The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

When it’s on: Monday, 28 December (5.45 pm)
Channel: ITV2
IMDb Link

Watching The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in the cinema was a somewhat disorientating experience. As someone who loved the Lord of the Rings films, I was only going to buy the best tickets for this one and so we took it in at the IMAX, with 3D and the film’s much vaunted ‘High Frame Rate’ on exhibition. The latter element, projecting the film at 48 frames per second rather than the standard 24, produced the strange effect of the camera and characters appearing to move around at high, unnatural speeds. The aim was to make it more immersive, to show a more realistic image, and in fairness once my eyes adjusted to it I was able to forget it was there, but it made no difference in terms of anything positive. It was just queer. Cinemas were already offering audiences the choice in terms of FPS, and when I went to see the series’ subsequent entries I ignored HFR entirely. I think many people turned away from it also, despite the studio’s pig-headed determination to make it available.

Years later, with all this long in the past and the film judgeable on its own merits, how does it hold up? Without wanting to go into too much detail about it, I was seduced entirely by the LOTR films. If I remember rightly I caught each one twice in cinemas and followed with numerous further viewings on DVD, throwing in several reads of the book in order to get my fix. I was someone to whom the Hobbit movies was aimed directly, fans of Middle Earth who would want more, no matter the quality. By all accounts, the project was in pre-development hell for some time. Kingpin behind the Rings films, Peter Jackson, always had some connection with it but was mired in legal battles and for much of the time appeared to be taking on an Executive Producer’s role, with Guillermo Del Toro attached as both the writer and director. But then Del Toro quit, citing endless delays, and Jackson was on board again with his familiar production team. This made sense as the Hobbit films would take on a more continuous look and feel with the Rings entries, however though everything was in place for ‘more of the same’ there was a major question over the level of investment Jackson was willing to make. It’s well known, partly via the exhaustive appendices that come with the extended LOTR DVDs, that Jackson was as involved as he could be, that he led by example in terms of immersing himself entirely into the production. The result was a set of films that have ‘labour of love’ written right through them. Yes, they were big hitters at the box office, but the frankly insane levels of detail (down to real swords being forged for the actors, in an effort to make their performance feel that bit more ‘real’) emphasise productions that came with genuine seals of quality. Like the films or not, there’s little arguing with the sheer talent in overdrive that was behind them.

Controversies running behind the scenes suggested a tug of war between Jackson and studio interests. The main one was the decision to transform a project designed to cover two movies into three, thus stretching the contents of a children’s novel that runs for 368 pages (a shorter length than any of the three Lord of the Rings books). The logic was that this would give the production capacity to create a true set of prequels, adding plot elements that bridged the gap between both stories. And that’s there in the films, although it can equally be argued that things have been shoehorned in, such as the entire storyline that involves Thorin’s long-running feud with Azog the Defiler. Would the film be any poorer if it excised this altogether?

Of course, the main thrust is to return us to Middle Earth, beginning with an extended opening scene that spirits Martin Freeman’s Bilbo from his comfortable Hobbit Hole in Bag End and on the road to adventure. Freeman is a massive highlight in the film. According to Jackson, he was the only actor to ever be considered to the extent that the production didn’t start until he was available to commit to it. Freeman’s usual acting tropes – nervous, tending to peevishness, underlying resolve – all come to the fore here as he fully inhabits the little halfling whose creature comforts are invaded by the boorish dwarves. A lot of thought has gone into the majority of these characters also, from James Nesbitt as comic relief, Graham McTavish’s gruff warrior, to Aidan Turner and Dean O’Gorman as the laddish younger dwarves and Ken Stott’s worldly wise Balin. They’re led by Thorin (Richard Armitage), instantly noble and highly capable, though also with a sense an air of impatience and prejudice, especially against the elves, who failed to come to his aid when his mountain home was taken over by Smaug. Ian McKellen returns as Gandalf, bringing all the characteristics we loved him for in the Rings films, indeed playing like a repeat performance, mixing action moments with pep talks to Bilbo along the way that are only reminiscent to words he’s had previously/later with Frodo.

It takes quite some time to move the action away from the Shire, and that’s fine to an extent because it introduces us to the major players, establishing the dwarves as capable of cheeky fun and enjoying a song. It also lacks any of the urgency of the Rings plotline, which had to condense weighty tomes into movies that were already longer than three hours and necessitating extended editions on home formats. Here, there’s a creeping sense of bloat, of stretching Tolkein’s slim text as far as it can go, and this stays throughout the films, as little episodes are expanded into major sequences as though everyone is trying to fill in as much time as possible.

And then there’s the issue of CGI. One of the real highlights of the Rings films was the perfect mixture of digital effects and location shooting, opting to film in parts of New Zealand that had been scouted exhaustively for their suitability. Here, there’s a larger degree of green screen, never more so than during the mountain scenes. The fight and flight the dwarves undergo whilst in the halls of the Goblin King are intended to be breathtaking, but as the stunts and action grows into impossible feats done at breakneck speed, it starts taking on the shape of a platform videogame. It’s a lot of fun, but it lacks any of the heft you got in, say, the battle against the Uruk-Hai in The Fellowship of the Ring, which focused on the effort and toll of all the fighting. Whilst you can argue that it’s supposed to be a more family friendly adventure, there’s no real need to ramp up the action in the way it does, transforming dilemmas that fall within the credibility of the drama into comic book set pieces.

