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Party Apolitical

Any sensitive person would be forgiven a certain degree of wariness when it comes to the value of democracy nowadays – the track record of major votes in certain English-speaking countries over the past few years has not exactly been stellar. And so I permitted myself the odd moment of foreboding when, in the absence of an obvious candidate, the popular vote as to which film our happy little band should go to see on our weekly cinema trip went almost unanimously to Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, Booksmart. (Then again, the only other serious alternative – and I use the word ‘serious’ inaccurately – was Ryan Reynolds in Detective Pikachu, and, you know, frankly, no.)

You may have heard of Olivia Wilde; certainly, I can’t hear her name without thinking of a scene in Cowboys and Aliens with a bonfire, and another one from a film called Alpha Dog that has been widely shared on the internet… but I digress. I kind of get the impression that Cowboys and Aliens marked the end of her association with big, broad studio movies (though then again, she was in Rush, but I’d forgotten about that) and she’s been ploughing her own furrow doing a mixture of roles in lower-profile films and making documentaries. Booksmart, while maybe a bit too full-on to be entirely mainstream, is certainly a film aimed to appeal to a wide audience.

Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever play Molly and Amy, a couple of intelligent, dedicated, wide-awake young women just on the cusp of graduating from high school in the time-honoured fashion. Both of them have prioritised academic success over self-indulgent hedonism for the past four years and are feeling rather smug about it, accepting their reputation as a couple of joyless geeks is a reasonable price to pay for going to much better colleges than any of their peers.

Except… it doesn’t quite seem to have worked out that way. All their fun-loving, popular contemporaries also seem to be going to very good colleges, or taking other equally attractive routes in the next stage of their lives, despite having enjoyed themselves fully. Molly in particular is absolutely traumatised to learn this, finding it grossly unfair, and in an effort to redress this decrees that the two of them will be attending the biggest party they can find, there to behave wildly and prove that they are fun people to hang out with. (The fact that both of their crushes will also be attending may have something to do with this new resolution, too.) Amy is a bit less keen on this plan, but goes along with Molly as usual. There is of course the problem of how to actually get to a party they don’t know the location of, but they are, as they keep reminding themselves, officially the two smartest girls in school…

I know there are some readers of the blog who take a special interest in the views of my good friend Olinka about the films we end up going to see; some of them are not even Olinka herself. So I imagine that Olinka’s verdict of ‘That was terrible… I was cringing all the way through,’ will carry particular weight with them. I should quickly add that it is not Olinka’s view or mine that Booksmart is actually a bad film, just that it brilliantly and vibrantly depicts a teenage world of social embarrassment and self-inflicted disasters. This is, I would suggest, not a film for Granny, for it contains various scenes of drug abuse, heavy drinking, and minority strumpy-pumpy, all held together by a script with an F-bomb total probably heading for four figures.

You might think be thinking this sounds like a spiritual companion piece to Eighth Grade, which came out a few weeks ago – Twelfth Grade, maybe. Well, the two films do obviously have something in common, but whereas Eighth Grade was implicitly critical of modern society and almost felt quite bleak in places, Booksmart turns out to be a joyous, upbeat, very, very funny film. Certainly it does have things to say about modern society, and it does poke fun at some young people’s obsession with identity politics (not to mention nearly every other kind of politics). But these are friendly pokes, not mean-spirited at all; this is not a reactionary film, and it is firmly on the side of its protagonists.

Booksmart certainly belongs to a popular tradition of American high-school comedies, and I suppose it will be hailed as the first entry to the genre to be written and directed by and star women; well, this may be so, but as noted the film does not labour the point and remains notably light-footed throughout. This isn’t to denigrate the quality of the script, which is consistently pacy and clever throughout, and works as well as it does mainly because of the way it’s not afraid to be completely absurd. All of the characters are caricatures to some extent, but they’re written and played to the hilt by the cast, who know when to go big and when to rein it back for a moment of something approaching genuine emotion.

That’s the thing about Booksmart: I turned up expecting another loud, agitprop-y comedy more concerned with ticking the right political boxes than actually serving its story, and an hour in I realised I was watching something consistently funny, frequently over-the-top, highly inventive, and with a central relationship that was totally believeable and that I had somehow become honestly invested in. It’s the warmth and heart of Booksmart that pushes it over the line from good film to great film – it’s not just that you care about Molly and Amy, and feel for them when various social and personal disasters overtake them, although this is the case. This is a rare example of a film where pretty much every character eventually turns out to be a decent, likable human being – again, all credit to a cast which includes Jessica Williams as their class teacher, Skyler Gisondo as the class goon, and Billie Lourd as a drug-crazed free-spirit.

There are not many films I have come out of recently feeling quite as buoyant as I did after Booksmart. The phrase ‘instant classic’ gets tossed around fairly glibly these days, but in this case it does feel justified. It’s interesting that a film that wears its progressive credentials very lightly and simply concentrates on delivering solid laughs ends up feeling much more positive than any number of studiously right-on dramas and documentaries. Funny old world sometimes; but this is a very funny new film.

People complaining about not being able to make movies seem to have a diminishing stock of excuses at their disposal. It’s not as if you still need lots of expensive equipment or an army of support staff – there has been at least one fairly recent release shot entirely on a smartphone, not that you’d know that from looking at the film (Soderbergh’s Unsane). Film-making has been democratised along with many other forms of artistic expression in the internet age; the real challenge is getting past the gatekeepers so your film shows in cinemas (or at least on a big-name streaming site), not just on YouTube. Of course, it helps if you have form when it comes to making successful films, either commercially or critically.

