Feeds:
Posts
Comments

One Man and His Pencil

I occasionally talk about what I call a ‘Good Bad Movie’ and I suppose what I mean by this is that it’s a good example of a film from one of those genres which never normally win the Best Picture Oscar (not all genres being created equal, after all: musicals, westerns, and based-on-true-events films are somehow respectable in a way that horror movies, kung fu pictures, and fantasy films normally aren’t). Now this isn’t absolute division, of course, because sometimes you can have genuinely good films from often-dubious genres (The Matrix being the obvious example of a great film which manages to be both science fiction and a martial arts action film). But on the whole it’s a reasonable working assumption.

I suppose it’s quite appropriate that I just mentioned The Matrix, for the film currently under consideration isn’t a million miles away from the Wachowskis’ magnum opus, one way or another. I refer, of course, to Chad Stahelski’s John Wick: Chapter 2, which is, if anything, an Absolutely Outstanding Bad Movie, but still in no danger whatsoever of being mistaken for a Good Movie. It is, as they frequently say, a funny old world.

john-wick-chapter-2-poster

Keanu Reeves returns as the eponymous dapper apocalypse Jonathan Wick (we already wondered why the film isn’t called Jon Wick the first time around). As the film gets underway, our hero is finishing up some outstanding business from the original film, namely retrieving his car which is still in the possession of the Russian Mafia. The sheer quantity of property damage involved, not to mention the eventual repair bill on the car, or indeed the enormous body count Wick racks up, might lead one to surmise it would be easier to just buy a new car. But this is not Wick’s style, for he is a man of fierce integrity, not to mention a short fuse. (The publicity for this film ploughs on with not-quite-there taglines like ‘John Wick goes off’ and ‘John Wick: don’t set him off’. Guys, your tagline is ‘John Wick: he’s got a short fuse’. Trust me on this.)

Well, anyway, car retrieved, Wick retires to his lovely home with his faithful hound, intent on getting on with his everyday life as a grief-stricken ex-hitman. Needless to say this is not to be, as who should turn up on his doorstep but ambitious underworld leader Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), who Wick owes a favour. Since Wick’s back on the scene, D’Antonio wants him to do one last job, involving an assassination in Rome that will have a huge impact on the global underworld. (Needless to say, upon Wick’s arrival in Rome, a vaguely nervous-looking acquaintance enquires if he’s in town to bump off the Pope.)

Needless to say there are twists, turns, and double-crosses aplenty, and before too long all men’s hands are turned against our taciturn anti-hero (not to mention the hands of quite a few women, too). Can Wick get out of this latest predicament in one piece? And can he do so without breaching any of the rather arcane regulations of his curious fraternity?

The central paradox, or perhaps joke, of the John Wick series persists, which is that these are films about a man frequently driven by enormous passions, but portrayed by an actor not exactly noted for the breadth and subtlety of his emotional range. But, in an odd way, Keanu’s performance is by no means problematic, and it’s actually very hard to imagine anyone else being quite as good as he is here. Because he is good: this film is utterly absurd, and it would be a terrible mistake to approach it as a genuine drama. On the other hand, it would be equally wrong to start winking too openly at the camera. Reeves finds the middle ground that makes the film work, and so do most of the other major performers – Ian McShane comes back from the first one, and turning up for a fruity cameo is Laurence Fishburne.

If you were so minded, you could spend a whole evening picking holes in the plot of John Wick: Chapter 2, and pointing out the various ways that the story is actually quite silly. Certainly bits of it are slightly hackneyed or repetitive – you may recall that in the first film Wick’s car was nicked and his puppy executed; well, this time around someone blows up his house. No doubt in the third film he will be sent off on another rampage of bloody slaughter after someone hacks his Facebook account or something. The world of the film, with a Hitman Hilton in every major city, and every criminal figure beholden to the same set of unbreakable arcane regulations, bears very little to reality, either.

All of this basically misses the point – which is that this is an action film, and all the rest of it exists to bridge and facilitate the action sequences which are the heart of the film. The connective material is arch and knowing enough to be fun – Peter Serafinowicz turns up as the world’s most violent wine-waiter – and the set-pieces themselves are some of the purest examples of sheer adrenaline fun as I’ve seen at the cinema in a very long time. There’s an action sequence in a maze of mirrors which is clearly a homage to Enter the Dragon, while elsewhere Keanu gets to display his mastery of kung fu, gun fu, car fu and even pencil fu.

