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When I was considerably younger I was lucky enough to live in Hull, which was blessed with a range of cinema-going options: there were a couple of multiplexes, plus a sort-of art house cinema, and also a rather nice old three-screener which specialised in showing films that had finished their initial release but weren’t out on VHS yet (yes, it was that long ago). I remember going along the day I finished my final university exams and seeing Leon, Interview with the Vampire, and Stargate back-to-back, all for under £5. Bliss it was in that dawn, and so on.

These days a broadly comparable service is provided by the Silver Screen strand at the sweetshop, which likewise shows films from a couple of months ago that people may have missed. The prices have gone up a bit, but at least there are free biscuits available now. The films on offer are generally only ones which are judged to be of interest to your senior citizen (just another chance to patronise older people, if you ask me), but it’s better than nothing, and this week’s offering was Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures.

This is another one of those fairly timely films dealing with the thorny subject of race relations in the USA, but with this being the divisive issue that it is, the film-makers have decided to take a more historical perspective. The angle adopted on this occasion is the role of African-American women in the space programme in the early 1960s.

One of those facts that often gets reiterated is that NASA put a man on the Moon using less computing power than you could find in most digital watches (a tiny fraction of that in a modern smartphone, I expect). The film indicates that NASA didn’t acquire its first computing machine until 1962 (an engaging historical revelation is that when the van-sized unit arrived, it was too big to fit through the doors of the room allocated to it) – prior to this point, the only ‘computers’ employed by the agency were mathematicians tasked with working out any calculations required. A sizeable contingent of the human computers at NASA’s Langley, Virginia facility were women of colour, and the film tells the story of three of them.

Most prominent is the tale of Katherine Johnson (nee Goble), played by Taraji P Henson. Johnson is a widowed single mother and former mathematical prodigy (Beautiful Mind-esque geometric figures jump out of the wallpaper at her as a child) who ends up attached to the Space Task Group at NASA under the director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). Here she has to contend not just with some fairly tricky sums (converting a parabolic orbit to an elliptic one – hmm, that’d be shoes and socks off time for most people, I expect), but also with the entrenched institutional racism and sexism of the culture in which she works. Subplots deal with two of her friends – Janelle Monae plays Mary Jackson, an aspiring engineer who has to get a court order in order to be able to study at an all-white high school (Virginia was still a segregated state at this point), while Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan, forced to do a supervisor’s job without the accompanying title or salary and ceaselessly patronised by a white superior (Kirsten Dunst).

All this is going on against the backdrop of the early years of the Space Race, with the USA in danger of slipping behind their Soviet rivals. Can everybody put aside their various issues and grievances in order to make John Glenn’s groundbreaking orbital spaceflight a reality?

I have to confess to not being especially excited about the prospect of seeing Hidden Figures when it initially came out a couple of months ago: I seem to recall I had the choice of seeing either this film or The Founder, and eventually opted for the latter on the grounds that it had the same period Americana setting, untold-story theme, and well-received performances, but also promised to be surprising and challenging in a way that Hidden Figures probably wouldn’t.

And, what can I say, but ‘nice one, me’: Hidden Figures is by no means a bad movie, being well-acted and decently put together, but there is very little about it that you wouldn’t be able to predict from seeing the trailer. There are some engaging historical details, to be sure, and parts of it are certainly shocking to a right-thinking modern viewer, but surprising? Not really.

From the opening scenes it’s fairly obvious that this is going to be about the parallel, life-affirming stories of women who refuse to be ground down, and use their natural talent and determination to overcome the dreadful obstacles history and society have conspired to place in their way. And there’s nothing wrong with telling that story, of course, nothing at all. But you can’t realistically be subversive or too challenging when you’re making a mainstream film about either the civil rights movement or the US space programme,  both significant elements of the American national mythology, and so Melfi is obliged to fall back on a sort of all-purpose sentimentality to engage the audience’s attention. I am afraid that I am highly resistant to this sort of thing, which may be explain why much of the film made little impact on me.

I mean, the early space programme itself is a fascinating topic, too little known these days, and the civil rights movement is likewise an important piece of recent history. However, this is presumably a film aimed at a female audience, and so in addition to both these things there’s quite a lot of slightly soapy material about the personal lives of the principle characters (Henson gets a chocolate-box romance subplot with a character played by Mahershala Ali, who at least gets to survive past the middle of the story for once).

People who worry about these things have raised the point that, for a historical movie, Hidden Figures takes some pretty spectacular liberties with what actually happened – the movie is set in 1961 and 1962, but some of the events it features actually took place in 1940s and 1950s, always assuming they aren’t completely fictional – the bit you may have seen in the trailer with Costner’s character (himself a complete fiction) smashing the segregated bathroom signs never happened, nor did all the preceding material with someone having to run half a mile every time they want to use the bathroom. Does it matter? Not really, if you accept that the message of the film is more important than the actual facts of history – I think my problem is that this willingness to amend events just makes it more clear that the audience is essentially there to either be preached at or complimented for having properly progressive attitudes: the historical story is just a delivery mechanism.

Given that this is the case, the climax of the film is really an shift of emphasis, as it concerns the problems that befell Glenn’s Freedom Seven flight. None of these concerned maths, or indeed civil rights, and so the moments of tension thus created do feel a bit contrived and arbitrary following everything that has gone before. On the other hand, they are based on historical fact: the film really does same to take a sort of cafeteria approach to this.

