The Iron Mask 2019 ****

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What Did I Just Actually See? would be a good title for Oleg Stepchenko’s crazy-ass epic, which gets released in whatever’s left of the US and UK on April 10th 2020. Alternative titles include The Mystery of the Iron Mask, The Dragon Seal and most significantly, Viy 2; Journey to China, because this is, in fact, the sequel to Viy, a Russian hit from 2014. Much in the way that the Fast and Furious universe pulls into stars from other cinematic franchises, the Viy brand has pulled in two recognisable crowd-pleasers in Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, both of whom have producer credits here. It sounds mad as a brush, but if approached correctly, there’s a lot of fun to be had here. There’s fake dragons, black witches, real dragons, flying monkeys and loads of sub-Pirates of the Caribbean CGI of 18th century locations; with no actual blockbusters on the horizon, we’ll just have to make do with this mind-boggling but endearing effort. Did I mention that this film claims to be based on the writings of Gogol?

Some have carped that there’s only a few minutes of the stars here; that’s fake news to be sure, because there’s a good forty minutes or so of wild action featuring Chan and Schwarzenegger; what’s odd is that they feature heavily in the opening of the film and they don’t return until the last couple of scenes. Chan is in his element with some intricate physical comedy; his character, Master, is chained up in the Tower of London by James Hook. Hook is played by the Austrian muscleman-turned-politician, and it’s one of the more oddball efforts of his remarkable career. With his red tunic, mutton chop/moustache combo and bug-eyed silent movie acting style, Schwarzenegger really gives this his all in a highly amusing piece of burlesque. Also locked up with the Master is a mysterious man in an iron mask, and it’s him that we follow on his gaol break, leaving the Master and Hook to fight it out. Did I mention that Hook is using King Arthur’s sword to fight the master? Just one more eye-brow raising detail in a film packed with them.

You’d better enjoy seeing Chan and Schwarzenegger’s Tom and Jerry routine while you can, because the film decides that’s quite enough of that for now and launches into something completely different. The rather charming Jason Flemyng is the actual star here, and this perennially underrated actor shines as Jonathan Green, a cartographer who invents a unique way of measuring distance involving a wheel attached to his carriage. A royal commission puts Green head-to-head with all kinds of computer-generated creatures, with real and fake princesses, dragons and a flying monkey that, once again, resembles boastful bat Bartok from the cartoon Anastasia, a character who seems to be living rent-free inside my head for the last few weeks. Did I mention that there’s musical sequences here?

Ok, so there’s a bit of bait and switch going on here, but be honest, would you be reading this if I’d led with Jason Flemyng and flying monkeys? If you’ve been carried along by the unfamiliar energy of such fanciful expensive international epics like 47 Ronin or The Great Wall, you’ll get the same kind of rush here; lots of strange creatures and eye candy, all the weirder because it’s highly unlikely that you’ve seen the first movie so there’s no context at all. That’s a strength here; with no idea what’s happening and no chance to find out, you can just sit back and enjoy the show, with everyone from Charles Dance to Rutger Hauer roped in to mumble about dragon’s eyelashes and wear silly costumes. Those of us who enjoy brainless entertainment with find that The Iron Mask is pretty much the only show in town this Easter; it’s a daft, family-friendly romp that’s sold on the back of two big names, but provides plenty of silly fun for those keen for a fix of fresh-air escapism. As William Hurt’s character says in The Big Chill; ‘Sometimes you just have to let art wash over you…’

Signature Entertainment presents The Iron Mask on Digital HD in the UK from 10th April 2020.

Beowulf & Grendel 2005 ****

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Didn’t I review Beowulf a few weeks ago? Aha, well spotted, but that that was Beowulf, and this is Beowulf & Grendel; yes, as you survey months ahead without a single cinema release circa 2020, over a decade ago there was such a glut of cinema around that there were competing films based around Old English epic poetry. Millennials might find it hard to believe but there was a worldwide mania for Old English epic poetry in the first years of this century; you couldn’t sit down in a Seattle coffee shop for grungy West Saxon scholars. Alas, Robert Zemekis’s Beowulf was not a hit, and neither was Sturla Gunnarsson’s earlier effort as viewed here, and the focus moved to Marvel now that the vogue for Hrothgar interpretation has faded.

