Random cinematic connections: Ford vs. Ferrari -/- A Man and a Woman, via Quentin Tarantino and Sergio Corbucci

One of the most enjoyable aspects of watching movies is making connections (sometimes random, sometimes obscure) between films. I make these associations either based on a common theme or based on some connection between the cast and crew of different films, and get quite a kick out of it. Here’s a story of an interesting set of connections that emerged across three films I watched in the past two weeks.

The first was Ford v Ferrari, James Mangold’s outstanding action-drama about the American automobile giant’s successful assault on the iconic Italian team’s stranglehold of the Le Mans 24-hour racing crown in the late 60s. I am a big fan of motor racing, but wasn’t very familiar with this historic chapter of racing history and I learned a lot about Le Mans in particular, including the novelty of how the race starts – the drivers have to stand on the other side of the pit lane across from their cars, and when the race officially starts, they have to sprint across, jump into their cars, shut the doors, start the engines and go…quite chaotic and entertaining.

Race drivers run to their cars at the start of the Le Mans 24 hour race, as depicted in Ford v Ferrari (2019); the history making Ford GT40 cars are the first three in the foreground.

A couple of weeks later, I was thinking about the two beautiful sports cars featured in Quentin Tarantino’s highly enjoyable Once Upon a Time in Hollywood that I had watched earlier this summer. One was the VW Karmann-Ghia driven by Brad Pitt’s character. And the other was MG TD driven by Roman Polanski. Reminiscing about the movie led me to think about a key plot point involving Leonardo Di Caprio’s character Rick Dalton spending some months in Italy to act in films for a director named Sergio Corbucci. While Dalton’s character and the film he acted in were fictitious, Corbucci was in fact a real-life Italian director and directed films the famous spaghetti western, Django starring Franco Nero. Although not a household name like fellow Italian Sergio Leone, a couple of Corbucci’s westerns are revered by fans of the genre, including Quentin Tarantino.

A poster of the fictitious spaghetti western that Leonardo di Caprio’s character Rick Dalton acts in, titled Nebraska Jim, directed by real-life Italian director Sergio Corbucci

So, I resolved to watch a Corbucci film and got hold of his other highly regarded effort, the 1968 western The Great Silence. It was pretty clear that the film strongly influenced Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, both westerns taking place in the middle of a severe winter (in adjoining states of Utah and Wyoming respectively), featuring scores by the legendary Ennio Morricone and having scenes involving stagecoaches, lodges and of course, plenty of violence and death. In fact, The Great Silence shocked viewers for its relentlessly downbeat storyline and the fate of leads (this was well before Game of Thrones taught us that no character is sacred!). The main protagonist of the story, a mute gunslinger called Silence, is played by the French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant.

A poster for a real Sergio Corbucci film, The Great Silence (Il Grande Silenzio) released in 1968, starring French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant

After watching the film, I read up about Trintignant. I had only seen him in Costa Gavras’ Z many years ago and more recently in the highly acclaimed Amour for which he won the French Cesar for best actor in 2013. He comes from an affluent family and two of his uncles were race car drivers of repute. He was therefore very familiar with the world of automobiles and race tracks. This was one key factor in him being cast in Claude Lelouche’s 1966 classic romantic drama A Man and A Woman, where the male lead is a race car driver.

Since I was interested in watching some of Trintignant’s earlier films, I resolved to watch A Man and A Woman. I confess, a key factor in picking this film was his co-star in the film, the stunning French actress Anouk Aimee who had taken my breath away with her presence in Fellini’s 8 ½ many years ago. I watched the movie last night and thoroughly enjoyed it…the chemistry between the actors, the simplicity of the blossoming relationship between a widow and a widower, that amazing musical score and the stunning outdoor photography.

Jean-Louis Trintignant and Anouk Aimee in Claude Lelouche’s 1966 classic A Man and a Woman

One of those outdoor scenes relates to Jean-Louis’ participation in…drumroll…the Le Mans 24 hour race! I was immediately transported to Ford v Ferrari, as I once again witnessed the entertaining start of Le Mans and other scenes from the race. And to seal the connection, a different scene in the film shows Trintignant’s character test driving an early version of the history-making Ford GT40 which is the centerpiece of Ford v Ferrari. His character incidentally also drives a Ford Mustang on the road and there are several beautiful shots of him racing through the French countryside.

So, this was the rather tenuous (but wildly exciting for me!) connection between James Mangold’s 2019 film Ford v Ferrari and Claude Lelouche’s 1966 film A Man and a Woman, created by way of Jean-Louis Trintignant’s presence in a 1968 Sergio Corbucci film The Great Silence which inspired Quentin Tarantino’s 2015 western The Hateful Eight and tangentially referenced in this year’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

I can think of taking these connections in other directions. Perhaps to rewatch the 1971 Steve McQueen classic Le Mans. Definitely need to watch Sergio Corbucci’s Django…maybe I’ll see some other visual cues used by Quentin Tarantino. And most certainly, I want to watch the two sequels that Claude Lelouche released in 1986 (A Man and a Woman: 20 Years Later) and earlier this year (The Best Years of a Life), with the same two lead actors. I wonder what parallels I will find between these films and Richard Linklater’s hauntingly beautiful Before trilogy…

BBC vs. Fox/StudioCanal: Who wins The War of the Worlds adaptations?