It again raises the question over who was pulling the strings. Jackson’s been guilty enough of overplaying his hand (King Kong, The Lovely Bones) beforehand and so it’s quite possible that he’s culpable for slapping CGI onto the screen rather than following the ‘less is more’ rule that made Rings such hits, but there’s a curious lack of care about the film that hints there was more at play. Often, too obviously often, those previous films are referenced, whether through Howard Shore’s musical cues or a gratuitous reappearance from Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel for no better excuse than because they could (she wasn’t the last of the Rings characters who wasn’t actually in the Hobbit novel to turn up in the films). Whether it’s because of a misplaced desire to please the fans or a basic lack of imagination isn’t entirely clear, but these moments look and feel like a tribute track, like there wasn’t sufficient trust in the story to play as its own entity. Either way, the bits taken directly from the book are about the best on screen. Gollum’s scene, a very famous chapter in the novel, is brilliantly done. He’s a great character and watching him here reminds us of that, but also his interplay with Bilbo – most of which is through simple dialogue and a sense of threat – works really well.

I wanted to like The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey more than I did. Around the time of its release I was amongst its defenders, because like many others I’m happy enough to watch further Middle Earth adventures. I even bought the extended cut on DVD and saw that version again for this write-up, though I’d have to point out that whereas the added material in the Rings films actually enhanced the material and inserted missing story elements, here it does nothing more than flesh out the characters, and that unnecessarily. It’s nothing like a bad film, but the one thing I can go on more than any other is the fact I watched those LOTR flicks many times and I’ve barely bothered with this one. The quality just isn’t the same. Whilst I’m aware that sequels are nothing new within the movie industry, the craze for reboots, updates and (bizarrely) prequels is becoming more and more prevalent. Some of this year’s biggest box office hits were titles that either returned us to well trodden places (Jurassic World, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), gave us more of the same (Avengers: Age of Ultron, Furious 7) or rehashed familiar tales (Pan, Mad Max: Fury Road). I’m not trying to say all these films are terrible; that just isn’t true. But the lack of imagination is staggering, the attempts by certain titles, like Tomorrowland, to do something original have no hope due to the recycling and endless spin of marketing. I find myself believing that this film is as guilty of that as anything, a rather naked attempt to get our bums squarely back into cinema seats because, oh look, it’s another Middle Earth flick. And it isn’t the same. The heart that went into Lord of the Rings is absent and the result, several years down the line, is a product about which I care little.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: ***

The Mummy Returns (2001)

When it’s on: Sunday, 28 December (2.50 pm)
Channel: ITV2
IMDb Link

Stephen Sommers’s 1999 update of The Mummy reimagined Universal’s classic monster movie from 67 years earlier as an action adventure, more in the style of an Indiana Jones romp than the sombre horror fable starring Boris Karloff. Whilst not an especially good film, it was fun, action packed, featured two cheerful leads in Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz, and made a ton of money for its studio. This writer had a shameless blast watching it, as opposed to the overall sense of disappointment that came with Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace, which was out in the UK a month later.

A sequel was inevitable, and arrived in 2001 with The Mummy Returns, assembling the original cast and introducing a new villain in the shape of the Scorpion King, played by Dwayne Johnson, who was better known then as professional wrestler, The Rock. The concern with following The Mummy was that it had been a self-contained story. Weisz’s character, Evie, was an adorable and scatty librarian whose plotline pretty much ended with her happy-ever-after marriage to Rick (Fraser). The mummy, Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo), was dead (again), his dreams of reuniting with lost love, Anck-Su-Namun (Patricia Velasquez) forever thwarted. To create grounds for a follow-up, Sommers – who was responsible for its screenplay – needed to expand the legend, and so Evie was reimagined as the reincarnation of the Pharoah’s daughter, a witness to his slaying at Imhotep’s hands. Rick was now some sort of earthly champion, and to add to the fun they had a precocious eight year old son, Alex (Freddie Boath). The plot followed their unearthing of evidence about the long lost Scorpion King, a legendary warrior who sold his soul to Anubis in order to lead an undead army against the ancient Kingdom of Egypt. In the meantime, dark forces led by the similarly reincarnated – sigh – Anck-Su-Namun sought to revive Imhotep (again)…

More expensive than The Mummy and relying heavily on CGI effects, a constant feature of Sommers’s big budget movies, it’s a lightweight affair with the plot serving only to string the action sequences together. As a film made during an earlier age of computer generated effects, it looks increasingly dated, never more so than when the Scorpion King makes his appearance, now completely digitalised and looking for all the world like a cartoon character has stumbled onto a live action set. Rightly, it’s been criticised as a dismal use of CGI, but the King is only the tip of an iceberg, computers spitting out armies of doglike warriors that stretch across the entire screen and yet without any weight because they are not well rendered and you just know they aren’t really there.

Much of what made the 1999 ‘original’ such an enjoyable watch has been lost, most importantly the chemistry between Weisz and Fraser, two likeable characters who had chemistry and sparked in their scenes together. Little of that remains, given up for endless action scenes and efforts to rush the film along to the next set piece. Weisz’s bookish character colliding with Fraser channelling Harrison Ford propelled The Mummy, but that’s all gone as both have been invested with new ‘special’ powers just to make the narrative tick. Watching it is a little bit like playing a Tomb Raider game, clicking through the cinematic linking sequences to dive straight into the next raid.

It’s not entirely bad. Boath belies just about every terrible child actor by emerging as pretty good fun, particularly when he gets an opportunity to be cheeky to Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s imposing captor, which he does with relish. John Hannah returns as Evie’s useless brother, basically inserted into the story to add comic buffonery, and gives the film some much needed relief from the chases and special effects.

