Media Column - February 2008
by Rogan Marshall
Review by Rogan Marshall
Date: 06 February 2008 /
The news this month for followers of fantastic film can be largely summed up in one word (with appropriate punctuation appended): Cloverfield(!).
The resultant movie happens in something approaching "real time", and comes awfully close to maintaining a continuous frantic chase from beginning to end; its tone walks a finely observed razor's edge between popcorn-pushing matinee trash and grim tense realism.
If I seem be reaching for unnecessarily clinical language in describing Cloverfield, it's because the movie itself is such an overwhelming experience, it is so immediate and forceful, and for me at least so involving, that it seems hard to quantify in any language. I feel like I've been far too friendly to far too many movies lately, here at SFRevu, but I must enthuse again: Within its carefully delineated, admittedly narrow and shallow set of goals, Cloverfield struck me, on first viewing, as flawlessly executed; that is to say, that for what it is, Cloverfield is pretty much perfect. It is cliché for a monster reviewer, sorry, a movie reviewer, to compare a genre movie to a roller coaster; this might be the only movie I've ever seen that really did remind me of being on a roller coaster -- at times, it felt like being trapped on a roller coaster. If Cloverfield had tried for a higher level of sheer visceral intensity, it might have stopped being fun.
But Cloverfield knows how to stay fun; it never stops being aware of its humble essence as a high-concept monster movie for the kids. If the filmmakers who crafted this solid little pipe bomb of a movie use careful naturalism to make us feel as if these events are "really happening", it can hardly be mistaken for actual "realism"; the vérité camera work, and the obvious influence of The Blair Witch Project (which by contrast really was an experiment in improvised realism, or at least successfully seemed to be), might distract some viewers from noticing that this is as carefully designed and formally controlled as, for example, last year's Transformers movie.
In fact, the way the aggressively slick execution contrasts with the goal the production values are focused on achieving -- a narrative impression of continuous frantic reality captured as it happens -- is quite a technical achievement, in every involved department, though Cloverfield does such a good job of it the filmmakers might not get all the credit they deserve, even among approving audiences. (One thing about cinematic naturalism: If filmmakers execute such work properly, a lot of the work they put into it vanishes completely, if you see what I mean.)
Playing around the corner from the above hit, way down at the far end of the hall on the smallest screen in the multiplex, is the disreputable B-picture preposterously titled In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale.
It's a mildly entertaining war/fantasy epic cast with slavish exactitude from the Jackson/Tolkien mold by sleazy horror-master Uwe Boll. True to its model, the plot seems a boring tangled mess. In summary: Jason Statham plays a humble farmer, also a nameless orphan of mysterious origins, who lives with his wife and son in a nicely designed village; in the first big action sequence, this village gets marauded by an army of (very) orc-esque dog warriors called the Krug, who've been organized and set against the kingdom as part of the secret machinations of campy evil wizard Ray Liotta. Liotta's plot to overthrow a king played by Burt Reynolds also involves the seduction of Leelee Sobieski, whose father, the king's mage, is played by John ("Gimli") Rhys-Davies; Liotta also exercises a heavy influence over the king's only heir, his drunken, foppish nephew Duke Fallow, played by Matthew ("Shaggy") Lillard. ...
You know, recapping its story in detail isn't doing this movie any good at all. I don't even have to look up from my computer to see that all the other critics have torn this picture to pieces. If you ask me, those bad reviews are not only the critical equivalent of blowing holes in a proverbial barn with a proverbial shotgun, they completely miss the point, that In the Name of the King is meant to be exactly what it is: campy trashy fun, for those who like Jackson's Tolkien adaptations enough to stoop to also enjoying a cleverly executed imitation.
Here at SFRevu, among serious fantasy fans, who are not unlikely to take this movie in the same inclusive spirit I did, I don't guess I have to be embarrassed to admit that In the Name of the King is awfully easy to sit through if you happen to be a serious fantasy fan. I'm not the only one here who spent far too many hours of my adolescence entrenched in mass-marketed paperback pastiches of Howard and Tolkien and Burroughs, eager energetic ripoffs written by extremely talented folks like Lin Carter, Terry Brooks, John Jakes and Robert Jordan (whose early Conan novels are perhaps the best examples of this kind of thing for an uninitiated younger reader to pick up at this late date; I reread one recently, and it was still lots of fun).
