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Some Flames, A Dame, And A Man Named

Hello again, everyone: a bit of a mixed bunch this week, but before we get onto that I
just wanted to point out how much effort went into coming up with the above title which
you've just been scoffing at. This column doesn't write itself, you know...

The Crazy World of Matthew McConaughey

Regular partakers of this column may well feel a twinge of déjà vu as for the second
week running we look at a film in which the aforementioned Texan thesp. shows up as a
nutter with a big axe. This time it's Rob Bowman's Reign Of Fire, an odd but rather
entertaining aspiring blockbuster...

Reign Of Fire kicks off in contemporary London as schoolboy Quinn Abercrombie
(Ben Thornton) - yeah, like that's a real name! - visits his mum (Her Cybernetic Majesty
Alice Krige), a site engineer on the London Underground. The transport authority clearly
don't have a clue about proper health and safety procedures as not only is Quinn allowed to
wander about without even a hard-hat, but they also have no idea what to do when they
accidentally disturb one of your actual giant fire-breathing dragons from its hibernation.
Obviously one of the irritable-when-roused type, the dragon toasts the place and flies off,
leaving Quinn the only survivor.

Fast-forward to 2020, and the now-grown Quinn has turned into Christian Bale and
developed a terrible Cock-Er-Knee accent. The dragon and its spawn have crushed
civilization as we know it and Quinn is leading a small community of survivors, holed up in
northern England. The people are starving (though Bale's pecs look well-nourished enough),
and the isolation and lack of contact with other groups is wearing at them: 'we haven't
heard from Norwich in two years,
' someone says, if nothing else proving that even the
worst post-apocalypse is not without the odd silver lining.

But then who should appear to save the day than barmy US army dragonslayer Van Zan
(McConaughey) and his army of followers ('if there's one thing worse than dragons, it's
'), who inevitably include beautiful pilot Alex (Izabella Scorupco - a rare
example of an ex-Bond girl getting to play the love interest in a big studio release). Van
Zan's in Britain because he has a plan to solve the dragon population once and for all - and
Quinn's going to help, whether he likes it or not...

Reign Of Fire is kept from being a really first-class piece of hokum by its
script, which is a bit perfunctory and poorly paced, and by its budget, which obviously isn't
as expansive as the writer and director had hoped for. A film can overcome one of these
problems, but not both together. The most obvious example here is in the sequence linking
the present day prologue with the main part of the film - we're told, through voice-over,
graphics, and stock-footage, that the dragons destroyed all the existing governments and
systems of authority, despite the vast military arsenals which would surely have been
employed against them. It's asking a lot of the audience to make this a fundamental part of
the film's background, and what's worse is that we don't even get to see the dragons
torching any major landmarks or otherwise actually doing it. I'd prefer sense to spectacle,
but I would like at least one of the two to make an appearance. The end result is perhaps
too much post- and not enough apocalypse.

There are other problems in Reign Of Fire, of course, but they all stem from one
or other of the two flaws mentioned above. The CGI is a bit iffy, resulting in some rather
manky-looking dragons, and the climax is a bit of a damp squib (the money appears to have
been running out). But there's still a huge amount to enjoy here, if you can suspend your
disbelief: it's engaging played, with solid performances from most of the cast (Bale and
Krige's accents excluded). Gerard Butler is pretty good as Quinn's best mate, and
sharp-eyed Trekkies will spot Alexander Siddig in the crowd from time to time. But
McConaughey steals the acting honours with a marvellously looney turn as Van Zan.

It's not all in the acting, either - post-apocalypse England is rather well put on
(excepting some of the CGI, as mentioned above), and for all its weaknesses the script
serves up some very nice moments - my favourite being a wonderful scene where Quinn and
his mates entertain the community's kids by re-enacting scenes from The Empire Strikes
by candlelight. Bowman's direction is solid enough, and the whole thing has a
rather bleak and sombre mood, a refreshing change from most blockbusters. I enjoyed
Reign Of Fire a lot - worth seeing, if you're willing to cut it some slack.

Once More, With Ealing

Of all the great British film companies of yesteryear, Ealing Studios is second only to
Hammer reputation and brand-recognition. In the 1940s and 50s they released a string of
razor-sharp and socially astute comedies about the British character and way of life, many
of which are on the list of gold-plated all-time classics: The Lavender Hill Mob, Kind
Hearts and Coronets
, and (my personal favourite) The Ladykillers.

Well, guess what - Ealing are back in business and their first release in this, their
centenary year is an adaptation of Oscar Wilde's The Importance Of Being Earnest,
adapted and directed by Oliver Parker. It's the story of fairly strait-laced Edwardian
gent John Worthing (Colin Firth), who lives in the countryside most of the time, and who has
invented a fictitious brother Ernest whom he pretends to be when in town visiting his
ladyfriend Gwendoline (Frances O'Connor) (she has a thing about men called Ernest).
Meaningwhile his caddish friend Algy (Rupert Everett), smitten with John's ward Cecily
(bussed-in American starlet Reese Witherspoon), pops down to the country to see her,
masquerading as the non-existent Ernest too (she also has a thing about men called Ernest).
When the two ladies both get engaged to 'Ernest', not realising he's two different men,
things get complicated - especially with Gwendoline's terrifying mother (Dame Judi Dench)
on the warpath...

It's clear from the start that The Importance Of Being Earnest is aiming to be
the kind of high-quality literary adaptation that we have a reputation for doing quite well in
this country. And the production values are appropriately high, and the cast has - mmmmm! -
that cachet of class about it: Anna Massey and Tom Wilkinson are in there too.