You honestly can’t fault Hidden Figures for its intentions or its principles, but being beyond criticism on moral grounds doesn’t necessarily make a perfect or even particularly great movie. The performances are the best thing about it, although I must confess I was more pleased to see Costner and Dunst back on the screen than anything else. There are a plethora of great movies to be made about NASA in the 50s and 60s, I’m sure: this felt a little bit bogged down by the need to make its points slowly, carefully, and obviously. Crediting the audience with a bit more wit and intelligence would probably have resulted in a better film.

Sometimes there is a danger that over-familiarity with something can blind you to its essential nature, and this is particularly noticeable when that essential nature is, well, weird. I’m a big fan of Japanese monster movies, as long term readers will no doubt (wearily) recall, but it’s only when I attempt to describe the plot of (say) Godzilla Vs Biollante to an unsuspecting party that I am reminded of how hallucinogenically strange it really is. The same with a lot of TV, I suppose. These days Doctor Who is such a national (even international) institution that we take for granted it is a programme with a rather eccentric format.

In other words, I suppose, if I want to get that cherishable sensation of ‘What the hell…?’ I have to look somewhat further afield. At this point honour requires that I credit Neil and Sue Perryman, whose latest opus arrived in the post the other day and contains details of their encounter with The Tomorrow People in its 70s incarnation. They, naturally, went for the notorious episodes featuring a bewigged and cowboy-hatted Peter Davison. Feeling inspired to revisit the highly peculiar world of the homo superior myself, I opted to go down a different route and check out another story written by Roger Price from slightly later in the series’ run – from the 1978 sixth season, it’s Hitler’s Last Secret!

Yup, this is a mainstream youth-orientated TV drama from (what was then) the UK’s only commercial channel, and it’s so openly about Fascism that they put Hitler’s name in the title. But we are still only at the very brink of the rabbit-hole. We find ourselves in a reassuringly familiar low-budget secret base/bunker, from which a young man executes an escape you could charitably describe as ‘ridiculous’. He is pursued across country by other young lads, toting machine guns, before being run over and killed by a British army land rover (it transpires we are supposedly somewhere in Bavaria). This would be odd enough, but on top of that, all the teenage boys are wearing SS uniforms, and leading them is a youthful Nicholas Lyndhurst (yes, he of Only Fools and Horses fame), affecting a frankly wobbly German accent. The boundaries of taste and sanity are already cracking and we have barely reached the opening credits of episode one.

Thankfully, the audience gets a chance to process the concept of Rodney Trotter, He-Wolf of the SS, as we pop off to the secret lab HQ of the Tomorrow People (the psi-powered next step in human evolution, in case you were wondering). Your Tomorrow People for this outing are strait-laced big brother figure John (Nicholas Young), restless but good-hearted teen Mike (Mike Holoway), and Hsui Tai (Misako Koba), who may be a member of a hyper-evolved subspecies of humanity, but still sounds like she’s learned her dialogue phonetically.

In the sort of eye-rollingly contrived expository scene you only get in old genre shows, John just happens to mention to Hsui Tai that he has been breeding immortal (or perhaps more accurately amortal) rats, repeating experiments originally done long before (by the Nazis, would you believe? What a coincidence). Apparently, if you lock an organism in a state of perpetual adolescence, it essentially stops aging. This is delivered with all the earnestness usually reserved for the series’ frequent info-dumps of genuine improving knowledge, and it took me a few minutes to realise it is actually complete cobblers (well, maybe not: it’s a venerable old SF notion, perhaps most memorably employed in Norman Spinrad’s Bug Jack Barron).

The laborious laying-in of back-story takes a pause as Mike wanders through en route to the teleporter pads, heading to the youth club. However, in addition to the usual flared trousers he has also chosen to wear an SS uniform jacket and hat, which John is righteously angry about. The scene is so weird to a modern viewer that it’s quite hard to tell if it’s especially badly written or not; but it is almost certainly badly acted by any objective standard.

Once down the youth club we see another artiste who probably doesn’t include this on his showreel: Ray Burdis, actor in Scum and Gandhi, producer of The Krays, director of various iffy Primrose Hill Set movies, along with much else, turns up as the leader of a neo-Nazi youth gang called (wait for it) the Stormtroopers. Burdis’ character speaks frankly of his love for Hitler and belief that one day he will return to save the world (just to reiterate, this was apparently considered acceptable material for children’s TV back in 1978).

The studio-bound scenes in the youth club and secret lab are intercut with goings on at the SS base, which is also a youth club and a secret lab, of course. Untergruppenfuhrer Trotter is shocked to discover that the cryogenic suspension pods the perpetually-teenaged Nazis have been guarding for the last 33 years are starting to wear out and the occupants have to be defrosted, PDQ. One of these is the mad doctor responsible for making their teenage dreams last forever, the other is… well, you can probably guess.

Yes, it’s Hitler himself, played by Michael Sheard, who spent quite a lot of his time playing the Fuhrer (when he wasn’t playing Imperial Navy Admirals, autocratic school teachers, and various Doctor Who characters, anyway). But is Hitler really Hitler? John has already revealed that the Nazi leader is really Neebor, from the planet Vashir, a ‘galactic criminal’.

