Trailer Park: Tarzan, Alice, and Ben Hur promise a summer of literary blockbusters

Newstalk's film critic Philip Molloy casts an eye over the features coming soon

The Internet Movie Data Base lists no fewer than 200 movies with the name Tarzan in the title. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ vine-swinging, jungle adventurer was first played by tubby Elmo Lincoln in Tarzan of The Apes in 1918 and Tony Goldwyn “voiced” the character in a Disney animated musical in 1999.

Veteran producer Jerry Weintraub, who had owned the rights to the stories for decades, ordered a script for a new live-action Tarzan in 2003 and various actors and directors were associated with it over the next ten years. The American Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps was announced at one stage and by 2012 Warner Bros. was said to be eyeing Tom Hardy, Henry Cavill and Charlie Hunnam.

Then David Yates, who had directed the final four Harry Potter movies for Warners, came on board and he chose 6ft4ins True Blood star Alexander Skarsgard for the title part in The Legend of Tarzan. Yates also wanted Jessica Chastain for the female lead, Jane Porter, but a scheduling conflict ruled her out and the part went to the popular Australian star of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street, Margot Robbie.

The budget remained problematical until the studio agreed on a figure of $180m; locations were chosen in the UK and the Congo, and parts of Victorian London were recreated on the soundstages of the 80-hectare Leavesden Studios in Hertfordshire in southeast England. Skarsgard cut himself off from family and friends for four months, spending most his time with a trainer and nutritionist preparing his body for the loincloth scenes while what the actor calls “the crazy stuff,” swinging through the jungle, was done by a stand-in, a trapeze artist of more than twenty years experience. 

The story finds John Clayton (Skarsgard), Lord Greystoke living as an aristocrat in England, a decade removed from his former home in Africa. When he is invited by the British Government to become a trade emissary to the Congo, he returns and gets involved in a genocidal conspiracy initiated by a psychopathic Belgian general.

The Legend of Tarzan, released here on July 1st, co-stars Samuel Jackson, John Hurt and Jim Broadbent. The movie is dedicated to Jerry Weintraub, who died during pre-production.

Is she really “An irksome, slurvish, interrupting thing?” Maybe to the Red Queen, who was always more than a bit “slurvish” herself. But to movie audiences everywhere, Alice was an enormously popular young heroine when she returned to live action duty for Disney in 2010. In fact, Alice in Wonderland was one of the first of that small band of movie releases that broke through the $1billion barrier at the box office. A bit more Alice through the glass ceiling, maybe?

A sequel, Alice through the Looking Glass, was inevitable and it should be with us towards the end of May. On the basis of the trailer it looks colourful, energetic and funny. Mia Wasikowska is back in the title role and she is supported by virtually all the main cast from the first film.

Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, even Crispin Glover and Matt Lucas and the wonderfully “arch” voice of the late Alan Rickman as Absolem, the caterpillar. The villain, Time (a half clock, half human, with the ability to travel back and forth in time) is played by the typically extravagant looking Sacha Baron Cohen.

Tim Burton isn’t directing on this occasion – he is the producer of a script by Linda Wolverton who wrote Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King and the first Alice, while the director is James Bobin – he earned his stripes on a couple of The Muppets movies. The film was shot at Shepperton Studios and at Gloucester docks where they used four historic sailing ships for a sequence of set pieces.

It was inevitable that Jack Huston would bag a big star-making film role after his much-praised performance as masked, war-scarred assassin, Richard Harrow, in TV’s Boardwalk Empire. There have been several supporting parts since Boardwalk – in American Hustle, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, The Longest Ride and even a cameo in Hail, Caeser! – but now it appears that Huston’s time has come. He plays the title role in a remake of Ben Hur, the film that has become synonymous with the description “epic” in the cinema; the film that won a record 11 Oscars in 1959 and allegedly saved the giant MGM studio from bankruptcy.

The Russian director Timur Bekmambetov actually tested Huston for the villain in the movie, Messala the Roman tribune and boyhood friend of Judah Ben Hur who ultimately betrays him, but after Huston’s tests he decided he was sympathetic and charismatic enough for the main part and Toby Kebbell – he was the aggressive ape leader Koba in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Dr. Doom in The Fantastic Four – was cast as Messala. The movie, an MGM/ Paramount Pictures co-production which has been best part of two years in the making, will open here near the end of August.

Like the 1959 version this Ben Hur was shot at the Cinecitta Studios in Rome and on location in Italy.   

Other members of the cast are Morgan Freeman, the Scottish actor James Cosmo as Quintis Arrius  the part played by Jack Hawkins in the 50s version), Pilou Asbaek (from television’s Borgen) as Pontius Pilot and the Iranian actress Nazanin Boniadi – she’s had a prominent running role in Homeland – as Judah’s lover Esther.

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