Then again, some people have bigger barriers than others, such as the Iranian director Jafar Panahi, who made a career out of films which were quietly critical of the establishment of Iran. This eventually led to his arrest for producing propaganda against his own government, and a ban on making any films for twenty years. I will happily admit that I don’t know as much about Panahi’s case as I perhaps should, but somehow he has managed to carry on making films despite being unable to leave Iran, and they keep turning up in the west (one was apparently smuggled out on a USB stick hidden inside a cake). How is he allowed to do this? Why are there no repercussions? Constant reader, I don’t know: all I can say is that if his latest film (the first I have seen), 3 Faces, is representative of his output, I am not entirely sure what the Iranian government is quite so worried about.

Why is this film called 3 Faces? Good question. No idea. The first face we see is that of a teenage girl named Marziyeh (I should mention that virtually everyone in this film is playing a version of themselves, who lives in a remote village and is not very happy about it. She wants to be an actress, her family disagree, and in her desperation she is sending a message via smartphone to the well-known Iranian movie star (well-known in Iran, anyway) Behnaz Jafari in the hope she will come and help her. The film appears to conclude with Marziyeh doing something rather regrettable.

Well, Jafari receives the message, courtesy of Panahi himself, who is the person it’s actually been sent to. The two of them immediately stop what they’re doing and drive off to Marziyeh’s village to see what’s going on – was Marziyeh telling the truth? What has befallen her? – despite the increasingly irate phone calls coming from the director of a film which Jafari is supposed to be making. Jafari openly wonders – is this all a scam? Is Panahi in on it? Is the message genuine?

Well, I know what you’re probably thinking, I was thinking it myself to begin with: this sounds a bit like a metatextual Iranian odd-couple road movie take on The Wicker Man, updated for the 21st century. However, it is clearly not Jafar Panahi’s style to do something so obvious and hackneyed. Exactly what he did set out to achieve in this movie is a bit less easy to work out. I had originally planned to go and see 3 Faces a few weeks ago, not least because it would give me a chance to hang out socially with the blog’s Anglo-Iranian Affairs consultant but problems at the cinema led to the screening being cancelled. We were quite glad when it popped up again at the UPP, and Anglo-Iranian Affairs seemed delighted when it transpired the credits were in both English and Farsi. At the end of the film I sought his opinion, with uncharacteristic delicacy.

‘Was there some kind of subtle Iranian subtext to that film, that as an outside I’m just not picking up on? Because it just seemed like two people wandering about with not much happening.’

Anglo-Iranian Affairs looked at me, a gentle smile upon his face. ‘Subtext? No, not really. It’s really interesting to see a film like that one, it’s so unusual these days.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘Well, one without much of an actual story. I kept waiting for something to happen, but…’

Well, if nothing else it looks like Jafar Panahi has made a film that crosses borders and cultural divides: whether you are the product of western civilisation or Iran itself, you can watch 3 Faces and come away convinced you’ve just seen a film about two people sitting in a car, with not much significance beyond that. I think I’m going to stress this again: very little actually happens in this film, in terms of story at least – Panahi and Jafari drive about, occasionally stopping to talk to someone or discuss what they’re doing. Sometimes he has to wait while Jafari signs autographs for the many adoring fans who materialise every time they stop somewhere. An old man tells a long story about his son’s circumcision. The closest thing to a plot twist arrives when their attempts to leave a village are stymied by the presence of the local prize stud bull – an animal with ‘miraculous testicles’ – lying injured in the road.

None of this is actually irksome to watch, but I did find myself becoming rather restive as the film entered its second hour with still only an ambient sense of plot about it. Every now and then it feels like the film is getting ready for something to happen, some grave reversal or development, but… nothing significant actually happens. They stop and have tea somewhere, maybe. It’s not even as if the film is that beautiful to behold – always a useful get-out for arty films without much story – as it looks like big chunks of it were made on Panahi’s phone (presumably a consequence of his ban, which the script itself alludes to). It may possibly be the case that he is trying to make some kind of point about cultural and generational divides in modern Iran – there is something ironic about the contrast between the hostility Marziyeh’s desire to become an actress is met with by her fellow villagers, and the adulation Jafari (herself a performer) encounters during their journey. But it’s all so obliquely done, with the lightest possible of touches, that the point of the film (if it has one) becomes almost imperceptible.

And yet 3 Faces still shared the award for best screenplay at Cannes: if I were the cynical type I would suggest this says more about Cannes’ desire to support a persecuted film-maker. Actually, I am the cynical type: this film winning a screenplay award says more about the bien-pensant folk of Cannes wanting to show solidarity with Panahi than it does about any quality the film actually possesses. I am beginning to see how Jafar Panahi is working around the ban on his making films, because while 3 Faces is not an outright objectionable way of spending 100 minutes, it barely qualifies as a piece of cinema.

Twenty years on from his death, the world seems to be thinking of Stanley Kubrick more than ever: an exhibition is currently running in London of props and personal effects from the Kubrick archives, a few weeks ago A Clockwork Orange enjoyed a re-release, there was a mini-season of his films across various BBC channels… then again, it does seem that Kubrick casts a longer shadow than most, and his films are revived on a regular basis (and quite right too, you might say). This even includes the one major film over which Kubrick did not have complete creative control, with the result that he was so dissatisfied that he effectively disowned it.