John Wick: Chapter 2 won’t be for everyone, but it hits every target it sets for itself and the result is a terrific piece of entertainment, provided super-stylish, super-absurd action movies are your cup of tea. This is an example of a sequel which builds on the original in every way: it’s bigger, brighter, more absurd, and has much more swagger and fun than the first. Needless to say the door is left wide open for the third episode – if it’s as good as this one, that will be a significant achievement, for John Wick: Chapter 2 is a treat.

 

Bart with Heart

It is with some relief that I turn away from the rise of Nazism, the horrors of the trenches, and anti-semitic pogroms in the last days of Tsarist Russia, and instead apply my attention to musical which is – everyone agrees – almost completely charming and lovely, provided you overlook a few minor elements of the story, such as widescale exploitation of children, violent crime, and an abusive relationship ending in someone being battered to death. At least the anti-semitism this time around is fairly low-key, probably because the gentleman who wrote all the music and lyrics was himself Jewish.

I speak of course of Carol Reed’s 1968 film Oliver!, the last musical for nearly 35 years to win the Oscar for Best Picture, and the last British film to do so until Chariots of Fire in 1981. Despite this, and the fact it has a British cast and director, it still feels like an oddly Americanised version of Charles Dickens, on whose novel Oliver Twist it is obviously based.

oliver

The film admits to being a ‘free adaptation’ of Dickens, but most of the bits you probably know from the book are still here (yes, both of them). Oliver Twist (Mark Lester, consistently moist throughout and frequently downright wet) has grown up in a workhouse in Dunstable, but is thrown out when he dares to ask for second helpings after dinner one day. After a brief interval working for an undertaker, he hitch-hikes down to London.

Here he falls into arguably very bad company, primarily that of Fagin (Ron Moody) and his gang of child pickpockets, including the Artful Dodger (Jack Wild). Amongst Fagin’s connections is the rather more brutal criminal Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed), whose devoted girlfriend Nancy (Shani Wallis) nevertheless takes a shine to the small damp waif. When Oliver falls back into the hands of the authorities, Sikes and Fagin are deeply concerned he may be about to snitch on the lot of them, and their scheme to get him back results in tragedy, as well as a few top-rate song and dance numbers…

Mmm, yes, about those song and dance numbers – there is surely the argument to be made that when it comes to musical films, the overall quality of the actual piece is fundamentally linked to how good the songs are – the tunes are, essentially, the sine qua non of a musical, right? If this is the case, then Oliver! is surely one of the greatest musicals of all time, for the killer-to-filler ratio is so good as to lend credence to the suggestion that Lionel Bart (writer of same) was some kind of musical genius. The problem, such as it is, is really that the film-makers know how good the songs are and possibly milk them just a bit too much. The film’s huge set-piece numbers, primarily ‘Consider Yourself’ and ‘Who Will Buy?’, seem to go on forever, with more and more dancers turning up as the choruses repeat. And I find it just a bit draining, not to mention the fact that it’s a Disney-picture-book-ish portrait of Victorian London (I can’t quite shake the suspicion everyone involved was sneakily looking at Mary Poppins and working out how to go one bigger and better).

It’s all a bit at odds with the main thrust of the tale, which (as noted) is an essentially dark one (the climactic chase puts me rather in mind of how some Hammer movies conclude, although this may be down to Reed’s long-standing connection to the House of Horror). The most engaging characters in the film, Fagin and the Dodger, are at best amoral rogues, and the scenes in the criminal netherworld are a good deal more interesting than the ones in ‘respectable’ London. But the songs aren’t really about this world, apart from perhaps ‘You Got To Pick A Pocket or Two’, and even this is another cheery little number. Cut from the film, quite possibly because Oliver Reed couldn’t sing, was Bill Sikes’ song ‘My Name’, and as a result Reed has to rely on sheer charisma to make an impression (needless to say, he manages it effortlessly).

The odd tension at the heart of Oliver! is that the theme of what’s quite a dark story is one of belonging and camaraderie – most of the songs are either about the pleasure and comfort of being part of a gang, or part of a world (most obviously ‘Consider Yourself’), or the other side of the coin, feeling lonely and abandoned (‘Where is Love’, ‘As Long As He Needs Me’). Even the utterly brilliant comic character song, ‘Reviewing the Situation’ (which, as performed by Moody, is just about as perfect a marriage of actor and material as anything in the history of musical cinema) has a brief moment of pathos as Fagin contemplates his own mortality and lonely old age.