Taste barrier? What taste barrier? Just as John is concerned by Mike’s growing fascination with Nazism, so the world authorities have been troubled by a rising tide of neo-Nazism amongst young people (we’re told about this, not shown it, obviously), and British intelligence has realised there’s something funny going on in rural Bavaria, too. John heroically leaps to a wild but (naturally) completely accurate conclusion – at the end of the war, the Nazis used V2 rockets to spread a strain of e. coli which introduced a gene promoting blind obedience to Hitler into the population. Once again, this is an insane mixture of seriously-delivered science lecture (the young audience is informed about genetic engineering and how it works) and bonkers conspiracy theory (the rest of it). Now, of course, Hitler and his deceptively-youthful followers are planning to make the ultimate party political broadcast, activate the Hitler-worshipping gene in the world’s youth, and take over the planet! Can the Tomorrow People save the day? (Clue: yes.)

The thing about Hitler’s Last Secret isn’t just that it’s a episode of a fantasy adventure series which is to some extent fascinated by the iconography of Hitler and Nazism – these were alarmingly common in the 1960s and 70s. I have already written about the Eagle’s Nest episode of The New Avengers (Hitler is still alive and reasonably well and living on an island in the north Atlantic), and also the Patterns of Force episode of Star Trek (Hitler himself is long dead, but his ideology is alive and well and living on the remote planet Ekos, having been spread there by a misguided Federation historian). Off the top of my head, I can also think of the Anchluss 77 episode of the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman series (Hitler’s cells are alive and well and about to be cloned somewhere in South America), and arguably Doctor Who’s Genesis of the Daleks (though this is a much more allusive, allegorical connection). Round about this time there was also the movie The Boys from Brazil (numerous Hitler clones are alive and well and being groomed for power all over the world). So it’s not as if this was some weird anomaly, exactly; the Second World War had finished less than 35 years previously and was still a key influence on social attitudes. The seductive appeal of Nazi chic to younger people was also a genuine issue – round about the time this episode went out, you had Siouxsie Sioux and other first generation punks wearing swastikas and so on, probably more for their transgressive power to shock than for any other reason, and Nazi uniforms remained popular as bad taste fancy dress into the 20th century (even with members of the British royal family).

So why is it that Hitler’s Last Secret feels so monumentally screwed-up and misjudged? It can’t just be the clunky and obvious plotting, the preachiness of it, or the consistently bad acting of nearly everyone involved, because these were pretty much staples of this kind of TV show in the 70s and beyond (and especially The Tomorrow People). That’s not to say that there aren’t some terrible misjudgements going on here – the decision to make Hitler one of the series’ routinely duff alien monsters in disguise is surely trivialising the programme’s subject matter, especially as this is basically handled by a couple of lines of dialogue. Who is this Neebor character? Where’s he at? What’s his objective? The story is all about the appeal of the iconography of Nazism and barely considers its ideological basis.

No, the particular things that The Tomorrow People brings to the table are, firstly, the fact that this is British TV and thus very likely to have that before-they-were-famous factor somewhere in the mix – Nicholas Lyndhurst had quite an extensive career as a child star, but even so, playing a member of the Hitler Youth locked in perpetual puberty is the kind of role that doesn’t come along very often.

The other big deal is the extraordinarily low budget this story is obviously contending with. There’s a bit of location filming in some woods, but most of it takes place on the same few tiny studio sets with very primitive special effects. The Tomorrow People spend most of the story sitting around on their sofas. When Hitler is compelled to reveal his true, alien form, the effect is achieved by popping a fake eyeball in a bowl of green jelly.

It looks like a spoof of the worst kind of cod SF, but the story is clearly intended very seriously, a cautionary parable to any younger viewers who might be feeling tempted to pop on their own SS uniform before going down the school disco. There’s a kind of three-way collision between the most serious theme, the painfully unsubtle handling of this by the script, and the almost unbelievably crass way it’s all realised, and the result is something with a unique kind of awfulness to it. It is stupefying to watch, also very funny, and also has a sort of grim fascination in the way it manages to get virtually everything so very, very wrong. The Tomorrow People did produce some genuinely good stories. But this is in a class of its own, and probably one which has been placed in special measures.

 

Missive Unforgivable

One of the incidental pleasures of life as a pathological movie-goer is that you become intimately familiar with censor-speak: that is, those extra remarks which the BBFC append to a film’s certificate explaining why it’s been given the rating that it has. ‘Injury detail,’ for instance, ‘strong violence’, ‘moderate sex scenes’ (this is moderate on a spectrum running from ‘mild’ to ‘strong’, not ‘disappointing’ to ‘outstanding’, naturally). I was a little surprised, therefore, when the certificate for Ritesh Batra’s adaptation of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending limited itself to a simple ‘only suitable for viewers 15 and older’. A metropolitan BBC drama with a bit of a period element and proper actors like Jim Broadbent, Harriet Walter and Charlotte Rampling? A 15? If it was only a question of a few basic effs and jeffs (‘strong language’) they would surely say so; the same for a quick game of ‘whose leg is it anyway?’ (‘moderate sex scenes’).

Well, much to my surprise it turned out that the main reason the 15 rating on The Sense of an Ending goes unannotated is because, well, if you started, you’d probably never stop. This movie is shot through with a particularly repressed and British kind of grimness, for all that it is superbly written, directed, and performed.