I recently wrote about my favourite TV shows of 2019, yet another year in this continuing Golden Age of TV. One of the mini-series I hadn’t yet seen but was looking forward to, was BBC’s The War of the Worlds adaptation, starring Eleanor Tomlinson, who I’ve been a fan of after seeing her in the mini-series Ordeal by Innocence and 5 seasons of Poldark. While searching for articles about the show, I was surprised to find a Wikipedia link for another adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic space invasion novel that had come out a few months earlier. Titled La Guerre des Mondes, it is a co-production from Fox TV and France’s StudioCanal. It ran for 8 episodes, was bi-lingual (French and English) and had an ensemble cast including Gabriel Byrne, Elizabeth McGovern (Lady Crowley from Downton Abbey), Lea Drucker and Stephane Caillard, among others.

At the time, my main focus was on the BBC adaptation and I thought that perhaps I would sample the first episode of the Fox/Canal version if I had the time. Well, two of the three episodes of the BBC version have aired already and I caught up with both over the weekend. Each episode clocks in at about an hour and a half, so watching this mini-series is effectively like watching three movies. The first episode fulfilled all my expectations, with the producers able to bring something fresh to a story that pretty much every viewer would already be familiar with. Although set at the start of the 20th century, there is an element of ‘wokeness’ in the show, with the main protagonists Amy and George depicted as a young couple ‘living in sin’ (George is already married) in a small town in Surrey. They have befriended a local astronomer Ogilvy who in his own words “is also a pariah, like them” (it is implied that he is gay). The early stages of the invasion are by turns engrossing, tense and eventually terrifying as the meteor that lands in the forest nearby draws large crowds who eventually pay a terrible price for their curiosity. In an interesting departure from the source material, the narrative occasionally flashes forward a few years into the future to show the bleak scenario of an England that has apparently been terraformed and is starting to resemble Mars. The second episode continues the action as the infamous tripods make their appearance and the attack spreads to London. And then half way through the second episode, the pacing grinds to a virtual standstill. The narrative bogs down in lengthy conversations among the characters, in a way that neither moves the plot forward, nor reveals anything interesting about their personalities or backstory. It’s really not easy watching a feature-length episode when nothing much happens for several minutes other than characters engaging in pointless discussions. I am now waiting to see how they tie up everything in the third and final episode airing on 1st December.

Eleanor Tomlinson on the run from a Martian tripod in BBC’s The War of the Worlds three-part mini-series

Naturally, with this experience, I was truly intrigued to see what Fox/StudioCanal had done with their version. I have watched 4 episodes so far. What a difference in the way scriptwriter Howard Overman has tackled the concept here! Altogether, La Guerre des Mondes with 8 episodes running for a relatively crisp 48 minutes each totals up to about 380 minutes as compared to the BBC production’s 315 minutes. But each episode crackles with a sense of urgency. Set in the present day in both London and France, the production makes some smart plot decisions in order to create narrative tension (cellphones and cars stop working after the invasion). It delves much deeper into human behaviour and several times I found myself wondering how I would behave in situations that those characters were facing…would I do whatever I could to save my own skin, or would I help a fellow human? How do you live with yourself when you accidentally kill someone in a moment of panic and confusion? How does one find the courage to live on when everyone you love has died? Instead of the giant tripods towering over buildings, the creative team have come up with alien machines that present a much more immediate and proximate threat. Some of the scenes are truly chilling. The way the aliens use their tech and the way it affects human beings is really interesting. I was watching a version without subtitles, so I had to guess what was going on in the few scenes where characters speak to each other in French…not a big issue (hopefully I haven’t missed any major plot points!). The show has been released in most parts of the world already and will come to Epix in the US in Feb 2020. Not to be missed!

Gabriel Byrne and Elizabeth McGovern walk among the dead in Fox/Studio Canal’s 8 episode La Guerre des Mondes

I’ll still tune in for the final episode of the BBC production and hopefully they can redeem themselves after the snooze-inducing 2nd episode. After all, they have a whole movie-length to play with! But the undisputed winner in this war is Fox/StudioCanal.

Enjoying the Golden Age of TV: Gems of 2019

Twelve months ago, I published a 3-part post about my favourite TV shows and mini-series of 2018. It’s that time of the year again to look back at my top shows of 2019, a few of which I’ve just started on.

In 2018, I discovered two great new shows – Yellowstone and The Terror – and one that was in its fourth season – Poldark.  So my hopes were high for a similarly bountiful 2019.

