His 'N' Hers
Hello again everyone, and as summer drags on so we find the major distributors rolling out movies aimed at all sorts of audiences: children, pet-owners, teenagers, and adults of both sexes. And so this week we take a look at one film that seems to be meant for those gentlemen out there, and another intended for their lovely ladies...
For all that it's arguably the greatest English myth, I still think we're waiting for the definitive movie version of the Arthurian legend. Now this isn't a particularly easy story to fit into a two-hour movie, but that still doesn't excuse most previous attempts being quite so dire (First Knight, this means you). And to be honest, I didn't hold out much hope for Antoine Fuqua's King Arthur, given he's best known for contemporary urban thrillers, producer Jerry Bruckheimer's best known for making overblown tripe, and the publicity campaign for it runs mostly along the lines of 'Cor, what about that Keira Knightley eh? Phwoarr!'
The new angle Fuqua's opted for in his movie is to take a slightly more historically accurate approach to the tale. Set in the middle of the fifth century, the film finds Britain still a province of the Roman Empire, though this state of affairs about to change. As the story opens, Arthur (Clive Owen) is actually Artorius Castor, the Romano-British commander of a group of indentured heavy cavalry from Samatia on the other side of Europe - his warriors are battle-scarred hard-cases who just happen to have the same names as famous chivalric figures: Galahad, Gawain, Lancelot. But their period of service to Rome is almost over: Arthur dreams of returning there, while his men just want to go home.
But before this can happen, Rome demands one last service of them. With a Saxon invasion sweeping down from the north, the Romans are leaving the native Celts to their fate. But an influential Roman family must be rescued from the path of the Saxon advance - an incredibly dangerous mission that takes Arthur and his men out of their own territory and into the wilderness controlled by native British tribes in the sway of a sorcerer known as Merlin...
The small component of this movie's publicity not devoted to Ms Knightley's bone structure and glandular development (both are undeniably charming) mainly goes on about how this is the first historically accurate Arthurian movie, based on actual archaeological evidence. This would be a neat trick, as - to my understanding - all the physical evidence for an historical King Arthur would comfortably fit in an eggcup. Some degree of fabrication is inevitable, but even so, those unfortunates who put historical accuracy ahead of dramatic merit in the list of movie virtues will find lots to complain about here: the climactic battle (based on an historical event) occurs in the wrong place and wrong century, while the Saxon bad guys stomp around toting crossbows that didn't appear in Britain for another six hundred years.
None of this would matter to me if the story itself was solid but the emphasis on (rather spurious) realism guts the Arthurian legend of most of its magic and potency. The round table makes it in, along with a new take on the Sword in the Stone (conflated, as usual, with Excalibur), but virtually all of the rest of the story is omitted: there's precious little Merlin, no sign whatsoever of Morgan le Fey or Mordred, no Camelot, Lady of the Lake, or Grail quest... in short, almost none of the stuff you'd expect in a King Arthur movie.
To be honest, King Arthur reminded me most of a fairly recent take on another great British legend: the 80s Robin of Sherwood TV show. The resemblence is there in the mixture of soft-focus historical verisimilitude and low-key mysticism, and the occasionally lyrical score. Mark Ryan, a member of that show's regular cast, is the fight choreographer here. Most of all, I suppose, the Sherwood connection is reinforced by the presence in King Arthur's cast of Ray Winstone, who memorably redefined Will Scarlet as a mixture of East End bully-boy and football hooligan. His performance here as Bors hits almost all of the same notes (Winstone is surely the only knight in history to go into battle armed with a brace of knuckledusters). It's a terrific, vital turn, overshadowing the supposed stars of the film: Bors is the only character you really like or care about.
That's not to say that this is a film that doesn't owe heavy debts elsewhere: that it resembles Lord of the Rings is a no-brainer: it's punctuated with long shots across primal landscapes and there's a lot of fuss about whether or not the lead character will accept his monarchical destiny. There's a tiny smidge of The Magnificent Seven in the presentation of Arthur and his boys, too. Thankfully, though, beyond some blockbuster silliness and a deeply duff villain (Stellan Skarsgard with a stupid accent), this bears very little resemblence to most of Jerry Bruckheimer's other movies.