Critic Nathan Rabin, always a good canary-in-the-coalmine when it comes to this kind of film, described it as going ‘entertainingly awry’, but while the director admitted that pretty much every aspect of this film went ‘awry’ in a feature length documentary Wrath of Gods (2006), the result is defiantly entertaining. Firstly, it’s got a much better Beowulf in Gerry Butler, freshly graduated from Strathclyde University’s law department and in his absolute prime here. The warrior fights the monster Grendel, and his mother, but strangely the events that provide the inciting incident for Zemekis’s film are the climax here, with ensuing pacing issues. In fact, Beowulf and Grendel has quite a different take on the source material, humanising Grendel, who we see playing 10-pin bowling with human heads and passing the time before revenging the death of his father. Much more is made of the tribal issues that Beowulf, pumped-up on herring and egg, solves, notably Eddie Marsan as a religious leader. ‘Christ? I’ve heard of him,’ muses an unconverted heathen. ‘Did you ever have much luck with trolls?’ Such anachronistic dialogue promises and delivers laughs for sure, but it’s clear that everyone is in one the joke; everyone mumbles about ‘f**king trolls’ and Stellan Skarsgaard’s boozy king curses ‘No-one eve tells me anything!’ He’s a king who bemoans ‘I’m a king whose balls are ground up on Instagram’ although I may have mis-transcribed that line; no subtitles were available.

‘Where there is superstition, there is practice,’ is a more stimulating line that sticks in the mind here, suggestive of the film’s demythologising of the subject without removing the magic; this Beowulf isn’t given to CGI, but stunningly shot locations in and around which tiny figures run, a unique look that, from all accounts, exhausted cast and crew. More information on the trials and tribulations of the shoot can be gleaned from the detailed EPK interview with Butler on the last day on the shoot, sitting in his Winnebago in full costume looking like every inch a football star giving a post-match interview.

Beowulf & Grendel made $100,000 on a sixteen million dollar budget, quite a feat, and yet it is, by Rabin’s terminology, a secret success. It has a unique, authentic look, a striking take on superstition and religion as non-exclusive, and big, big performances from Butler and Sarah Polley, red of hair, lustrous of make-up and relishing every second as an Irish soothsayer. It’s no surprise this whole enterprise was caviar to the general; the two box quotes on the DVD offer the faintest of faint praise ‘Gerald Butler is perfectly cast,’ gushes cinematical.com while reel.com dishes out the superlatives with ‘the movie is better than the book’. Neither cinematical.com or reel.com exist now, even if they existed back then, so questions might be asked about the authenticity of these pull quotes; bizarrely, it’s easier to trace Old Norse epics than identifying reviewing websites of 15 years ago. Beowulf & Grendel is a knowing, underrated, revisionist take on a legend that comes up fresh, funny and far better than it’s reputation suggests. Much like the title character.

99p on Amazon Prime in the UK, go on, you know you want to…

Highlander: The Director’s Cut 1986 ****

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There’s been a reboot of Russell Mulcahy’s film in the works for a decade now; how hard can it be to revamp such an appealing property as Highlander? Five sequels, a tv show and many a rain-soaked holiday in Scotland has been inspired by this wonderfully daft bit of world-building. Highlander is a great-looking, funny and often dazzling fusion of The Terminator with sword and sorcery; if it seemed indigestible to critics in 1986, perhaps the time has come to embrace the story of Connor Macleod. Certainly, letting the John Wick’s Chad Stahelski loose on the Lionsgate property seems like a good idea, since when it comes to great Highlander movies, it would be a real shame if there could be only one.

‘I am Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod. I was born in 1518 in the village of Glenfinnan on the shores of Loch Shiel. And I am immortal…’ is the line that introduces our hero, played by Christopher Lambert after Mel Gibson turned the role down. Lambert was, and still is, something of a dude’s dude; his shock-haired turn as the evasive thief in Subway built his reputation is an unpredictable but charismatic leading man. Lambert’s French accent was widely mocked, but there’s always been a close historical connection between France and Scotland via the Auld Alliance, so that mis-step could be forgiven, even if Macleod’s inability to pronounce Glenmorangie seems like a genuine gaffe.

Macleod is an Immortal, doomed to walk the earth listening to a Queen soundtrack, brooding in an awesome New York apartment, watching wrestling matches and heeding the advice of his foppish mentor, Egyptian metallurgist Ramierz (Sean Connery). A reckoning, a quickening, a happening, whatever it is, something bad is coming and it’s likely to take the form of bad boy The Kurgan, played by the perennially awesome Clancy Brown.