The year didn’t start off that well.

  • First, I bailed on Star Trek: Discovery midway through the 2nd season, just unable to deal with the immaturity of the lead characters.
  • Then in April, I started off on Netflix’s scifi/superhero black comedy, The Umbrella Academy. Although I liked the premise and tone of the show, the characters didn’t really appeal to me. So after watching the first two episodes, I skipped straight to the season finale, which admittedly was pretty epic. But I’m still not sure if I will watch the remaining episodes or invest in season 2 when it comes along in 2020.
  • By the end of May, my 8-year journey with the Game of Thrones was complete, but my personal enjoyment of the final season was dampened by all the negative social media reaction.

At this stage, I was starting to wonder when I would get to watch something that gave me unadulterated satisfaction. Well, my prayers were answered and I had a great run from June to September:

  • Soon after, a wave of positive buzz led me to watch the HBO/BBC One co-production – Years and Years – which unspools a very believable (and tumultuous) future history of the UK as experienced by the middle-class Lyons family over the next 15 years. The only quibble I had was how so many members of this ordinary family all got personally involved in some extraordinary events through the course of the show…a bit too much action for one family!
  • In June, I returned to the Dutton ranch in Montana to catch up on the latest scheming and wheeling-dealing in season 2 of Yellowstone. The second season really dialed up the stakes, with more melodrama and violence on show and I find that I’m now fully invested into this world of dusty cowboys, crooked politicians and ruthless billionaires. In particular, I loved the story arc of loyal ranch foreman Rip Wheeler, played with brooding intensity by Cole Hauser.
  • In July/Aug, it was time for the fifth and final season of BBC’s period drama Poldark, a very satisfying end to a beautifully photographed show with an engaging cast. This show is really my guilty pleasure, not high concept or weighty like a lot of the stuff I usually watch. I’ve now read the first of the Winston Graham books, I’ve definitely got Cornwall penciled into my list of places to visit in England and of course, I’m a big fan of series leads Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson. I am looking forward to seeing Ms. Tomlinson in the upcoming three-part BBC adaptation of The War of the Worlds later this month. And in 2020, we will see her in Joss Whedon’s new HBO scifi series The Nevers, set in Victorian England about a group of women with special abilities.
Eleanor Tomlinson and Aidan Turner in Poldark
  • Around this time, I also watched the critically acclaimed 2018 German-language World War II thriller Das Boot, a sequel to the award winning 1981 film of the same name. Starring Vicky Krieps (Daniel Day Lewis’ co-star in The Phantom Thread) and Tom Wlaschiha (who played assassin Jaqen H’ghar in Game of Thrones), the show switches between the claustrophobic confines of a German U-boat and the cat-and-mouse game between the French resistance and the Nazis in the seaport of La Rochelle in occupied France.  
  • In September, Netflix released Gideon Raff’s intense 6-episode mini-series The Spy, featuring British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. I loved the period setting and the depiction of society in the Middle East during the 60s, not to mention the outstanding acting from the entire cast, especially Sacha Baron Cohen, who is utterly spellbinding as a real-life Israeli spy Eli Cohen, whose dedication to his task draws him deeper and deeper into his enemy’s world.
Israeli spy Eli Cohen (Sacha Baron Cohen, 2nd from right) infiltrates the highest levels of the Syrian political establishment in Netflix’s The Spy

As the year draws to a close, my viewing prospects appear to be very promising:

  • I’ve just finished watching the 3rd episode of HBO’s Watchmen, Damon Lindelof’s sequel to the seminal graphic novel from the 80s (also adapted to a pretty good movie by Zack Snyder in 2009), which arguably raised the superhero genre from the realms of pulp fiction to literary legitimacy. Of course, based on my past experience with Lost and The Leftovers, I know that Lindelof is unlikely to provide any convenient closure at the end of this one-and-done season. But the show is so good that I couldn’t care less. Powerhouse performances from Regina King and Don Johnson light up the first two episodes, but episode three belongs entirely to Jean Smart who plays hard-as-nails FBI agent Laurie Blake, a key character from the original comic book. And while it’s possible to enjoy the show without having read the book, the true rewards come to those familiar with the source material, as the characters and their connections to each other and to the graphic novel become progressively clear. Six episodes to go and assured joy till the 15th of December.
  • Apple TV+ launched last week and I promptly signed up just to watch Ronald Moore’s alternate history drama, For All Mankind. Set at the end of the 60s, the show is based on the premise that the Soviet Union continued to lead the space race, which then required the Americans to make some fundamental changes in their space program. Ronald Moore won accolades for his writing work on Star Trek: The Next Generation and its spin-offs and also for the reimagined Battlestar Galactica (2004-09). His work is notable for its innate belief in the ability of humankind to persevere and overcome obstacles. It seems fitting then, for him to be the showrunner on a show which reaches for the stars. For anyone who has enjoyed watching Apollo 13 or HBO’s 1998 series From the Earth to the Moon (which incidentally I am re-watching as a counterpoint to this show), this is just right for you! As with Watchmen, I have six episodes to go and guaranteed entertainment until 20th December.
The Soviets get to the moon first in For All Mankind available on Apple TV+
  • I am currently reading The Secret Commonwealth, the 2nd novel of Philip Pullman’s new Book of Dust trilogy, which is linked to his signature work, His Dark Materials. How timely then, that the 8-episode HBO/BBC co-production of His Dark Materials has just launched this week. I watched the first episode last night; the first thing that hit me was the ‘rightness’ of the casting (Dafne Keen from Logan as Lyra, the adorable Lewin Lloyd as Roger, James McAvoy as Lord Asriel and a rather creepy Ruth Wilson as Mrs. Coulter) and the visualization of the daemons, especially the oh-so-cute Pantalaimon, Lyra’s daemon. There are seven more episodes, which will keep me happy till 22nd December!
  • Last but not the least, I finally started watching Amazon’s highly rated (and R-rated) deconstruction of the superhero genre, The Boys, which premiered in July. The show can be described as a black comedy and is set in a world where superheros are popular in public but morally corrupt in private. “The Boys” refers to a group of vigilantes who try to take down the worst of the superheros; Karl Urban is their leader, Billy Butcher and Jack Quaid (son of Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan) is the ‘noob’ who becomes part of the group. Since the show is based on Garth Ennis’ comic book series, I am well prepared for the sex and graphic violence. Seven episodes to go, and since they are already available on Amazon, a high likelihood of binge-watching it one of these days!

Coming later this month are two more shows to look forward to.

  • The Mandalorian, produced by Jon Favreau, headlines the launch of Disney’s streaming service Disney+ and extends the Star Wars universe into live action TV for the first time. The show is set five years after the events of Return of the Jedi and is headlined by Pedro Pascal (who played Oberyn Martell in Game of Thrones) and mixed martial artist Gina Carano.
  • And after a seemingly never-ending wait, we return to Buckingham Palace for season 3 of The Crown, this time with an all-new cast, including award winner Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth, Tobias Menzies as Prince Philip and Helena Bonham-Carter as Princess Margaret. This season will cover the period between 1964 and 1977.

So that’s the full stack of my 2019 TV viewing experience. Given I prefer to watch movies to TV shows, this is the most packed TV viewing schedule I have had in years. But as everyone knows, in the Golden Age of TV that we’re currently living in, the budgets, the talent and the production values for a lot of TV shows are at movie scale.

Ad Astra shoots for the stars but doesn’t quite make it beyond the Moon (minor spoilers)

James Gray’s Ad Astra had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival to wide critical acclaim and was immediately hailed as an early awards season contender, both as an exploration of the human condition and for Brad Pitt’s understated and nuanced acting performance. It has variously been compared with cinematic classics like Apocalypse Now (1979), Solaris (1972) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) for its meditative tone, measured pacing and focus on relationships rather than mindless action.

I’ve been a fan of James Gray’s grounded New York based stories for some years – his two crime thrillers, The Yards (2000) and We Own the Night (2007), both starring Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix, and The Immigrant (2013), a drama set in the early 20’s starring Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner. All three films, as well as 2008’s Two Lovers (which I haven’t seen) were nominated for the Palm d’Or at Cannes. In 2016, James Gray stepped out of New York City for the first time with the true-life drama The Lost City of Z, which chronicled the efforts of British explorer Col. Percy Fawcett (played by Charlie Hunnam) to discover a mythical lost city in the Amazon jungle during the early 20th century. This film attracted rave reviews for Robert Pattinson’s supporting role and for its cinematography and screenplay.

Suffice to say, James Gray is a respected filmmaker who is known for extracting great acting performances from big name actors in very grounded, realistic stories. So, when he announced in 2016 that he wanted to feature the most realistic depiction of space travel that’s been put in a movie, everyone sat up and took notice. Expectations were stoked by the work of other auteurs who had delved into the space movie genre in the immediate past, specifically Alfonso Cuaron with Gravity (2013), Christopher Nolan with Interstellar (2014) and even Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015). All these films employed new techniques or striking production design to depict a very realistic present or near future view of space exploration. In addition, these films were also commercially-oriented with conventional plotting and action sequences, which led to them becoming big box office hits, each making in the region of USD 600-700 million globally.