Jim Broadbent plays Tony Webster, a semi-retired shopkeeper, who seems like a very average chap as the film gets underway. (Perhaps the point of the film is that he actually is a very average chap.) He seems well-set in his daily routine, has reasonable relationships with his ex-wife (Walter) and heavily pregnant daughter (Michelle Dockery) – he’s perhaps a bit too reserved and irascible to be what you’d genuinely call a nice fellow, but neither does he seem an especially bad person either.

Then Tony receives a solicitor’s letter, telling him he is the recipient of a bequest – one recently-deceased old acquaintance has left him the diary of another, long-dead old friend. He has not heard from either of these people in decades, for all that he had significant relationships with them when he was a young man. However, there is a further complication – the executor of the will, another former intimate of Tony’s, is refusing to hand over the item in question. But why? And why exactly does Tony find himself growing so obsessed with (as he puts it) claiming his legal property? Are there other psychological forces at work here he is unwilling to acknowledge?

Much of the film is told in flashback, with Billy Howle playing the young Tony, and Freya Mavor as Veronica, the girl he finds himself getting so involved with (who eventually becomes the uncooperative executor, played with customary steely froideur by Charlotte Rampling). Emily Mortimer plays Veronica’s mother, Joe Alwyn is Tony’s close friend Adrian, and Matthew Goode gets the much-coveted ‘and’ position in the credits as their history teacher.

For a while I almost felt a bit cheated, for I had turned up to see a film with Jim Broadbent in the lead role – and who doesn’t love Jim Broadbent? – and this seemed to be turning into a period drama with Broadbent only participating in the framing sequence – but the action, such as it is, definitely returns to the present day for much of the latter part of the film. At one point in his rather turbulent personal life, the young Tony wrote an impulsive letter, posted it, and then promptly forgot about it, little suspecting the consequences it might have for its recipients.

No, really – who doesn’t love Jim Broadbent? Everyone knows him as one of the UK’s greatest comic actors (one of the few people capable of coming in and stealing an episode of Blackadder while ostensibly playing a minor role), but also effortlessly touching when the part requires it, and the man’s sheer work-rate is also startling – I’d completely forgotten that he was in three films I’ve seen in the last year or so, in addition to the ones I actually remembered. And he turned down an OBE, on the grounds that actors aren’t the most deserving recipients of that sort of honour, and he didn’t want to be seen to celebrate the idea of Empire. What a guy.

Of course, a lot of Broadbent’s movie work consists of him coming on and doing a little character cameo, more often than not comedic in nature, so the prospect of him playing the lead role in a film which really gives him a chance to do his stuff was, frankly, a bit mouthwatering, regardless of what the actual movie was about. And Broadbent’s performance lives up to expectations (of course) – in some ways his role here almost resembles the one he plays in the Bridget Jones movies, in that he’s the awkward, almost-bumbling father of a young woman who spends her times rolling her eyes at him a lot. But as the story unfolds the less appealing aspects of Tony Webster rise to the surface – unwittingly or not, this is a man quite possibly responsible for horrible things, and Broadbent isn’t afraid to appear unsympathetic and even quite sinister as he acts upon the fixation which gradually develops in the course of the story.

It seems to me that this is a film about a man looking to get a feeling of closure – that sense of an ending alluded to in the title – regardless of whether this is justified, or suits the other people involved, or is even in any way true. One of the advantages of having the film partly set in a school is that the characters can have fairly abstract debates about the intersections between story, history, and motivation without it seeming contrived, and these certainly feed into the theme of the piece. Can we ever truly know why somebody does something? Even if that person is us? And if that’s the case, can we genuinely claim, or disclaim, responsibility for the results of our actions?

Well, I know it sounds heavy (and perhaps a bit pretentious), but the story itself is engrossing (if not exactly a barrel of laughs) and Batra handles the telling of it with deceptive skill, given the various flash-backs, flash-forwards, and other shifts in time and place. (He even tackles one of the more challenging set-pieces in the directorial playbook – that moment when two people attempt to, er, become fully engaged with one another on the back seat of a car – with impressive deftness. No, really, think about it: you’ve got two actors, a cameraman, a sound operator, possibly the director himself, and all the necessary gear, crammed into the interior of a car. Imagine the logistics. Imagine the jostling for space. Imagine the potential for the camera ending up pointing somewhere deeply unflattering or intrusive. I tell you, there should be a special Oscar just for bringing back-seat whoa-ho-ho to the big screen.) It doesn’t have quite the same emotional payoff as his previous film, The Lunchbox, but then that isn’t really the point of the exercise.

You don’t emerge from The Sense of an Ending blazing with delight or quite ready to rave about the film to strangers in the street, but that’s understandable – this is a film about the ambiguities of life, quite ambiguous itself in many ways, with many questions left intentionally unresolved at the conclusion. But it is still a deeply satisfying piece of drama, with the performances of the rest of the cast as impressive as that of Broadbent, and the writing and direction not showing many obvious flaws, either. It’s a quietly dark film, which may not endear it to everyone, but it’s also an extremely accomplished one, and I wonder if the producers haven’t done themselves a disservice by effectively releasing it as counter-programming to Fast and Furious 8: an Autumn release might have made this a genuine awards contender. Nevertheless, no matter the season, this is an impressive movie.