In the end, though, this is ultimately cinema as grand entertainment, mounted on a lavish scale (complete with overture, entr’acte, and exit music on its original release), and the songs from the original much more intimate stage version of the show thrive here surprisingly well, helped by a very strong cast and great performances (even if, these days, you can’t really watch Jack Wild here without being reminded of everything else that came later in his life). For me there just a bit too much emphasis on jolly spectacle at the expense of the story for Oliver! to qualify as a movie absolutely of the first rank, but it’s still a great piece of entertainment.

 

The continents drift along in their stately way, the zodiac processes across the heavens, and the cinematic calendar continues its own slow evolution. When I first got into this ‘paying serious attention to cinema’ game, it was all much simpler: you had serious movies as the majority of releases right up until Oscar Night, at which point the more lightweight fare and genre movies would pop up to fill the gap until the big blockbusters appeared round about the time of Memorial Day in the States. These days, of course, everything is up in the air: the genre movies have been joined by blockbusters much earlier in the year, some of them even before the Oscars have been handed out. It doesn’t help matters that the line between the two appears to become a bit blurred – was Deadpool a genre film or an aspiring blockbuster? How about the imminent Logan, or the new King Kong movie?

Or, for that matter, Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall? The film’s $150 million budget, along with the presence of an A-lister like Matt Damon, would seem to suggest a film with the biggest of ambitions. Set against that, on the other hand, is… well, decide for yourself.

great-wall

The film appears to be set around the 11th century, and opens with European mercenaries William (Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) leading a small group of adventurers into the remote wilds of the east. (Pascal is allowed to use his native Spanish accent, Damon attempts a rather optimistic, not to mention variable, Irish brogue.) Things look grim when the rest of their party is killed by a weird and mysterious beastie, and hostile local horsemen drive the duo onwards until they encounter something awesome – the imposing sight of the Great Wall of China (which still isn’t visible from space in the 11th century, despite what everyone says)!

The Wall is manned by a huge force of soldiers, apparently getting ready to enact some serious slaughter, but exactly what’s going on is not immediately clear, not least because the only senior officer who speaks English, Commander Lin (Jing Tian), is clearly suspicious of them. Her concerns are quite justified, as the Europeans have only come to China to steal the recipe for gunpowder – nor are they the first, for hanging around the place handing out exposition is Ballard (Willem Dafoe), survivor of a previous expedition with the same aim.

It turns out that the Great Wall is being manned to fend off an invasion of monsters which (the subtitles assure me) are called the Tao Te, a terrifying horde which arises once or twice every century to eat everything in their path. If the monsters are able to overrun the wall and devour the population of the Chinese capital, they will be well-fed enough to conquer the world! Things look bleak – can William put aside his mercenary, capitalistic principles long enough to join forces with the Chinese warriors in a proper piece of collective effort?

This is another one of those films which has received a bit of a savaging from the Diversity Enforcers, on the grounds that it supposedly perpetuates a slightly dodgy trope where a Caucasian protagonist swoops in to save the day for a bunch of incompetent supporting characters of a different ethnicity – the so-called White Saviour stereotype. On paper, you can see why this could be so, but I would argue that fears of this sort are groundless, for two main reasons.

Firstly, the film is largely the work of Chinese film-makers, with the distinguished director Zhang Yimou in charge, and Matt Damon is in this film for basically the same reason that Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen showed up in the last stellar conflict franchise brand extension (it shares one of the same writers, by the way) – to guarantee global ticket sales. The Caucasian presence is a business decision, not anything ideological.

And, secondly, IT’S MATT DAMON ON TOP OF THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA FIGHTING ALIEN MONSTERS WITH A BOW AND ARROW. GET A GRIP ON YOURSELVES AND STOP TAKING THIS FILM SO SERIOUSLY. I mean, really. There’s a time and a place to get righteously indignant, but doing it with this film just makes you look silly.

