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Angry in America

I have to confess that I do occasionally have a problem remembering which of the McDonagh brothers (John Michael and Martin) is which. Which one of them wrote and directed In Bruges? Which one did Calgary? Or Seven Psychopaths? Or The Guard? Luckily this is a less serious issue than it could be, as no matter which McDonough is responsible, the films themselves are almost always witty, thoughtful, and provocative in a good way. And so it proves with Martin McDonagh’s new film Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, yet another film which finds itself almost uncannily positioned to comment on and possibly take advantage of the unusual moment in which the United States finds itself.

The film opens just outside the small town of the title, and finds Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a divorced woman with a teenage son, being struck by a moment of inspiration when she sees three long-disused billboards near her home. Some months earlier, her teenage daughter was raped and murdered, and there has been no word from the police department about this for a very long time. Incensed by the lack of progress, or indeed communication, Mildred rents the boards and puts up a set of messages highlighting the apparent inertia of the cops, in particular the police chief, Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).

Willoughby, a basically decent man, is frustrated and irritated by this, but he has deeper personal problems to deal with and is inclined to be understanding. However, one of his men, Dixon (Sam Rockwell), is somewhat less inclined to show empathy. Dixon is a little bit dim and more than a little bit bigoted, and happy to use any means necessary to get Mildred off the police’s case. Neither side seems willing to consider moderating their position, and with Willoughby stuck in the middle, it seems that only a further tragedy stands any chance of bringing resolution to the situation…

This is another case of a film proving slightly tricky to review, mainly because there is a significant plot element that doesn’t feature in the trailer, presumably because McDonagh wants it held back as a surprise for the viewer (despite the fact it’s established very early on in the story). The trailer, more to the point, seems to be pitching Three Billboards as a kind of offbeat, somewhat Coenish black comedy. And I’m really not sure that this does the movie justice at all.

There are certainly moments of comedy here, and the film is shot through with darkness of the most uncomfortable kind, but this does not feel like a film really setting out to amuse the audience. It would be equally easy to describe it as simply being the story of a woman setting out to confront the forces of male establishment prejudice, but I don’t think that this is what the film is truly about, either.

Certainly, it touches on elements of racism and bigotry, not to mention police brutality, but there’s almost a sense in which the film can’t pass a potential issue without trying to be provocative about it, from homophobia to child abuse in the Catholic Church. But touching on a subject doesn’t mean the film’s actually about that thing, and if anything, Three Billboards seems to me to be a deeply serious film about a number of things, one of them being anger and guilt. (McDonagh himself has said the film is about rage.) It seems to me that the film is suggesting that Mildred is provoking and sustaining fury as a coping method to help her deal with her own issues of grief and regret: McDormand’s performance, a masterclass of intensity and quiet stillness, certainly seems to suggest as much, as do the numerous striking moments in which the film pauses to become almost lyrically meditative.

If the film does have a message for the United States today, it is a more complex and (perhaps) less easily digestible one than the simple platitude that prejudice is bad. Mildred is an essentially good person, the film makes clear, but a good person whom events transform into an implacable righteous avenger. The problem is that a righteous avenger can be just as destructive a force as a thuggish, reactionary brute like Rockwell’s character, if neither of them is prepared to compromise. And so it transpires – neither side refuses to show any consideration for the other. Mistakes are made. Misunderstandings occur. People caught in the crossfire are the ones who suffer.

It seems to me that here McDonagh is creating a parable about the modern United States, which (as far as many observers can tell) is currently as divided and factionalised as it has been in living memory. The tendency towards unthinking demonisation of the opposition, and a lack of basic kindness and decency – these are other things that (again, it seems to me) Three Billboards is about, but they could surely equally be said about the culture wars taking place in America currently. If the film ultimately suggests that there is hope for some kind of rapprochement and a new kind of unity, then it is couched in the most unsettling terms – then again, there are few films which conclude on such a finely judged note of ambiguity and ambivalence as this one.

McDormand and Rockwell are both really excellent (in an example of just the kind of inflexible ideological puritanism that the film appears to be warning against, it has been suggested that Rockwell should not receive any awards for his performance in this film, as it is apparently morally wrong to reward someone for playing a racist), but so is Woody Harrelson, who has perhaps suffered for having a somewhat smaller role than either of the others. Then again, this is a film stuffed with classy, well-judged performances. The only very mild issue is with Abbie Cornish’s appearance as Harrelson’s wife – I think it’s probably a good performance, but the fact that it’s impossible to work out what kind of accent Cornish is attempting is inevitably a bit distracting.

There are plenty of laughs in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, but I think this is a very serious film that has the nerve to try and tackle some big subjects, both emotional and topical. As a result it includes a lot of a material which I suspect many viewers will find off-putting. This really is a drama, and one that goes to some extremely dark and potentially upsetting places. But it’s also a highly intelligent and very humane film, even if the notes of optimism it eventually strikes are inevitably somewhat muted. Most likely one of the films of the year.

