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Michael Winterbottom’s Greed does not get off to the smoothest of starts, although this is really the product of circumstances beyond the film-makers’ control: the film opens with an added-very-late-on caption dedicating it to the memory of the late TV presenter Caroline Flack, then transitions from this into a quote from E.M. Forster. I was still too busy wondering why the film-makers had felt the need to open with the dedication to really focus on the other things that were going on, but it clears up somewhat very soon: Flack is the first person on screen, appearing as herself in the opening sequence. The film includes various other examples of other celebrities doing the same thing.

The movie is clearly being positioned as very close to reality, which I would imagine has occasioned fun times for some lawyers – representatives of Greed are very clear that the film, which concerns the life of a ruthless high-street mogul vilified for his tax avoidance and use of sweatshops in the developing world, particularly after a peevish appearance in front of a British parliamentary committee, is not directly based on the life of Sir Philip Green, a ruthless high-street mogul vilified for his tax avoidance and alleged use of sweatshops in the developing world, particularly after a peevish appearance in front of a British parliamentary committee. Of course it’s not. But you would have to be completely unfamiliar with all concerned not to see a certain resemblance.

The central character of Green – sorry, Greed – is Sir Richard McCreadie, played by Winterbottom’s frequent collaborator Steve Coogan. The bulk of the film is set immediately before and during McCreadie’s sixtieth birthday party, which is taking place on the Greek island of Mykonos. McCreadie is on the defensive and looking to make a big statement following the bad publicity ensuing from his appearance in front of the MP, and a disgustingly lavish and decadent shindig is on the cards: Roman-themed, it is to feature gladiator fights as well as the traditional disco and fireworks. Present for the occasion are various family members and other hangers-on as well as employees – Isla Fisher, Sophie Cookson and Asa Butterfield play McCreadie’s ex-wife and children, Shirley Henderson his mother, while looking on with increasing horror are his official biographer (David Mitchell) and one of the party planners (Dinita Gohil), whose family history has long been entwined with that of the McCreadie business empire. Needless to say, party preparations do not go well: cheap labour to build the gladiator arena proves hard to source, the lion they’ve hired is out-of-sorts, and there is a mob of Syrian refugees on the beach spoiling the view.

Mixed in with the build-up to the party are selected highlights of McReadie’s life up to that point: starting out as basically a con man and gambler, before going into budget fashion, launching a string of shops, and hitting upon a uniquely inventive and ruthless model of doing business (the film explains this in exemplary fashion, but basically it involves buying large companies using money borrowed from the companies themselves, selling off their assets and giving the proceeds to non-dom family members). The exploitation of workers in the developing world is also key.

Greed sounds like a slightly uneasy mixture of elements – knockabout farce mixed with angry, socially-committed agitprop. One of the impressive things about it is the way that it does manage to maintain a consistent tone where these things don’t appreciably jar with one another. Coogan, it must be said, delivers another horrendous comic grotesque, the type of performance he can do without breaking a sweat, and if David Mitchell is genuinely acting it is only to give a minimal variation on his standard public persona, but there is considerably more naturalism further down the cast list, with a particularly good performance from the largely unknown Dinita Gohil. But this is a movie with a notably strong cast, even in some of the relatively minor roles.

You do get a sense in the end that the loud, audience-pleasing elements of the film are there as a delivery mechanism for the more serious ideas which Michael Winterbottom is particularly interested in putting across: the first half is lighter in tone and more comic, focusing more on how awful McReadie is – the second explores how the system facilitates his behaviour, and is notably more serious. Perhaps the film-makers are correct to suggest this isn’t just a thinly-disguised hatchet job on a distasteful public figure, but a critique of an entire ideology. In this sense the film becomes one about people who are unable or unwilling to recognise the consequences of their actions. This applies to the McReadies, of course, who are either too stupid or too morally corrupt to admit they have a personal responsibility towards any of their employers or subcontractors. But many of us who are not multi-millionaires also engage in deeply questionable acts of all kinds – buying big label fashion, eating meat, voting Conservative – and still justify it to ourselves in just the same way. Genius, according to one definition, lies in putting together apparently disparate bits of information. The film suggests there is also a kind of genius in the ability to ignore the obvious connections between closely linked facts.