When word of The Great Wall first reached me, the impression I received was that this was going to be a genuine historical epic, supposedly concerning the fate of some of the Roman soldiers captured by Parthia at the battle of Carrhae in 53BC, who ended up working as mercenaries on the Chinese border. It’s one of the great ‘could it have happened…?’ stories of history, with some tantalising evidence (there is, for instance, apparently a village in western China where, once in a generation, a child is born with curly hair, as those Italian genes resurface). Needless to say, if this was ever the case, it ain’t true now, for this is… this is…

Actually, I’m genuinely unsure what kind of film this is supposed to be. It starts off not a million miles away from The Man Who Would Be King, in terms of the two main European characters and the tone of their relationship. But as soon as we reach the Wall itself, with its battalions of primary-coloured troop-types and CGI as far as the eye can see, it starts turning into something rather less interesting and more superficial. And once the major VFX sequences start rolling, with Starship Troopers-style swarms of monsters scuttling over the horizon (the script suggests these may genuinely be aliens), and female soldiers bungee-jumping off the top of the Wall to stab the monsters with spears… well, it’s like a cross between some kind of garish computer game and a comic book, and not an especially interesting one.

The characterisation is pretty thin, the CGI about as persuasive as Damon’s Irish accent, and it has none of the class or sophistication of the other films I’ve seen from Zhang Yimou, for all that it has the same underlying principles and fascination with colour as movies like Hero and House of Flying Daggers – I’m kind of reminded of Ang Lee’s Hulk, as another example of a director best known as an art-house darling taking a crack at something much more mainstream and just not quite being able to hack it. Not that this is Matt Damon’s finest hour, either: there may be a Chinese expression that describes just how far out of his comfort zone Damon visibly is for most of this film, but it certainly doesn’t exist in English.

To be honest, this looks like the kind of knowingly silly, CGI-heavy piece of fluff that should be starring a wrestler or possibly Gerard Butler, so the presence in it of proper actors is one of the most bemusing things about it (Andy Lau is also in the cast, by the way). But it’s just an odd, odd film overall, not really compelling as an American action movie or a Chinese fantasy. It neither convinces nor persuades, nor does it grip or thrill. But on the other hand, it’s mostly just silly rather than being actually bad, and of all the great walls currently being unleashed on the world, this is not the one people should really be complaining about.

Well, Valentine’s Day and the global corporate attempt to make people who are not single by choice feel worse about themselves than they already do are almost upon us as I write, and one could reasonably expect the onset of a spate of films all extolling the modern ideal of romance at its most epically glutinous. But wait, what’s this? A rather odd film about a slightly alarming dysfunctional relationship and someone with ball bearings up their wazoo?

Ah, it must be time for Fifty Shades Darker, directed by James Foley, the peculiar sequel to 2015’s peculiar Fifty Shades of Grey. Well, as before I felt it behoved me to check out such a significant piece of pop culture action, and thankfully my faithful companion when it comes to this sort of thing, Protective Camouflage, was also up for it. ‘Two tickets for Sex Dungeon 2, please,’ we proudly said, then (moving past a group of possibly underage cinema-goers arguing with the manager over whether they were allowed to watch the film) took our seats. With the first film, we practically had the place to ourselves (that’s what you get for watching soft-core porn at the art house, I guess), but this time around we found ourselves in the midst of a riotous, febrile atmosphere, with a brittle sense of people pretending not to take it all too seriously but secretly really, really excited about the prospect of seeing naked flesh and simulated whoa-ho-ho.

fifty_shades_darker_film_poster

All very much at odds with the actual film, of course, which as before is primarily concerned with the doings of Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), who has just started a new job in publishing, her kinky entanglement with the inexplicably attractive young, handsome, ripped billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) definitely a thing of the past. For the first ten minutes anyway, for then Mr Grey reappears, declares he can’t live without her, and so on, and so on.

The plot beyond this point is a little difficult to describe… it’s not quite as if nothing actually happens, because obviously things do, and I don’t just mean visits to the sex dungeon. It turns out that Mr Grey, despite being more than a bit stalkerish and controlling himself, has got a couple of stalkers of his own, one of whom is played by none other than Kim Basinger. (This reminded me of Basinger’s role in the 1989 Batman movie, which also concerned a handsome, athletic young billionaire with an obsessive interest in punishment. But I digress.) Anastasia Steele attracts another weirdo (Eric Johnson), who is not a non-threatening billionaire and thus not dreamy boyfriend material. Mr Grey is in a helicopter crash with a female colleague, but this does not appear to bother him overmuch, no doubt because he has gone down with a lady many times in the past. Most excitingly, we finally get to meet Mr Grey’s housekeeper, who is presumably the one who keeps everything in the sex dungeon so well-oiled and shiny, but she is sadly only a very minor character.