Carnal Knowledge

Since the heyday of Roger Corman there has been a pleasing synergy to the fact that horror movies have traditionally offered a reasonably safe route to decent box-office returns on a relatively small budget, thus allowing writers and directors near the beginnings of their careers the chance to make movies about quite challenging and sophisticated ideas, provided they respect the conventions of the genre. The early films of George Romero and David Cronenberg are full of social commentary and metaphorical power, it’s just that this is to some extent obscured by the fact they are apparently just exploitation movies about zombies and parasitic infection.

The question is to what degree the same is true of Julia Ducournau’s Raw, which appears to be an entry into one of horror’s least respectable sub-genres, but clearly has other things to say for itself. Garance Marillier gives a remarkable performance as Justine, a bright young student off to university for the first time. She is studying to be a vet, as is her older sister Alex (Ella Rumpf), who’s at the same college as her. Justine has been raised as a staunch vegetarian by her parents, but she is unsettled to discover that Alex seems to have lapsed a little into the ways of meat-eating.

The initiation rituals for new students at the college are extreme and debauched, and include the newcomers having to eat a raw rabbit kidney. Justine demurs, as you would, but without anyone to support her principled stance, and the threat of social ostracism looming, goes ahead and swallows the bunny bits anyway.

Her attempts to come to terms with the new opportunities, threats, and temptations of college life are somewhat complicated by the unexpected way in which her body reacts to eating raw flesh. Initially there is a rather grisly rash, and after this fades Justine finds herself gripped by a strange hunger that drives her to steal meat from the canteen, gnaw on raw chicken straight from the fridge, and even contemplate much darker sources of sustenance…

So, yes, this is the French-language feminist cannibal movie of which you may have heard, and (wait for it) fairly strong meat it is too. Cannibalism may not be your thing at the cinema; I can understand that, I’m not an unconditional fan of this sort of thing myself. It almost goes without saying that this is not a film for the faint-hearted or weak-stomached – there is gore aplenty, and while it is not spectacular it is certainly intense. That said, the film is uncompromising on all fronts – quite graphic sex and other bodily functions also feature – and, to be honest, the sequence which made me squirm the most involved one character giving another a not entirely competent bikini wax.

The fact the film isn’t just about bloody flesh is an indicator that at heart it isn’t, as I had feared, just some piece of heavy-handed agitprop on behalf of militant vegans. There seems to be a lot of this sort of thing doing the rounds at present and I’m not sure I really need to see more of it; I’m aware that from a certain point of view eating meat is ethically indefensible (certainly if you have any dealings with the mainstream meat industry), but, well, I’m told that the human capacity to simultaneously hold numerous mutually incompatible beliefs at the same time is one of the keys to our success as a species, so why not make use of it: animal welfare is a significant issue, but some animals do taste delicious. Inasmuch as the film is actually about vegetarianism, it’s because this is something which initially marks Justine as an outsider and thus makes her socially vulnerable. One of the things the film is about is the demands on young women to conform to certain standards of behaviour, whether they want to or not, and the ugly double standards that are often involved if they try too hard to fit in.

Cannibalism as a metaphor for peer pressure is an interesting approach to take, but Ducournau makes it work, and also makes it clear what a tightrope young women are on at this time in their lives – transgression of any kind can see them ostracised, ridiculed on social media, or worse. The urge to try and disappear must be strong. The director doesn’t hold back in making the student culture of the college just as repellent as anything that Justine’s little eating disorder drives her to (her cannibalistic tendencies are implicitly compared to bulimia at one point), and makes it very clear just how vulnerable an unworldly young woman like her is, surrounded by so many new temptations.

One thing that possibly weakens the film is the way that Ducournau attempts to insert another layer of metaphor, making Justine’s desire for flesh figurative as well as literal: the new world she is plunged into finds her having to contend with feelings for her room-mate (Rabah Nait Oufella) – she becomes jealous, possessive of him, finds these powerful new emotions difficult to deal with. But what does she really want to do to him? Suffice to say the ensuing scenes are powerfully sensual, if not completely comfortable viewing, and the film is strong enough to survive this slightly split focus. It also manages to accommodate a closing scene which largely seems to be there to provide a startling and memorable twist ending, which while not quite feeling like a complete cheat, does feel somewhat like it’s drifted in from a film which is much more of a black comedy than this one.

I wasn’t sure quite what to expect from Raw, but I was impressed with what I got – in an odd way it does have that clinical, queasy feeling of a very early Cronenberg movie, but the skill with which the director handled picture and soundtrack (Jim Williams’ score is also highly impressive) almost put me in mind of… well, I almost hesitate to say this, but in some ways Raw resembles the cannibal horror film that Stanley Kubrick never made. If you only go and see one feminist cannibal horror movie in French this year, Raw should be your choice – always assuming you have the stomach for it.

It’s a Family Affray

There comes a point during F Gary Gray’s Fast and Furious 8, possibly when the great Vin Diesel is jumping his car over a nuclear submarine in order to rid himself of the heat-seeking missile which someone has inconsiderately launched at him, when it is entirely reasonable for a person to forget that things were not always thus with this franchise. The last four or five installments have been such utterly reliable, if slightly ridiculous, big-scale entertainment, that you might assume that this is really an in-name-only sequel to the moderately gritty and down-to-earth 2001 progenitor of the series.