Having watched Ad Astra last night, I can say that the result is closer to the work of another great auteur, Terrence Malick. And as anyone who has watched recent movies by Malick can attest to, his films frequently forgo plot and pacing in favour of expressing moods and emotions. This explains the comparisons with 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris. However, those films had the advantage of also breaking technical ground in their realistic depiction of space exploration at a time when the world was enthralled by the space race of the 60’s and the moon landings. So, while they were leisurely paced and thinly plotted “art films”, they still attracted large audiences because of they reflected a key cultural zeitgeist and because of the dazzling visuals that had not been seen on screen previously. Naturally, these films cemented their place in movie history as critical and commercial hits. Likewise, Apocalypse Now had some amazing visual sequences, but also touched upon the highly emotional topic of the Vietnam War for American audiences and revealed to them the brutal conditions and the fragile mental state of the American soldiers there. In fact, I haven’t understood the comparison to Apocalypse Now because there is no ‘heart of darkness’ or large scale human tragedy being explored here, just a single individual’s silent inner conflict related to unresolved ‘daddy issues’.

The problem with Ad Astra is that it’s stuck in a no-man’s land, on three counts:

One, it’s overall theme, which I interpreted as juxtaposing the search for intelligent life in the universe vs. the importance of nurturing meaningful relationships with people on Earth. This is indeed a big idea. Sadly, it does not find an anchor in today’s zeitgeist which is focused on climate change and race/gender equality. And therefore, the film fails to connect with the audience at an emotional level. We just don’t care about the outcome. Perhaps this theme would have been meaningful if it had come out at the height of the space race in the 60s.

Two, it doesn’t sufficiently leverage the opportunity for striking big screen imagery, except for one sequence right at the beginning with the Space Antenna and another one on the surface of the Moon; but there are better versions of both – one in Star Trek (2009) with the Narada space drill and the second in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) with the final chase scene.

And three, the technology in the film is not even as realistic as the filmmaker’s stated ambitions, with several scenes and plot points stretching credibility. This is not a problem when watching an action movie, but is really difficult to accept when the film has been sold as a realistic depiction of space travel. There are quite a few instances that just felt technically incorrect or pointless and contrived:-

  • It’s difficult to understand why Brad Pitt’s character Major McBride needed to be transported all the way to Mars, just to send a top-secret voice message to Neptune. Why couldn’t they have just recorded this on Earth and then transmitted via a relay of secure satellites and transmitting stations on the Moon and Mars?
  • I can’t understand how a spaceship on a slingshot trajectory from the Moon to Mars could use up fuel to slow down quickly enough to attend to a distress call from a research station and then start up its engines and pick up the acceleration to resume its journey to Mars.
  • And on Mars, the manner in which Major McBride boards the rocket leaving for Neptune seemed more suited to a Dwayne Johnson Fast and Furious spin-off than a ‘realistic’ movie about space exploration.  
  • And finally, using a nuclear explosion to accelerate your spaceship back to Earth feels like the kind of ‘pop science’ we would expect from Tony Stark or Star-Lord in a Marvel movie.

It almost feels like this is a film created by two voices. One is driven by the director’s core strength which is in making grounded, realistic movies about human emotions and motivations. The other is driven by the director’s ambition (and surely the studio’s as well) to create a space-based dramatic action movie.

And because of this intrinsic narrative conflict, I believe that Ad Astra will fade from theaters and the public consciousness quickly, neither fully satisfying critics nor paying audiences. The best bet is that Brad Pitt will deservedly be acknowledged for his acting performance (and in fact, he will probably also get nominated for his supporting role in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). And hopefully for director James Gray, we will see him return to form with his next film, no matter where it’s set.

Universal Studios’ Monsters – a glorious past and an uncertain future

Universal Studios Monster’s Gallery:
top row from left: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), The Phantom of the Opera (1925), Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931),
bottom row from left:The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), The Wolf Man (1941), The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

Franchises and cinematic universes are pretty much the only reason that audiences go to watch movies in theatres these days. These ‘event movies’ generate the much sought after ‘water cooler moments’ (or their equivalent in social media) which drive new audiences and repeat viewers for the movies.

Disney is currently the king of franchises, with its acquisition of Pixar (in 2006), Marvel (in 2009) and Lucasfilm/Star Wars (in 2012) now giving them unprecedented box office dominance around the world. With Fox studios now part of the Mouse empire, they also have James Cameron’s Avatar, Ridley Scott’s Aliens and the Planet of the Apes franchises, although the success or continuity of these is less assured. And of course, the live action remakes of their own animated classics like Lion King and Aladdin are also raking in the moolah.

Warner Bros. has had significant (though less consistent) success with the DC Comics and Harry Potter franchises and there is always the possibility that they may create new Lord of the Rings films through their New Line division. Their Godzilla/King Kong “Monsterverse” seems to be fast fading though, with the tepid box office performance of this summer’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters calling into question the prospects of Godzilla vs. Kong next summer or any future films in the series.

And this brings us to Universal Studios, the home of Jurassic Park and The Fast and the Furious. Both franchises have been around for a while, but each is built around a single plot point – “dinosaurs run amuck” and “anti-heroes in fast cars”. I’m not sure how long these can continue.

The real opportunity for Universal lies with their ‘classic monsters’ line-up, based on films which were produced almost a 100 years ago! The characters are household names, deeply embedded in popular culture, having appeared in parodies, children’s cartoons and TV shows.