 

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The Heart of the Matter

Another week, another film about the Second World War – on this occasion it is Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, a based-on-fact drama about the first days of Winston Churchill as the British Prime Minister in 1940 (not to be confused with the bobbins Timur Bekmambetov alien invasion movie of the same name from a few years back). We seem to be in the midst of a bunch of these at the moment – last year, after all, there was Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which concerned itself with almost exactly the same period of history, and a film about Winston Churchill directed by Jonathon Teplitzky, starring Brian Cox as Churchill himself, the name of which momentarily escapes me. Is there a particular reason for this particular spate of films on the same subject? Well, maybe: we shall come to that, probably.

I would imagine (or hope) that the events covered by Darkest Hour are already known to most people, in the UK at least. It is May 1940, and the position of the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) has become untenable following his role in attempting to appease Hitler the previous year. The obvious candidate to succeed him, Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), is unacceptable to the Labour Party, who will be a part of the new government; the only man for them is Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman), widely considered a self-serving maverick whose main loyalty is to himself.

The King (Ben Mendelsohn) is duly persuaded to ask Churchill to form a government, and he of course agrees, having been angling for the job all his adult life. But it begins to look like a poisoned chalice, as the forces of Nazi Germany invade Belgium and the Netherlands, France begins to crumble, and the British army finds itself in full retreat towards the French coast, with no realistic prospect of escape…

Given the situation, and with the United States unwilling to involve itself in a European war, the wise old heads of the war cabinet are in no doubt as to what the situation requires: a negotiated peace, responding to the peace overtures which Hitler’s Italian allies are already making. To do otherwise would be to expose Britain to the most terrible danger. If Churchill refuses to listen, then he has to be removed from office and replaced by someone more pragmatic. Faced with opposition both at home and abroad, is he really justified in sticking to his principles?

There are, obviously, many things one can say about the less palatable aspects of Winston Churchill, and his many utterances which would (hopefully) be career-ending nowadays. This is a man who at various points in his life was a racist, a keen advocate of the use of chemical weapons and also a cheerleader for eugenics. Yet this is also a figure who seems to transcend easy categorisation: unreconstructed old brute he may have been, but his is the example that seems to prove that one man can shape the course of history – as the popular legend has it, it was Churchill alone who kept Britain defiant and fighting, standing alone against the Nazi tyranny, almost as an act of will.

The notion of plucky little Britain going it alone against the rest of the world has become somewhat more loaded in the last eighteen months of so, and I wonder if this isn’t to some degree responsible for the recent surge in movies about the British bulldog spirit (and so on). Personally I think these are dangerous parallels to draw, but everyone in this particular area is in the process of mythmaking no matter what they happen to believe, so I suppose it is inescapable.

Certainly, Darkest Hour sticks close to the popular legend for most of its length – Churchill can be a bit inappropriate at times, but is generally lovably so, and is (of course) purveyor of a nice line in scathing wit, and possessor of a mighty oratorical talent. No real surprises there, then.

What’s slightly more unexpected is Churchill’s resemblance to a famous actor-director from New Cross. Three and a half hours in make-up every morning leaves Gary Oldman looking astonishingly like Gary Oldman under heavy prosthetics, and the fact he honestly doesn’t look very much like Churchill is a bit distracting. He is on full throttle here, though, and while his turn seemed to me to be somewhat awkwardly pitched between an acting performance and an act of impersonation, he certainly keeps the film very watchable, which is just as well: he’s in the vast majority of scenes. He’s particularly good when it comes to the aspects of Churchill we’re less used to seeing – the film often focuses on his vulnerability, his self-doubt, and his occasional bouts of depression.

Not that the support isn’t good too: apart from Pickup and Dillane, Kristin Scott Thomas plays Lady Churchill and is pretty good in what isn’t a terribly big part, and Lily James plays Churchill’s secretary – it does rather seem that James’ part owes its prominence to the need to have a major character who is both female and under forty, if only for the sake of the poster.

And for the most part the film tells the story rather well, working as both a wartime drama and a political thriller. It’s not quite so well told that you completely forget how it’s all going to turn out, but it does summon up the desperate atmosphere of the time very effectively, not to mention the various pressures on Churchill.

The real question, of course, is that of why Churchill was so implacable in his will to keep Britain fighting the Nazis when victory seemed impossible and a negotiated peace of some kind was a distinct possibility. Where did he find his conviction and resolve? Why did he hold this particular belief with quite such strength? This is the reason why we remember him as a national hero and key figure in British history, after all.

And, to be honest, Darkest Hour fluffs this most crucial issue. It does offer an explanation, but it’s one that reeks of the Hollywood script unit and doesn’t remotely ring true to history. Its proposition – that Churchill was simply embodying the will of the British people – feels rather too smug and convenient, to say nothing of the fact that the very phrase ‘the will of the people’ has become rather loaded and subject to misuse of late.

In the end, this is the problem with Darkest Hour: the film is well-directed and well staged, although some may find it a little dry and stagey (most of the action consists of middle-aged men arguing in cramped rooms), but it is ultimately telling a story that most people will already be at least partly familiar with. We all know what happened and when, but the real question is why events took the turn that they did. The film does not have a convincing answer to this question.