More of these light touches and attempts at characterisation might have made The Mummy Returns a better film. The aim, however, appears to be to fill every moment on the screen with action, to such an extent that it becomes tiresome. Most moments feature CGI effects, shot after shot of some undead thing hollering at one of the heroes, and it’s the kind of picture where even a cloud or tidal wave transmorphs into the face of an antagonist, as though Sommers could not resist that one extra step beyond reality. Alan Silvestri’s score plays furiously throughout, competing for attention with the never ending action and getting lost amidst the mess of stuff slapped onto the screen.

The Mummy Returns: **

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

When it’s on: Saturday, 20 December (8.00 pm)
Channel: ITV2
IMDb Link

I’ve watched Tomorrow Never Dies three times – once upon release, second when I bought it on DVD and finally for the purposes of this write-up. Three viewings is a healthy total for most films, but not for Bond, many of whose entries I’ve seen on numerous occasions.

It took me a little while to work out just what the problem was. After all, Tomorrow Never Dies ticks most of the boxes – a charismatic lead, really strong heroine, a decent plot that presents media moguls as villains (and not before time if you ask me), some fantastic action scenes, topped off with a blistering chase across the rooftops of downtown Saigon.

But then it hit me – Tomorrow Never Dies is nothing if not safe. It’s made as though by committee, working on the findings of endless focus groups all tasked with discovering what people want from their 007 adventures. Set piece stunts – yes. Gadgets – indeed. How about, oh I don’t know, a car that can turn invisible? Well, that’s a real stretch, maybe for a future film, but can we suggest a car driven by remote control instead? There’s an evil henchman, but he doesn’t do very much until the film’s closing stages and only then because Bond has to see off someone beyond the usual string of foot soldiers.

It’s all a bit of a shame, because Goldeneye promised so much in terms of reviving the franchise after the post-Dalton wilderness years. In Pierce Brosnan, they seem to have stumbled upon the ideal man for the job – handsome, suave, one of the few actors who continued to look the part in beautifully tailored suits, old enough to have Connery levels of authority yet not too long in the tooth to fall into the trap of the later Moore entries. He made it look so effortless, as though he wasn’t even acting but had in fact become James Bond, and in Goldeneye that was a real strength as he needed to convince audiences there was still life in the old Saville Row. One of the main accusations against the series, that Bond had become something of a misogynistic relic in these politically correct times, was turned into a strength as Brosnan was matched with Judi Dench as an M who was licensed to take no nonsense.

Looking back, however, one wonders how much of Goldeneye’s success was down to the superb performance by Sean Bean as the film’s villain. Bean played a former British agent who’d turned rogue and offered up the perfect mirror to Bond’s hero, with all the emotional fallout such a character suggested. In Tomorrow Never Dies, we get Jonathan Pryce as a psychotic media baron, creating international diplomatic crises in order to get the news scoop and full coverage. Pryce, made up to look like a slightly unhinged Sven-Goran Eriksson, has very little to work with and seems to be on hand solely to give the film a villain, no matter how two dimensional he may turn out to be. Again a pity, as Pryce is a fine actor, his schemes have diabolical potential, and the chance to turn Rupert Murdoch into a megalomaniac mastermind should have turned into a real crowd pleaser. Instead, his threat is dealt with all too quickly.

There’s even less screen time for Teri Hatcher, playing Pryce’s wife and having a history with Bond that is used to gain our man information and access. Once that’s done and her part in the plot is over, she’s out. Instead, the main Bond girl is Michelle Yeoh’s Chinese agent, Wai Lin, kind of their version of Bond himself, and she turns into one of Tomorrow Never Die’s genuine highlights. Already a star in Eastern cinema and making her breakthrough here, Yeoh is a fantastic action hero, every inch 007’s equal and far more graceful with her Karate fighting techniques that make Brosnan’s fist-first style look a little lumbering in comparison. Both are involved in the film’s best scene, a chase in Saigon that involves Bond and Wai Lin pursued by cars and a helicopter whilst on a motorbike. Handcuffed together, Yeoh continually has to maneuver herself around Brosnan as the action demands, making for great fun and increasing levels of electric tension between the pair.

Perhaps the real problem with it is Brosnan himself. He makes it appear easy to be Bond, to such an extent that he more or less floats through the production, fired at with endless bullets but never hit. Obvious it becomes that he will never be hurt, damaged, cracked or spilled on any level, a far cry from Goldeneye’s story that pitted him against someone who was just like him, in many ways facing himself. It’s no fault of the actor, but Brosnan has to make minimal investment with a hair rarely out of place.

Canadian director Roger Spottiswoode at least keeps everything moving at such a pace that it’s possible to get swept along without worrying about the paper-thin plotting and weak characterisation. Fans of poor CGI will be satisfied with some rather terrible special effects (the miniature work is noticeably better). There’s a string of cameo appearances from British actors – playing cut-glass accented seamen or government officials – to savour, unless you blink and miss them – Gerard Butler, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Michael Byrne and Hugh Bonneville all pop up fleetingly on the screen.

Tomorrow Never Dies: **

Batman and Robin (1997)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 31 July (10.00 pm)
Channel: ITV2
IMDb Link

Reading over yesterday’s Legend review, it seems I might have been a little harsh on it, especially compared with today’s offering, the universally panned Batman and Robin. Let’s be honest, Ridley Scott’s fantasy flick might be light in certain areas, but there’s still the painterly compositions and technical confection to admire, whilst  the 1997 Batman entry is an outright train wreck.