But all of this feels very incidental to the main storyline (the helicopter crash bit in particular feels bizarrely throwaway), which concerns the, um, unexpectedly conventional relationship between Miss Steele and Mr Grey – she’s worried that he has something of a history with other ladies, struggles to get him to open up emotionally, and is bowled over when he asks her to move in. Radical stuff this really isn’t – this is a romance very much done by the numbers, as a quiet Everygirl discovers she has almost effortlessly won the heart of the handsome prince (it’s just that on this occasion the handsome prince has an extensive selection of recreational aids, even if he seems unsure of where to stick them). There’s something so blandly aspirational about the whole thing, with its tasteful interior decor, designer clothing, and endless product placement.

The advertising for this film is once again built around how blisteringly steamy and boldly transgressive it all is. Well, what floats your boat is a personal matter, I suppose, but even for an 18-rated film this is hardly very explicit (the only time Mr Grey gets his chopper out is when he’s preparing a salad) nor is it especially daring. Early on there’s a spanking sequence which is unintentionally funny rather than erotic (the fact the soundtrack at this point actually features the lyric ‘bum-diddy-bum-bum’ may be partly responsible, I suspect), and the whole ball-bearings-up-the-wazoo bit had Protective Camouflage and I sniggering up our sleeves. Your mileage may vary, naturally: we were practically the last people to leave the theatre, but as we did so there was one couple near the back apparently intent on sucking each others’ faces off, so it clearly did the trick for them.

Of course, this movie has already made an enormous pile of money, so (short of the total collapse of western civilisation, which admittedly feels like more of a genuine possibility than was the case a few months ago) I foresee little that can fend off the release of Sex Dungeon 3 next year, not least because it was filmed back to back with this one, by the same director. Not much chance of the last film redeeming the series, then, and every chance of more of the same.

Joking apart, this is simply quite a dull film, the characters are flat and not performed with any real energy, the plot is meandering and under-powered, and once again there’s a disconcerting lack of anything actually approaching an, um, climax – when it comes to the plot, anyway. It just resembles a very long advert for designer goods with some fairly tame soft-core sex scenes incongruously inserted. I expect that Protective Camouflage and I will check out number three as well, not least because we both enjoy a good laugh, but on the whole I would say that while the makers of Fifty Shades Darker have indeed come up with a film which will appeal to masochists, this is not quite in the way they probably intended.

The End of the World Show

There comes a time in every film reviewer’s life when he realises that, having set out to write a series on notable musicals from years gone by, the films actually at his disposal are not exactly a representative bunch: tending towards darkness in their tone, arguably Euro-centric, and mostly hailing from a brief period in the late 60s and early 70s. What can I say? The Sound of Music isn’t on Netflix, and anyway, that one’s about the Anschluss and has nearly as many Nazis in it as Cabaret.

Let’s briefly step away from musicals about the rise of authoritarianism and the insidious creep of prejudice and move on to the lighter subject of… oh. The First World War. Some days, you just can’t get rid of a bomb. Oh! What a Lovely War was made in 1969, directed by Richard Attenborough (his first time in the big chair) and, nearly as interestingly, produced and written by the noted novelist and chef Len Deighton. The project began as a stage production by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, and the theatrical origins of the film are fairly apparent to the discerning viewer.

oh_what_a_lovely_war

The film’s main conceit is to present the First World War (or, as it’s slightly jarringly described here, World War One) as a sea-side attraction on a pier in Brighton. Field Marshal Haig (John Mills) is manning the turnstyle, handing out tickets to the families eagerly crowding in, most prominently the Smiths, who are the main points of audience identification. Within the pavilion on the pier, more distinguished figures gather – initially heads of state and foreign ministers, later the senior staff of the army.

Initially the tone is cheery and playful, no doubt intended to reflect the enormous public enthusiasm for the war during its early stages, but as the initial battles occur the film grows darker and more sombre, as it continues to do throughout the film. We are surely all aware of the grim progress of the war: a labyrinth of trenches stretching from the Alps to the coast, and slaughter on an almost industrial scale as the commanders settled on a policy of victory through attrition.