This is about as good a hopping-on point for newcomers as any film in the series. As things get underway, man-mountain boy-racer and mastermind of good-hearted skulduggery Dom Toretto (Diesel) and his wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are enjoying a postponed (since F&F4) honeymoon in Cuba. This involves Toretto launching burning cars into the harbour at supersonic speed, backwards, but romance is a personal thing, after all. Meanwhile, colossus of justice Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) is enjoying a little down-time, until someone arrives to deliver some important exposition. Thus we get a scene where someone is trying to explain to Hobbs about a stolen doomsday weapon while he is distracted and trying to coach his daughter’s soccer team.

Well, Hobbs retains Toretto and the rest of the F&F All-Stars to help him get the doomsday widget back, not realising Toretto has fallen under the sway of evil cyber-terrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron), who gets him to pinch the widget and zoom off with it, abandoning the rest of the All-Stars. But how is this possible? Given that Dom devotes most of his dialogue in these films to rumbling on about the importance of ‘fam-er-lee’, what could possibly make him sell out his nearest and dearest this way?

Anyway, Hobbs gets slung in the chokey for his part in the failed mission, and ends up in the next cell to Deckard (Mr Jason Statham), the villain of F&F7, conveniently enough. Energetic prison-riot shenanigans inevitably ensue. In the end, shady intelligence puppetmaster/plot device Mr Nobody (Kurt Russell) gets the All-Stars, Hobbs, and Deckard together and tasks them with finding Toretto and Cipher before they can do anything too naughty with the stolen doomsday widget. Cue a succession of monumentally overblown car chases and fist-fights, a peculiar bromance between J-Stat and the Rock, some extremely broad humour, and more than a whiff of sentimentality as people bang on and on about ‘fam-er-lee’…

The key question about this one, I suppose, is whether or not you can make a viable and satisfying Fast and Furious movie without the late Paul Walker (or, for that matter, Jordana Brewster, who doesn’t appear either). The answer seems to be ‘yes’, but I get a sense of the film-makers being aware of the change in the essential dynamic of the series – this may be why Diesel is sent off into his own plotline away from the other characters for most of the movie, and Statham and Johnson inserted into the heart of the ensemble (although rumour has it that this may also be due to Diesel having had a bit of a tiff with certain of his co-stars and refusing to share any scenes with them). This is very successful, I would say, because these are two charismatic dudes who deserve a chance to do more than just sweat and either sit behind steering wheels or wallop stuntmen. The dividend extends further, with both Michelle Rodriguez and Tyrese Gibson getting some of their best material in the history of the series. (Scott Eastwood turns up as a new character and also does surprisingly well.)

Even Charlize Theron does pretty well with a character who is, on paper, not much more than an, um, cipher, much given to slightly preposterous speeches about evolutionary psychology and so on (clearly she’s yet another person who’s just read Sapiens). Given the size of some of the performances elsewhere in the movie (and the size of some of the performers, come to that), it’s hard to make a big impression as the bad guy in Fast and Furious Land, but she has a good go, helped by the fact that Cipher steers the series into some properly dark territory – something genuinely shocking and serious befalls a regular character partway through this film, threatening to tilt it all over into the realms of bad taste.

The casual way in which the film recovers its absurd, freewheeling tone is just another sign of the genuine deftness and skill with which these films are made (although this one does seem to score a bit higher on the mindless slaughter scale than most of the others). I do get mocked for my sincere enthusiasm for this series, but it is simply supremely well-made entertainment, and if the combination of stunts, jokes, fighting, and sentimentality is a bit preposterous, so what? With the Bond movies seemingly locked in ‘glum’ mode for the duration, there’s a gap in the market for something so knowing and fun. At one point in this movie, Jason Statham launches himself into battle with a squad of goons, gun in one hand, baby-carrier in the other, and what follows is both a terrific action sequence and genuinely very funny, with all the craziness you’d hope for in one of Mr Statham’s own movies. I do hope they keep Deckard (and his own fam-er-lee) around for the next one.

If Fast and Furious 8 is silly or ridiculous (and it really is), I would suggest it is silly and ridiculous in an entirely intentional way. And underlying all this is a script that regular writer Chris Morgan genuinely seems to have thought about – he doesn’t quite do his usual chronology-fu, but nevertheless he’s locked onto the fact that ever since the first one, the best of these films have all been about the camaraderie and sense of belonging you get from being part of a gang, or a family, and this informs the plot of this one in a fundamental way – that’s the thread linking the new film to the original one. Silly is not the same as stupid.

So I suppose it’s possible to genuinely dislike Fast and Furious 8, in the same way it’s possible to dislike any movie – but that doesn’t make it any less successful in hitting the targets it has set for itself, or indeed any less entertaining for the rest of us. If every film were made with this degree of skill and attention to detail, then the world would be a happier place.