Try as I might, during my third viewing of it (three too many!) I jotted down the things I liked about the film in order to write a balanced critique, but it’s a short list indeed. I like the subplot concerning Albert (Michael Gough) steadily succumbing to a terminal illness, the fictional MacGregor’s Syndrome, which forces Bruce Wayne (George Clooney) to re-evaluate his relationship with the man who raised him. Some of Gotham’s architecture is cool, now overblown to ridiculous proportions and yet beautifully realised. Where else would you find immense Gothic statues, which support bridges or hold the city’s observatory in outstretched arms? Quite lovely.

The rest is dire, and the strange thing is it’s a picture that cost $125-140 million to make, all vomited on gaudy tripe that doesn’t entertain so much as make its viewers suffer. I could understand if it was a cheap as chips rip-off sequel that traded on its name and the goodwill of audiences, as in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, which at least had poor Christopher Reeve doing his best to hold it together. But serious amounts of Warner Brothers’ money was plugged into Batman and Robin. It seems incredible to think that such a stinker was permitted to continue. Director Joel Schumacher might have blamed the studio’s decision to fast-track a sequel following the success of 1995’s Batman Forever, suggesting he didn’t have time to come up with anything better and simply worked on a fun movie that carried the spirit of the 1960s TV series, but as excuses go it’s a load of bollocks. I’ve never walked out of a cinema, possibly at times from a northern, obdurate feeling of ‘I’ve paid for this and I’m getting my money’s worth!’ but this is the closest I ever got to leaving my seat in defeat and despair.

It’s difficult to know where to start, but let’s begin with the all-star cast, expensively assembled and wasted entirely. Arnold Schwarzenegger was paid $25 million to don a skullcap, be coated in silver paint and trot out an endless succession of ice-related puns. Further punnage comes from Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy, intended to channel the sexiness of Michelle Pfieffer’s Catwoman from Batman Returns but drowning it in a weird Mae West voice and unbearable hamming. Val Kilmer signed up for the slightly less execrable The Saint and subsequently had a lucky escape, so rising star Clooney was cast as Batman. It soon becomes clear that pretty much anybody could have played him. With none of his natural charm or ability called upon, Clooney is lost as the heroic lead and has to suffer the indignity of Schumacher’s posterior clad in black rubber close-up. Chris O’Donnell is as irritating as he was in the previous film, whilst Alicia Silverstone insults every viewers’ intelligence with her claims of studying at the Oxbridge Academy. The what?

The dark atmosphere of the Tim Burton Batman films might seem less so in the wake of Christopher Nolan’s vision, but in the hands of Schumacher it’s completely thrown out. The entire two hour stretch is a ‘Look at me!’ of bright colours and product placement. And there’s no point to any of it, from the neon lit shell that hatches to reveal Robin’s motorbike to the Halloween costumed thugs Poison Ivy comes across and who then vanish for no reason at all. The action scenes come thick and fast, but they’re actually predictable and boring. Mr Freeze’s (Schwarzenegger) henchmen are an inexhaustible supply of punch bags for our heroes. The film replaces ‘BAM!’ labels as Batman twats yet another useless baddie with comic sound effects and Elliott Goldenthal’s idiotic and annoying score, which is never switched off.

The show’s loud, ugly in its riot of colours, lights and clichés. Arkham Asylum is depicted as a 600-foot high fortress around which it’s perpetually raging with thunder and lightning. At one point, Mr Freeze skydives from his rocket ship from a height of 30,000 feet. Batman and Robin give chase, defying any layman’s knowledge of physics by surfing on escape hatches and somehow catching up with him, despite his minute-long head start. Batman and Robin is crammed with moments like these, ignoring the most basic logic and expecting us to forgive it again and again because, well, it’s just a bit of fun. No it isn’t. I don’t expect Inception levels of intelligence when I watch a blockbuster, but I like my films to make sense, not to insult me at every turn. As a final two-fingered salute, its effort to stuff as much product placement into its running time as it can is quite sickening, the only saving grace being the aggrandisement all those advertising executives must have felt by allowing their goods to be associated with this stinker. I hope it didn’t sell many spin-off action figures either. The characters in the film carry on exactly as they would if manipulated by little kids, only their dialogue would probably have been better than the bilge contained in Akiva Goldsman’s script.

By all accounts, Warner Brothers were ready to back another Schumacher Batman film, until the critical backlash and lukewarm box office made the studio think again. It would be another eight years before the character returned to the screen, in a film that reinvented him and consigned Batman and Robin to a terrible footnote and cautionary tale in the canon of superhero flicks. It received the most Razzie nominations in the history of the Golden Raspberries, and was only saved from worse than the single award (for Silverstone) by the presence of The Postman on its lists.

Batman and Robin

Alexander (2004)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 12 June (11.00 pm)
Channel: ITV2
IMDb Link

There are a couple of flawed instances of epic cinema made in the wake of Gladiator on TV this week. As a lover of this sort of stuff, I’m going to tackle Kingdom of Heaven in time for its Friday screening, but tonight we get Alexander, Oliver Stone’s white elephant from 2004. It cost a truly epic $155m to make, just about clawed back its production costs thanks to the overseas market and remains one of the director’s most derided works.

Stone never appeared to get over the unfavourable reception for Alexander. Like Count von Schlieffen’s infamous plan, he tinkered with it relentlessly, releasing a director’s cut on DVD that basically reordered the theatrical version, later putting out an extended edition that threw in the kitchen sink. Whatever he did, nothing seemed to work, perhaps because, as in the grand German scheme to win a European war on two fronts, it was fatally flawed in the first place.

