When the lights go down and the digestive juices are eagerly expecting creative sustenance, Jack The Giant Slayer (2013) immediately tells you this is an impressive and exciting film by a piece of over-the-top-bombastic music that can’t possibly be sustained. If it was going to be this deafening, sorry exciting, for the next 114 minutes, our ears be worn down to the quick and that would never do. We would lack the strength to rise from our seats and go eat some monster nibbles at the nearest fast-food outlet? So the volume, pace and tempo must drop, and then duck in and out of gentle storytelling mode. So here comes the set-up. Young Jack and Princess Isabel sit in their respective low-born and high mucky-muck beds while their parents tell the story of how monks first attempted to grow the bridge between Heaven and Earth, but instead opened the door for the giants to come down the beanstalk and start eating us. Now there you have it. Hubris! It always gets people into trouble, particularly when they start deluding themselves into believing there’s a shortcut to Heaven. The moral so far is don’t go down to the woods today because giants are holding a finger-food event.
We then get one of these nice fairy story ideas that would require explanation in any other context. Needing a way to control the giants, the humans kill a giant (no mean feat), extract its heart (not so difficult once deceased) and then melt it down to make a crown for the king to wear (hmmm — giants have metallic hearts and, as an aside having no significance whatsoever, the tract for food to pass down into their stomachs is full of water and not an acid or enzymes or anything else that might consume input as food). Consequently (sic) when the king wears the crown, he can control the giants and tell them to climb back up the beanstalk. Once the last one has climbed back up, they (probably the humans working from the bottom up) cut down the beanstalk and promptly relegate all the factual aspects of the invasion to myth (in rhyme so it can be told to children). So that’s all right then. All done and dusted, as these British types say.
Ten years later (wow, time sure does pass fast in these tales), Jack (Nicholas Hoult), the daydreamer, is sent off to market to sell the horse and cart, but is distracted by a pantomime version of the fairy story and the now beautiful Isabel (Eleanor Tomlinson). Of course we have the usual palace conspiracies for Roderick (Stanley Tucci) to marry Isabel and rule the world (which plans have already led to raiding the old King’s tomb and extracting both the fatal seeds and the magic crown). Why is it, I wonder, that villains are usually called Roderick in these fantasy films? When a monk steals the seeds who else can be trusted to do everything wrong but Jack. Take the seeds to the Abbey (yes) and on the way, don’t get them wet (now that shouldn’t be so hard, should it).
At this point the Princess knows she’s in serious danger of becoming the token woman and so makes a dramatic speech claiming not to be some fragile creature. No, she wants to take responsibility, get to know the people, and set herself on the path to being a Queen. When King Brahmwell (Ian McShane), still overcome with remorse from the loss of his wife, hears this, he tells her to shut up and marry Roderick. So much for empowerment and the mediaeval feminist movement. That’s why she runs away, like any self-respecting Princess would in a fairy story. Inevitably, because that’s what the plot requires, she ends up in the tenant farm occupied by Jack — it’s dark, raining and she can’t see where she’s going. This is a bad thing because, with the roof leaking, one of the seeds is going to get wet. Obviously these are GM seeds because this specimen sure does grow fast and carry the farmhouse and the Princess up to the land where giants have been imprisoned (they’re led by General Fallon (Bill Nighy and John Kassir — it’s a big body to move around and it needs all the brains it can get). As a further aside, there must be a time distortion effect in operation because it’s the same exclusively male army of giants that were beaten the last time around. They have survived the hundreds (?) of years without any female companionship to make life worth living or perpetuate their species.
As the excitement rises to fever pitch, i.e. the music wakes us up, we meet Elmont (Ewan McGregor), the wannabe Jedi knight in charge of the rescue expedition up the beanstalk. He has his moments but lacks credibility, a fact made abundantly clear when they meet the first giant. This leaves Jack and the villain, who conveniently has the crown with him, running free in the land of the giants. Naturally, the villain uses the crown to control these poor creatures and plans to take over the world. With the first signs of true love blossoming, Jack gives the inspirational speech to the Princess. She’s not useless. She’ll make the world a better place. So then it’s divide and rule. Jack takes the Princess down the beanstalk and the Jedi knight type stays up top to kill the villain with the controlling crown. This creates a problem because when you’ve spent the first part of the film establishing the villain, it’s not good to kill him off and leave the giants as the villains when we don’t care about them. In the best fantasy films, the best villains are always the ones who are the most human. They betray and scheme, laugh when they succeed and cry when they suffer a reversal, i.e. they are credible as characters. It would have been so much better if Roderick had led the giants down to attack the kingdom. Jack could then have sneaked into the giant’s camp and killed the “old man” in a “fair fight” and taken the crown. That’s the right level of heroism for this Jack. When it comes to the ending, Jack’s got a great cart horse and he’s the saviour of the kingdom (more by luck than good judgement), relegating the Princess to the pretty one who gives birth to children and so loses her good looks.
