The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

2017 #56
David Yates | 110 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, USA & Canada / English* | 12 / PG-13

The Legend of Tarzan

Reviving or continuing well-known IPs as action-packed summer extravaganzas is the order of the day in modern blockbuster cinema — witness the likes of the 2009 Sherlock Holmes and 2013 Lone Ranger — so I suppose it was inevitable that someone would eventually attempt the same with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Lord of the Apes. As with the other films of its ilk, The Legend of Tarzan® (as its multiple title cards insist on calling it) is a mixed success.

Eschewing the “tell the origins (again)” form of most reboots, the film finds Tarzan long retired to England as Lord John Clayton III (Alexander Skarsgård) when he is invited back to Africa by the King of Belgium to observe the wonderful work being done there. Initially reluctant, John is persuaded to go by his now-wife Jane (Margot Robbie), who’s keen to revisit their old friends, and American agent George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), who suspects the Belgians of enslaving the Congolese people. Indeed, the whole invitation is actually a ruse, as Belgian envoy Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) intends to deliver John to tribal chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), who has an axe to grind against Tarzan, in return for the diamonds that a near-bankrupt Belgium requires. Naturally, fighting and vine-swinging and sundry acts of derring-do ensue.

When it works, The Legend of Tarzan® is a straight-up old-fashioned adventure movie, albeit with slicker action sequences and created with lashings of CGI. When it doesn’t, it comes across as oddly muddled. As with so many blockbusters last year (Suicide Squad and Rogue One spring immediately to mind), it feels like it was chopped and changed a lot in the edit. It’s hard to pin down how exactly, but it’s something in the way it flows (or doesn’t) between scenes, or sometimes even within sequences. Considering that (just as with the other two examples I mentioned) there were reshoots, you think they’d’ve smoothed some of that out.

Me Tarzan, you jealous

Similarly, the effects are a distractingly mixed bag. A lot of the CGI is incredible — the animals look magnificent, for example; especially the gorillas, who are required to offer some kind of character as well as feature in action scenes. But the filmmakers have been overambitious in other areas. The film was mostly shot on soundstages, and the added-in backgrounds for outside stuff are painfully obvious much of the time. However, the worst bit is a sequence where Tarzan and friends swing on to a CG train that looks like it’s been borrowed from a 15-year-old computer game.

Fortunately the performances show a greater consistency. A tough training regime has left Skarsgård with the muscles required to look the part of a muscly jungle-man, but he also displays an adeptness for comedy — or, at least, a lightness of touch — that makes him an appealing hero. There’s a clear attempt to make Jane more than just a damsel in distress, albeit while still conforming to good ol’ Boys’ Own entertainment to some extent, and leading lady du jour Robbie helps give her character. Similarly, Samuel L. Jackson brings easy confidence to his American agent, who serves as a kind of sidekick to Tarzan for most of the movie, acting as comic relief and action scene back-up. If anyone’s underserved it’s the villains, with Waltz solid but giving the performance he always gives (surely he’s capable of more?) and Hounsou being somewhat underused — his character has a highly emotional reason for wanting Tarzan dead, but there’s little time to feel that when there are bigger villainous plans afoot.

He does look cool, though

Tonally the film reminded me a little of something like Superman Returns — a movie made a long time after a forebear and with a whole new cast, but intended as a sequel nonetheless. Only, where Superman Returns was a sequel to the first two Christopher Reeve Superman movies, The Legend of Tarzan® is a sequel to a movie that doesn’t exist. Its fictitious forerunner is some kind of Tarzan ur-film, a non-specific version of the Tarzan and Jane story that ends with them moving to England and adopting his familial title. This film assumes we’re all familiar with that broad narrative, or familiar with enough to subsist on a few choice flashbacks anyway. And, actually, that’s fine if you do know the story — it certainly feels like we don’t need it going over again… even if, personally, the only version I’ve actually seen is the Disney one. But I do wonder what younger people made of it all, because it seems to me that Tarzan may have slipped somewhat from the general consciousness, so perhaps they’re less familiar with said backstory. Or maybe they’ve all seen the Disney film too.

Also like Superman Returns, The Legend of Tarzan® ends up as something of a well-intentioned muddle. Some viewers will lose patience with it for that, but I at least enjoyed the movie it wanted to be.

3 out of 5

The Legend of Tarzan is available on Sky Cinema from today.

* English isn’t the only language spoken but, from what I can ascertain (by which I mean “I read this”), during the subtitled bits they’re speaking Generic Semi-Fictional African Language. ^

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About Time (2013)

2015 #192
Richard Curtis | 123 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 12 / R

After Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) learns he can time travel back through his own life, his father (Bill Nighy) cautions him not to attempt anything too drastic — so he sets about finding love.

