The Legend of Tarzan swings and misses

The Legend of Tarzan swings and misses

The latest adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ colonialist story proves it cannot be given a modern overhaul, writes critic Sam Adams.

The Legend of Tarzan, the latest big-screen version of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ vine-swinging he-man, is a sincere and well-intentioned attempt to wrestle with the legacy of European colonialism in Africa. It is also a movie in which a man punches a gorilla. You could say it’s at war with itself, but it’s a war involving soldiers who are never quite sure who they’re fighting, and who are as likely to slip in the mud and break their own necks as they are to get off a clean shot.

Directed by David Yates and written by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer, Legend would more accurately, if less economically, be called The Legend of the Legend of Tarzan. When we pick up the story in the late 19th Century, John Clayton (Alexander Skarsgård) is already an international folk hero, an English nobleman raised by apes and returned to his native land. As George Williams (Samuel L Jackson), an American soldier of fortune who’s come to persuade John to return to the Belgian Congo, puts it, he is “Africa’s favorite son”.

The irony of that epithet being bestowed by a black Civil War veteran is not lost on The Legend of Tarzan. And indeed, for a time, it seems as if Yates and company have a handle on how to reshape Edgar Rice Burroughs imperialist fantasy for the modern age. The opening sequence, in which a fastidious Belgian commander leads his soldiers through the jungle mists, is full of redolent images: the bodies of dead troops hung on makeshift crosses, their own rifles used as crossbars; an African tribesman starring indomitably into the lens, a colonist’s white linen hat perched incongruously atop his head.

King of nothing

Unfortunately, the imperative to produce a viable box-office entertainment trumps The Legend of Tarzan’s noble intentions at every turn. We’re cued to hiss at Rom (Christoph Waltz), the Belgian commander, whose first onscreen act is to rip an African flower from its stem, and who, in an especially rococo touch, uses a spider-silk rosary as an offensive weapon. But when tribal soldiers spring from the water beneath his feet, in the variable-speed slow motion that Yates abuses throughout, the effect makes them seem both more and less than human.

We meet kinder Africans later, the cheerful villagers who take John in after his battered body is discovered in the jungle. But it’s Jane (Margot Robbie), the white daughter of an American missionary, who nurses him back to health, and who later becomes his wife. It’s a story inextricably entwined with Europe’s relationship to ‘the dark continent’, and yet actual Africans keep getting pushed to the side.

The Legend of Tarzan has other problems, like its inability to decide whether it wants John Clayton to be James Bond or Aquaman – although it’s best when he’s Michael Douglas in Romancing the Stone. This Tarzan doesn’t just speak to the animals: he commands them – the word “conquer” is used without apparent irony – eventually mustering an army of incompatible species to fend off an influx of Rom’s troops that would effectively make the entirety of the Belgian Congo a slave state.

The Legend of Tarzan swings and misses

One waits in vain for the revelation that Rom’s real surname is Blofeld. The movie’s initial feints at gritty relevance seem disingenuous, if not downright foolish, once John starts swinging from vines and conversing with crocodiles. At one point, the camera lingers on a boxcar full of elephant tusks, and later, we see another train carrying African men in chains. But then it’s on to another perfunctory chase scene, or a confrontation between Waltz’ moustachioed villain and Robbie’s defiant hostage. (Of course he takes her hostage: for all its contemporary touches, Legend’s plot could have been lifted from a silent melodrama.) These images of unfathomable atrocity are newspaper stuffed in the movie’s cracks, fresh filigree on a dull and worn garment.

At times, Yates seems desperate to jazz up the action, shooting one conversation between John and George in a series of whirlpooling shots that add nothing to the scene but a mild feeling of motion sickness. Perhaps it’s a way of compensating in advance for the movie’s action scenes, a lackluster jumble of weightless CGI and chiseled abs. (Yes, Skarskård’s sculpted torso is impressive, but it’s an unlikely physique for a man in the 1890s.) Major studio movies increasingly feel like acts of brand maintenance first and stories second, and Legend is the latest link in that worn-out chain. It’s a Tarzan movie because there have always been Tarzan movies, not because there was any compelling reason to add one more to the list.