There’s no doubt Alexander the Great’s adventures deserve a treatment on the big screen. Stone wasn’t the first to tackle the subject. The trouble is that, even with a space of three hours there’s just too much to fit in. A story like his ought to be told over a series of films, perhaps splitting it into the early years, the conquest of Persia and finally the eastern expedition. Alexander was clearly someone who could do in a day what it took most people a month to accomplish, and then there’s his background, his family, the rise of Macedonia and its control of the Greek city states under his father, Philip. There are many themes to explore, event upon event to recount and the whole context of Alexander the Great within the sweep of world history to be covered. Given all this, Stone’s film could do little more than pick and mix from Alexander’s story to produce an incomplete picture. We’re introduced to situations and characters, the latter often played by the most iconic actors available, only to be whisked off onto some other tangent and leaving confused viewers to catch up. My favourite part of the tale is the cutting of the Gordian Knot and the heavy symbolism it implied, but this is excised from the film entirely.

In the meantime, Stone tries to have his cake and eat it, ensuring we know that Alexander is gay, or at least bisexual, yet making his relationship with Hephaistion quite chaste and inoffensive. Maybe he wasn’t allowed to show anything stronger than brotherly embraces and longing looks, especially when sitting on such a hefty budget, but my feeling is that if you’re going to make a historical film that promises a realistic, warts and all perspective, then the worst thing you can do is cop out just to spare the feelings of a demographic. To make matters worse, the male object of Alexander’s affections is played by Jared Leto, certainly a beautiful man yet reduced to a mumbling whisper. Stone proffers Irish accents on the Macedonians to emphasise their lowly background compared with the rest of Greece, and while a powerful and effective move it doesn’t favour actors who can’t master the brogue, like Leto.

Alexander himself is taken on by that most Irish of actors, Colin Farrell. Criticised for  being made to ‘blonde up’ he’s actually rather good in the part, not so famous that the film becomes a showcase for his talents but capable of standing tall in such a big production. Val Kilmer plays Philip and nearly runs away with the show, fortunately being assassinated before he can overshadow his son entirely. In a more bizarre casting decision, Angelina Jolie gets the part of Alexandra’s mother, Olympias, sporting a thick Slavic accent (her character is from a region that became modern day Croatia) and cavorting with snakes. The effect is to depict the ambitious Olympias as some kind of Gorgon, in the broadest sense, but it’s a muddled image because Jolie is just too glamorous to make it work. She’s fine in the scenes with Alexander as a child, but when she’s arguing with Farrell later, both going for the full Oedipal effect, the single year’s difference in the actors’ ages makes it look altogether weird.

A further irritation with any Stone movie is his tendency to use imagery so obvious that he might as well appear on the screen in key scenes to explain what he’s trying to pull off. Sometimes, these moments are surprisingly effective – Attulus (Nick Dunning, who’d enjoy the same scenery chewing role in The Tudors) is boasting about his family’s rise in the Macedonian court, and then he fixes Alexander with a look of such open hate that it’s clear our hero’s paranoia is picturing the meaning behind the words. At others, it’s awful. The eagle that glides above Alexander’s route east, only to vanish once he’s advanced too far, is based on his legend, but it’s a point hammered relentlessly. Various things Alexander says and does cuts to shots of Philip’s wall paintings of Greek mythology in order to ram home the comparison. The camera uses a red filter in depicting one battle that’s turned into a field of slaughter. Alexander makes a decision that goes down well with his men and sees, for an instant, his dead father looking on approvingly. Yuck!

But then, Alexander isn’t a complete mess. I confess to having watched it more times than the film probably warrants, once using a day off to see it at the cinema (incidentally, it’s the last time I remember the pleasure of an intermission) and viewing the Director’s Cut DVD periodically. Perhaps it’s because beneath the sludge, there’s something a bit special that got lost amidst the swathes of story flitting almost randomly from one moment in Alexander’s life to another so even the most attentive viewers become disorientated and, worse still, are forced to fill in bits of the saga for themselves.

The recreation of the Battle of Gaugamela – in reality, just one in a string of battles won by Macedonia over the Persian Empire – is incredibly well done. Not only does it depict much of what really happened on the field, it plays perfectly into Stone’s quick cutting hands; all the smoke, cries, stench of gore and confusion are present and correct on the screen. It also features the best of Vangelis’s music, which elsewhere is as overwrought as the melodrama it’s scoring. Stone uses his ’15’ certificate to full effect in depicting severed limbs and speared torsos – even now, the damage done by Darius’s chariot wheels makes me wince.

There’s also a noble attempt to screen the moment the army revolted on the banks of the Hyphasis River in India, Rory McCann getting the actual lines spoken by Alexander’s general, Craterus, as recorded by Roman historians. The widening gulf between the King and his forces is traced cleverly as Alexander abandons his Macedonian roots to take on the trappings of as Persian oligarch. And then there’s the use of that enormous budget. In places, it’s quite possible to see where all the money went – Alexander is a fabulous looking piece of work in terms of set design and costumes, and the shot of Babylon’s fabled Hanging Gardens is gorgeous.

Is it enough? Sadly not. Like Robert Rossen’s 1956 effort, which starred Richard Burton as the Great one, it’s too wide a canvas. Too much is going on behind the scenes. Stone may very well have chosen the best moments in Alexander’s life to commit to celluloid, but his is far from a complete picture and the weight of detail absent from the script is unforgivable. The director tries to get around it by having an aged Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) narrate the events of Alexander’s life, but like the ramblings of an old man his tale is all over the place and tends toward a pat summary that does nothing to satisfy. The film’s tagline is Fortune Favours the Bold; sadly it doesn’t on this occasion. Fans of the story may wish instead to check out Michael Wood’s In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great, the TV historian’s epic 1997 journey into Asia that covers just about everything and does a far better job of explaining the man.