I mean, it’s not what you’d call a bad film, and the performances are very good – it is the kind of film that wins awards, simply because of the subject matter, and you can see why Oldman would take it on – you’re infinitely more likely to win an Oscar playing Churchill than you are Commissioner Gordon, after all. But it doesn’t have anything new to bring to its material, and doesn’t offer any real psychological insights into its subject. Worth seeing, if you like this sort of thing, but unlikely to go down in history as a classic by any means.

 

A Good Kind of Crazy

‘Madness conquers Hollywood!’ said the poster for the French release of Steven Spielberg’s 1979 film, 1941. It’s a bit unclear as to whether this is a description of the plot of the movie or a criticism of the thought processes involved in the thing being made in the first place; it’s arguably equally accurate as both. This is the early Spielberg movie that most people don’t think of and haven’t seen, and the one that tends to be described as a failure despite the fact it made nearly $100 million at the box office (three times its budget). Personally I always think of the film as a kind of folie de grandeur, for want of a better expression: it’s deeply mystifying that a film like this one ever got made, but I’m very glad it was.

Stanley Kubrick said the biggest mistake Spielberg made with 1941 was telling everybody it was supposed to be a comedy, and the film certainly doesn’t start like one, with a mock-grave caption describing the somewhat febrile mood of panic and tension gripping the United States in the days following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941. It soon becomes apparent that this is absolutely not your typical Spielberg film about the Second World War – a young woman out for a swim in the Pacific Ocean off the southern Californian coast is startled to find a Japanese submarine surfacing beneath her – not only is the scene directed as a spoof of the opening of Jaws, but John Williams reuses the theme from that movie, and it’s even the same actress (Susan Backlinie).

We then proceed to a scene between the commander of the sub (Toshiro Mifune) and a German advisor (Christopher Lee) discussing their situation (in Japanese and German respectively) and the commander’s desire to strike at a significant target in the continental US so they can return to Japan with honour. Both these movie legends play the entire film almost completely straight, no matter what else is going on around them (in this scene, for instance, there is a naked woman clinging to the periscope above them while they talk). It certainly makes a change from the gurning and screaming which is the preferred style of performance of nearly everyone else in the film as it goes on.

Well, anyway. 1941 has a huge number of characters and nearly as many subplots. In addition to Mifune and Lee trying to work out where their sub is and deliver an appropriately crushing attack on America, the film also concerns a young man trying to stop a soldier from stealing his girlfriend, an unhinged fighter pilot (John Belushi) trying to track down non-existent Japanese planes, a mild-mannered homeowner who has an anti-aircraft gun deposited in his garden by the army, an army officer trying to lure his superior’s secretary into a plane for, ahem, personal reasons (she is an aviophiliac, for want of a better word), and a motor pool sergeant (Dan Aykroyd) and his crew who are trying to maintain some kind of order. Courtesy of some ingenious plotting (the script is by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis, who of course went on to write Back to the Future), all these elements bounce off each other as the film proceeds (it essentially takes place within a single day) and the situation in Los Angeles gets more and more chaotic.

It is, if anything, a disaster movie played for laughs, having the same kind of structure – the difference being that here the disaster is largely self-inflicted (the first time I saw Independence Day, itself an heir to the 70s disaster tradition in many ways, I remember thinking ‘This reminds me of 1941‘, and I was not the only one to spot the resemblance). 1941 takes all the technical advances of late-70s cinema and puts them to the purpose of trying to be funny.

Set in 1941 and made in 1979, this movie is of course now closer to the time it depicts than the present day, and it is perhaps inevitable that it feels a little dated in some ways. Much of the comedy is of a broad, early Saturday Night Live kind, unsurprisingly given Belushi and Aykroyd found fame on SNL – there is a lot of Belushi’s bull-in-a-china-shop slapstick, in particular. There is a wilful irreverence about the war in this film which is not at all what one would expect, and which indeed made it somewhat controversial at the time – Spielberg offered John Wayne a role in it at one point, and Wayne not only refused but told him he shouldn’t make the film at all as it was un-American and unpatriotic. With Spielberg so well established as a Hollywood grandee these days, it’s fascinating to revisit a time when he was still a subversive young rebel.

In other ways, of course, this is very recognisably a Spielberg movie – there is music from John Williams (he contributes one of his more rousing marches), a strong sense of nostalgia, and of course the usual technical mastery. The appearance of Backlinie, reprising her role from Jaws, isn’t the only in-joke in the film, either – Lucille Benson appears in virtually the same role she had in Duel, made nearly a decade earlier, playing a gas station owner saddled with an awkward customer.

Perhaps it’s this sort of thing which has led many people to label 1941 as self-indulgent – Spielberg, fresh from the massive success of Jaws and Close Encounters, being given carte blanche to do whatever he wanted, with the result being an overblown mess (‘Spielberg playing with cinema like a child with a toy train set’ was one comment). I don’t think it’s remotely fair to call 1941 a mess, for it manages to tell a complex story with a minimum of confusion. If there is a problem with the film, it’s that it’s a comedy which is not very funny – at least, not consistently.