So, you may possibly be wondering, where are all the songs? Well, they are present, but one of the things that makes Oh! What a Lovely War a bit of an outlier as musicals go is the fact that it is mainly built around period songs – the popular music of the war itself, with numbers like ‘Who put the Kibosh on the Kaiser?’, ‘The Bells of Hell go Ding-a-ling’ and ‘Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire’. These are not the stuff of conventional musical theatre – they’re not strictly speaking ‘I am’ or ‘I want’ songs as they are conventionally understood, and their role in the film is equally ambiguous. They’re not exactly there solely to create atmosphere, but neither do they really advance the plot much.

Not that there really is much of a plot, of course, just a series of vignettes, some strikingly naturalistic, others surreal, detailing the course of the war. One consequence of this is that the Smith family, whom we are supposed to identify with, never quite come to life as people despite being portrayed by some very fine actors (Maurice Roeves, Angela Thorne and Corin Redgrave amongst them).

Rather more striking are the film’s cutaway scenes, generally surreal, featuring other characters – and here Richard Attenborough was clearly able to call upon all his resources as a fixer and a movie star in his own right, for the cast list of this movie is virtually a who’s who of great British actors of the period. The only major performer who seems to have eluded his net is Alec Guinness – the opening scene alone features Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Kenneth More, Ian Holm, and Jack Hawkins. Appearing elsewhere are Laurence Olivier, Dirk Bogarde, Susannah York, most of the rest of the Redgrave family, and Maggie Smith (vamping it up a bit as a music hall singer). Apparently, Attenborough managed to secure his stellar cast after Olivier agreed to work ‘to scale’ (i.e., for the minimum actor’s union wage), effectively obliging all of his peers to do the same.

These days the prevailing narrative of the First World War is well-established – four years of mud, blood, and futility, the death-spasm of the great empires of the 18th and 19th centuries, with clueless soldiers massacred by unfeeling, remote generals. I was about to say that Oh! What a Lovely War adheres quite closely to this view, but then I wonder if it didn’t to some extent embed it in the public consciousness? It is an extremely vivid and powerful piece of film-making, especially in its fantasy sequences. It is eviscerating as far as the generals and upper classes are concerned, but never less than profoundly sympathetic to the lower classes. Jeremy Paxman and others have argued that this line of thinking is a disservice to history and the people involved in the war, but it’s a tough fable to shift, especially when it’s promoted as effectively as happens here.

(And, unfortunately, still resonant in some ways: one sequence has Sylvia Pankhurst addressing a working-class crowd, speaking out in favour of ending the war, doing so in an educated, progressive manner. And, of course, the crowd turns on her, repelled by her arrogance and condescension and perceived lack of patriotism. It occurred to me you could change the words, but the tunes would still serve very well for a film about the British vote to leave Europe, or the rise to power of Trump.)

For a downbeat film with not very much in the way of characters or genuine plot, Oh! What a Lovely War is arguably rather too long at nearly two-and-a-half hours, but it does contain many moments of brilliant cinematic invention, and some extremely powerful images – the final shot, a zoom out by the camera to reveal a seemingly-endless field of crosses, each one marking a grave (I believe 15,000 were used, and this was done as a practical effect) is haunting. Probably not everyone’s idea of a good time, but still a powerful and important movie.

GSOH (German Sense of Humour)

There are certain questions that my parents seem to enjoy asking me on a regular basis, such as ‘When are we seeing you again?’, ‘You’re sure about keeping the beard, then?’ and ‘What on Earth are you doing with your life, man?!?’ My father in particular is fond of ‘What’s the strangest film you’ve seen lately?’, knowing that my tastes are rather broader than his own. For a while now my stock answer has been The Lobster, which is admittedly in part because I can’t face the prospect of trying to describe either Anomalisa or a Shane Carruth movie to one of my parents, but I think I may have a new answer, and it is Toni Erdmann, written and directed by Maren Ade.

toni-erdmann-poster

The story concerns Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), a music teacher in late middle-age who has devoted his life to bringing jollity to those around him, whether they want it or not, and his devotion to all manner of pranks and japery extends to carrying around a set of comedy dentures in his top pocket. When he finds himself suddenly at a bit of a loose end, he decides to pay a surprise visit on his daughter Ines (Sandra Huller), who is a high-powered management consultant in Romania, and whom he feels he should really try to have a closer relationship with.

The trip is not really a success, with Ines vaguely embarrassed by her shambling, ursine dad and his comedy teeth, and Winfried increasingly convinced her life is joyless and sterile. Ines sees him off with some relief, and is therefore understandably startled when he reappears in her life in the outlandish guise of the entirely fictional Toni Erdmann, an absurdly bewigged and bedentured life coach (and sometime German Ambassador to Romania whenever he finds a particularly gullible mark). Is he just trying to cheer her up? Or is he actually intent (whether consciously or not) on completely destroying her career?

