Alan Ayckbourn’s work as a dramatist hasn’t proved an easy fit with cinema; then again, would you give Michael Winner the chance to make a film version of a cherished project? Winner’s gift for comedy in the 1960’s was substantial, but his touch eluded him after sinking into the mire of Death Wish sequels, and although this is probably the best film of his last two decades as a film-maker, that’s largely because of Ayckbourn’s wordplay and the cast assembled here. The argument between Winner and Ayckborn have been detailed elsewhere; the result is that a clever back-stager about a Scarborough theatre company attempting to stage John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera has been broadened with an unfaithful emphasis on sex. Jeremy Irons is Guy, the businessman who gets involved with the tyrannical director Dafydd (Anthony Hopkins), and ends up sleeping with his wife (Prunella Scales) and the wife of another man; Gareth Hunt and Jenny Seagrove are the swinging couple. The cast are dotted with recognisable thespians, from Richard Briers to Lionel Jeffries, and there are sections of dialogue which feel like Winner hasn’t quite managed to ruin them; the initial sparring between Guy and Dafydd works well, and Irons and Hopkins can’t be accused of phoning in their performances. The picture of provincial British life in the 1980’s is pretty horrible, and that’s very much on the director; the side-lining of modish female talent (Patsy Kensit, Alexandra Pigg) indicates the male-dominance here, and the rampant egotism of an arrogant director who failed to transform material that didn’t need much transforming.
If the public flock to see a galaxy of superheroes, why wouldn’t they flock to see a universe of monsters? That’s the conundrum as yet unsolved by Universal’s proposed Monsterverse, which aimed to bring together Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, the Wolfman and more, but has faced several false starts. These IP are better known that anything Marvel or DC offer, and yet there are narrative issues; aside from origin stories, what would the public want to see the monsters do? With a script co-written by Se7en’s Andrew Kevin Walker, Joe Johnson’s The Wolfman tries harder than most to invigorate the clichés; Shakespearean actor Larry Talbot (Benicio del Toro) returns home to Blackmoor, and Talbot Hall specifically, after hearing word of his brother’s disappearance. His father Sir John (Anthony Hopkins) is already in on the werewolf family secret, and Larry finds himself involved with his dead brother’s fiancé Gwen (Emily Blunt) as well as the usual mistrustful villagers. Inspector Abberline (Hugo Weaving) of Scotland Yard is also on the case, fresh from his work on the Jack the Ripper murders. The Wolfman looks great, and has some cool make-up from Rick Baker, plus better acting than most horror films. There’s a duff ending, and an overall lack of suspense, possibly due to re-cutting, although a medical inspection at the hands of Anthony Sher’s asylum manager goes amusingly and spectacularly awry. Universal seem to have been somewhat dismissive of the outcome, but The Wolfman is better than it’s dire reputation suggests; it’s clearly a loving attempt to revise a classic story, with top talent del Toro, Hopkins, Blunt and Baker all on message, and a few neat moments for genre fans to enjoy, even if the final wolf-on-wolf fight is risible.
Something of a curiosity in the John le Carre stakes, this 1970 thriller gets quite a few elements right, notably the personnel at The Circus; George Smiley is dropped from the original book, but Anthony Hopkins, Sir Ralph Richardson and Paul Rogers all fit the bill as the crumpled espionage handlers with the power and life and death in their hands. The film’s centre is Leiser (Christopher Jones) a Polish defector who becaomes a pawn in international espionage games when he’s recruited to spy on East German missile sites. The first half of the film does well to suggest how and why Leiser accepts the offer, but things get a little simplistic once the mission begins, and a final bookend doesn’t quite work. Hopkins seems to have been none too impressed by Jones and his James Dean mannerisms, but it kind of works for the film that Leiser is so much of a fish out of water. The Looking Glass War feels like a compromised efffort, but with a script by le Carre himself, it springs to life whenever Hopkins and Richardson are on screeen, and Frank Pierson, director of the 1976 A Star Is Born, creates some striking compositions.
Westworld is a model of what a reboot should be; everything is bigger, better, more thoughtful and more expansive that the original sci-fi cult classic about a futuristic theme park with a Western theme. With Jonathan Nolan and JJ Abrams at the helm, that’s no surprise, but what is very much surprising is the way they’ve moved the narrative on. The early scenes make it seem that James Marsden’s cowboy will play a similar role to Richard Benjamin and James Brolin’s vacationing thrill-seekers in the original; it turns out that Marsden’s character is actually a robot. Similarly, Ed Harris’s Man in Black seems to cut a iconic figure in the same way as Yul Brynner’s android gunslinger, but again, roles are reversed; Harris’s character is actually a tourist on a permanent vacation of sorts. And the biggest reversal of all is that the robots are the heroes, as their AI gives them a self-awareness that slowly reveals that they’re nothing but playthings for a corrupt elite; their gradual understanding of the need for revolution makes for gripping viewing. Evan Rachel Wood is the key identification character in Delores, but there’s an all-round stunning cast, from Thandie Newton to Jimmi Simpson, and best of all Anthony Hopkins as the park’s co-creator, Ford. Sir Richard Attenborough’s last iconic role was as a Jurassic Park owner in another Michael Crichton story, and Hopkins was probably the actor he used most: seeing Hopkins play God as his creations run amok is just one of a myriad of viewing pleasures on offer. And the action, violent and spiky, is cleverly scored to popular classics; if there was a moment in cinema in 2016 to compare to the astonishing Paint It Black scene in the opening episode, we’re yet to see it.
With Chris McQuarrie apparently considering an Ice Station Zebra reboot, it would be nice to imagine a renaissance of interest in the work of Scottish writer Alistair Maclean, with When Eight Bells Toll a good example of the kind of terse derring-do that made his work internationally knows. Coming out post Where Eagles Dare and in the same years as the speedboat-chase-tastic Puppet on a Chain, it attempted to set up an alternate Bond franchise, with two more films planned but never to materialize. Sporting a healthy head of lustrous hair, Anthony Hopkins plays Philip Calvert, sent by Robert Morley to deepest darkest Scotland to investigate a missing ship, and uncovering espionage ring. Calvert is a professional and shoots first, giving When Eight Bells Toll a gritty heart that most action movies lack. Directed by Etienne Perier.
William Goldman’s excellent book, written with intimate, personal depth, was always going to be a tricky one to adapt, but Sir Richard Attenborough’s 1978 horror film makes the most of a creepy conceit, even if its misses the pathos. Anthony Hopkins plays Corky the ventriloquist who finds that his wooden pal Fats seems to be taking over his life, and stifling his hopes of romance. This conceit played beautifully in the classic portmanteau Dead of Night, and still works at feature-length, with good support from Burgess Meredith and Ann Margaret. Coming off the back of A Bridge Too Far, and working up to more epic Gandhi and A Chorus Line, Attenborough coaxes a complex, painful performance from Hopkins, who demonstrates why he’s been a sought-after talent for five decades.