 

Booming with Gravitas

Well, it’s time for another installment of our very irregular and even more pointless feature, New Cinema Review (that’s ‘new’ as in ‘new to me’, not as in ‘freshly constructed’). On this occasion, the venue in question is the Octagon Theatre, Market Harborough. As you may have surmised, this is not one of your actual cinema chain outlets but a legitimate theatre which occasionally puts on a film on a slow night. Well, it’s always nice to go somewhere where the bottom line of the refreshments stand doesn’t appear to be the sine qua non of the whole operation, and the fact this is a proper theatre guarantees a decent rake and line-of-sight to the screen. No adverts (yay), no trailers (boo), no BBFC certificate (hmmm), and some interesting films on their coming soon list (Mustang, Captain Fantastic, Elle, and Headhunters all due in the next few months) – I’ve been to worse places, that’s for sure.

On this occasion I had turned up to watch Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon, a film from last year which I didn’t bother going to see at the time, because, well, it looked like the whole thing had been in the trailer (not to mention on the rolling news back in 2010, though I missed it myself due to being incommunicado in Sri Lanka). This is a movie based on a fairly well-known event from the recent past, so I was a bit surprised to find myself being flapped and hissed at for predicting what we were in for, in the bar before the film: about forty-five minutes of all-American character-building and then an hour or so of stuff blowing up, quite possibly with a billowing US flag at some point. Does this really constitute a spoiler? It’s like being told off for revealing that the boat sinks at the end of Titanic.

Well, anyway. Chief point of audience identification is Mike (Mark Wahlberg), top electrical bloke on the Deepwater Horizon, an oil exploration rig in the Gulf of Mexico. (The name Deepwater Horizon is really a gift to film-makers, being exciting and ominous in just the right blend – I bet if they’d called the thing Riggy McRigface it would all have turned out very differently.) As things get going, Mike is about to head back to the rig for another tour of duty, leaving behind his lovely wife Felicia (played by Kate Hudson) and winsome young daughter (played by a winsome young child actor). As this is a mainstream movie not solely aimed at experts in oil extraction procedure, the winsome daughter gets a sequence where she explains what Mike does for a living in language a ten-year-old child could understand, which means most of the average cinema audience can probably cope with it too. This comes with visual aids, as well – never before has shaken-up cola frothing out of a can been such a portent of doom.

Mike flies off to the rig with his boss Mr Jimmy (Kurt Russell in a fine moustache) and co-worker Andrea (Gina Rodriguez). Needless to say, all is not well as they arrive, as visits by the camera to the sea bed beneath the rig make clear: ominous bubbles leak from around the drill head. It transpires that the preparation of the oil shaft for an actual extraction rig is far behind schedule, rather to the chagrin of the project’s paymasters at BP. They are pressuring the rig workers to accelerate their operations, even if this means cutting corners on things like safety.

You know what happens next: ambiguous results on safety tests are interpreted by the money-grubbing BP suits in the most optimistic manner, things go creak, things go bubble, things go whoosh, and then things – a lot of things – go boom (honestly, the really impressive takeaway from this movie is not the spectacle of this rig exploding, but the fact that these things don’t go bang more often). Mike, Jimmy, and Andrea find themselves initially trying to get the situation aboard the stricken rig under control, before eventually realising it’s all basically terminal and their main concern should be getting off in one piece…

I don’t mean to be especially glib or flippant about what happened to the Deepwater Black, not least because eleven men died in horrible circumstances. That’s a tragedy, a dreadful loss – no question about it, no argument from me. But given it’s such a tragedy, the question must always be, what are we doing making drama-entertainment films about it? Are we not just complicit in satisfying our own suspect urges, in the same way that we do when we rubberneck at a road accident? With, of course, the complicity of the film-makers, who are fully aware of this, but happy because it allows them to use all their pyrotechnical virtuosity in a film the critics are virtually obliged to treat respectfully, as it is about Real Life Heroism – in other words, they get to blow things up but still be taken seriously!

I rather suspect we have a case to answer, because Deepwater Horizon is structured just a bit too much like a crowd-pleasing thriller for comfort. The technical details of what specifically went wrong on the rig are never really gone into, and the first half of the film does feel more like the opening of a disaster movie than anything else – characters are established, warning signs overlooked, the experience and instincts of decent working men is ignored by contemptible guys in suits, and so on. We are told that virtually every scene in this movie is based on eyewitness testimony, which at least allows for some moments you wouldn’t accept in an actual piece of fiction – Mr Jimmy receives an award for his outstanding safety record about an hour before his oil rig literally explodes – but, even so, the film has clearly delineated good guys and bad guys in a way real life generally doesn’t. Chief bad guy is a BP exec played by John Malkovich, who is in form which I can only describe as very John Malkovich. It’s an idiosyncratic turn quite at odds with the studied naturalism of everyone else, but I did enjoy it, inasmuch this is a film you can honestly enjoy in a guilt-free way.

Technically, this is a very proficient film, and the performances are fine, too – Wahlberg can play this kind of Everyman in his sleep – and the big bangs and flashes, when they come, are as accomplished as you might expect. You could argue that a lot of the dialogue is unintelligible, not least because it’s technical drilling jargon, but you don’t need to understand every note to grasp the tune on this occasion. It’s all very capably done and exciting, and yet come the end you are still reading a list of the names of real people who died, and seeing their photos, and how are you supposed to handle the cognitive dissonance there?

I suppose you could make the same argument about many other ‘based on true events’ type movies, some of which I have said quite positive things about in the past – Everest leaps to mind as one, and I’m sure there are others. Perhaps it’s simply the approach that Deepwater Horizon takes – it’s a lot less interested in why it happened (and what happened next) than it is in how big the explosions were, and who a convenient scapegoat might be. On a technical level this film is impressive, but I think the memory of those lost in the disaster might have been better served by a less simplistic film.