There’s a relentless, manic quality to the film which eventually becomes a little exhausting rather than completely enjoyable, and it does require you to accept that the characters do absurd and ridiculous things for no other reason than that they’re supposed to be funny (a character on air raid warden duty takes a ventriloquist’s dummy with him). It almost anticipates Airplane! in its belief that if you bombard the audience continuously with jokes, enough of them will be funny for the film to succeed – and I suppose this is true, for this is a movie which never fails to entertain me. This may partly be because I just enjoy the fact that so much talent and so many resources have been devoted to bringing such an absurdly silly story to the screen, but as well as being a lavish piece of movie-making, 1941 is filled with colour and movement and action. The hectic pace may be a problem, but if the film slowed down for a moment it would surely fail entirely.

As I say, 1941 is a film I have always liked, even if Spielberg considers it to have not completely worked, and steered clear of comedy as a result (a shame, especially as he was supposedly planning to do a movie with the Goodies before this one came out). It’s hit and miss as a comedy, but as a technical achievement and above all as a spectacle, it has lots to offer.

January is the month for a detox, apparently, and if you’re going to detoxify you might as well go all the way. As I barely drink alcohol and don’t indulge in recreational chemicals, in my case this mainly consists of cutting down on the doughnuts and trying to be a bit more open to serious and improving films, should any happen along.

As luck would have it, currently enjoying a UK cinema release is Maysaloun Hamoud’s In Between (Arabic title: Bar Bahar), which came out elsewhere a couple of years ago (no, it has nothing to do with The Inbetweeners). Whatever you think of the seismic shift currently under way, or not, in the entertainment industry, with feminist and diverse cinema moving, or not, to a much a more prominent position, the fact remains that if you make a feminist drama in Arabic and Hebrew about the lives of young Palestinian women, you’re not going to be challenging the stellar conflict franchise for either box office returns or access to the swankiest cinema screens. Ele hakhayim, as we say down the local art house cinema.

Nevertheless, a foreign-language drama about young Palestenian women  is what In Between is. The film opens with a young bride having what looks like a rather painful leg-waxing while receiving some unreconstructed advice from her mother as to the discharge of her wifely duties, and one immediately expects something slow and serious and a bit worthy. But no, for the titles kick in, with lurid font and a rock song, and at once we find ourselves out for the night with Layla (Mouna Hawa), a criminal lawyer, and Salma (Sana Jammelieh), an aspiring DJ, two young women sharing a flat in Tel Aviv, which may or may not be the capital of Israel (there’s never a very stable genius around when you need one). Drugs and liquor are much in evidence, for while Layla is a Muslim and Salma a Christian, neither of them is what you’d call observant.

Their other flatmate is getting married (she’s the one getting waxed at the top of the film), and her place is taken by her cousin Nour (Shaden Kanboura), a religious Muslim studying at university. There is inevitably a little bit of tension between Nour and the others to begin with, but they grow closer as time goes by and they get on with their lives: Layla begins a relationship, but is her new boyfriend really deep down as liberal and progressive as he affects to be? Salma also finds romance, but this is clearly going to be much more problematic as it is with another woman, and her parents are still trying to arrange a husband for her in the time-honoured manner. Nour, on the other hand, is already engaged to a devout and traditional man, but finds herself beginning to chafe at his controlling tendencies. Is happiness on the cards for any of them?

They don’t show British comedies in Japanese cinemas, nor most of the quirkier kind of American film. (In exactly the same way, you’re much more likely to see a samurai flick or monster movie from Japan in a British cinema, than anything less generic.) I wonder the extent to which this skews different nations’ perceptions of each other. It may be that they make knockabout comedies and horror films by the dozen across the Middle East, it’s just they never get a British release simply because they’re subtitled foreign films: the only films from this region which make it into cinemas tend to be serious ones about social issues, likely to appeal to a certain kind of highly-educated liberal and progressive audience. And so it is with In Between.

The thing about this film is that, joking apart, its focus is personal rather than political. I rather doubt that anyone coming to this film with no knowledge of Israel and its society (a visiting extraterrestrial, say, or a very stable genius) would honestly leave it feeling well-informed about the situation in the country.  There is a reference at one point to the unlikely possibility of ‘peace breaking out’, while another scene sees the workers in the kitchen of a swanky restaurant ordered not to speak Arabic as it will supposedly upset the diners (the subtitling tends to obscure the fact that different languages are spoken). It isn’t really as if the problems faced by the characters in this film derive specifically from the fact they are Palestinian, either, simply that they are young women.

In Between is very much of a piece with other recent films like Wadjda and Mustang, in that they are basically about the rights of young women in traditional societies. As a result, the trajectory of the plot is essentially downbeat: no matter how contented the trio may seem to be at the start of the film, you just know that they are in for a beating, emotionally if not physically. So it proves – what starts off feeling not unlike an aspirational slice-of-life drama suddenly erupts into a scene of brutal sexual violence which is amongst the most uncomfortable to watch that I can recall seeing. The other plotlines are less extreme but not exactly cheerful.