Alexander: **

Pale Rider (1985)

When it’s on: Monday, 11 June (9.00 pm)
Channel: ITV4
IMDb Link

The first thing I noticed about Pale Rider is the absolute masterly editing of its opening scenes. As the peaceful north Californian gold mining camp goes about its daily business, the action cuts to a bunch of riders. The quiet and harmony of the village clashes with the horsemen’s noise, and as the latter approach the cutting quickens, signalling them getting closer and closer. Eventually they arrive and, as the editing suggests, they’re here for no good, shooting animals and causing mayhem, the camera jerking about as it tries to keep up with the action and almost picking out the shootists’ prey by focusing on a cow or a dog before it’s gunned down. It’s a thrilling opening, nearly bettered when Megan (Sydney Penny) buries the dog they’ve murdered, saying a prayer but breaking up the verses by pleading for a saviour.

That saviour is, of course, Clint Eastwood. He’s like Shane, only more mysterious, dressing like a preacher – indeed known only as ‘Preacher’ throughout the film – but clearly more than a simple man of god. Clues to his identity are offered, but Eastwood never makes it explicit. He may be a good man in a bad world, who just happens to show up at the right time to save the little community from Coy LaHood’s (Richard Dysart) roughs. But then there’s the bullet wounds in his back, the fact Marshall Stockburn (John Russell) has an inkling of who he really is. The implication is that Preacher is some kind of avenging angel, perhaps that Stockburn killed him some time in the past and now he’s returned to exact his bloody revenge.

This sense of mystery elevates what might otherwise be a reasonably straightforward Western. It’s a tale that’s been told various times, though never perhaps with the sense of style shown here. Pale Rider is set in a place on the edge – of the New World, of civilisation, of modernity. The prospectors’ dwelling is nobody’s idea of paradise. Only the sense of community and friendship links them, though the pickings are thin – the gold emerging with Preacher’s arrival (make of that what you will) – and their little houses are dark and spartan. The town of LaHood is little better, a one-street set-up that has all the welcome of a morgue. Even LaHood’s own prospecting concern, running on a larger scale and making use of industrial jets of water, has no sense of invitation. It’s a bleak world, with snow and hooded mountains closing in that makes it grimmer still. Preacher seems utterly at home, though it’s prospector Hull Barrett (Michael Moriarty) who wants to settle, hopefully taking with him Sarah Wheeler (Cathie Snodgress) and her daughter Megan.

It’s only at the end, as Preacher rides off and Megan shouts after him (shades of Shane’s Joey) that we realise how little time Eastwood has featured in the film. The focus is on Hull and the prospectors, and it’s they who shift the emphasis onto their saviour. Crucially, Preacher never asks for any reward – is vengeance all he wants, or is it enough for him to help those in need? Bits of the film – a woman reading from the Book of Revelations as he rides past… his ability to vanish from a scene where he was sitting just one moment before… his attempts to negotiate a deal with LaHood before the violence begins – muddy the waters, and whilst I’ve watched Pale Rider several times beforehand I am no closer to finding the rub.

Eastwood’s previous entry to the genre was The Outlaw Josey Wales, made almost a decade earlier, and it would be a further seven years before he returned with Unforgiven. Clearly someone who picked his Western projects with care, Clint also lavished attention when making them. The detail in Pale Rider is incredible, the photography magnificent. Its release came at a time when the Western was considered to have long since had its day in the sun, and there’s a sense of the world in Pale Rider on its last legs, the slow, steady encroachment of LaHood’s mining empire on to the more traditional set-up belonging to the prospectors. In helping the little people, it’s impossible to shake off the feeling that Preacher was putting off the inevitable.

Pale Rider: ****

Every Which Way but Loose (1978)

When it’s on: Thursday, 24 May (7.45 pm)
Channel: ITV2
IMDb Link

Working through the massive Clint boxset, I get the impression there was a point in the 1970s when Mr Eastwood more or less stopped trying. Secure as a box office draw and satisfied with giving the public what they wanted, his films started getting complacent and unadventurous. Perhaps the malaise started with The Gauntlet, which I quite liked in a sheer dumb way, though its biggest service was to the bullet-production industry. But then you come across something like Every Which Way but Loose, a sort of comedy road movie action adventure and it feels like the bottom of the barrel was within touching distance.

Ill advisedly eschewing his tough guy films for something altogether lighter, Clint (who played essentially the same character as usual) and Every Which Way but Loose enjoyed enormous success at the box office, ensuring a sequel – the tired Any Which Way you Can – and a potential foray into the kind of niche cinema dominated by Burt Reynolds. The story, a rambling affair if ever there was one, involves trucker and bare-knuckle boxer, Philo Beddoe (Eastwood) journeying from California to Denver in pursuit of the woman he loves (Sondra Locke). With him goes his friend, Orville (Geoffrey Lewis) and orang-utan, Clyde, who he once won in a wager. After him travel a raft of people he’s pissed off – a bunch of Nazi Hell’s Angels bikers, a pair of cops – who are all bent on vengeance.

The film’s dated quite severely, partly because bits of it have been copied over and over, also due to the number of impossible things that happen simply to move the action along. Philo quickly emerges as unbeatable, and I guess we are supposed to be on the side of this easy-going man with simple desires. But then how do you empathise with anyone who starts a bar-fight over a bowl of peanuts, especially when it’s clear he’ll win, which suggests a less than salacious hint of bullying? Then there’s the Locke character. Clint’s real-life squeeze plays a Country and Western singer (the film’s soundtrack is basically a compilation of C&W *shudder*) who first beds Philo and then runs away. This prompts the bulk of the story, but there’s so little about her that’s likeable and worth chasing that you wonder why he bothers. Talking of bothering, why people take the time to pursue Philo across the States is anyone’s guess.