The Ant Hill Mob

There was a time when any science fiction film that wanted to be taken seriously found itself helplessly caught up in the wake of 2001: A Space Odyssey – SF wasn’t SF unless it was cerebral, austere, and concluded on a note of either pessimism or wilful obscurity. This tendency is visible in movies from the late 60s until about a decade later – even the coming of George Lucas’ stellar conflict franchise didn’t quite kill it off, with Disney’s 1979 entry to the robots-and-ray-guns subgenre, The Black Hole, concluding with a bafflingly surreal sequence.

Even so, very few of these movies are quite as out there as Phase IV, a 1974 film directed by Saul Bass. Bass is best remembered as a legendary graphic designer and creator of some of the most memorable credit sequences in cinema history, and this was his only feature film: it’s clear throughout that as a director his focus is overwhelmingly on the visual element of the movie.

This is an early example of a film which dispenses with a conventional title sequence entirely (somewhat ironic, given who the director is), simply opening with the caption ‘Phase I’. Ten full minutes elapse before we actually see a human being, with the story being told via montages and voice-over. Some kind of cosmic event has occurred (the film is unspecific about what it actually is), but its key terrestrial consequence goes unnoticed by almost everyone: across the world, different species of ants, normally in competition with each other, cease their hostilities and begin to work together. But to what end? Strange geometrical structures, constructed by the ants, appear in the desert of Arizona, along with crop circles (the film predates the modern crop phenomenon and may in fact, it’s been suggested) have been one of its inspirations).

Entomologist Dr Hubbs (Nigel Davenport, best known to a generation of British viewers as fruity-voiced tycoon Edward Frere in Howard’s Way) cottons on to what the ants are up to and persuades the powers that be to fund an investigation into what exactly is going on. A lab is set up in a geodesic dome out in the desert (this is the kind of SF movie lab where the equipment includes grenade launchers, but, you know, go with it) and Hubbs sets about annoying the ants in the hope of learning what has happened to them, and ideally teaching them not to get uppity with the human race. Hubbs’ assistant, mathematician Lesko (Michael Murphy), is more cautious and inclined to take a moderate approach, but soon enough the scientists are besieged by hostile ants, along with a young local woman (Lynne Frederick) whose farm was destroyed by the formic hordes. Can Lesko find a way of communicating with the ants, whose collective intelligence is no longer in doubt, or is this just the first stage in a battle that will decide the fate of the world?

Fairly heavy stuff, I think you’ll agree. The film would probably agree, too, considering the intense and very serious way the story is handled – there are no moments of lightness or humour and the actors are all playing it absolutely dead straight. The result is quite a bleak and austere film, rather cold in tone despite the desert setting.

This isn’t the man-vs-killer-ant movie you might be expecting – I vaguely recall it turning up on TV in a double-bill with Them! at some point in my youth – and the striking central image of the movie’s poster, that of an ant gnawing its way out of the centre of a human palm, occurs relatively early on, and not quite as a moment of full-on horror, either. There’s less death-struggle and more philosophical and mathematical discussion as the two scientists discuss what’s going on in fairly abstract terms.

Even so, the most memorable parts of the film don’t concern the human characters but the ants themselves. There are numerous weird, long sequences of ants rattling around in the nests, doing significant but obscure things, clambering around inside human machinery, and so on. It’s a masterclass in editing skill, I suppose – the way the footage of the ants is assembled manages to suggest intention and a vague sense of what is supposed to be happening – but also betrays Bass’s fascination with playing with images and storytelling on a purely visual level. There is, obviously, a lot of miniature photography of ants in this film; there is also time-lapse photography, slow-motion filming, and various other optical effects too.

Many of these are accompanied by an expository voice-over from Murphy, and I wonder if this was something the studio insisted on as the movie started to take shape – the voice-over adds to the impression that this is a rather odd B-movie, but it does stop the film from becoming completely oblique and wilfully enigmatic. As it is, much is left for the viewer to decide – are the ants being actively controlled by some cosmic force to reshape the nature of life on Earth? Or has some random influence caused the ant hive-mind to experience a form of uplift, and it’s the ant superbrain itself which is responsible for everything that happens?

It’s all left very unclear – not least because the studio cut about five minutes from Bass’s preferred climax, leaving it a very brisk 84 minutes in total. If the extant film is off the wall, then the original would have been downright freaky – a reconstruction of the original ending exists on the internet, apparently depicting what the world will be like after Phase IV is completed, and the bizarre impressionistic symbiosis of human and ant that is shown in it is not quite like anything else I’ve ever seen.

Despite all the fascinating and unique things about Phase IV, however, this is still one for the ‘novel but deeply flawed’ category. The B-movie premise and characterisations don’t help the film when it comes to achieving the level of rarefied sophistication it’s clearly aiming for, while the visual storytelling, while innovative and memorable, is just a bit too slow and abstract for the film to work as a thriller or conventional drama. The film’s visual distinctiveness and general air of weirdness mean it is worth watching, if you like abstract SF movies or maybe even art movies generally, but as a conventional piece of movie entertainment this is basically a tough and probably not especially rewarding watch.