Yes, in case you were wondering: this is indeed a German comedy film, and the most acclaimed in years (it’s up for an Oscar this year). Yes, Germans do make comedy films, apparently, regardless of the popular stereotype, although if Toni Erdmann is a typical example of the form, it is perhaps not entirely surprising that they have failed to travel particularly well outside their country of origin.

Now, let me qualify that by saying that Toni Erdmann is a really, really good film, and very striking and memorable – I might even go so far as to say it is almost unique in my recent experience. But there are ways in which it doesn’t so much break the rules of comedy as feed them into a woodchipper. For one thing, most people would agree that one of the secrets of great comedy lies in its rhythm and pacing, and I think it’s fair to say that many of the world’s great comedy films – Bringing Up Baby, Sleeper, Carry On Screaming – do their thing and get away by round about the hour-and-a-half mark. Toni Erdmann goes on for nearly three hours, and you are aware of quite long scenes going by where people wait for lifts or discuss oil-industry outsourcing in a notably humourless way.

Then again, I think the longeurs are definitely part of the film’s odd charm, for it is possibly the most lugubrious movie I have ever seen: at no point does it actually seem to be inviting you to laugh. All the characters seem to be only one bad day away from breaking down and sobbing, and it is directed with long, naturalistic scenes of people just wandering about and waiting.

It should probably be depressing or embarrassing more than funny, and for the first hour or so I thought this was a movie which was doing a very effective job of reinterpreting Ricky Gervais’ schtick from The Office, in that Winfried initially comes across as more of a tragic individual than the hilarious clown he clearly thinks he is, with his laborious, silly jokes annoying the people around him rather than amusing them in any way. He does seem like a man grappling with some kind of late-life crisis; perhaps intimations of his own irrelevance, for his ex-wife doesn’t need him, and neither does his daughter.

Or does she? For a while there seem to be very distant echoes of Tokyo Story, as the father struggles to come to terms with the fact that he is simply a very minor and peripheral part of his daughter’s life, but then the focus of the film shifts and we start to see events through Ines’ own eyes – and we are suddenly aware that perhaps she is not quite the all-conquering and satisfied professional that she professes to be, and that her dad may have a point. Slowly she begins to find herself complicit in some of his more ridiculous stunts, and even beginning to realise that the two of them have more in common than she might like to admit.

All of this is handled with tremendous deadpan subtlety, marvellously underplayed to the point of near-inertia, and the result is a film which is more often just mesmerisingly weird rather conventionally funny. Some bizarrely off-kilter moments add to the impression that the whole thing has wandered off the reservation on some fundamental level – an ickily graphic scene revolving around cakes and sex, and a truly strange tableau of a party full of naked business folk and a mutant Bulgarian Wookiee. On the other hand, an impromptu bravura performance of a Whitney Houston song may just challenge Trainspotting 2‘s sectarian pub scene for this year’s funniest moment.

Yet there is warmth, here, too, and wisdom – as underplayed as every other part of the film, of course, but no less present for all of that. The film is as unconventional in its ending as in nearly every other element, but by its conclusion the main characters have become warm and sympathetic, despite everything that has gone before. You’re not quite sorry to see it finish, because it has been nearly three hours, after all, but you almost certainly feel it has been time well and distinctively spent. I have no idea how representative Toni Erdmann is of the German comedy scene – very much not, I suspect – but it is a very impressive movie for all its peculiar distinctiveness.

Make Like A Banana

You’ve been there, I’ve been there, we’ve all been there: you wake up in the morning, head throbbing, vision blurred, tongue like a cinema carpet, and you stagger over to the mirror and say to yourself, ‘I’m never watching another M Night Shyamalan movie ever again.’ For me, the last straw was 2013’s After Earth, in which Will Smith and his son encounter a stupid alien monster which can only be defeated if they stop even attempting to act. Or so I thought. I was lured back by the assurances of a friend that Shyamalan’s new movie Split really was worth paying attention to. (The identity of the Professor-of-Mathematics-at-a-prominent-university-in-the-centre-of-South-Carolina in question must remain secret in order to protect his identity.)

split_ver2

After Earth seems to have marked the end of Shyamalan’s association with the major studios, and these days he seems to be ploughing a lower-profile furrow as a maker of mini-budget horror films. I have to say that this appears to be doing the chap no end of good, as Split is the most thoroughly enjoyable film I’ve seen from him in well over a decade.