It started off with two silent films The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), both featuring Lon Chaney, who was known as the “Man of a Thousand Faces” for his incredible ability to transform his appearance using make-up and facial contortion.

In 1931, the studio turned to two other literary characters – Dracula starring Bela Lugosi and Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff are considered classics of cinema. In fact, the visualization of these two characters in popular culture around the world is based entirely on the way Lugosi and Karloff interpreted these characters nearly 90 years ago. Both actors were typecast into similar roles for the rest of their lives.

A year later came the first Universal monster character not based on a novel – The Mummy, starring Boris Karloff. And in 1933, the studio went back to a literary source for their next creation, H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man. It starred Claude Rains in his American film debut, who went on to become one of the most acclaimed character actors in Hollywood over the next 30 years.

In 1941, Universal released The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney Jr., son of the Man of a Thousand Faces. Chaney Jr. played the title character in 3 subsequent films.

Now with a full range of cinematic monsters, Universal started mixing and matching them in a series of sequels through the 1940s. Eventually, the characters crossed over into comedy, appearing as the featured villains in Abbott and Costello films from 1948 to 1955.

Towards the end of this period, Universal created the last of its monsters, the “Gill-man” in Creature from the Black Lagoon. Released in 1954, it spawned a couple of sequels.

Over the next several decades, with the expansion of American films and TV shows across the world, these monsters became famous around the world, especially appealing to children through their presence in cartoons and TV shows. I was first introduced to these characters as a kid, seeing their various incarnations on TV. It was only about ten years ago that I eventually watched the original classics which started it all off. It’s amazing what was achieved on screen with the make-up and cinematic techniques that were available decades ago. These films are not scary by the definition of today’s horror films, but still evoke a sense of dread, through the masterful use of music and lighting.

In 1999, Universal remade The Mummy as an Indiana Jones type adventure movie, with the inspired casting of Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. Powered by their entertaining on-screen chemistry and superb visual effects, the film was a global hit and spawned two sequels and a spin-off series, The Scorpion King. Incidentally, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson started his film career in 2001 playing the Scorpion King character in The Mummy Returns.

The Mummy directed by Stephen Sommers, starring Rachel Weisz, Brendan Fraser and Arnold Vosloo was a worldwide hit in 1999, spawning two sequels and a spin-off series, The Scorpion King

Director Stephen Sommers became hot property on the back of the first two Mummy films and was picked by Universal to direct Van Helsing. Based loosely on the vampire hunter who appeared in Bram Stoker’s original Dracula novel, this was an attempt to bring all the Universal monsters back together for the first time since the 1950’s. Featuring box office star Hugh Jackman, it was considered a surefire hit. Instead it turned out to be a critical disaster and put paid to any plans for a sequel.

Since then, Universal has tried thrice to restart its monster franchise. The first attempt was a remake of The Wolfman in 2010, starring Benecio del Toro and Anthony Hopkins. The film went through a tortured pre-production process and was negatively impacted by a last minute change of director, with Joe Johnston coming on board just three weeks before the start of filming. The film was a critical and commercial failure (although I really liked it!) and put paid to plans of a sequel. The second attempt in 2014 with Luke Evans starring in Dracula Untold tried to position Dracula as a hero. And when that film failed to make an impact, the studio doubled down and became even more ambitious, announcing the creation of the “Dark Universe franchise” and releasing the now-infamous publicity picture featuring Russell Crowe (Dr. Jekyll), Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp (the Invisible Man), Javier Bardem (Frankenstein’s monster) and Soufia Boutella (the Mummy) in the lead-up to the release of Tom Cruise’s The Mummy in 2017. When that film crashed and burned at the box office, Universal learned the hard way the same lesson as Warner Bros. did when trying to force fit a shared universe for its DC Comics characters; both Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League were widely reviled for having one-dimensional characters while being over-stuffed with noisy video-game type action sequences. On the other hand, the standalone films Wonder Woman and Aquaman have achieved significant commercial success and have been praised for their character development and likeable protagonists.

Universal Studios’ failed attempt to create a new Dark Universe franchise planned to feature, from left to right:
Russell Crowe (Dr. Jekyl), Javier Bardem (Frankenstein), Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp (The Invisible Man) and Sofia Boutella (The Mummy)

And so, Universal decided to go back to a smaller, character-driven film to try and organically grow the franchise. They turned to American producer Jason Blum, the man behind the low-budget Paranormal Activity and Purge franchises, and Australian actor-turned-director Leigh Whannell who has been insanely successful in the past 15 years in launching the Saw and Insidious horror franchises. Whannell will direct a modern adaptation of The Invisible Man, starring acclaimed TV actress Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men, Top of the Lake, The Handmaid’s Tale). Scheduled for release in February 2020, I assumed that Universal would look for this film to pave the way for other standalone stories, focusing perhaps on human characters who have been twisted in some way – Dr. Jekyll, Quasimodo and The Phantom of the Opera.