I speak, of course, of 1960’s Spartacus, onto which he was brought after the original director, Anthony Mann, was fired after only a week’s filming had been completed. The making of this film seems to have been unusually colourful: the project was initiated by star Kirk Douglas after he failed to win the lead role in Ben-Hur, found itself in a race with a rival Spartacus project involving Yul Brynner, was instrumental in destroying the Hollywood blacklist by crediting screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Douglas recalls being rather disgusted by Kubrick’s eagerness to take the credit for the script), and so on.

This is entirely in keeping with a film which purports to be a retelling of one of the most intriguing stories of antiquity: the Third Servile War, also known as Spartacus’ rebellion against the Roman republic. Little is known of the actual history of these events, the Romans being characteristically reluctant to keep records of an incident they felt to be profoundly embarrassing. Given so little is known, I suppose it is quite impressive that the film manages to get the majority of the facts wrong.

Still, the story remains very roughly accurate in most respects: Kirk Douglas plays Spartacus, a man born into slavery but still possessed of a stubborn and rebellious streak: enough to get him into serious trouble in the mines where he has spent most of his life. He is saved from a death sentence by the gladiatorial entrepreneur Batiatus (Peter Ustinov), who brings him to his school in Capua where a brutal training regime begins. Pretty much the only solace he gets, other than the sense of brotherhood that inevitably develops between the gladiators, is a low-key romance with a slave-girl named Varinia (Jean Simmons).

But all the ends with the visit of the ruthless soldier and politician Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier), who takes a fancy to Varinia and purchases her from Batiatus. He also informs Batiatus that he expects to see gladiators fight to the death for his entertainment and that of his distinguished young companions. Spartacus narrowly avoids death in the ensuing combat, but resentment festers amongst the slaves, and when he learns he is never to see Varinia again, Spartacus snaps and launches a revolt against the masters of the school. Soon all the countryside around Capua is in uproar and the rulers of Rome must decide on their response to the gathering slave army in the countryside…

Over the last fifty or sixty years, Spartacus has become a hardy perennial of the TV schedules, and I have watched the initial hour or so of the movie many, many times. This is mainly because the first act of the movie barely puts a foot wrong in establishing the characters and tone of the movie. The sequence culminating in the arena fight between Douglas and Woody Strode, in particular, is an exemplary demonstration of how to build up to, stage, and choreograph this kind of action set-piece, and a genuine highlight of the film. Of course, it also introduces Olivier as Crassus, thus setting up the much longer middle section of the film.

Once the gladiators actually start revolting, we reach the point at which I usually change the channel, to be honest, because the film undergoes a strange and slightly jarring change of emphasis – Spartacus, previously a taciturn figure who mainly expresses himself through violence, suddenly becomes an idealistic and (relatively) eloquent leader of men, in charge of a multitude of people who are presented in rather trite and sentimental terms – there seem to be a disproportionate number of small moppets, sweet old couples, and amusing dwarves amongst the rebelling slaves. One of Kubrick’s issues with the script was that Spartacus is a dull character without quirks, and he kind of has a point – Douglas relies heavily on his innate charisma, together with a couple of very minor grace-note scenes where he is afflicted with mild self-doubt.

What keeps the film going, apart from its impressive scale, spectacle, and Alex North’s marvellous orchestral score (you can hear echoes of it in many subsequent soundtracks by much more famous composers), is the other strand of the plot at this point, which concerns the political shenanigans in Rome – the viewer is left to pick this up for him or herself, mostly, but basically a class (or caste) struggle is in progress, with the wily old Gracchus (Charles Laughton) on one side, backed up by the massed plebes, set against the more aristocratic (not to mention autocratic) Crassus. Which way Gracchus’ protege Julius Caesar (John Gavin) will jump is not immediately clear (Caesar is a relatively minor character in Spartacus, and not especially sympathetically portrayed). The ace card of this section of the film is the presence of so many great actors – Olivier, Laughton, Ustinov – all apparently intent on outdoing each other. Ustinov and Laughton seem to have worked out they can’t match Olivier for sheer power and presence, as he was pretty much in his prime at this point, but they both milk their roles for all the entertainment value possible, and it was Ustinov who took the Oscar home.

Olivier’s dominance of the film seems quite fitting as one of the things that marks Spartacus out from the majority of sword-and-sandal epics is that it has a genuinely downbeat trajectory and an honestly bleak ending. All of Spartacus’ bold statements about freedom and the right to live as one chooses come to nothing – the rebellion is crushed, with thousands slaughtered by the Roman legions, and all it has achieved is to allow Crassus to orchestrate his rise to unmatched power in what remains of the Republic. There is no choir standing by behind the camera, no hopeful message about the eventual victory of Christianity – this is a rare example of a big Hollywood movie where the bad guy wins. The film works horribly hard to try and give Spartacus the moral victory, and at least Crassus doesn’t get the girl, but neither does he end up dead, on a cross, committing suicide, or driven into exile, which is what happens to the sympathetic characters in this film. (There’s no mention of the grisly fate suffered by the historical Crassus.) The film’s grimness and cynicism do feel authentically Kubrickian.