Of course, there is a sense in which many people only go to this kind of film in order to feel good about their own sense of moral outrage – I’m sure that most people going in to see a film like this will be entirely aware of its general tone – and the fact that it is therefore perhaps a little predictable is not necessarily a problem. As I’ve said in the past, a lack of originality isn’t necessarily a serious problem for a film, provided it is made with skill and commitment, and In Between certainly feels like a project the film-makers felt passionately about. The storytelling is capable and the performances affecting: the film certainly succeeds in drawing the emotional responses it is aiming for.

Chances are that you’ll either be interested in seeing In Between or you won’t, and that your decision will most likely be made on the basis of criteria not connected to its quality as an actual movie. Nevertheless, this is a superior example of this kind of film, accessible and affecting and with real merit as a piece of movie-making.

A Cameo Disappearance

A couple of months ago I was out and about squiring a beautiful young lady around town (stand down, it’s not what you think) when we found ourselves in the balcony of the cinema about to watch Murder on the Orient Express. After I had issued the usual instruction for her to behave herself in the dark, we found ourselves watching the first trailer for Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World, prominently featuring Kevin Spacey in a key role. ‘That,’ I predicted, ‘is going to have problems,’ for the initial allegations of misconduct against Spacey were already in general circulation.

The very next day I switched on my laptop to discover that reshoots were already in progress, and that Spacey’s performance was being excised from the film and replaced by one from Christopher Plummer – just one more element in a career which is enjoying a virtually Christopher Lee-esque Indian Summer. I suppose that in the end this is a very shrewd decision on the part of Scott and the other producers – they get to look like they’re taking a stand against abusive behaviour, there’s no risk of the film being boycotted by outraged activists, and it is another source of publicity for the film, which is always welcome, after all. (Yes, I know, I’m a cynical old beast.)

Having said that, I wonder if Plummer is also under retainer to film new versions of Spacey’s scenes  from American Beauty? Or is that more in Ben Affleck’s line nowadays? It’s the logical next step, surely, and the technology is very nearly there. Who’s going to replace Spacey in The Usual Suspects? Or Seven? Or Superman Returns? I must confess that this updated version of damnatio memoriae (for this is surely really what we’re on the verge of) leaves me a little uneasy. I can’t help thinking that in the end this is all still really just about the bottom line.

On the other hand, this is a very appropriate sentiment for a film like All the Money in the World, a retelling of the true story of the Getty kidnapping case of 1973, something so jam packed with grotesque and garish twists that I’m rather surprised it’s never been the subject of a high-profile movie before.

The movie doesn’t hang about and opens with the kidnapping in Rome of Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer – no relation), sixteen year old grandson of oil tycoon John Paul Getty (Plummer, currently at least). At this point in history, Getty Senior was not just the richest man in the world, but the richest man in the history of the world, famously single-minded in his pursuit of wealth and quite staggeringly tight-fisted – the movie suggests he washed his own socks in hotels to avoid paying the laundry, and installed a payphone in his home so his guests could make personal calls while visiting him. (He also appears to have believed himself to be the reincarnation of the Emperor Hadrian.)  Paul Jr’s mother Abigail (Michelle Williams, who’s having a busy time of it currently) goes to her father-in-law for the ransom money the kidnappers are demanding, expecting him – as you would – to be sympathetic to the plight of his favourite grandchild, especially given he has – wait for it – all the money in the world.

But no. Getty refuses to pay – it’s not quite a case of it being not the money but the principle, as the principle involved is his never giving any money away if he can help it. Paying Paul Jr’s ransom will just encourage people to go about kidnapping his other thirteen grandchildren and making inroads into his personal fortune. No cash. All he can offer are the services of his security operative Fletcher Chase (Marky Mark Wahlberg), whom he instructs to investigate the case and retrieve Paul Jr intact, if possible, with the minimum possible outlay of funds…

As I say, what follows is a fascinating and at times barely credible tale, which initially seems like a race to the bottom between the kidnappers and the Italian police as they compete to be the most inept and cack-handed. That said, I found a rather queasy sense of tension persisted, because there was one thing I did know about the Getty kidnapping – the criminals’ threat to return the boy to his family in installments, via the postal service. What I suppose we must call the film’s Reservoir Dogs moment duly arrives, and is possibly not quite as grisly as it feels, but it’s still certainly not one for the squeamish.

Then again, there’s a sense in which the film is all about a certain kind of brutality, that of people who believe that every single thing has a price tag on it (the insights into the deeply dysfunctional Getty coterie suggest it’s also saying something about how having too much money really screws you up). Principally these are Getty himself and the kidnappers, both of whom have very strong ideas about what Paul Jr’s freedom is worth. Caught in the middle is Abigail Getty, whose problems mainly arise from the fact that nobody believes that a member of the world’s richest family doesn’t have access to any funds. Williams is very good in the role, which still feels a little bit underwritten – the same could really be said of Wahlberg, who gets a nice moment of moral outrage near the end but mostly just stands around looking stern. Also caught in the middle and making a rather good impression is Romain Duris as a kidnapper with a conscience, who almost becomes Paul Jr’s protector against the more brutal parties who become involved.