This European cut has some key scenes in the Highlander universe; during WWII, he rescues a little girl from a Nazi and casually machine-guns him to death with the line ‘Whatever you say, Jack, you’re the master race.’ This is a striking, irreverent and surprisingly brutal throwaway scene that opens up a potentially interesting world. If the Highlander is immortal, then he’s an old soul with a uniquely educated and evolved historical perspective, and his instant recognition of the Nazi foe is delightfully fleet and sour at the same time. More such flashbacks would be welcome, although training and soul-searching are centre-stage, this being the 80’s and all.

As with the John Wick films, the first in the series offers an imaginative springboard that the later films can only limit in terms of choices. The second Highlander film killed the idea stone dead by positioning Macleod as an alien. But Gregory Widen’s script taps into specific Scottish folklore with regards to magic and immortality, and there’s every reason to think that a reboot could boil down the existential philosophy of the Highlander films to an organic, granular level. There’s a reason why Scotland punches above its weight in terms of talent, in terms of acting, writing and ideas, and that eternal struggle finds one of it’s most entertaining manifestations in this gloriously deadpan fantasy epic.

The Fountain 2006 ****

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Sometimes, a film is worth some second thoughts; first viewers of Darren Aronofky’s sci-fi epic The Fountain were quick to point out that this was not a commercial proposition; for sure, watching one of the main characters becoming a tree during the finale didn’t suggest the public would be champing at the bit. So it’s probably for the best from the POV of Warner Brothers that Aronofsky’s original $70 million version starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett didn’t happen, but this discount $35 million version has much to comment it. Three stories are intercut, one involving Conquistadors, one involving a scientist who, tending to his dying wife, resolves to cure death itself, and one involving a space traveller. Hugh Jackman does what he can with various characters which are little more than ciphers, while Rachel Weisz has even less to play with as the object of his love. This is not the sci-fi universe of lazer-guns and action, but more of a Last Year in Marienbad-style mind-zonker, and judged within the latter terms, The Fountain works really well, with unique micro-photographed visuals and a Clint Mansel score. When discussing the film after the Venice Film Festival premiere, Aronofsky and Weisz seems to be not quite on the same page when discussing the film’s meaning, and critics were in the same boat; seen at a decade’s distance, The Fountain is a highly original if compromised artwork that should be retuned and revised. For those interested in spirituality, and re-incarnation in particular, a single viewing is not enough for this strange, mind-boggling epic, one of the greatest, grandest follies of recent cinema.

Robin Hood 2018 ***

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The so-bad-it’s –good file is already groaning, but there’s always room for a project as fatally misbegotten as Robin Hood. As always, it takes a number of simultaneous failures to create a truly awful film. First up; Taron Edgerton, who gained some kind of fame as the yob made good Eggsy in the juvenile, misogynist Kingsmen films. Sure, he made a passable Elton John in Rocketman, but under those specs and outfits, there’s barely a performance to see, and he’s physically nothing like John at all and makes no effort to emulate him. Throw in a phoning it in Jamie Foxx as Little John, plus Ben Mendelsohn hamming it up in his umpteenth villain role in a row, and you have an uninspired cast in a reboot that no-one asked for. Robin leaves home for the Crusades, or at least some kind of archery inspired Call of Duty video game, and returns to seek his rightful place against the usurping sheriff (Mendelsohn). Whatever the high-concept was doesn’t land, leaving a stew of CGI fights, woeful set-pieces and laughable world building. Otto Bathhurst’s period romp went straight down the tubes on release, and a cheap streaming option (99p over in the UK right now, which is about 98p too much) gives us bad movie gannets the chance to see exactly why in this roaring dumpster fire. What a decent comic like Tim Minchin is doing in here, only his agent knows.

Solo: A Star Wars Story **** 2018

When this Star Wars spin-off debuted, Ron Howard hailed the opening weekend $100 million US debut as the best of his illustrious career.  Yet Solo is regarded as a flop and a misfire, with well-publicised negativity stemming from the firing of the original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Away from the hoopla, Howard’s finished film doesn’t bear much evidence of different cooks at work; it’s a Star Wars film, but it’s more of a small-scale character study that a multiple-story epic, and presumably that’s what put the public off; the whole film builds to an off-screen shooting rather than a interplanetary battle. Aiden Ehrenreich is fine as Han Solo, and it’s fun to see how her meets up with Chewbacca and falls under the mentor ship of Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson).  Equally, it’s nice to see a young Lando (Donald Glover) and catch the moment that Han wins the Millennium Falcon from him. In fact, pretty much all of Solo works, it’s just not cut from the same cookie-cutter template as every other film in the franchise. Wouldn’t it be great to make a film like The Friends of Eddie Coyle but set in the Stars Wars Universe? Sure, but don’t expect anyone to turn out to see it. Perhaps Star Wars fatigue was inevitable with this film released while The Last Jedi was still in cinemas; either way, Howard’s amusing film deserves better than it’s franchise-killer reputation.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword 2017 ***