I think the problem is that Bryan Singer and the people behind this film couldn’t make up their minds whether they wanted it to be scary or camp. The result is that it’s neither frightening in the slightest nor genuinely amusing. As a plot, it would have made a great thirty-minute episode in an animated series of fairy stories. It ticks the right boxes but it drags everything out to interminable length with poor CGI. The script is a dead weight round the necks of the high-powered cast of actors so they can’t get laughs to paper over the cracks. The giants are suitably massive and throw trees around like matchsticks (not sure how they set then on fire first), but they’re not used to frighten. Although he does kill one by accident and causes two more to die, Jack never feels like a heroic giant slayer. And just telling them all to quit making a nuisance of themselves and go home is a ho-hum ending. Sadly, Jack the Giant Slayer is just dead on arrival.
Somewhere in England, many moons ago, the powers-that-be decided the best way to make films was to borrow the concept of the repertory company from the theatre. So, as we work our way through the Ealing comedies to the Carry On films and beyond, a template for success emerged. Essentially this involves taking a small group of well-known actors, dropping them into a “situation” and watching what happens. These victims of circumstance are usually friends, often living together in the same village or part of a city. The catalyst can be anything from a cargo of whisky washing up on shore to the need for the WI to raise money for a worthy local cause. Once the characters are established and the stimulus applied, the cast twists and turns in the wind until all the loose ends have been chased down and resolved. The film ends when as much of the inherent tragedy has been dispelled and there’s enough hope to inspire the paying customers when they leave the cinema. Never let it be said that any British film carrying the label of a comedy is anything other than a pottage of misery that ends with half a smile.
So it is with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) in which director John Madden works from a screenplay by Ol Parker based on a novel by Deborah Moggach. We start off by meeting our indomitable character actors. We find Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench) two months after the death of her husband. She was married forty years, was never troubled with any decision-making and, consequently, has no way of dealing with all the debts he left behind other than by selling the flat and going somewhere cheap to live. Douglas Ainslie (Bill Nighy) is a recently retired civil servant who lost his lump sum when he invested in his daughter’s IT business. The initial scenes as he and Jean Ainslie (Penelope Wilton) look around a flat in sheltered accommodation nicely captures their despair. Murial Donnelly (Maggie Smith) was in service. She was highly competent, but when she grew old and had trained her successor, she was discarded in much the same way her employers might throw out an old washing machine. Now she needs a hip replacement and the waiting times in the UK are a minimum of six months. Graham Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) is a retiring High Court judge who wants to return to his old home in India where he left a friend forty years ago. Norman Cousins (Ronald Pickup) and Madge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie) are getting old and desperately lonely. They hope to remedy their situation by joining the others in retirement in Jaipur as the first residents of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (for the Old and Beautiful).
From the outset, we have to suspend disbelief. The hotel is run by Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel). He’s the stereotypical Wilkins Micawber, always convinced something will turn up. Unfortunately, his head is so far up into the clouds of optimism, he forgets to actually do anything to make any of his plans a success. The idea he could have advertised his hotel in England and organised the arrival of these seven guests is laughable. Equally absurd is the reaction of the magnificent seven when they discover the hotel is slightly less well-appointed than they might have thought from the Photoshopped pictures. However, we’re not to dwell on such matters. Our heroes arrive, they move in. That gets us started.
The city of Jaipur is beautifully filmed and the hotel is wonderfully dilapidated. So, with one exception, they all use it as a base. Tom Wilkinson immediately sets off in pursuit of his old friend, Bill Nighy takes to wandering round and soaking up the atmosphere. Ronald Pickup and Celia Imrie join the local social club and start searching for singles. Maggie Smith goes into hospital to have her operation, Judi Dench gets a job in a local call centre, advising on how to make telephone sales pitches to elderly people in England, and Penelope Wilton sits around the hotel in dark despair. As a local subplot, Dev Patel is in love with a girl who works at the call centre but her face does not fit into his mother’s plans for an arranged marriage. Continuing in the same order, Tom Wilkinson’s search is a mixture of fear and longing. The resolution of this thread is unexpected and affecting. Bill Nighy is a civil servant who has never managed to change a lightbulb. He’s defeated by practicality yet desperately loyal to his wife. In a way, both men are somewhat unworldly but do their best to fit in, no matter where they may find themselves (even if it means partaking of a little apple smoke). Ronald Pickup and Celia Imrie are driven by desperation. They fear dying alone but have been trying too hard to meet people and make friends. They end with varying degrees of success.
The most interesting thread is given to Maggie Smith and I find myself undecided on whether she could make the transformation we see. In England and immediately on her arrival in India, she appears to be irredeemably racist. Putting the best possible interpretation on what happens, we’re supposed to think this was born out of ignorance. Because she had never met “different” people, she instinctively feared and so refused contact with them. However, when she finally does allow herself to interact with some of the local people, she embarrasses herself into rethinking her prejudice. In a way, the result is a somewhat ironic return to her life of service. Judi Dench gives a wonderful performance as a woman relearning what it’s like to have a life. It’s a warm and, at times, amusing journey as she remembers the time she met her husband-to-be on a carousel and he put his arm around her waist to steady her on a rising and falling horse. Watching her give up the past and embrace the future is a delight. Penelope Wilton gets her way and goes back to England (and not a moment too soon). Dev Patel is also rescued from himself, so it all works out well in the end. Ah yes. Here comes the catchphrase. It does all come out well in the end. If things are not well at this moment, it can’t be the end.