In the Name of the King is, exactly as it appears to be, the close cinematic cousin of such unabashedly commercial but eminently munchable "little epics", to coin an all-too-appropriate oxymoron. Visually, it is much like Jackson on a smaller budget; if it lacks Jackson's monsters and other digital effects, In the Name of the King comes with the added extra attraction of awesome, ingenious stunt choreography by Tony Ching Siu-Tung, whose endless Asian credits include the Western hits Hero, Shaolin Soccer, and House of Flying Daggers.
Sure, the script is thin compared to the Jackson/Tolkien pictures; the dialogue tends to be, at best, humorlessly functional; but it moves briskly most of the time, and the cast seem collectively determined to wring every possibility out of it at every turn.
Of particular note is the campy, raving Ray Liotta; but he's repeatedly upstaged by Matthew Lillard, whose performance is so completely, wildly uncontrolled that before the movie is half over, you'll be giggling whenever Lillard's Duke Fallow enters a scene, before he even starts to speak. It's funny how you can forget what the phrases "stealing a scene" and "chewing up the scenery" really mean until you see such thespian behavior occurring; Matthew Lillard steals every scene he's in, and he frequently chews up the scenery, as well as any actors who happen to be in the way along with it, including Liotta, Reynolds, Sobieski and the rest of an excellent cast. ...
On DVD I'm still way behind, though I'll thank Netflix for delaying my approach to this next title. The 1980 Dino de Laurentiis production of Flash Gordon earned a two-disc, special edition re-release in September, but Netflix still hasn't seen its way clear to sending me a copy of that particular edition; apparently the phrase "very long wait" sometimes means "never ever ever". If anyone else out there happens to be stuck behind this same metaphoric eightball, I suggest you do what I did and have Netflix send you a copy of the old Image disc of the same movie, which is listed separately under the same title; it's readily available, restored and widescreen and everything (though one assumes that new edition sports special commentary tracks, sound remixes, etcetera, ad nauseam).
You don't need any extras to enjoy this movie; as far as campy genre trash of the early '80s, Flash Gordon is a definite high-water mark.
The first of several serials adapted from Alex Raymond's brilliant newspaper comic strip (serials that, by the way, remain highly entertaining campy trash themselves) is here remade with an absurdly inflated production budget and an approach to the material oddly mixing self-conscious camp with sensual exoticism. It's equally indebted to both Star Wars and Barbarella.
It is uneven, true, sometimes silly, sure, but its annoying streak is more than made up for in matters of design, particularly sets and costumes. And while a dozen other writers have shredded this movie for its high quotient of damn foolishness while praising its beautiful production, it has only rarely been noticed that the script for Flash Gordon works wonders in bringing forward and archly emphasizing the heavy-handed subtextual sexuality that drove both Raymond's original and the serials. Every set piece, almost every incident in the plot, seems underlined by Freudian imagery and ideas; the most famous of these is probably the giant many-holed stump, with stinging animals scuttling invisibly somewhere inside, that provides Prince Barin's treefolk with opportunities to test their courage against one another, by taking turns thrusting their arms into the holes. ...
Not quite as much fun as anything above, but definitely deserving of this month's first-place ribbon for sublime ridiculousness, is Latitude Zero, a vintage Japanese movie now available in a widescreen DVD edition that appears to be its first video release.
Latitude Zero was directed by Ishiro Honda, who largely established his cult-famed name by signing several of the stranger Godzilla movies; on this picture he's set aside the giant monsters that he usually works with (mostly, anyway), but kept all the juvenile weirdness Godzilla ever got up to, and maybe then some. Joseph Cotten, believe it or not, plays a Nemo-esque submarine captain who rescues a racially diverse group of protagonists from a sinking ship. He takes them on a tour of his secret utopian underwater city, interrupting this itinerary with underwater chases and battles featuring Cotten's evil arch-nemesis Cesar Romero, who may be (ought to be) well remembered as the Joker on the old Batman show.
Of course, Joseph Cotten needs even less introduction; in Latitude Zero Cotten is elderly but sprightly, if obviously drunk much of the time, and has lots of obvious fun, often wearing a (bulletproof) shiny gold jumpsuit, with a green kerchief tied (rather flamboyantly) around his neck, and, in the climactic sequence, a super-cool gadget glove that shoots different rays from each finger (one's a laser, one's a flame-thrower ...). Latitude Zero might be a little slow, but it scores plenty of points for sheer weirdness; if you get bored, you can always amuse yourself, like I did, by muttering aloud, repeatedly: "My God ... that man was in Citizen Kane!"