolling between the banks of the river while taking out a multitude of orcs.
One of the big tests of Desolation was going to be the introduction of its title character. This could have been very disappointing: notwithstanding the silliness of the Rankin Bass version, the darkness of the Lonely Mountain could have deprived us of his beauty, just as many (wrongly) held that Baz Luhrmann's editing in Moulin Rouge! deprived us of seeing the spectacular sets. But Jackson does a very good job, aided by Benedict Cumberbatch's sinister performance and wonderful delivery.
While Smaug himself may be stupendous, many of the other effects are not. Too many of the wide shots and battle sequences are obviously green-screen, in that they consist of actors running around somewhat aimlessly, looking for their marks. It's hard to say whether the increased use of green-screen was a creative decision on Jackson's part or a studio mandate to keep down the already huge budget. Either way, these scenes lack the physicality of the battles in Lord of the Rings, and the molten gold is so fake-looking that you wonder whether George Lucas has snuck onto the set.
Another big problem with Desolation is that the romance elements doesn't work. Tolkien reportedly tried towards the end of his life to rewrite key parts of his books to make the female characters more active. While the filmmakers can therefore claim to be enacting his wishes, Tauriel as a character is poorly written. Notwithstanding her political symbolism, she comes across as a Mary Sue whose dialogue often resembles fan fiction. Her relationship with Kili doesn't go anywhere, nor does it successfully convey the message about the need for closer ties between the races.
Criticisms like this all point to an underlying question: would it have been better to just give us The Hobbit, on its own, and let it be a lesser film? The Hobbit is by its very nature a weaker story than Lord of the Rings, and trying to make it closer to the latter by filling in gaps with the appendicies is good for fans but not so good for storytelling. Perhaps it would have been better to do as was originally envisioned by Jackson and Guillermo del Toro, namely to create a very different universe in one film and then bridge that universe with Lord of the Rings in another.
This point is further illustrated with the ending, which is very unsatisfying. The final climax itself is a little too long, but the film fails where The Two Towers succeeded in having an end-point of tension and catharsis. Frodo and Sam's journey had reached a point where the trials that had survived were balanced by the scale of what was still facing them, enabling the film to stand on its own. Here, the ending feels altogether arbitrary, as though Jackson had cut where Del Toro would have cut but hadn't rewritten the script around it.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a heavily flawed second instalment of a trilogy which is a shadow of its predecessor. There's still a great deal of fun to be had watching it, and it contains many improvements which should be celebrated. But all these improvements are ultimately balanced out or overshadowed by equally big flaws. One only hopes that There and Back Again will give us the ending we deserve.