I was surprised therefore, to hear this week that Paul Feig, the man behind comedies like Bridesmaids, The Heat and Spy has been hired by Universal to write, produce and direct a film called Dark Army, which will apparently feature some of Universal’s monsters. This looks like another attempt to take a short cut into a shared universe, perhaps with a comedic angle, like Fred Dekker’s 1987 horror-comedy cult film The Monster Squad. I’m not very reassured, especially since Mr. Feig’s attempt to reboot the Ghostbusters franchise in 2016 didn’t get very far.

In Hollywood, as in all businesses, you’re only as good or bad as your last venture. Sequels get greenlit within hours of a successful opening weekend and likewise franchises are shelved on the back of a poor box office performance. So it’s best to wait five months for The Invisible Man and see if it can help Universal’s monsters get through their first hundred years and survive against superheros, space adventures and fairy tale characters.

Tarantino gives us huge dollops of nostalgia and wistfulness in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth, Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton and Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate
in Quentin Tarentino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

It feels strange to refer to a Quentin Tarantino film as “nice” or “sweet”, but those are exactly the words that come to mind after watching Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, his homage to the city of dreams that shaped his childhood. This is perhaps the first of his efforts not to have a plot and not to have a goal that its characters are working towards. Instead, it’s a slice of life film, that takes us on a documentary-like tour of Hollywood with TV actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double buddy, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).

The film perfectly captures the zeitgeist of Hollywood during the flower power years, following Dalton and Booth as they go about a typical workday, trying their best to survive in a tough, fast-changing industry. What makes the viewing experience extra-fun for the audience (especially if you’re a film buff or are familiar with that era) is recognizing the real-life personalities they cross paths with and real-life situations they are part of.

And through this integration of fictitious characters with real-life events, OUaTiH joins the club of Tarantino’s revisionist history films, along with Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Django Unchained (2012). In the first two, QT creates events and people whose actions turn the tables on history’s villains – WW2 Nazis and a cruel plantation owner in 1850’s Mississippi respectively – leading to immensely crowd-pleasing endings. I won’t give away any spoilers for OUaTiH, but suffice to say that the audience walks out of the theater with a smile and feelings of nostalgia, wistfulness and contentment.

Tarantino has been meticulous in his recreation of late 1960’s Hollywood, driving around LA, location scouting for streets that still retain the look of that time. The production ‘rented’ the Hollywood Freeway for an hour so they could fill it with period-accurate cars to shoot a few minutes worth of Brad Pitt driving down the freeway. One brief scene in which Pitt drives past a drive-in theater required a period-accurate miniature of the set to be built (by none other than the legendary John Dykstra, who pioneered modern special effects with Star Wars). The film also contains trailers and snippets of the fictitious 1950’s western TV show Bounty Law that the character Rick Dalton used to be the star of…and these have been shot using actual 16mm B&W film. Overall, the movie looks gorgeous; Robert Richardson, who won 3 Oscars shooting films for Oliver Stone (JFK) and Martin Scorsese (The Aviator and Hugo) has now become Tarantino’s DP of choice, having lensed his last four films.

As has become de rigueur with movies these days, the soundtrack of the film is filled with songs from the era, mostly heard over the car radio, along with actual radio jingles from the time.

Both DiCaprio and Pitt are outstanding as the two Hollywood veterans Dalton and Booth, trying hard to escape the label of ‘has-beens’, score another pay-day and stay relevant. As with all Tarantino films, there are plenty of other scene-stealing performances, even from actors who are on screen for a few minutes:–

  • Margot Robbie simultaneously evokes the star-power and the wide-eyed innocence of 26-year-old Sharon Tate, the actress who was the toast of Hollywood until her life was tragically cut short by members of Charles Manson’s ‘family’.
  • Al Pacino appears as real-life film producer Marvin Schwarz, who tries to convince DiCaprio’s character to re-ignite his career by shooting ‘spaghetti westerns’ in Rome.
  • Damian Lewis looks remarkably like Steve McQueen during a brief scene at a party at the Playboy Mansion.
  • How extraordinary to see Nicholas Hammond, who played Friedrich von Trapp in The Sound of Music as a teenager, then played Spider-Man in the live action TV show of the late 70’s, appearing as seasoned director Sam Wanamaker who is directing DiCaprio’s character in an episode of the western TV show Lancer.
  • On the sets of Lancer, we come across the precocious child actor (“not actress”) Trudi, played with supreme poise by 10-year-old Julia Butters
  • And I got a lump in my throat, as Luke Perry’s character makes a short but dignified appearance as real-life actor Wayne Maunder, appearing in a key scene in Lancer. This was Perry’s last screen role before his death in March.
  • 25-year-old Margaret Qualley, who made quite an impression as troubled teenager Jill Garvey in The Leftovers has a significant role here as Pussycat, one of the many members of Charles Manson’s ‘family’, living in squalid conditions on the Spahn Ranch. She is simultaneously playful, seductive and creepy. Surely, with the guidance of skilled talent reps, her career could hit the same heights as Kristen Stewart (who she actually shares the screen with in the new biopic Seberg).
  • And last, but not least, how delightful to see the character of Bruce Lee (played by Michael Moh) on the sets of The Green Hornet – the show that first made him famous (and one that I used to watch as a kid) – in one of the most entertaining scenes in the movie.
  • Also keep an eye out for a movie poster by Italian filmmaker Antonio Margheriti, a name that fans of Inglourious Basterds will instantly recognize, as it’s the false name that Brad Pitt’s character uses in a hilarious scene in that movie.