That said, it does almost feel in places that the film can’t pass by an issue without wanting to take a stand on it. The reality of the fashion industry (perhaps even capitalism in general) is appalling enough without the film also having to suggest this is also a feminist issue, and there’s another subplot about the refugees that feels just a little bit over-cooked. Winterbottom even manages to squeeze in a few breezy swipes at ‘scripted reality’ TV shows – something which now feels slightly less jolly than it once did, given Caroline Flack’s prominence at the top of the movie.

I suggested to a friend that we go and see Greed (he initially wanted to watch Parasite, but I’d already seen it) and he was a bit dubious to begin with: he thought the film looked a bit on the nose, and also that he didn’t need the movie industry to tell him that sexism and capitalism were Bad Things. In the end, though, he rather enjoyed it, as did I: I imagine that most people in Greed‘s target audience will not learn anything strikingly new from the movie, but it should do a good job of making them care more about things they are already intellectually aware of.

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Every now and then I do like to go to the cinema with my parents, partly because I think it’s nice to share one’s interests, also because I imagine it’s a bracing experience for them to watch the latest Fast and Furious or whatever. Of course, we also go to see things that they are genuinely looking forward to: last autumn we went to see the Downton Abbey movie, and just recently we saw Autumn de Wilde’s new adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. (This movie has been slightly irksomely styled as Emma. in some places, with the final . apparently indicating that this is a – wait for it – period piece. I think we should put a stop to this sort of thing.)

I don’t want to engage in lazy generalisations any more than is absolutely necessary, but watching the new Emma I found myself sort of flashing back to the last time I was out with them. Maybe films aimed at – how can I put this delicately? – a more seasoned audience have this much in common, by which I mean that both Downton and Emma seemed to me to have a definite ‘comfort viewing’ quality to them. It is almost obligatory for the makers of new films based on famous, well-loved books to announce they have found a bold, exciting new approach to the material resulting in a movie the like of which has never been seen before. Not only does this generally turn out to be palpably untrue, but it would be a bad idea even if they could somehow manage it: the kind of person who goes to see a movie based on a Jane Austen novel is not, I would suggest, looking to have a startling, world-upending experience. They want to see something with pleasant-looking people attending balls, riding around in carriages, and swanking about in top hats and Empire-line frocks, a wedding at the end and no bad language.

Autumn de Wilde’s Emma is unlikely to outrage the sensibilities of its target audience, regardless of what the marketing department has come up with. Anya Taylor-Joy, who up to now has mainly distinguished herself by appearing in horror movies, plays Austen’s heroine on this occasion. Emma Woodhouse is the wealthy, comely, and brainy daughter of an eccentric country gentleman (Bill Nighy), who – finding herself spared most of the usual imperatives compelling young women to seek an advantageous marriage – is quite content to stay single and amuse herself. This usually takes the form of trying to organise suitable matches and otherwise orchestrate the lives of her friends and neighbours. Most of them, such as her new friend Harriet (Mia Goth), are sufficiently dazzled by Emma’s beauty and wit to go along with this, even when it causes them some personal inconvenience. The only person who seems to be less than entirely thrilled by Emma is her neighbour and close acquaintance Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn).

However, the social scene in the area becomes rather more complicated, with the arrival of a startling number of eligible young bachelors and nubile young ladies, and Emma begins to find herself on the verge of actually doubting her own cleverness and understanding of everything that’s going on around her. Could an opportunity for learning and personal growth, and maybe even romance, be on the cards?