All this said, however, the person most likely to come away from All the Money in the World with a gong is Christopher Plummer. It is, I suspect, a source of considerable relief to Ridley Scott that most of the scenes featuring Getty take place indoors with a handful of other characters, thus keeping the cost of replacing them down (in the film’s only big location sequence featuring the character, Spacey apparently still appears in the wide shot) – the fact that Getty plays a relatively minor role in the story has also helped them out. I have seen reports that Plummer really contributes not much more than an extended cameo, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way: he dominates the movie, even though he is absent from the screen for quite long stretches as the story unfolds.

The kidnappers remain a fairly anonymous bunch, Duris’ character excepted, and the movie definitely reserves its most severe approbation for Getty himself, for the tycoon is depicted as nothing less than an icy, ruthless monster – ‘evil’ is not an overstatement. Some of his manoeuvres towards the end of the story are quite breathtaking in their calculating selfishness. Of course, what we’re seeing here is a bunch of very rich Hollywood producers asserting how awful rich people can be, but the script and Plummer’s performance are both good enough to make you forget about this while you’re watching it.

Long-term visitors may recall that I’m not an unconditional fan of Ridley Scott’s work, and while I have generally warmed up to his more recent films, he’s still very capable of underwhelming me. All the Money in the World, however, is as effective and slick as the best of his films. It’s very much the Hollywood version of history – the chronology of events is outrageously tweaked to serve the story – and, I suspect, the depiction of Italy is not the sort to fill the Italian Tourist Board with delight, but this is a very engaging and well-made film. I’m not sure it says anything profound about wealth or values, but it’s still a classy piece of entertainment.

The Broad Side of a Barnum

‘Why are you going to see The Greatest Showman? You’re going to hate it,’ said Next Desk Colleague, looking genuinely baffled. Well, a number of reasons, to be perfectly honest – things are quiet at work at the moment, giving me plenty of afternoons to spend catching up on the current crop of movies, and there’s also the fact that a friend whose judgement I respect had already informed me that it was (not to put too fine a point on it) ‘atrocious’, and if there’s one thing I can’t resist, it’s the promise of a genuinely duff film. And, as frequent visitors will recall, lurking at the back of my mind was the spectral figure of the mysterious individual who went to see The Greatest Showman eight times at the same local cinema in the first few days of its release. I’ve only ever seen The Empire Strikes Back four times at the cinema, for heaven’s sake, and if memory serves the all-time record is held by The Two Towers, on six – and that was over the course of twelve months. So I couldn’t help but be a bit curious about Michael Gracey’s movie.

Depending on how you look at it, this is a feel-good family-friendly musical extravaganza, a carefully-positioned tilt at the awards season from 20th Century Fox, or the first step in Hugh Jackman’s post-Wolverine movie career. Or it might just be a biopic of the famous American entrepreneur and impressario Phineas T Barnum, albeit one with an especially shaky grip on historicity.

Well, anyway: Phineas Barnum (Jackman, mostly) grows up in abject poverty as a pauper on the streets of New York, but makes enough of a fortune (the film is vague about exactly how) to be able to marry his much-better-off childhood sweetheart (Michelle Williams), even though they and their inevitable children end up living in fairly limited circumstances. Barnum eventually cons a bank into lending him the money to buy a museum, which is far from a runaway success (the film is characteristically cheery about the fact its protagonist is what is technically known as a massive fraudster).

Barnum refuses to let this get him down, and – acting on advice from his daughters – decides to convert the museum into first a freak show and then a circus, personally headhunting his troupe of midgets, bearded ladies, conjoined twins, morbidly obese gentlemen, and giants. Naturally, this turns Barnum into a roaring success, and allows him to take on a junior partner (Zac Efron). Soon he is rubbing shoulders with the well-off and well-bred, and taking the Swedish opera star Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson, not doing her own singing) on a tour of the States. But is Barnum’s desire to better himself socially in danger of making him forget the really important things in his life?

Counterpointing this, in the sense that it basically hits pretty much an identical set of notes but with different actors, is a subplot about Efron’s character having a bit of a romance with the circus’ trapeze artist (Zendaya Coleman, in a Mollie Sugden wig). He comes from wealth and privilege, and she is African American, which is obviously a problematic combination given the period in which the film is set. Can true love win through?

Well, it may be that some people will be surprised by the manner in which the story of The Greatest Showman eventually resolves itself, but I cannot imagine who they are: members of remote tribes of Papua New Guinea on their first visit to civilisation, perhaps. Then again, it’s not actually a crime for a film to be a touch predictable, and it’s not as if this is the film’s biggest problem.

It may be that you don’t live near a cinema or are otherwise unable to sample what The Greatest Showman has on offer. In this case I offer the following guide to having a broadly similar experience: carve yourself a heroic chunk of the ripest cheese you can lay your hands on, sprinkle it more than liberally with sugar, and then feast away to your heart’s content. The Greatest Showman has no truck with things like subtlety or nuance, it just ploughs through the story with a big happy grin on its face. Barnum’s early life is dealt with so summarily that he starts singing the first big number of the film as a pre-adolescent boy and finishes it as Hugh Jackman, who is rather older (sadly, the song is not a rewrite of one from The Sound of Music entitled ‘I Am Thirteen Going On Fifty’).