That said, there are places where it’s a lot of fun. The film’s main charms are Lewis, who riffs off Eastwood to splendid effect, and Ruth Gordon as his foul-tempered mother. And then there’s Clyde, who Clint claimed was one of the most natural actors he ever worked with. The mutual affection between the trio is quite winning and Clyde emerges as a star. He’s especially good value in this rather than the sequel, where his role was expanded in line with audience appreciation and led to some scenes that pushed the boundaries of taste. Manis, the orang-utan who played Clyde, had a natural gift for comic timing, dutifully collapsing to the floor when Philo finger-shot him.

It’s either great screwball fare that takes itself decidedly non-seriously, or a bit of a bloated mess that carries thirty minutes of excess baggage. Perhaps somewhere in between. James Fargo, who directed Eastwood previously on The Enforcer, did a fine job of suggesting that, at some point, Jeremy Joe Kronsberg’s script was thrown out of the window and the plot simply freewheeled it to the pass. This sometimes works. The random picking up of Echo (Beverley D’Angelo) along the way adds a cute character to the team, a love interest for Orville and an all round better egg than Locke’s rather nasty piece of work. In too many places it doesn’t, most pointedly in the bikers’ scenes; the ‘Black Widows’ are in the film for comic relief and almost elicit sympathy as an obvious bunch of losers who can’t even defeat Philo when they’re massed against him.

Every Which Way but Loose: **

I am Legend (2007)

When it’s on: Thursday, 17 May (10.00 pm)
Channel: ITV2
IMDb Link

The first half of I am Legend is brilliant, the first ten minutes especially so. I’ve always thought CGI is best used with static objects, where it can produce wonderful results, and it’s deployed to great effect here in recreating New York as a dead city, devoid of people. Flora is creeping back onto the Manhattan streets. Brooklyn Bridge is a collapsed ruin. Wild animals run and hunt along the empty boulevards. There’s no one… no one that is but Robert Neville (Will Smith), who spends the daylight hours cruising the roads at the sort of top speed never seen outside Grand Theft Auto. It’s three years since the events that led to this state of affairs. Neville believes he’s the last man on earth. He leaves messages on all radio frequencies. They aren’t returned. He practises his golf off the wing of a fighter plane that nobody will ever sit in. The sound of glass shattering in the distance should be satisfying, but there’s no one with whom to share the moment.

Smith’s great as Neville. Considering for much of the film, he’s the only human actor on the screen, he makes a demanding role look effortless. The cloying loneliness his character ought to be feeling appears natural, and it comes out in delightful, unexpected moments, as in the conversations he holds with mannequins that he’s arranged in a DVD store, or the way he talks to his German Shepherd, Sam, like there’s a real two-way dialogue. These bits are so good that once the actual tension in the story arrives, it’s almost disappointing.

And sadly, this is where it starts to fall apart. Neville isn’t alone in the city. There’s a reason for him barring the doors and windows at dusk and sleeping with a gun. Far from being empty, New York is home to mutant monsters, victims of the plague that has wiped out most of the people. Only able to come out at night, there’s nothing other than rage within them. Neville’s a scientist. He doesn’t know why he’s immune, but he spends time testing out various cures based on his own blood. Our first meeting with the ‘Infected’ is powerful stuff. Sam runs after a deer into a disused building and Neville has little choice but to follow. He knows what might lurk in the dark recesses within, and sure enough he comes across a nest of the creatures. They’re ‘asleep’ and he has to back away without making a sound.

The ‘Infected’ are fine when they’re viewed in shadow or the things howling in the night outside Neville’s fortified townhouse. It’s when we get to see them properly, in their full CGI glory, and it sucks because the downside of computer generated imagery is things that move and need to look like they’re alive. By all accounts, the producers did an exhaustive series of tests before giving up on actors wearing make-up and prosthetics and opting, disappointingly, for creations with no weight whatsoever.

Fans of the Richard Matheson novel upon which this film is based are likely to feel ill served also. The book can’t be recommended highly enough (I personally love the audiobook, read with suitable atmosphere by Robertson Dean), particularly because it carries such a satisfying twist in the tale that the entire concept of ‘legend’ is turned on its head. 1964’s American-Italian adaptation, The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price and made on a tight budget, is a lot more faithful to the source material. The 2007 film fails to trust Matheson’s concept, instead going for a shirked second half in which Neville indeed finds a cure, along with a woman (Alice Braga) who turns up at the optimal moment wittering about a survivors’ camp. The build-up to the finish drops the natural suspense in favour of action, for no very good reason. But it could have been even worse. There’s an alternative ending available on certain DVD editions (not mine; I went for pure vanilla) that offers a more feelgood conclusion. It would have made even less sense and turned the Copout-o-meter up to 11. As it is, the bleak philosophical climax served up by Matheson is entirely jettisoned, and for what?

I am Legend: **

Gremlins (1984)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 1 May (10.00 pm)
Channel: ITV2
IMDb Link

True story. Gremlins was the first film that I went to the cinema to see whilst underage. I was 12 when it was released in the UK, three years too young to stomach its scenes of horror, according to the censors. Around school, the film’s reputation gained something of an ‘urban myth’ status, spread by those old enough to have seen it or others my own age – grrrr! – with parents who’d turned a blind eye. The 15 certificate issued to it (at the time, Britain had no comparison for the bridging PG-13 certificate in America) seemed at odds with its marketing. Gremlins was hyped as a family film, with accompanying toys, sticker albums and so on, which meant I knew almost everything that happened before I broke the law, took on a life of crime, wore the most mature clothes I could find and caught it for myself.