Elsewhere, the great director handles the toybox of the Hollywood epic with all the skill and elan you might expect, and – perhaps – the lack of ability to generate sincere emotion you might also associate with his work. The climactic battle between the slaves and the legions is stirring stuff, to be sure, and the vista of corpses as far as the eye can see in the aftermath is an uncompromising image, but the defeat of the heroes and the death of all their dreams never quite hits you where you live; the battle is missing the moment where Spartacus realises his army has no chance of victory and we see his reaction to it. It is this and a few other missed beats that keep Spartacus from being a classic of the first rank. Nevertheless, for all of Kubrick’s antipathy towards it, this is a film which most other directors would and should have been very proud of.

Episodic TV was (and perhaps remains) an all-consuming monster, devouring time, talent and money in order to produce 45 or 60 minutes of product every week. People get tired, money runs out, sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day. So how do TV producers cope? Well, obviously, on ensemble shows you can rotate the cast, so some people aren’t featured so prominently some weeks; other programmes have the option of doing what they call ‘bottle shows’, a money-saving measure whereby an episode features only the regular cast and sets. A third possibility, mainly intended to save time, is ‘double banking’, where two episodes are produced simultaneously (both carefully written to feature largely different sets and characters). The most derided shortcut, however, and one of the most obvious to the audience, is the clip show.

Clip shows are basically thinly-disguised re-runs, where a selection of highlights (or not) are presented once again to the audience via some sort of frame story. Clip shows used to be more common than they are today; Gerry Anderson seemed particularly keen on them back in the sixties. The last live-action instance I can think of is the gruelling Shades of Grey episode of TNG (known in some circles as Riker’s Brain), although I believe The Simpsons still persists with the form.

The Incredible Hulk‘s first contribution to the odd world of the clip show is probably a better example, mainly due to the circumstances which led to it. The episode in question, Proof Positive, came about because Bill Bixby, the show’s star and central presence, was unavailable for filming due to court dates for his divorce. They had all the usual time and money, they just didn’t have a lead actor. So what were they going to do?

Proof Positive (written by Karen Harris and Jill Sherman, two of the series’ stalwarts) opens in a manner which quickly makes it obvious this is a very atypical episode. The cold open starts with the Hulk roaming an arid desert, apparently in pursuit of the reporter Jack McGee (an ironic role reversal). The impact of the sequence is somewhat reduced by the fact it’s clear that while Lou Ferrigno is obviously on location somewhere (I think this is reused footage from the start of season two), Jack Colvin is filming his contributions in a sandpit somewhere and the two never share the screen. Anyway, the Hulk catches up with McGee, gets ready to do him an injury –

And McGee wakes up in a cold sweat. Clearly he has been letting the Hulk get to him. This would be bad enough, but his obsession with tracking the creature down means he is ignoring all the juicy sex scandals his employers at the paper expect him to cover as well. Trouble is on the cards, especially when the paper gets a new publisher, Pat Steinhauer (Caroline Smith), who wants to take the tabloid up-market and sees stopping publishing Hulk stories as an essential part of this (Steinhauer was the name of the show’s producer – the series has a certain penchant for this kind of in-joke).

Well, Jack McGee takes the news as well as you might expect and threatens to jump off the roof of the building. His editor is quickly on the case, both as a humanitarian and a pragmatist – ‘Call the police and the fire department! And get a photographer out there!’ Quite how much of this is a ploy by McGee is left open, but Pat agrees to let him try to persuade her the Hulk is the stuff of serious news, so he can keep the story.

And… roll those clips! Actually, this clip show works better than most, partly because the clips make up only a small proportion of the episode, and also because they’re quite well chosen to recap the history of McGee’s encounters with the Hulk and their subtly-changing relationship (by this point McGee knows that someone else turns into the creature, he just doesn’t know who). We kind of rub up against one of the limitations of the format, in that Pat seems almost wilfully sceptical about the Hulk even existing (he’s popped up in front of whole crowds of people by this point), but I suppose that’s necessary to make this episode work.

If nothing else Proof Positive is a chance for the writers to develop McGee’s character a bit more, and it’s one which they enthusiastically grab: this may mark the point at which he becomes more of a secondary protagonist of the series, and less of a menace to Banner. On the other hand, this does take a rather melodramatic form – Colvin gets to deliver long, heartfelt speeches about just what his pursuit of the Hulk has cost him, personally. There’s also a rather odd shift in that the episode starts as McGee trying to persuade Pat of the Hulk’s reality, but somehow ends up as a romance between the two of them, chief impediment to which being that he believes in the Hulk and she doesn’t. The problem is that they start talking to each other in highly impassioned terms apropos of pretty much nothing, almost as if a scene has been omitted from the final cut.

Hey ho. In the end there is a quite well-staged Hulk-out in a blast furnace (McGee inevitably falls down some stairs and drops his tranquiliser gun), with Lou Ferrigno running through a pile of foam rubber painted to look like scrap metal, and a pretty good episode results without Bill Bixby having to involve himself at all.

(Although, one has to wonder – did they even consider doing a Ferrigno-centric episode where our hero spends the whole time as the Hulk? Could this have been an opportunity for the story, which Lou Ferrigno was apparently desperately keen to do, where the Hulk develops the ability to speak? I can think of a couple of ways this could have been attempted, but I expect there were very sound reasons for doing a McGee episode instead.)