So on balance, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is worth seeing. I smiled and shed a tear or two. It’s a classic ensemble British comedy so the tears won out, albeit there had to be a little finagling in the plot to get everything to end as it should. Without a little contrivance, life would be too dull.
So let me get Wrath of the Titans (2012) straight. This is about Perseus (Sam Worthington). He’s the one proudly parading in a skirt as opposed to Andromeda (Rosamund Pike) who’s the warrior Princess sporting the full-dress armour you would expect on the battlefield. It seems rather insulting to the LGBT community that men in films can confidently walk around wearing a mini (what did these ancient Greeks wear underneath their skirts?) with their swords in an erect position, whereas modern men seen in public, with or without swords, run the risk of assault and arrest (which in some countries will be the police assaulting the man in the skirt). Except in Greece itself, of course. The modern Greek army, following in the noble tradition of the Scottish regiments with their kilts (and, if we’re to believe the myths, nothing underneath) continues to celebrate heroes like Perseus when turning their soldiers out for guard duty (see below). It brings in much needed tourist revenue during this time of austerity as homophobic men from around the world come to view one of the few national armies retaining gender neutral uniforms, albeit with a female bias — will you just look at those shoes with the bobbles. Having repealed “Don’t ask, don’t tell”, President Obama will no doubt be introducing comparable uniforms to further enhance the morale of US troops, should he win the next election, of course. Anyway, the reason for this fixation with skirts is the way the CGI plays with them in this film. For example, if Perseus were to jump feet-first from a height, you would expect the force of the air whipping past his ankles to wrap the skirt around his waist, thus exposing him to criticism from the film censors. Except, no matter what our hero is doing, the skirt never outrages his modesty (see the poster above).
I begin in this way because the film itself is set at a comparable level of idiocy — on the poster, note how the hero avoids using the forked end to attack the beastie — one spike good, three spikes bad. It all starts with the polyglot approach to dialogue. In the good old days of Hollywood, there were voice coaches who would train everyone involved to approximate the same mid-Western accent. So here comes Sam Worthington with his native Australian, Rosamund Pike and Ralph Fiennes with their cut-glass English, Liam Neeson reverting to type with his Northern Irish brogue and, most hilariously of all, Bill Nighy approximating the Galápagos Islands which are just north of Huddersfield if you approach via Surrey. Ares (Édgar Ramírez), of course, is from Venezuela so he can speak with a funny accent without trying and then there’s Toby Kebbell who wins the prize for the most anonymous accent — it’s the beard that filters out the phonemes as they leave his lips.
As you will gather, Slight Disagreement Between the Gods is all about men in skirts being given silly things to do while pretending to live in the Tower of Babel. The next big truth about this epic is that all but one of the men has Daddy Issues, a term coined by Sigmund Freud to describe sons who would prefer their fathers to be elsewhere. So Helius (John Bell) is annoyed by his father Perseus who won’t let him play with his sword. Perseus is upset with his father, Zeus, because he resents having to save the world whenever Zeus messes things up. Zeus, Hades and Poseidon are upset with Cronus, their father, because he never made time for them when they were baby Gods — just to be sure you understand, Cronus was the Titan lacking in parenting skills, while Chronos was an earlier God of Time. Ares as the God of War just wants to fight with everyone including Zeus his father. Only Cronus has no Daddy Issues because he’s a product of CGI. And talking of the CGI, we get to see Cerberus, a few cyclops, some randomly thrown together nasties with lots of arms and legs, all holding swords, and the horse with wings. When he finally appears, Cronus looks like a grown-up version of Lavagirl without Sharkboy around to liven up the party. He makes all those slow-motion moves much beloved by overweight professional wrestlers who want to look silly when faster-moving, good-looking heroes stop pretending to be hurt and close in for the knockout.
I think the moment I began to feel really ill was when the pride of the ancient Greek army did that everyone-make-ape-noises-together thing that’s supposed to show group solidarity as Perseus had his Pegasus moment wheeling in the sky (the US Marine Corp apparently use the verb to “oorah” as opposed to the “hip, hip, hooray” more commonly used by the British when they want to make a sarcastic comment). If this had been part of a more general attempt to make the film amusing, I would have accepted it as one failed joke. But I think this was intended, somehow, to be serious. So there you have it, Sam Worthington, Toby Kebbell and Rosamund Pike travel to an island that doesn’t exist, go through the labyrinth where the Minotaur makes a cameo appearance, and enjoy a package tour round the Underworld where nothing stays the same until you get to the missing Daddy and the red hot Titan in the soft centre. Wrath of the Titans is completely without humour, interminably boring, and lacking anything approximating intelligence. Even the Gods die in despair — obviously, there’s no convenient Heaven for them to adjourn to when they shuffle off this immortal coil. I suppose this means it’s a blockbuster, but my money says it will sink without trace at the box office once the word-of-mouth spreads.