Years later and with Gremlins firmly rooted in its 1980s setting, it’s possible to come across afternoon screenings on the television. These are heavily cut, of course, but not so much that the entire story remains intact. Also in place is the daftness of the ‘three rules’ mythology underpinning the film’s narrative. Even back in my pre-teen guise, I found this hard to stomach. So you can’t feed them after midnight? And when does that particular rule lapse? Never get them wet? Does snow count? Who makes these things up?

Naturally, these rules were established precisely so they could be broken, and they are, to gloriously disastrous effect. Gizmo, the cute, animatronic puppet Mogwai, is taken to the sort of identikit American suburb that appears in any film Steven Spielberg has a hand in and, before too long, has a glass of water spilled upon him. This results in the almost instant spawning of several more creatures. Because Gizmo’s a good guy, he realises the dire consequences of this and, sure enough, none of the new Mogwai are as well-intentioned. Eventually they get their post-midnight snacks, transforming them into mischievous, reptilian gremlins. Mayhem ensues.

The film’s origins lie in the invention of ‘gremlins’ as a jokey explanation for mechanical failures, a ‘gremlin in the works.’ By chance, the year before Gremlins was released, a segment of Twilight Zone: the Movie rehashed 1963’s Nightmare at 20,000 Feet story, with its yarn about a plane passenger who spots a gremlin dicking about with the wing. Joe Dante, who directed another segment of the film, was hired by Spielberg (who stayed on as Executive Producer) to helm Gremlins. With his own background in horror films, Dante was a fine choice, especially as he’d previously been responsible for the blackly comic Piranha. It’s this sensibility he brought to the material here. Also hired was Jerry Goldsmith, who’d composed the score for Twilight Zone: the Movie, and whose violin-heavy refrains perfectly captured the madness.

Gremlins is scheduled a little clumsily, considering it is, at heart, a Christmas movie. Gizmo is purchased as a Christmas present, and in one of the film’s most affecting scenes, a character explains her hate for the season. Its appearance during the perpetual joke that is British Summertime doesn’t really matter, of course, though given the saccharine nature of most Christmas flicks it is at least one with considerable bite.

Gremlins: ***

Total Recall (1990)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 24 April 2012 (10.00 pm)
Channel: ITV2
IMDb Link

There’s a new version of Total Recall out in August; I caught the trailer for it at the weekend. The good things I spotted were some cracking digital effects, and what looks to be a great cast, including Colin Farrell in the lead role. I might not always like his film choices, but I find Farrell a riveting actor and hope he can bring some of the tension from his turn in Phone Booth to bear here.

Still, it begs the question – do we really need this? Are remakes of old ‘classics’ ever worth the bother? Metacritic.com compiled a list of the ten best reviewed remakes since 2000, the list includes True Grit, the Coens’s update of which was good but so was the 1969 version, and Let Me In, Hammer’s fine English language version of a Swedish original that could hardly be bettered. In fact, from their list, only Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven really stands out as the edition you would definitively choose to see. The rule therefore should be that if you are going to remake something, ensure the original was rubbish. Of the worst incidentally, my mind turns to the horror genre, and all those putrid ‘updates’ from the last decade or so, the likes of The Haunting, The Omen and The Fog that lose all the charm of their originals and ignores everything that made them good in the first place.

Back to Recall and the worry, based on the trailer, that the 2012 version seems to be a wholesale retread of Paul Verhoeven’s 1989 version, which suggests all we’re getting for our buck is state of the art special effects. This aspect of the film screened today is inevitably the one that’s dated the most. I remember going to see Total Recall more than twenty years ago (crikey) and being utterly blown away by its visuals. Watch it now and there’s much that looks obsolete, particularly the famous ‘head split’ scene with its obvious rubber model of Arnold Schwarzenegger. So much of the film’s suspension of disbelief relies on the effects being immersive enough, and too often they just aren’t now.

Another issue is the acting range of its star. Sometimes, it feels as though the American film industry added a little something to the world’s water supply in the early 1980s, a mild hypnotic that convinced us Schwarzenneger wasn’t as bad as he clearly was. James Cameron knew best how to get the most out of his prime Austrian beef, even taking advantage of the iron pumper’s limitations for the inhuman Terminator. By the end of the decade, studios were falling over themselves to offer him work. Arnie was amongst the biggest draws, seeing off his main rival, Sylvester Stallone, to dominate the box office until the mid-1990s. His charisma and sense of fun went a long way, but he was often awful. The scenes in Total Recall where he’s paired with Sharon Stone are excruciating. Verhoeven possessed the good fortune to have the generation’s finest femme fatale actress (Maybe Kathleen Turner..?) on his cast. She wipes Arnie off the screen in each of their moments together.

Still, Ms Stone is amongst the boxes Total Recall ticks, and for all his struggles to out-act the Kuato puppet, Arnie knew how to work on action sequences, which are frequent and never less than exciting. According to IMDb, his role was initially offered to Christopher Reeve, which doesn’t sound half as good. It’s also worth watching for Michael Ironside, an actor who appears to have spent his career playing variations on the world’s most hardcore badass.

Given the way it’s aged, Total Recall remains what it was intended to be – a blast. All the philosophical elements of Philip K Dick’s short story are abandoned in the name of kinetic thrills. Even the question that underpins the show – is any of it really happening? – is addressed only as an afterthought. All that matters is the body count, the action dial turned to 11 and the joie de vivre of its star dispatching the film’s many villains in ever snottier and more improbable ways. Will the remake attempt to do anything more in keeping with the source material? I suspect it won’t.

Total Recall: ***