But for all these good intentions, the producers have obviously decided to go for the
multiplex dollar. One can excuse the imported American star, as many a British film that
can't afford Hugh Grant opts to hire one, but the big surprise here is the nature of the
comedy. Think Oscar Wilde and you think of throwaway witty aphorisms, social comment, a
touch of satire and maybe Stephen Fry in a wig (if you're me you also think of Blake's
and Stuart Townsend's appearance as Dorian Grey in next summer's blockbuster
The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen), but in this film the comedy is much, much
broader. There is a quite shocking level of over-acting from virtually the entire cast (Dame
Judi is obviously the exception) and the script even includes pratfalls and a running gag
about tattooed arses in its relentless pursuit of big laughs. I got the strong impression the
cast enjoyed making the film more than I enjoyed watching it, which is never a good

And it doesn't feel like an Ealing comedy, either. It doesn't have the edge, or insight, or
lack of sentimentality: it's just a very broad, very gentle, knockabout romantic comedy.
Wilde's most famous lines all show up but they seem weirdly out of place. More ambition
would have been better. This isn't a bad film, it's actually quite amusing - but, for all its
CGI London skyline and big name cast, it feels more like a TV adaptation than a film in own
right. Gosford Park for people with short attention spans: if you want to see it,
you'll lose nothing by waiting for the TV premiere.

Cereal Killer

And finally, we look at M. Night Shyamalan's Signs, aka 'I See Dead Corn'. Now
I'm a bit of a fan of this director, and long-time readers may recall his last film
Unbreakable did rather well in the 2001 Lassie awards. This time round he's
dispensed with both Bruce Willis and the twist endings he's famous for - well, sort of...

This is the story of Graham Hess (Mel Gibson, as monumentally smug as ever), a
priest-turned-farmer who lives with his jock brother Merrill (Joaquin
Phoenix1 from
Gladiator) and his two children - one obsessive-compulsive, the other precocious, and
both annoying - in a quiet farmhouse. Graham has packed in being a priest as his wife has
been run over by local vet (Shymalan himself - yup, he's going all Tarantino on us). But
something's afoot out in the corn, as crop circles start appearing, strange inhuman figures
start creeping around the farm at night, and Graham's dog becomes grumpy and

Yes, that's right, it's aliens! Quite why they should want to cause any of these phenomena
- particularly the one with the dog - is not explained. The crop circles are apparently
convenient rendezvous points for their vast armada of starships, which suggests they can
manage steering all the way from Tau Ceti or wherever only to get completely lost and
require landmarks as soon as they reach Earth. It also means they can only invasions during
the summer or early Autumn months when the crops are nearly grown, thus depriving them of
the plum holiday period and perhaps explaining their generally cranky disposition. Graham
and the family soon get very nervous indeed, especially when the TV reports that the
invasion proper has begun...

As you can probably tell, I found a lot of Signs rather difficult to take
seriously: but for all the logicalities and lack of explanation in the story, it's still in many
ways a highly impressive piece of film-making. It works on a number of levels, most
obviously that of an alien-invasion suspense thriller, and it's here that Shyamalan excels
both as writer and director, as you might expect. Large chunks of the film are very
creepy indeed, as Graham wanders around in the corn by torchlight with strange alien
chitterings emanating from the crops all around him, and unearthly silhouettes crash
unexpectedly into the frame. (The braying strings of James Newton Howard's score aids
Shymalan a lot.) However, towards the end the film adopts a (relatively) straightforward
action-adventure style, with which the director seems a lot less comfortable: his enormous
talent lies in his ability to lull the audience into an almost lucid dream-like state, not hit
them over the head with CGI nasties.

This is certainly a different take on the venerable 'alien invasion' theme, and it's
interesting to see the story told from the perspective of ordinary people thousands of miles
from the action, rather than that of the US President or a scientific genius. But Shyamalan
acknowledges his predecessors, by explicitly name-checking the daddy of them all, War
of the Worlds
, and also by - whether consciously or not - pinching part of the climax
from the (rubbish) movie version of another classic British SF novel.

Signs had the potential to be a truly nerve-shredding horror movie, but it's
prevented from being this by a couple of slightly odd creative decisions on Shyamalan's
part. The unsettling atmosphere he creates in the key sequences of the film is almost
without fail diluted by moments of strange, deadpan comedy occurring throughout, as
Graham and Merrill (both of whom come across as fairly dim bulbs) struggle to comprehend
events around them and are generally hacked off by their smart-aleck younger relations and
peculiar neighbours. It's almost like some strange agrarian amalgam of Frasier and
The Simpsons, and for a film that already has a credibility gap this is a serious

And then there's the ending. Shyamalan eschews the plot twists he's become famous for
in favour of a deeply didactic and folksy conclusion, preaching that 'hey, bad things happen
for a reason, just have faith and keep on trucking'. It's glib and cloying, and it isn't even
subtext: this is out there to be seen in the meat of the movie (Gibson's total inability to
portray self-doubt doesn't help: Phoenix's performance is better in nearly every way). It's
here that Signs' status as a post-September 11th movie becomes clear: in the movie,
as in life, America is under a terrible, inexplicable attack, but it's ultimately for the best
and if everyone keeps believing it'll all turn out okay in the end. Signs sets out to
comfort its audience when it would have been much better off simply trying to scare them.
Even so, it's still accomplished, engaging stuff, and only really a disappointment when
compared to M. Night Shymalan's two previous films.

Coming Soon: Tom Hanks is number one with a bullet as Sam Mendes' Road To
hits the multiplexes.


19.09.02 Front Page

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1His real name is Leaf Bottoms, you know.

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