The film clearly wants to give the audience a joyous, life-affirming experience so much it hurts, but it makes the fairly elementary mistake of assuming that in order to do so the mood has to be relentlessly up all the time. If you look at the truly great musicals, they all contain a strong element of real pain and darkness, and some quite heavy subject matter. The Greatest Showman makes a vague gesture in this direction but it never really feels as though its heart is in it, to be perfectly honest.

The film’s big theme, to the extent that it actually has one, is the currently-ubiquitous one of inclusion and diversity. Fair enough: it is, as I say, inescapable at the moment. It is, however, surely a slightly odd choice to try and couple this to a story about a man running a freak show, even leaving aside the fact that this diversity-friendly, inclusive movie is one where the two lead characters are a couple of heterosexual white dudes. The mauling that historical fact takes in the process of being adjusted to suit the film’s agenda might be sufficiently brutal to make some viewers call the emergency services.

But now we come to the volta, because I haven’t really touched on The Greatest Showman‘s songs and other musical routines yet. The songs are courtesy of Pasek and Paul, who also did the ones in La La Land, and on paper they seem like a fairly anodyne collection, all with messages about being yourself, following your dreams, choosing your own destiny, and so on. Some of the choreography is a long way sub-Bob Fosse, too. However, I’m beginning to suspect that Hugh Jackman’s own mutant superpower is the ability to sell musical theatre to an audience, because the very least you can say about the songs is that they are pleasant to actually listen to. It’s not quite Hamilton, but this is still contemporary stuff: this only occasionally becomes intrusive and silly, as in the moment when renowned opera singer Jenny Lind commences a concert with a 21st century power ballad.

However, many of the musical numbers are good enough to lift the spirit in the same way as the best moments of classic musicals of the past. I was humming the first big number, ‘A Million Dreams’, all the way home on the bus, for instance. The staging also helps – Jackman and Efron swagger through a duet entitled ‘The Other Side’, and a very decent song is lifted by some brilliant choreography. The songs are really the main reason to even consider watching this movie.

Whether or not the songs are enough to lift The Greatest Showman from the realm of well-meaning cheesiness and give it some credibility is, I suspect, a question everyone will have to answer for themselves. I don’t think this comes anywhere close to the great musicals of the past, but for me the musical numbers were good enough to make the weakness and cheesiness of the rest of the movie excusable. Your mileage may differ, of course, and even I would say that The Greatest Showman is probably more enjoyable as a soundtrack album than an actual movie.

Softer Than You Think

As chance would have it, just the other day I passed several fairly agreeable hours watching Euston Films’ 1979 pre-apocalyptic drama Quatermass, even as the telly was full of pre-launch publicity for Euston Films’ 2018 pre-apocalyptic drama Hard Sun, currently showing on BBC One. The media has also been marking the fact that it’s forty years since the TV debut of Blake’s 7, with some unusually complimentary retrospectives concentrating on the programme’s dystopian sensibility and paranoia rather the overacting and spaceships made out of hair-dryers.

I mention the last because Hard Sun is, by some metrics, an SF show for adults, a genre which the BBC has been reluctant to take a chance on since the failure of Outcasts in 2011. (Yes, yes: I know there is what remains of the world’s greatest fantasy series, which I no longer talk about, but here we speak of actual proper science fiction.) BBC disquiet about doing an SF series appears to have been assuaged by the fact that this is only really nominally science fiction, squatting on the border with the police procedural/conspiracy thriller genre. (The show is the brainchild of Neil Cross, who created cop show Luther and also wrote a couple of middling episodes of that fantasy series.)

The first episode establishes the tone for much of what follows, as we meet DCI Cockney Geezer (Jim Sturgess), who seems like a devoted family man despite the fact he’s quietly knocking off his dead best mate’s wife. The circumstances in which the dead best mate passed on are sufficiently suspicious for Geezer’s boss, DCS Annoying Pen-pusher, to believe Geezer may have done him in, and to this end DI Cynical Gamine (Agyness Deyn) has been planted on Geezer’s team to secretly investigate him. (I like shows which have a bit of Agy, but I’ve never seen one with as much Agyness as this one.) Gamine is doing this so her unhinged son, whom she appears to have given birth to when she was about seven, does not go to prison for attempting to murder her. One thing you can say about Hard Sun: it’s never knowingly under-plotted.

Well, in their first day on the job together Geezer and Gamine find themselves working on the case of a conspiracy-theory obsessed hacker with ASD (oh, sigh) who has turned up dead. One of his mates has got his hands on the dead guy’s USB stick, which is disguised as a Saturn V rocket but may as well just be a box with PLOT DEVICE scrawled on it. Our heroes recover the USB but find themselves pursued by the security services, intent on killing everyone who comes into contact with the information on the stick. But why?