Then again, sometimes you can have all your stars available, a decent budget to hand, and some interesting ideas, and still end up producing something with the ineffable aura of duffness about it. This brings us to Deathmask, written by another of the show’s lynchpins, Nicholas Corea, which aired in early 1980 (around the time it’s actually set). This episode gets off to an uncompromisingly dark and very atypical start, with a masked killer standing over the corpse of his recent victim, a young blonde woman, who has had a plaster death-mask placed on her face. It transpires that a serial killer is preying on the female students of a minor university – the students are uneasy, with groups of vigilante young men patrolling the grounds after dark and suspicion inevitably falling on any quiet drifters who may have recently arrived in the area.

Stand up, then, David Brent, which is the rather unfortunate and mood-breaking alias adopted by Banner this week. He is working on the campus (and taking the opportunity to do some genetic research of his own in his spare time), and, being the sensitive, charming babe-magnet that he is, managing to carry on at least two low-key romances as well. One of these is with campus figure Joan Singer (Melendy Britt), who in her own spare time runs the women’s self defence club. The local police chief (Gerald McRaney, making his fourth guest appearance in three seasons), who’s a big city cop recently relocated here for a quieter life, seems to have misgivings about this project, suggesting that fighting back may only incite a male attacker to worse violence. He also seems to carry a bit of a torch for Joan, which does not incline him to look cheerily upon Banner.

The Incredible Hulk is a show which is not afraid to head into some unusual territory, but this episode really does feel like it’s pushing the envelope – the tone is dark and sombre, and the script tackles some complicated issues concerned with violence against women head on. It’s still a show from nearly 40 years ago, so don’t expect it to be exactly enlightened, but this is still heavy (and thus interesting) stuff for a Marvel superhero TV show.

However, things go badly wrong round about the mid-point: Banner has just said goodnight to one of his amours when she is attacked by the death-mask killer. Our hero being the kind of chap he is, he charges in, the stress levels rise, and before you know it the Hulk is flipping over cars and both he and the killer are running away from cop cars. David’s young friend is left in a state of shock, repeating his name again and again, the kind of thing you just know is going to be misinterpreted…

The next morning Banner is dragged in by the police, having been a person of interest already due to his studied vagueness about his background. We don’t see him actually being arrested, and the question of why he didn’t just get the hell out of town as soon as he de-Hulked is skipped over; we know this was already his intention. Common sense and logic would suggest that at this point the game is up for Banner, as having his mug-shot taken and being finger-printed would be awkward enough, before we even consider the results of a proper investigation into his identity. (Even before we consider that his companion would surely vouch for his good character.)

But the series cannot allow its format to be shattered in this fashion, and desperate contrivances are introduced to dodge all these points. The local mayor is up for re-election soon and, for somewhat obscure reasons, believes that having the death-mask killer interrogated locally will help his chances of swinging the vote. So all those usual procedural niceties are conveniently waived. And what of the witness who can clear him of the crime? Aha, well she is unable to do so, as she is kept drugged into a coma – this is not even revealed until the last moments of the episode, when it feels like an afterthought.

To be honest, revealing it earlier might have tipped off the resolution of the episode. I’m not sure ‘twist’ is quite the right word for this. The conventions of US TV drama in 1980 mean that the killer has to be caught, but also that he can’t just be some guy off the street; he has to be an established character. There are not many candidates to be the murderer – in fact, there is only one, and this is (spoiler alert, and I use the word ‘spoiler’ in the broadest possible sense) the police chief. A troubled childhood, together with many years on the mean streets of Chicago, have left him as deranged as the current state of British politics, and it is he who has been killing all the blondes.

How do we know about the troubled childhood, and so on? Aha. The scenes in which Banner is interrogated about his obscure background and the selection of fake IDs discovered in his possession are initially quite interesting, but soon – and rather preposterously – turn into the police chief delivering various hollow-eyed monologues about the untrustworthiness of women, striking a rather Travis Bickle-esque note as he does so. Banner, being Banner, seems to be more concerned about helping his captor with his issues than with the fact he could be on the verge of very serious trouble.

More serious than he knows, as disgruntled locals, led by the father of one of the victims, have decided to deliver their own brand of justice by storming the police station and lynching Banner, conveniently doing so just after the killer chief has departed to kill Joan. Yet again the format of the series creaks under the strain: we are supposed to accept that the Hulk is an urban legend, his existence and nature subject to debate: but in this episode Banner hulks out while under a pile of people, and the Hulk smashes his way through at least two walls on his way to rescue Joan. He is a peculiarly solid and destructive urban legend.

I do really like The Incredible Hulk, in a genuine and non-ironic way, but I have to say that Deathmask is one of its weaker episodes – there is a lot of potential here, and there are glimpses of the much better episode this could have been – I’m not sure about whether the whole ‘violence against women’ angle is really a good fit for this kind of show, but someone taking a serious interest in Banner’s identity obviously lends itself itself to some dramatic moments. But in the episode-as-made, the script bangs up against the restrictions of the format and the results of the collision are not pretty. All I can say is that, even when it’s not very good, The Incredible Hulk is at least bad in an interesting way.

Paddle Your Own Keanu

The premise of Chad Stahelski’s John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (yes, another of those punctuation-heavy sequel titles) is very straightforward. Opening scant moments after the conclusion of Chapter 2, it finds short-fused hitman John Wick (Keanu Reeves) running for his life, as the clock ticks down to the moment when open season is declared upon his person by pretty much the entire criminal population of New York City. (Wick’s faithful dog may also be in trouble.) How has he come to such dire straits? Well, this being the modern day, the film doesn’t really bother to recap – suffice to say that in the first film someone shot his (other) dog, and a roaring rampage of revenge ensued, which in the second film culminated in the world’s greatest hitman shooting someone he wasn’t supposed to shoot, apparently a grave transgression of the regulations and by-laws of the international underworld. I said it was very straightforward; I didn’t say it actually made sense.