Ostensibly another of Curtis’ oh-so-British rom-coms, it plays that way for a while, but long before it’s done develops into something deeper: Tim gets the girl (Rachel McAdams), then learns about life, family, and what you might really want to do with such power.

About Time ultimately displays an emotional depth and maturity that marks it out from its science-fiction stablemates, and the rest of Curtis’ oeuvre too.

4 out of 5

Tomorrow: more time travel in my next 100 Favourites selection.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

2014 #99
Martin Scorsese | 180 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

Oscar statue2014 Academy Awards
5 nominations — 0 wins

Nominated: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay.




The Wolf of Wall StreetWhen someone says “100-million-dollar epic”, you probably don’t imagine a film about a swindling stockbroker; but, with a three-hour running time and a nine-figure budget, that’s exactly what Martin Scorsese’s black comedy biopic is.

Based on a true story, the film sees Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) start out as a stockbroker on Wall Street just before 1987’s Black Monday, which sees the firm he works for close down. Desperate for a job, he finds employment shilling cheap, crap shares to unsuspecting normal folk. Bringing his big-money skills into a grimy little environment, he revolutionises the way business is done, and soon finds himself back on Wall Street, where drug- and drink-fuelled parties, expensive houses, cars and yachts, and dodgy (well, flat-out illegal) business practices are the name of the day.

Some critics and viewers reckon the film is condoning or even glamourising that lifestyle. To which the only sensible response is, really?! How much must those people need their morality spelt out clearly and handed to them on a plate? Scorsese doesn’t out-and-out condemn the behaviour depicted, but nor does he present it as a jolly good time brought low by the cruel machinations of The Man. He’s more of an observer: this is what happened, both what they got away with and what they didn’t; both what was fun and exciting and what went wrong. There’s everything from moments where our own independent morality/irony is clearly meant to be brought to bear on these characters (such as the scene where they’re discussing dwarves) to sequences that outright depict the downside of their behaviour (such as the sequence where Jordan and Donnie take ‘Lemmon’, or indeed a good deal of the movie after that point). The film does not judge these people, but invites us to — Worse for wearand the closing shot clearly shows how many people have already judged them to represent something desirable, regardless of what position the film might take. Some people want this lifestyle, in spite of all the problems it wrought, and even if the film had clearly condemned it that wouldn’t change. In the end, to say Scorsese approves of it purely because he doesn’t lambast it is too simplistic a reading.

Despite the real-life nature of its tale, and the fact the illegal actions surely brought misery to many, the film nonetheless works best as a comedy, which is fortunately its default tone. In the rare moments it shoots for drama, it doesn’t function quite so well — whatever the results of their action, these lives and situations are so outlandish that it’s hard to find an empathetic foothold. The characters may be based on real people, but they don’t live in a world of “real people”; but that’s OK, because I don’t imagine the actual people involved would come over as much more than “characters” if you encountered them in real life.

In this regard, every cast member is excellent. You may most easily identify that quality among the top-billed names (Leo, Jonah Hill, break-out star Margot Robbie), or the masses of recognisable faces in cameo-sized roles (Matthew McConaughey, Jon Favreau, Joanna Lumley, Jean Dujardin…), Ensembledbut almost every supporting character gets a memorable line or scene, a moment where they shine brighter than everyone else; and even when the smaller roles aren’t dominating a scene, they’re part of a first-rate ensemble that functions like a well-oiled machine. My personal favourite was P.J. Byrne’s ‘Rugrat’, but yours may well be someone else.

One criticism I will hold with is that it’s too long. There’s fun packed throughout, but every now and then the pace flags or I found myself checking the clock. I can well imagine that on a re-watch the less-engrossing bits will be thumb-twiddlingly irritating while waiting for the quality memorable material to roll around. A tighter focus, probably at the writing stage but maybe it was salvageable in the edit, might’ve helped this.

And if you’re wondering how it cost $100 million, it’s packed to the rafters with CGI. Some of it is obvious (specifically, when they attempt to sail a yacht through a storm, with disastrous consequences), but there are also tonnes of more subtle digital set/location extensions and changes — check out this video if you want them revealed. Plus they used visual effects to obscure a gay orgy and avoid an NC-17. So that’s nice.

Toast of AmericaAs one of two period comedies about real-life financial crime that contended at the 2014 awards (and neither of which won a single Oscar, as it turned out), The Wolf of Wall Street is the more entertaining victor, for me. However, despite many high-points, some scattered niggles throughout its excessive running time hold back unequivocal praise.

4 out of 5

The Wolf of Wall Street debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 9pm, and is already available on demand.