Needless to say, Geezer and Gamine can’t resist taking a peek, hoping this will give them leverage to get the homicidal spooks to back off. It turns out that – well, here’s the thing: we never get to see what’s on the stick beyond a few blipverts of graphs and suchlike, but everyone who does look at it properly confirms that it concerns the government’s advance planning for the end of the world (codenamed Hard Sun), which is due in five years time.

Cheer up, it might never happen. Oh, hang on a minute…

 

I have to admit to being somewhat bemused by this, because the government appear to have managed to plan their response to the end of the world without ever letting on exactly what’s going to happen. Even after they’ve looked at the stick, Geezer and Gamine are left speculating as to just what is heading their way – is a comet going to hit Earth? Is it some kind of environmental catastrophe? They seem to be in the dark. Presumably this is just to maintain a sense of foreboding mystery; it also gives them a ready-made opportunity for a big reveal come the last episode of the series.

Well, the first episode reached fairly deep into the bag of Modern Cop Show cliches, but I do like a bit of apocalyptica, and I was curious to see just how the rest of the series would play out (episode one concludes with Gamine taking a redacted set of the information to the media), and just how strong the SF element would be in the mix.

Courtesy of iPlayer’s box set function and the fact I had a day with not much going on (not to mention the fact that Hard Sun is the kind of show you can put on in the background while doing something else and honestly not miss much), I ended up having watched the rest of the first series within the next day. And the answer to the ‘how SF is it?’ question is: really not very much.

Hard Sun boils down to being another of those bleak and bloody cop shows, with the difference being that this time it’s understandable why the leads are so glum all the time: the world’s apparently going to end, after all. The thing is, though, that the impending apocalypse is primarily just a mood-setting thing – the various killers that Geezer and Gamine find themselves contending with are all nutters who’ve been drawn out of the woodwork by the release of the Hard Sun info, but it’s established at the top of episode two that nearly everyone has been convinced this was a hoax. Life goes on as normal for nearly everyone; you could rewrite the middle episodes of this series to extract the impending doom/science fiction element very easily. It’s mainly just there to provide an atmosphere of existential misery – Hard Sun‘s signature bit is a scene where Gamine and Geezer sit down together in the middle of a case and wail ‘But what does any of it matter anyway? We’ve only got five years left!’, which happens in nearly every episode.

Subsequent episodes are mostly competent but fairly undistinguished takes on the kind of story you’ve seen before – a barking ex-husband takes his children hostage, a man outraged by the cruelty of the world starts killing nice people and challenges God to intervene and stop him, a serial killer preys on suicidal people, and so on. There are lots of people in hoodies stalking darkened streets, and so much knife-related violence that it’s easy to imagine the BBC being forced to pull Hard Sun on taste and decency grounds, given the current plague of knife crime in London.

What’s really absent is any kind of moral centre, for as the series proceeds Geezer and Gamine reveal that they are prepared to do just about anything to further their cause, which only occasionally involves catching criminals. When they’re not actively beating each other up with their collapsible truncheons, the doom-conscious duo are forever disregarding standard procedure, obstructing or perverting the course of justice, or plotting the cold-blooded murder of a government employee. This sort of thing reaches its most uproarious extreme in a scene in which Geezer seems to be actively considering waterboarding a priest (one story revolves around that old chestnut of a priest not being able to reveal the identity of a killer due to the seal of the confessional being sacrosanct).

I say ‘uproarious’ because so much of Hard Sun really beggars credibility – there’s the peculiarly vague contents of the USB stick, along with the behaviour of the leads and their byzantine back-stories. Coupled to the fact that the show clearly takes itself very seriously indeed, the result is a programme which is just an unintentional black comedy more than anything else.

I suppose I could imagine the BBC making a show like Hard Sun and it being more, um, good, about twenty years ago, when even the best of us were not immune to the odd pre-millenial jitter. Nowadays, though? Not so much. One plot thread which feels like a particular misstep concerns the ominous dark apparatus of the Security Services, who pursue Geezer and Gamine throughout the series in order to get the USB stick back (despite the fact that everyone is supposedly convinced the apocalyptic data is fake). Playing their nemesis is Nikki Amuka-Bird, who played the curiously inept government minister in New Survivors and plays a somewhat more competent spook here. That’s the thing, I would say: these days we’re not worried that our governments are up to brilliantly-conceived and ultra-secret machinations behind our backs. In the time of Donald Trump and Theresa May, our main concern is that our governments really are as hapless, clueless, and incompetent as they routinely seem to be.

It would be great if the BBC actually had the nerve to make a proper SF TV series, rather than just smuggling a few SF elements into what’s essentially a very dark, very silly cop show. But there you go: such is the world we live in today. Every episode of Hard Sun concludes with a countdown timer, ticking down the days before armageddon’s arrival, and one can only conclude that the BBC and their co-producers Hulu have half an eye on this actually running for five years. Well, I’ll be surprised – but if it even makes it to a second season, the manner in which this one concludes suggests that in any subsequent outings this show will become a rather different beast. That can only be a good thing, because at present there’s at least as much daftness as darkness in Hard Sun.