Well, Wick’s time runs out, and he is forced to defend himself against wave after wave of attackers in a succession of unlikely places, in the process demonstrating his mastery not just of kung fu, but also gun-fu, knife-fu, horse-fu and library-book-fu. It very quickly becomes apparent that the action choreography in this film is every bit as good as in the previous ones in the series, but that John Wick 3 is – if it’s even possible – more astoundingly violent, with a savagely brutal edge that feels new. I went to a matinee showing of Parabellum, surrounded by (I would expect) a fairly hardened action movie crowd, and yet shocked oohs and aaahs and outbursts of appalled laughter drifted around the auditorium at the film’s most viciously inventive moments.

That said, this opening sequence is superlatively well put-together as a piece of entertainment, always assuming you can stand the violence, and by the end of it I was honestly starting to wonder if we needed to revise the history of the action movie to the effect that the John Wick series is really Keanu Reeves’ most impressive contribution to the genre.

However, they can’t sustain the pace (perhaps understandably, Keanu being 54 these days), and eventually the plot kicks in. This is really not the film’s strong point, and certainly not its raison d’etre, and takes a sort of twin-track approach. We get an inkling of Wick’s hitherto-enigmatic origins as he calls in a favour from the Russian Mafia (it appears he may possibly have been a ballet dancer at one point, but the film is carefully noncommittal about this) and heads off to Morocco in the hope of having a sit-down with the boss of the international underworld to sort it all out. This involves visiting an old friend and fellow dog-fancying hit-person (Halle Berry); I suppose it’s nice to see Berry again but it’s a very underwritten part she doesn’t find much to do with.

Meanwhile, in New York a steward’s enquiry as to how all of this has come to pass, undertaken by a representative of the criminal underworld authorities (Asia Kate Dillon). Having to answer some hard questions are various allies of Wick, including characters played by Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne and Anjelica Huston. All of them carve off thick slices of ham, as does Mark Dacascos as the chief enforcer of the enquiry (Dacascos has been a very charismatic and able martial-arts actor for decades, and it is great to see him in such a high-profile role). How will it all end? Is full-scale war between Wick and everyone else inevitable? (Hint: probably, yes.)

I vaguely recall the first John Wick being a relatively down-to-earth, noirish thriller, with the sequel basically getting one foot off the ground in terms of expanding the background of the film. Well, this third movie is essentially a pure fantasy film in every way that matters, having only the most tenuous connection with reality. The first film actually featured criminals who went around committing the odd crime once in a while: everyone in this one seems totally fixated on the arcane and esoteric regulations of the criminal underworld, which come replete with their own complicated rituals and lexicon. People are always swearing fealty to each other in the most elaborate way, or ordering each other to do (usually grisly) penances. It feels a bit like a vampire movie, in a funny way; there is an odd thread of religious iconography and language running through it, and hardly anyone goes out in the daytime.

Probably not worth dwelling on any of this too much, though, as the plot (such as it is) is mostly just there to set up the third act of the film, which is another exercise in wall-to-wall mayhem, featuring many rooms with stylish glass panels and sculptures through which Reeves can be repeatedly kicked by the various bad guys. Before this there’s a first-person-shooter-ish sequence which is good but not great; but the showdown between Dacascos and Reeves is as good as you’d expect. It should really come over like something out of an Expendables movie, given it’s a kung fu fight between two guys with a combined age of 109, but it manages to stay entirely credible. There’s also a little treat for the kung fu movie connoisseur, as Reeves has a scene where he takes on Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahan (Mad Dog and Assassin from the Raid series); this is also great stuff.

This is basically the purest kind of action movie – a string of set-piece fights and chases, held together by the most cursory and preposterous of plotting, with the whole thing slathered in stylishness. Crucially, it once again manages to hit the genre sweet spot of not taking itself too seriously, while also never completely sending itself up; Reeves again provides a rather peculiar central performance – he really doesn’t seem to be doing very much, but at the same time it’s impossible to imagine anyone else carrying the film in the way that he does here.

John Wick 3 is, once again, an outstandingly good Bad Movie; the only brick I can honestly send its way is that the saggy middle section is saggy in part because it’s setting up a potential Chapter 4. For most of the film it does feel like we’re heading for some kind of resolution, and that a proper trilogy is on the cards. But no: the door is left flapping in the wind for a potential fourth instalment, no matter how strained this feels. I really have enjoyed these films so far, but I can’t help feeling that this series has peaked and is on the point of collapsing into self-parody and excess. But I could be wrong, and John Wick: Chapter 3 is certainly good enough to convince me to keep an open mind on the subject.

How’s about this for a subtle way of sliding a blatant plug into one of these pieces: I have a piece in a collection of essays coming out later this year, concerning a fairly-well-known fictional character whose generally benevolent nature rapidly vanishes whenever he experiences a moment of perfect happiness. The editor of the collection asked me to provide a one-line biography of myself, and it seemed natural to choose a moment of perfect happiness of my own – tongue slipping slightly into my cheek, naturally. I went for eating a $60 cheeseburger high in the sky over Tokyo, in the 50th-floor hotel bar where Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson sort-of hooked-up in Lost in Translation. (I refused to believe you could possibly justify charging $60 for a cheeseburger, no matter how nice the scenery was. Then I ate a $60 cheeseburger, and revised my opinion.)