At its core it’s the story of a white European who asserts his dominion, however benevolently, over wild African creatures: like Kipling’s The Jungle Book, it can be tinkered with, but its heart doesn’t change. Humans need stories, but the stories we need change, and sometimes old ones die out because the needs they addressed or the ideas they encompassed no longer apply. It might be time to let Tarzan vanish back into the jungle.

A First Glimpse on The Legend of Tarzan Movie

A First Glimpse on The Legend of Tarzan Movie

It has been years since the man once known as Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) left the jungles of Africa behind for a gentrified life in London as John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke, with his beloved wife, Jane Porter (Margot Robbie) at his side. Now, he has been invited back to the Congo to serve as a trade emissary of Parliament, unaware that he is a pawn in a deadly convergence of greed and revenge, masterminded by the corrupt Belgian Captain Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz).

The Legend of Tarzan is an upcoming American action adventure film drawn upon the fictional character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, scheduled for release in 2016. Directed by David Yates and written by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer, its cast comprises Alexander Skarsgård in the title role, and Samuel L. Jackson, Margot Robbie, Djimon Hounsou and Christoph Waltz.

Principal photography began on June 30, 2014, at Warner Bros. Leavesden Studios in the UK, and wrapped four months later on October 3. Warner Bros. Pictures and Village Roadshow Pictures in Cooperation with Dark Horse Entertainment and Jerry Weintraub Productions are co-producing the film. It is scheduled for release on July 1, 2016 in 2D, 3D, IMAX and IMAX 3D. The film will be dedicated to Weintraub, who died on July 6, 2015.

The legend of Tarzan

Directed by: David Yates
Starring: Margot Robbie, Alexander Skarsgård, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, John Hurt, Ella Purnell, Lasco Atkins
Screenplay by: Adam Cozad, Craig Brewer
Production Design by: Stuart Craig
Cinematography by: Henry Braham
Film Editing by: Mark Day
Costume Design by: Ruth Myers
Set Decoration by: Anna Pinnock
Music by: Mario Grigorov
MPAA Rating: None.
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Release Date: July 1, 2016

Related Link: View the Full Production Notes for The Legend of Tarzan

Straw Dogs: Everyone has a breaking point

Straw Dogs: Everyone has a breaking point

Straw Dogs is a remake of the 1971 Sam Peckinpah thriller that starred Dustin Hoffman. The original revolved around a young American and his English wife who move to rural England and face increasingly vicious local harassment.

It’s a question made terrifyingly apparent to Hollywood screenwriter David Sumner (James Marsden) and his actress wife Amy (Kate Bosworth) when they move to her small hometown in the Deep South after her father’s death. Smiling faces, warm welcomes and what were once comfortable old relationships take on a sinister tinge for David and Amy, who find themselves driven to a crisis-laden brink in Screen Gems’ frightening reimagining of the classic 1971 film “Straw Dogs.”

The 1971 release starred Dustin Hoffman and Susan George and was written and directed by Sam Peckinpah. David Zaleg Goodman also has a writing credit on the original’s screenplay and both films are based on the book, The Siege at Trencher’s Farm by Gordon Williams.

Heroes With An Expiration Date

When David and Amy first arrive in Blackwater, that romantic vision of David’s is shaken somewhat by the appearance of Charlie and his three friends, Bic, Norman and Chris, who David later refers to as Straw Dogs, likening them to straw offerings that were worshipped in ancient Chinese ceremonies then tossed aside and trampled. Marsden laughs, “Great analogy but it’s a pretty arrogant thing to say.” He continues, “Peckinpah was quoted as saying that David is the heavy of the film – he’s the one who comes into their territory and starts pushing their buttons. And David is that guy, but in the end when he’s completely isolated from everyone else, the audience roots for him.”