Things get underway with the kidnapping of a trio of young women (Anya Taylor-Joy, Hayley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula) as they leave a party. They find themselves in, well, a dungeon, at the not especially tender mercies of a rather peculiar man (James McAvoy), who has the habit of talking to himself in different voices, occasionally cross-dressing, and confiscating various items of their clothing.

Running alongside this is a series of scenes concerned with Dr Fletcher (Betty Buckley), a psychologist specialising in dealing with people suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder (multiple-personality syndrome to the likes of you and me), and the kidnapper is one of her patients. Or, to be more precise, some of the 23 different personalities of one of her patients have conspired to carry out this kidnapping. But why are they doing this? And is there any truth to their talk of a terrifying new 24th persona…?

Split starts off looking like a rather suspect piece of fem jeop horror, not a million miles away from films I would usually run a mile rather than actually pay to watch (I still shudder at the memory of Captivity, a Larry Cohen/Rowan Joffe movie I unwisely saw nearly ten years ago – in my defence, I was in Osaka and it was the only English-language movie showing that I hadn’t already seen). And not even a particularly distinguished example of a genre where the bar is traditionally depressingly low – the three girls are not especially well-written characters and two of them end up as more actively irritating than sympathetic.

However, the scenes with Buckley’s character are much more interesting and do intrigue, even if the film’s approach to multiple-personality disorder rather tends towards being portentous cobblers. (Or is it? Insert your own joke about being in two minds on the subject at this point, should you wish.) There’s also a series of flashbacks, the relevance of which to proceedings do not become clear until very late on.

There’s a very decent performance from Taylor-Joy as the Final Girl, and the same is true of Buckley, also. I note that Shyamalan hasn’t lost his habit of casting himself in minor roles in his own movies, despite his having no particular screen presence – doesn’t the man realise that actors have to eat too? However, the plum job in any movie about multiple-personality disorder is that of the sufferer, of course, as it offers a magnificent opportunity to indulge in some ostentatious actorliness as the performer involved shows their full range (or not, as the case may be). James McAvoy grabs his opportunity and has a full-blooded go at it, and is very good – is his performance alone worth the price of admission, though? Well, hmmm…

Luckily it doesn’t quite come down to that, for the rest of the movie is enjoyable and well-made too, in a modestly-budgeted sort of way, though not without all sorts of incidental implausibilities. It never quite becomes as awkwardly sleazy as it seems to be threatening near the start (I think this is an impressively subtle bit of sleight-of-hand on the part of the director), nor does it quite turn into an outright gore-fest (still, I would say this is neither a movie for granny nor your infant god-daughter to enjoy). It’s also, for what it’s worth, the first 15-rated movie I’ve seen in an absolute age which doesn’t drop a single F-bomb, as far as I can recall.

That said, what starts off looking like a straightforward psychological horror movie slowly develops into something rather different, as it slowly becomes apparent that the condition which McAvoy is suffering from is the variant best-known to students of unlikely fictional health problems as Banner-Blonsky syndrome, albeit in a relatively mild form. This wasn’t an issue for me at all, but I can see how it might lead to some people throwing their arms in the air and making annoyed sounds.

Shyamalan initially rose to prominence as the master of the twist ending, then quite rapidly became known as the guy whose movies tended to be over-reliant on half-baked examples of the same storytelling trick: everyone started expecting the twist and even looking for it, which is the last thing any decent twist ending needs if it’s going to work properly.

So – what about the end of Split, then? Well, all I will say is that there is a gag/revelation at the very end of this film that meant I left the theatre amused and surprised in a way I wouldn’t have been, had it not been there. It works on a number of levels, acting as a bit of a treat for long-term followers of the director, providing a context for some of the film’s more improbable elements, and – perhaps most excitingly – setting up an irresistibly gonzo follow-up movie, the chances for which are surely good. Split still has elements that strike me as a bit suspect and improbable, but on the whole it operates somewhere on the border between Good Movie and Very Good Bad Movie, and that’s no bad place to be if you’re a genre director, I would say. Fingers crossed that M Night Shyamalan can continue his trek out of the wilderness with his next project.