It’s one of those questions which you can take as seriously as you want to, I suppose, and it is at the heart of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s film After Life (the Japanese connection is mostly coincidental). This is one of Kore-eda’s earlier films, released in 1998, and one presumes it (along with a bunch of other Kore-eda films) is enjoying a revival off the back of the success of Shoplifters last year. I have to confess I had never heard of it until only a few days ago; this is not the kind of Japanese movie which generally lands an international distribution deal.

As the film opens, we are in what looks like an abandoned or semi-derelict school or hospital; two co-workers are casually making their way into the office, gossiping about people they have met while doing their jobs. It is Monday morning and the departmental supervisor thanks his team for their efforts, but observes they have a large number of clients coming in this week who will all need to processed as smoothly as possibly. So far the general atmosphere has been of a naturalistic fly-on-the-wall documentary, but as the team’s clients begin to arrive, walking into the reception area out of a misty white void, we perhaps begin to discern that not all is quite as it seems. The clients are a disparate bunch, perhaps skewing more towards the older kind of person, and the reason for this is revealed as they are taken into private meeting rooms for their initial interviews with the processing team.

All the clients are people who have recently died, and the place where they are (it is never named) is basically the ante-room to the next life. The new arrivals are officially informed of their change in status, and the purpose of the place is explained: the newcomers have three days to decide upon which of their memories is most important to them. This memory will then be recreated and filmed by the staff of the facility. At the end of the week, everyone will watch the completed films of their chosen memories, at which point they will pass on into eternity, taking only that single memory with them.

Most of the early part of the film concerns the various clients discussing their lives and the things they remember most strongly. One of them isn’t sure he has any memories he really wants to take with him; another, a slightly flaky young man, refuses to choose, despite the fact he will not be able to move on until he does. These two characters are scripted, but even as you’re watching the film it’s clear that some of these scenes are real people honestly talking about their lives (not actual dead people, obviously, but the fantastical context in which they are speaking does lend their stories a significance and gravity they might not otherwise possess).

As the film progresses, though, it becomes clear that this is more than just an inventively-disguised talking-heads documentary. The people working here have their own stories, too: they are not angels or spirits or supernatural beings, but people who have chosen not to move on. Some of them are better at their jobs than others, and they have their own relationships. The film focuses most on what seems like a very low-key romance between two of them, Takashi (Arata) and Shiori (Erika Oda). The film is as subtle as ever in the way it raises ideas without beating the viewer about the head with them – just why are they still here? Is it even possible for two people in such a strange state of metaphysical hiatus to have a meaningful connection of this kind? When the life-story of one of the new clients proves to have a personal resonance for Takashi, it begins to look very much like they can.

When the film first made clear the rules of Kore-eda’s afterlife – specifically the part about only being able to take one memory with you, stuck in a moment you can’t get out of (to quote U2) – I have to confess it didn’t sound to me like a very good deal; what kind of life can be summarised by only a single moment or memory? But perhaps this is not the point. Quite what that point would otherwise be, I’m not sure, although the film does suggest that most people just choose moments of special happiness for them. Perhaps the implication is that people get the afterlife that they choose for themselves, whether that be one of bliss or self-flagellating guilt and remorse. It’s a slightly worrying idea and one which feels disturbingly plausible.

In all other respects, Kore-eda’s clearing house for the great beyond is a very appealing concept. I couldn’t help thinking of the grand conception of heaven in Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death, with its enormous escalators, great clocks, pristine uniforms and so on; Kore-eda’s alternative feels rather like a somewhat under-funded branch of the social services – the roofs leak, the place clearly hasn’t been decorated in ages, and there’s a slightly shambolic quality to everything from the film reconstructions themselves to the brass band that accompanies the clients to the climactic screening. I found it undeniably charming, and very much of a piece with the rest of the film, which opts for low-key, understated naturalism throughout. You can imagine the Hollywood remake of After Life: it would be all soaring string sections and luminous CGI dissolves, with Important Life Lessons being crammed down the audience’s throat; none of that is here and it is what gives the film its enormous, gentle charm.

The original title of After Life was Wandafuru Raifu, which translates into English as Wonderful Life (Japanese is sometimes less challenging as a language than people think). However, this isn’t obviously an update or riff on Frank Capra’s much-loved seasonal favourite; it has none of that film’s darkness, nor its implicit imprecation that we should take the time to be grateful for what we’ve got. This is a film about quiet reflection and acceptance, almost wholly non-judgmental and enormously humane and warm. It is genuinely a bit of a treasure.

It’s not unheard of for young actors to achieve a staggering level of success in what’s essentially their first prominent role – this usually happens in adaptations of books aimed at a young-ish audience, or at least with a young-ish protagonist, as these kinds of projects tend to come with a built-in audience and so the studio is a bit more prepared to take a chance on an unknown. The quandary, then, is what a serious-minded young actor, propelled into celebrity at a tender age, supposed to do next? Some of them take the cards they’ve been dealt, cheerfully gun the engine and head right on down Mainstream Highway, but others are clearly afflicted by the need to show they have taste and range and a desire to do artistically significant work. One of the ways you used to be able to do this was by appearing in a Woody Allen film, as Emma Stone and Kristen Stewart both did, but that option is basically off the table now. Stewart also went kind of art-housey in Personal Shopper a few years ago. It’s the kind of deal that works for both the performer and the makers of the film: the performer will hopefully get to show their range and seriousness about their art, while the big name star should help an otherwise uncommercial project attract attention and funding.