Well, whatever else you might want to say about Emma, it is certainly a very agreeable film to look upon: the compositions are lovely, and the costumes and sets are also of a very high standard. Given all this and the period setting, I found myself thinking ‘There’s almost something of Barry Lyndon about this’ – the crucial difference being that there is no sense of the film’s visual style being part of a thought-through creative vision.

My understanding is that Autumn de Wilde has come to film directing quite late in life, and that prior to this (her debut film) she has paid the bills by working as a photographer. She certainly does seem to have that facility with the visual image that I mentioned earlier, but hasn’t quite yet acquired an accompanying sense of how to establish character and tell a story. There is a fair deal of plot to contend with here, and various Messrs. Knightley, Elton, Churchill and Martin to keep track of: I would suggest it is sometimes not always as easy to follow the story as it ideally could be. Nor does the story really to spring to life: it just sort of ambles along, not disagreeably, for a couple of hours.

That said, it should still probably do quite well for itself, as it does contain the appropriate quotients of top hats, Empire-line dresses, balls, carriages, etc. It is absolutely ticks all the boxes when it comes to being a standard-issue Jane Austen movie, and whether or not that is a problem is really up to the individual viewer to decide. The only surprising creative choice I could discern is the use of traditional folk music on the soundtrack – I liked this a lot, but it has an earthy, genuine quality entirely at odds with the carefully-managed visual style of the rest of the movie. If nothing else it does present Johnny Flynn, a brilliant musician in addition to being an able actor, with an opportunity to sing as well as play the lead. (Flynn gives a very decent performance, along with most of the rest of the cast, but if you ask me he would be a slightly more obvious choice to play Heathcliff than a polished Austen love interest. Still, I suppose this is a bit of a step up for him.)

I found it very hard to warm up to Emma – it’s an agreeable film, obviously, and decently made, and no doubt it should do very well with the audience it has been made for. But it feels strangely inert and unengaging; it’s not particularly funny, nor is it lushly and sweepingly romantic – it honestly does feel like the story was very secondary to the look of the thing. It does look good, but a satisfying movie needs more.

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There was a point about fifteen or twenty years ago where you couldn’t move for big-screen adaptations of popular TV series from twenty or thirty years earlier. I don’t just mean the Star Trek movies, although these are particularly notable for their role in getting the show back on the telly for a very substantial run – there were also the Charlie’s Angels movies, Mission: Impossible (nowadays pretty much existing solely as a Tom Cruise vehicle), Scooby-Doo, Lost in Space, Starsky and Hutch, Miami Vice… even really obscure things like The Mod Squad and SWAT were dusted off and sent to the cinema. It almost got to the point where you were surprised when an old TV show wasn’t turned into a movie: apparently The Six Million Dollar Man got tied up in rights issues, thus possibly sparing us from a comedy version starring Jim Carrey, while the big-screen take on Knight Rider hit a snag when mooted star Orlando Bloom declared his role as David Hasselhoff’s son to be insufficiently demanding for an actor of his abilities (now that’s a criticism).

It’s fairly self-evident that some of these movies took a distinctly tongue-in-cheek approach to the TV shows that spawned them, which I must confess that I wasn’t always a particular fan of, although this probably depended on how much I enjoyed the original programme. Of course, there are worse things than being irreverent, as I discovered in 2010 when Joe Carnahan’s big-screen version of The A-Team finally arrived (I say ‘finally’ as the movie had been in development for fifteen years, arriving notably after the peak of the small-to-big-screen-transfer craze).

The film opens in Mexico, presumably in the early 2000s, where hard-bitten US Army Ranger Colonel John ‘Hannibal’ Smith (Liam Neeson) is intent on bringing a corrupt local general to justice. In order to do so he must first rescue his sidekick, a smooth-talking lothario nicknamed Face (Bradley Cooper). But Hannibal doesn’t have a ride! His only option is to carjack the first person who happens along. This turns out to be bad-tempered mechanic B.A. Baracus (Quinton Jackson), who is driving along in his beloved red and black van minding his own business. Hannibal shoots B.A., just a little bit, to prove he is serious about the carjacking, but then notices B.A. has a Ranger tattoo just like his. What are the chances? Such is the bond of comradeship between US Rangers that B.A. completely overlooks Hannibal shooting him and off they go to rescue Face together. (No, really. And this is just the first ten minutes.)