All these characters – both real and fictional – intersect during those fateful days of 1969. I am positive OUaTiH will pick up the SAG award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Motion Picture.

In the afternoon of his career, a mellow Tarantino has given us a truly enjoyable character study spiced with moments of dramatic tension, slapstick humour and right at the end, his trademark over-the-top violence.

HBO’s Chernobyl mini-series – A real-life horror sci-fi story

Anyone who lived through the 80’s would remember 1986 for the twin disasters of the Challenger space shuttle explosion and the Chernobyl nuclear accident, which took place within 4 months of each other. The Challenger explosion was seen again and again on TV and was therefore much more dramatic, the twin forks of smoke from the still-firing boosters seared into our memories. Chernobyl took place behind the iron curtain which kept a tight rein on information and pictures shared with the outside world. By the time the Soviet Union had dissolved five years later, the reactor was already entombed in concrete and there was nothing to see.

HBO and SkyUK ’s new 5-part mini-series Chernobyl, chronicles the hours leading up to the explosion (via flashback scenes in the final episode) and more importantly, the valiant efforts of a wide group of scientists, firemen, soldiers, engineers and even coal miners to contain and mitigate the radioactivity in the hours, days, weeks and months following the accident.

The mini-series is created by American screenwriter, Craig Mazin, perhaps the least likely person one would expect subject matter like this from, having previously written a couple of the Scary Movie spoofs and the two Hangover sequels! Director Johan Renck from Sweden is also a relative unknown; he has directed three episodes of Breaking Bad and one of The Walking Dead, but he has spent most of his career making music videos for the likes of Madonna, Kylie Minogue and David Bowie. This unlikely duo has created an instant classic, equal parts human drama and history lesson, delivering a commentary on the tragic consequences of human negligence and deceit by the State.

The scenes detailing the immediate aftermath of the explosion in the No.4 reactor at the Chernobyl Power Plant play out like a sci-fi horror film. The radiation causes skin burn and internal organ collapse for the initial responders and honestly, the only thing missing from these scenes is a monster or a supernatural creature. Likewise, the view of the burning station and the blue shaft of sparkling Cherenkov radiation shooting straight up into the night sky look like it could have been a scene from an Avengers movie. In later scenes, seeing machines breakdown instantly in the vicinity of the reactor core truly brings home the destructive power of radioactivity and makes one wonder at the arrogance of humankind in believing we can successfully tame this kind of lethal energy.

A soldier prepares to go out onto the rooftop of the power plant, to clear out radioactive pieces of graphite – due to the high radiation, he can only be outside for 90 seconds

The shock and initial denial of the plant supervisors and bureaucrats is difficult to comprehend, until one remembers that this was the Soviet Union of 1986, locked in an ideological war with the West and with the inability to admit failure of any kind – even to oneself – ingrained deeply in the psyche of both bosses and subordinates.

The three main characters in the story are Boris Shcherbina (played by Stellan Skarsgård), the deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers, chemist Valery Legasov (played by Jared Harris) and a fictitious scientist Ulana Khomyuk (played by Emily Watson), whose character was created to represent the many scientists who helped out in the wake of the disaster. I think all three will receive acting nominations at the next Golden Globes and Emmys. Besides these three, we also see the points of view of many other characters, such as the wife of a first responder fireman, and these ordinary people bring the true impact of the human disaster to life for the viewers. There is a heart-breaking sub-plot involving actors Fares Fares (watch him in the Arabic thriller The Nile Hilton Incident) and Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk) playing soldiers who are tasked to put down pets who have been abandoned in the exclusion zone and now contaminated with radioactivity…almost unwatchable.

The final episode uses the mechanic of a courtroom drama – specifically the prosecution of the officials who were in charge of the power plant – to piece together the series of unfortunate events which culminated in the explosion on the night of 26th April 1986, which at one point risked the lives of 50 million inhabitants across Belarus and Ukraine.

It is generally acknowledged that the Chernobyl disaster and the realization of how far the Soviet Union had fallen behind the West in technological prowess was a key factor in Mikhail Gorbachev’s decision to double down on the path of perestroika and glasnost, which eventually led to the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. That makes the events depicted take on even more significance.