Straw Dogs: Everyone has a breaking point

For Skarsgård, the return of Amy and her husband stirs up a complicated mix of emotions in Charlie. “Back in high school Charlie and the boys were living the dream. Charlie was the quarterback of the team and the star. He was dating the cutest girl in school and his life was great – college, the NFL – he was going to be a huge star. He got a full scholarship to the University of Tennessee but got injured after a year and was back in Blackwater where the girlfriend had moved to California and his career was over. So those expectations the town had of him being the kid who was going to put Blackwater on the map never happened, which I think weighs on him, and then Amy comes back with this guy who is the complete opposite of Charlie – intellectual, skinny little guy with glasses from Hollywood who doesn’t work for a living. He writes scripts. Is that a job even? So, it’s tough for Charlie.”

Drew Powell, who plays Bic, says the analogy rings true. “I know exactly where these guys come from. I grew up in a small Indiana town where the highlight of entertainment is the football or basketball team and I’ve seen these guys in my hometown. Stars at eighteen on the front page of the paper, doing radio shows and everyone is talking about you and that was the highlight of your life and it never gets as good as it was for those four years of high school. That’s definitely the case for these four guys, and then to have Charlie come back, who was really the only one of us who had potential, well, if he can’t make it, we don’t have a prayer.”

Rhys Coiro, who plays Norman, says that his character views David and Amy coming back as threats to his big-fish-in-a-small-pond mentality. “This is his place, you know? This is his town. And he feels that he’s entitled to do what he pleases in his town.” It’s an aspect of Norman’s personality that Coiro brought instantly to his audition for the part. Says Lurie, “I had seen Rhys on ‘Entourage’ and was just so impressed with him as an actor, but he came in scary as hell into the audition room and won us over very, very quickly.”

Straw Dogs: Everyone has a breaking point

For the role of Deputy John Burke, the filmmakers wanted an actor who could suggest familiarity with Blackwater ways but an understated restlessness when old friends lose their common sense. They found it in Laz Alonso. “We decided we wanted a young Paul Newman type to play the sheriff in the town. In the original film he’s sort of a very uptight character, and older. We wanted to go younger and hipper, and I really do believe Laz has got the qualities of Paul Newman. You absolutely can never take your eyes off him on the screen.”

Alonso says the idea of leaving town and coming back can also bring a more settled perspective. “Rod and I worked on developing John’s back story which is that he has a lot in common with Charlie and the boys – they all played football together – but he went to Iraq, he fought, and he came back a hero. So there is a type of respect for his authority. He’s the voice of reason and is the one guy who can look at them and say ‘Enough with this nonsense. We’re better than this.’”

Alonso continues, “John, because he goes away to war, doesn’t experience the same level of loss for the glory days as the other guys. He comes back with more of a love and appreciation for life and is viewed as a hero. But Charlie, Norman, Bic and Chris are really heroes with an expiration date. The minute they graduated the next team came in and takes all the glory and they’re on the sidelines. No one ever really prepares you for that.”

As Lurie wove the characters into the fabric of small-town Southern life, the football parallel allowed him to provide background stories and relationships for the roles that he felt were missing in the Peckinpah film. Recalls Powell, “Bic is the only Straw Dog who is not in the original film. There are other characters but it’s not specifically Bic. So my take on Bic is that he’s the follower, I don’t know where he is on the totem pole. I feel like Chris is the bottom, Charlie is definitely the leader, he was the quarterback and as he goes, so go the rest of us. And Norman is the second, you know, whether he was the running back or received, he is the second and is aware of it.”

Also reframed is the role of Tom Heddon, who in the 1971 film doesn’t have much of a background other than being a bully, but here becomes what Marsden refers to as the first generation Straw Dog. “He’s the guy who was the all-important coach for the all-important high school football team that makes the cover of every newspaper.”

