Thursday, 25 February 2010

Solomon Kane; they don't make them like this any more and they might be right

Solomon Kane is apparently based on a series of novels by the author of Conan the Barbarian. I have to get that up front, because if I hadn't seen that on the posters, I would have thought it was based on a not very good computer game. There are a couple of moments in the middle of the thing where I honestly thought that the director was trying to recapture the familiar viewpoint of a player character in a first person shooter; a target rich environment and some kind of weapon vaguely waving in front of you at the bottom of the screen. I'm guessing here. I've never played a first person shooter. I just know about them from reading about them on the internets, where younger, hipper people tell me things about the cool world of technology and I pray that they're not making it all up the way the Samoan teenagers bamboozled Margaret Meade.

Solomon Kane lost me in the opening moments when ironically it didn't need to. It opens with a prologue set in "North Africa 1600". Ships are bombarding a fort, and the wind whips a flag across the screen. It's an 1700s pattern Union flag, from the period after Scotland joined the Union but before Ireland did. The flag wasn't introduced until well after the coronation of James I unified Scotland and England - before that, if an English ship had been bothering with a flag at all, it would have been St George's Cross. Pragmatically, I can understand why they used the Union flag; they wanted something which audiences would easily recognise as British. But all they had to do was set the movie a little bit later, and the flag wouldn't have been an issue.

The weird thing is that on the one hand, Solomon Kane isn't really anchored in its purported time, and on the other hand it doesn't really show it very well. The costumes feel slightly wrong for 1600 - they're closer to what you would expect for the 1640s. The main action is set in 1601, a time of comparative tranquility in England (in contrast to the lawlessness of the 1640s) when it's hard to believe that monsters could be stalking Somerset and Devon without the army doing something about it. Shift the thing into 1641 when the English Civil War had turned everything on its head and the puritans were rampant and beginning their migration to New England, and the background of disorder and Puritans making their way to America starts to fit better. So do the stupid hats. So all the way through the anachronisms were bugging me a lot. Possibly the weirdest thing was the the main action begins with Solomon Kane holed up in an abbey. This is England in 1600? The monasteries were gone. Catholic priests could be found if you looked hard, but there was no way you were going to find a big clump of them working openly in a big building.

John was able to switch off his knowledge of history and just enjoy the movie, but it kept bugging me all the way through. I was curious about where the film was made, and made a moment to check it afterward. Filmed on location in France and the Czech Republic, with studio work in England. It's actually become quite hard to film a period film in the UK because modernity is everywhere and it's hard to keep it out of shot. Not as much of a challenge in the Czech Republic. The other reason I could buy it not being shot in England is that the British tourist board would have pitched a fit; the weather is unrelentingly awful. The first act of the film involves incessant snow; the remainder constant rain. And lots of mud. Lots and lots of mud.

It's not a bad movie. I was wondering about the pacing, but looking at IMDB, it seems like the print we saw is cut down from something longer - there are scenes missing, and I suspect that with those scenes back in, the opening act is slower, but that the overall pace of the action will make more sense and the transitions in the final act will be less jarring and disconnected. But it's a pretty honest movie as a story; bad man gets redeemed through enduring hardship and doing good deeds. I liked that about it. John liked it that the witch we meet is just horrible, without any backstory or redeeming features. It's refreshingly free of gimmicks and post-modern self-awareness. It could have been made back in the good old days of Hammer horror, and it would have fit in fine. Probably would have made about as much or as little sense as it does now, too. The difference is that in the thudding final scene, I realised that this was actually the origin story for Solomon Kane, and we might have to anticipate a hell of a lot more of this. And I don't think we need it.

In other news, there were trailers. Jake Gyllenhall will be in Prince of Persia, a film whose trailer promises an experience somehow shallower than the source material, a 1990s video game about a dude whose magic power is jumping over things. Starring Jake Gyllenhall. Damn, I thought we'd hit a low with Nannie McPhee. The trailer is the first I can remember which has a woman's voice as the portentous voice-over. I hope that's not a trend. However, Prince of Persia looked like Citizen Kane compared to the cinematic turd which the Irish Film Board has bankrolled specifically to destroy St Patrick's Day; Zonad. A trailer usually has the best bits of a movie. Based on that principle, Zonad may well be an effort to prove that it's possible to spend tax money in a more anti-social way than underwriting a nerve gas programme or funding Ministerial pensions.

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