kingGuy Ritchie made his name with geezer gangster movies which dated quickly; there’s not much to be said for his take on The Man from Uncle or Aladdin other than he does a workman-like job. But give him $175 million and carte blanche to indulge himself and you get King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, a steaming tower of excrement that’s so monumentally bad it’s pretty much a must see movie. Charlie Hunnam is King Arthur, introduced fighting some giant creature out of a Godzilla movie. His opponent is his Uncle Vortigen, played by Jude Law. Vortigen has a castle under which he keeps a three-headed woman who also appears to be an octopus, and which he summons for advice by ringing a little bell. Sound ridiculous? Throw in David Beckham with his Minnie Mouse-on-helium voice as a bystander as Arthur pulls a sword from the stone, and chuck in some Oceans 11 heist scenes too. King Arthur lost a fortune at the box office and deservedly so; watching it is a car-crash of enjoyable hubris, smashing down to earth in a dollop of half-finished CGI.

Ben -Hur 2016 ***

BEN-HURFor many fans of bad movies, an initial taste was found watching the thud-and-blunder epics of the 1950’s and sixties. The 1959 version of Ben-Hur was a perfect example; it may be a spin-off from The Bible in the form of Lew Wallace’s source material, but it’s pure Hollywood all the way. In it’s own way, Timur Bekmanbetov’s much heralded flop is the same; Ben-Hur’s story is now formed almost entirely around a chariot race viewed in a Fast and Furious fashion, and Morgan Freeman is on hand to explain a winning strategy that’s remarkably similar to the one featured in Tokyo Drift. Despite pallid leads in Jack Huston and Toby Kebbell as the brother estranged by fate and circumstance, there’s a full and groaning buffet of delights for bad movie fans. Jesus is treated like a minor character who might get his own franchise one day, popping up in the background to comic effect. There’s a stupendous sea-battle full of expensive money shots, not least when James Cosmo’s galleon-master gets pinged off by a giant oar like a rubber band. Ben-Hur; Full Throttle Drift Racer might have been a better title for this big, daft but undeniably amusing epic.

Black Robe 1991 ***

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Bruce Beresford’s film would make a good double-bill with Roland Joffe’ s The Mission; with Jesuit priests as their main characters, both films explore the difference between heaven and earth with skill. Adapted by Brian Moore from his own novel, set in 164 Quebec, Father Laforgue (Lothaire Bluteau) sets out across snowy wastelands to establish contact with a remote mission, only to find the superstitions amongst his party tearing it apart. Based on a true story, Black Robe contrasts the beautiful but deadly vistas of remote locations with the physical and mental tortures that men exert on each other; it’s a darkly spiritual film that repays patient viewers.

https://www.amazon.com/Black-Robe-Lothaire-Bluteau/dp/B001CJFTWW/ref=sr_1_2?keywords=black+robe+film&qid=1563460260&s=gateway&sr=8-2

Exodus 1960 ***

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Like much of Otto Preminger’s work, his 1960 epic of Jewish empowerment, Exodus, has largely been consigned to the sidelines of cinematic history; long and serious, it’s a high-minded blockbuster that deals with the founding of the state of Israel. Paul Newman is agent Ari Ben Cannan, who steps up to the plate to take charge when a boatload of Jewish people is refused port by British authorities. Dalton Trumbo adapts Leon Uris’s book at a hefty 208 minute length, and although momentum is lost when the ship is parked around the halfway mark, it’s easy to see why Exodus is a key film in Jewish and Israeli culture; despite a hackneyed romantic subplot, there’s an underlying excitement about the political opportunities of a new state, and Preminger’s film is required viewing for anyone interested in exploring the various sides of the on-going conflict.

https://www.amazon.com/Exodus-Paul-Newman/dp/B07HS4VBX1/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=exodus&qid=1563359976&s=gateway&sr=8-1