Now I've been mostly negative about this movie so far but I should make it clear that I actually really rather enjoyed it. The mixture of myth and Romano-British reality is novel and quite inventive, the film goes to some lengths to make the cultural divisions between Romans, Celts, and Saxons clear, most of the performances are fine, and there's some impressive action - a battle on a frozen lake being a particular highlight. Admittedly Clive Owen (a low-key, metropolitan actor if ever there was one) seems a little ill-at-ease declaiming in his chainmail, but he livens up as the film goes on.
King Arthur isn't the greatest rendition of the legend (that title still rests with Boorman's Excalibur, a film with its own set of flaws), but it is a solidly put together, highly entertaining adventure. Perhaps the truth is that we don't want to know the true story of King Arthur when the myth is so irresistible. But enough of it shines through to make this movie worth a look.
Oh, dear: another classic SF thriller broken on the wheel of pointless reinvention. Isn't this where I came in? I refer, of course, to The Stepford Wives, a thriller by Ira Levin made into a rather fine film by Bryan Forbes in 1975, and into a rotten one by Miss Piggy now.
Nicole Kidman plays Joanna Eberhart, a TV executive responsible for many cruel reality game shows: these are supposed to be over-the-top parodies but actually aren't that far off from where TV is right now (and so aren't particularly funny). After a disgruntled participant goes on a shooting spree, Joanna gets the shove from her network and has a comedy nervous breakdown (we don't get to see the comedy electro-shock treatment she receives). She and her husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) decide to move to the idyllic gated community of Stepford, Conneticut.
Stepford is a place where men are men and women are domesticated: they cheerfully do all the cooking, cleaning, and washing up, all the while managing to keep their smiles perfect and their nails intact. This is, of course, anathema to a modern woman like Nicole and she rapidly begins to suspect there's more to this place than meets the eye. But it soon becomes apparent that anyone who doesn't fit in receives a thorough and not entirely voluntary makeover to suit the intentions of the town's founders...
(We have reached an awkward point in this review. I would hate to spoil the central plot-twist of the Forbes version, as it's central to the movie - which, as I say, is rather good. But I can't really talk about the Piggy version without giving it away. So, if you know the twist, read on. If you don't, just steer well clear of the new movie and stop reading at this point. Okay? Okay.)
The thing about the original Stepford Wives was that it was a twist ending movie: that was what made it memorable. The problem is that the nature of the twist is pretty widely known by now: 'Stepford Wife' has become a shorthand term for a certain kind of unreconstructed home-maker or domesticated woman. I would guess a lot of people going to see this movie already know the twist, which gives the film a major problem in trying to generate any kind of tension or surprise. And to be honest it doesn't try to, or at least not especially hard. It actually seems a bit unsure as to whether it wants to at least try to make the surprise work, or simply to assume that everyone already knows and just wink at them about it throughout. The result is that the big revelation is a damp squib for the entire audience rather than just part of it.
That's one big problem for the film, but the biggest is that this is supposed to be a comedy version of the story. The fact that it isn't particularly funny is bad enough, but I find it hard to believe that anyone seriously thought that such a creepy, paranoid and grim tale could honestly be made to yield up big laughs. This isn't a dark, witty comedy, either: it's a broad, frothy, camp farce. And it doesn't work. The film can't sustain this tone - the darkness of the original story keeps oozing back to the surface in the form of some genuinely unsettling moments (Broderick's very decent performance would be pitch-perfect for a 'serious' Stepford remake), before vanishing again under a torrent of chronic overacting from Glenn Close. The comic tone even demands that a new ending be tacked on, which not only undermines one of the great last scenes in cinema history (the final scene of the Forbes version is repeated here, then lampooned shortly afterwards), but makes the film internally inconsistent: at some points the Stepford wives are android replicas, as before - but at others they are just the originals, surgically modified. It's a mess.
And at least in the Forbes version you knew who to blame: the evil old chauvinists of the Stepford Mens' Association. Katherine Ross, who played the Kidman part in the Forbes version, was just a regular person, who really didn't deserve to be replaced by an android. But the Piggy version wilfully messes this up: the women in this are all wild overachievers, the sort of 'superwomen' certain 'quality tabloids' in the UK constantly have it in for. The implication is that the men are sort of justified in wanting to have them replaced by proper women. But both before and after their 'modification' the women are just grotesque stereotypes: bitches or bimbos. There isn't a two-dimensional character in the whole movie.
Oh, well. I suppose there are a few quite funny lines, Broderick isn't that bad, and David Arnold's score deserves to be attached to a rather better film than this one... but on the whole this is a real mess of a film that slimes the memory of a good one. Stick to acting, Miss Piggy.