You can see the same kind of trade-off at work in Claire Denis’ High Life, which stars Stewart’s one-time co-star (amongst other things, hem-hem) Robert Pattinson. Denis revealed that every time she came to the UK to meet actors, Pattinson would turn up, whether he was invited or not, despite the fact she felt he was too young. Luckily, the march of entropy being what it is, Pattinson eventually stopped being too young, and now here he is, in a film which I can only describe as… you know, it doesn’t really lend itself to a brief description. What I will say is that this is a startlingly and often unpleasantly graphic film, and there may be turns of phrase on the way that will make you go ‘ugh’. Don’t blame me, blame Claire Denis.

The film occurs almost exclusively aboard a rather odd spaceship, which from the outside resembles a 1970s stereo cabinet. The film opens in the ship’s hydroponics section, which of course leads one to wonder about the extent to which this is a knowing homage to Silent Running; this line of thought is rapidly dispelled by the sounds of an infant, who appears to be being raised by computers. It turns out this is because her father (Pattinson) is outside fixing the spaceship. The two of them seem to be quite alone and lead a peaceful life of quiet routine; he seems to be an attentive and caring parent. Every day he has to make a progress report in order for the ship’s computer to keep the life support switched on for another twenty-four hours, which seems like an odd arrangement. Our first clue that even odder things have been going on here comes when Pattinson, wanting to economise on his electric bill, shuts down the ship’s cryogenics unit and dumps the corpses of the rest of the crew out of the airlock.

Needless to say, there are flashbacks to come, and slowly and incrementally the (rather unlikely, if you ask me) story of the ship comes into focus. This is a long-haul mission set to last many years, with a crew composed entirely of death-row convicts launched off into deep space to carry out experiments on using the rotational energy of black holes to solve Earth’s resource problems. Not that anyone on board seems to be thinking much about thermodynamics: everyone, with the possible exception of Pattinson’s character, Monte, seems to have become fixated on rather more basic issues.

Intimate contact between the members of the crew is apparently prohibited, but the builders of the ship have thoughtfully provided a room in which frustrated crew members can masturbate away to their heart’s content (although duff plumbing means there are puddles of all sorts of bodily fluids in the corridor outside). One keen user of this facility is the ship’s doctor (Juliette Binoche); there is a frankly astonishing sequence recording one of her visits to the room, in much more detail than I really needed to see. Apart from this, her main interest is in trying to produce a child through artificial insemination, to which end she is cheerfully manipulating and drugging the other crew members. Tensions inevitably rise between the other crew members, which only Pattinson is partly immune to, mostly because he’s trying to stay abstinent (just for a change). But how long will it be before the mission itself is endangered…?

As you can perhaps see from the poster, High Life has earned itself some glowing reviews and enviable star ratings, many of them from sources not often impressed by SF films. I suspect this is one of those SF films which people who don’t like SF will like. SF films which people who don’t like SF will like tend to fall into two categories: there are the ones which basically use SF props to tell a story lifted wholesale from another genre and reskinned – a lot of mainstream studio SF falls into this category. Then there is the more arty kind of obscure movie, which uses SF themes and imagery to deal with subtle and abstract philosophical and artistic notions.

Critics tend to love this latter kind of film, and will happily overlook the fact that the story is ludicrous. This is a film set on a spaceship which looks like a stereo cabinet, crewed by death-row inmates, with puddles of semen all over the floor, and we’re supposed to believe it’s giving us some grand insight into the human condition and ‘what it means to be human’? The most profound insight on offer here is a suggestion of what would happen if someone launched the Big Brother house into deep space, because it’s basically about a bunch of unsympathetic and frankly weird characters who appear to have become totally fixated with sexual matters. I don’t recognise this as ‘what it means to be human’; I only recognise it as what happens when a misanthropic and pretentious film director hooks up with someone from Twilight and gets to work on a script with a suspicious large number of names on it.

I should say that the script starts off being quite weird and only gets worse as the story continues. One character ‘commits suicide by burying himself in the garden’ (that’s from High Life‘s Wikipedia entry). Late-on, there’s a very strange interlude where the spaceship encounters another stereo cabinet, but this one appears to be inhabited solely by stray dogs. What any of it is supposed to signify is very difficult to work out.

As I say, you can see the makers of High Life are not unfamiliar with SF films from years gone by – in addition to Silent Running, you can perhaps discern the influence of films like Moon, Sunshine, and Interstellar. But all of those films seemed to have something to say for themselves about human beings and their place in the universe. The problem with High Life isn’t just that it’s a bleak and dystopian vision of the future, it’s that it seems to have nothing original to say for itself. Yes, human beings can be horrible and repellent, but they’re not necessarily like that, and if you’re going to suggest that the antics of a bunch of people plucked from death row and launched into deep space can offer a real insight into how people in general will behave – well, I’m afraid you’ve lost me.  It may be that this genuinely is a profound and insightful film, but the general tone and atmosphere of it is so repulsive I find it very difficult to look at it objectively. Claire Denis has certainly succeeded in taking the SF movie somewhere new, it’s just not a place there seems much point in visiting.