For Lurie and Frydman, there was only one actor in mind for the Tom Heddon role – James Woods. Frydman comments, “Both Rod and I are huge fans, and he’s actually friendly with Rod and was on our list when we were casting “The Contender” but it didn’t work out. When we were casting Heddon I had just seen some of Jimmy’s work in ‘Shark’ and was completely blown away and he is so amazing in the role of Tom – just swallows the scene and brings something different every take.”

Lurie adds, “What James Woods delivers is a classic James Woods performance, which is really a raging fire all its own.”

Woods relished the role and worked with Lurie to hone the scenes. Says the actor, “It’s a wonderful character and rather than just making him a nasty, vicious, drunken fool I think he’s a guy who once had a wonderful life and then all of a sudden, his life changed overnight when his wife died and things emerged in his personality that didn’t go the right way and now he’s one of those pathetic people who’s left over in life with nowhere to go. Except the bar at Blackie’s. He’s a straw dog as much as the boys are who left the team.”

The cast found the chance to work with Woods an exhilarating experience. “It’s just an honor to be with him and be around him,” says Coiro. “He sets the bar really high.” Known for his improvisation in scenes, Woods kept the cast on their toes delivering different lines and readings sometimes with every take. “I made a choice as an actor, and Rod like it, to make this character incredibly mercurial. Rod is one of those great writer-directors who is not married only to his words. If you can come up with something and he likes it, you can go with it.”

For Bosworth it brought back memories of working on one of her first films, Wonderland. “I remember working with Val (Kilmer) and he was the same with improvisation which was a great training ground for me. We would go way off page and kind of delve into territories that didn’t even exist, we were creating it on the fly and I love that.”

The consummate actor, Woods worked with the film’s costume designer Lynn Falconer, as well as hairdresser Larry Waggoner to fully flush out Heddon’s look. “The look is very important and I told both of them that I was thinking Tom Landry,” says Woods. “Short hair, the hat and tattoos. Very buttoned up, like a military guy – kind of tough, wiry and lean.”

For Alonso, that attention is key to the film. “There’s a constant history that’s woven into everybody’s interaction and everybody’s wanting to be respected in the story. The Straw Dogs want their old glory back. Coach has been dethroned and so he’s resorted to alcohol and any minute will yell at people like the good old days. I want to keep people in line. Amy just wants to come home and not be bothered and David, well it’s obvious the stuff he’s dealing with. There’s a lot of testosterone in this town – it feels like a big football locker room. And when Heddon’s daughter goes missing it’s the straw that breaks the camels back and sparks a chain reaction of violence and predatory behavior with people defending their tiny little plot of land, and in football only the strong survive. If you show any weakness, that’s it. You’re going down.”

Powell sums up the grim trajectory of “Straw Dogs”: “There are no real winners in this film. No one comes out unscathed and I think that’s been an interesting way to modernize it. Rod has taken these two different stereotypes – the Hollywood elite and the Southern man – who often are at odds anyway, and shown both of their weaknesses in this film.”

Straw Dogs

Directed by: Rod Lurie
Starring: Alexander Skarsgard, Kate Bosworth, James Marsden, Laz Alonso, James Woods, Willa Holland, Laz Alonso, Kristen Shaw, Megan Adelle, Jessica Dockrey
Screenplay by: David Zelag Goodman, Rod Lurie, Sam Peckinpah
Production Design by: Tony Fanning
Cinematography by: Alik Sakharov
Film Editing by: Sarah Boyd
Costume Design by: Lynn Falconer
Set Decoration by: Kristin Bicksler
Art Direction by: John P. Goldsmith
Music by: Larry Groupé
MPAA Rating: R for strong brutal violence including a sexual attack, menace, some sexual content, and pervasive language.
Studio: Sony ScreenGems
Release Date: September 16, 2011

Related Link: View more information for Straw Dogs movie