Monday, February 29, 2016
Chimes at Midnight combines the plots and characters of five plays by William Shakespeare to tell the story of Sir John Falstaff (Welles), a fat, old knight always scheming, getting into trouble, drinking, owing money, and leading astray the Prince of Wales, Hal (Keith Baxter), much to the dismay of Hal's father, King Henry IV (John Gielgud). When war breaks out in England, Prince Hal must decide which of these father figures he's going to emulate, and his decision has dire consequences for Falstaff.
Falstaff is regarded as one of Shakespeare's most memorable characters. He's boisterous, loud, merry, a good-natured scoundrel in a manner of speaking. He's a braggart and a coward, one utterly shameless and driven by his desires, a man who inspires both affection and frustration in those close to him. In the text, Falstaff is a comical character, but by making him the focus of the film, Welles brings to the forefront Falstaff's tragic nature. He's goes from this massive, looming figure who dominates the frame to a reduced, pitiful creature who looks small and feeble at the base of these grand castle halls and rows of footmen.
The most impressive sequence is the battle between Henry's forces and those of the rebellious Hotspur (Norman Rodway). Welles buries his camera in a sea of men, mud, and mist and cuts curiously between dozens of little clashes, along with the comical Falstaff running and hiding like a goof. This gives the battle a strong sense of chaos, as well as the impression that there are thousands of troops fighting. One can see the influence this had on a number of battle scenes in later movies.
If you're a fan of Welles or Shakespeare, you'd be well served to seek out Chimes at Midnight. A few technical flaws remain (some characters are clearly not speaking when we hear them), but the filmmaking prowess on display and the exploration of the Bard's themes are superlative, and the performances are excellent.
Likewise, John Carpenter's remake from 1982, while not warmly received in its time, is today regarded as one of his finest efforts and a masterpiece of claustrophobia, paranoia, and practical special effects. Carpenter did not direct a beat-by-beat redux of the original, instead pursuing a different story that was more faithful to the original novella, John W. Campbell's "Who Goes There."
Whether you prefer the Hawks version or the Carpenter version, I think we can agree that despite the similar set up - alien monster at an isolated, wintry scientific outpost - the two movies are their own entities with distinct styles, scares, and themes. Which brings me to the prequel/reboot version of The Thing produced in 2011. Apart from an increased emphasis on computer-generated special effects and pumped up action scenes, this most recent version does very little to distinguish itself from its forebears, resulting in an overwhelming sense of pointlessness.
If you remember in the Carpenter version, the thing, an alien lifeform with the ability to perfectly imitate any person it killed, infiltrated and wiped out a Norwegian camp in Antarctica before reaching Kurt Russell and company. We didn't see this, but when the American crew investigates the burned remains of the Norwegian outpost, prior to learning the true nature of the threat they're facing, there is an ominous foreboding, a notion that what happened here will soon happen at the American camp.
Still, as contrived as this feels, the idea of being one of only a few Americans at an isolated base where everyone else speaks a language you don't understand has potential, and the movie, to its credit, has some of that paranoia but not enough. The scenes of the characters becoming suspicious of each other and turning on one another feel perfunctory and rushed in this version, almost as if the filmmakers wanted to hurry along to the action scenes as soon as possible. Some scenarios and imagery from the original are repeated here without much variation (though I did like how they replaced the blood test with an examination for dental fillings), and they just feel overly familiar. These new characters discover what we in the audience already know from having seen the earlier movie.
Much of this version feels tailored to show off new CGI effects, and admittedly, some of the designs are cool. The monsters has all sorts of claws, tentacles, limbs, and other nasty features, and had they been done practically, with rubber and animatronics, they might have been truly terrifying. But even five years later, these CGI effects already look dated. Not once was I ever convinced the characters were really interacting with an alien creature. It looked like a cartoon superimposed over the film after the fact.
The actors do what they can; the Antarctic setting looks convincing isolated, cold, and rugged; and it is cool to finally get inside the UFO. There are some neat references to the Carpenter version, and the end credits reveal additional footage that perfectly ties into the opening of the original movie. The problem here is overfamiliarity. It's the same old thing.