Having saved Face from being barbecued alive, the next priority is to get out of the country, which they do by borrowing a helicopter from an army hospital. But who is to fly it? Well, it turns out that one of the patients has an outstanding record as a combat pilot, the problem is he’s just completely insane. Yes, it is Howling Mad Murdock (Sharlto Copley), and he whisks them all off to safety.

Your heart sinks a bit as this opening section concludes, because you realise it has nothing – nothing! – to do with the rest of the plot, and is just there to show how the four members of the A-Team first met (the movie doesn’t bother including any of the non-core characters from the TV show). Why have they bothered to do this? It is puzzling – the premise of the story is that the characters all have a background in the military; it’s not like you have to contrive a way to get them all together.

Well, anyway, we then jump forward to the present day where the A-Team are hanging out in Iraq having done their bit to bring long-term peace and stability to the Middle East (‘You guys are the best!’ Hannibal tells some local soldiers he’s been training). But then word reaches them of some forged plates for making counterfeit American money which are due to be smuggled out of Baghdad very soon. A convoluted jurisdictional tussle breaks out between US army intelligence, the CIA, and private security firms over who is going to capture the plates, involving slippery CIA dude Lynch (Patrick Wilson) and Face’s old girlfriend (Jessica Biel), who’s in military intelligence. Needless to say the A-Team are given the nod to go ahead with the op.

However, they have been set up, it all goes bad, the plates disappear and their authorisation for the mission disappears in a ball of flame. As a result they are all court-martialled and sent to four different glasshouses to serve their sentences (Murdock is even sent to Europe, though this also serves the plot). But Lynch approaches Hannibal with a proposition: if he can retrieve the plates and find the man who stole them, Lynch can bust him out of jail and see to it he and the team get a full pardon…

Now, I was discussing the state of modern TV with a friend the other day and really lamenting the fact that hardly anybody does episodic television any more: nearly every programme is essentially serialised to some degree or other, making it a lot harder to dip in and out of them. I do think there is a certain craft and skill involved in making this kind of entertainment, certainly for the long haul, and that this kind of show had its own particular charm.

On the other hand, I am currently between jobs which means I can, if I so choose, watch three episodes of The A-Team on re-run, most days, and in this situation you do very quickly realise that the bare bones of the series’ format were seldom very deeply covered. The plot of an episode of The A-Team nearly always goes something like this:  a small mom & pop outfit somewhere nondescript is being bullied by small-time hoods. One of the victims makes tentative contact with the team and manages to hire them. The next time the hoods show up, they are properly slapped about by Hannibal and the others. There is a plot twist where it turns out the hoods have a bigger plan which bullying mom & pop is only a small part of, followed by a reversal which sees the bad guys locking the A-Team in a garage with a lot of welding gear and washing-machine parts. The A-Team build an armoured car or helicopter gunship out of the washing-machine parts and blast their way to freedom for the climax. They proceed to fire 37,000 rounds of .223 ammunition at the bad guys, destroying all inanimate objects in a half-mile radius but leaving their human opponents miraculously unscathed. The bad guys go to jail and the A-Team are paid their (presumably hefty) fee: there are smiles all round.

(Mixed in with this are the scenes where the individual team members get to do their schticks – Hannibal puts on a ridiculous disguise, Face either scams someone or romances the only female character, B.A. snarls a lot and says something motivational to a child, and Murdock – well, Murdock’s schtick is that he gets a different schtick every week, so it depends.)

There are coats of varnish with greater depth to them than the typical A-Team script, but while this is undeniably schlock TV aimed at the very young and the very undemanding, it remains oddly likeable and perhaps even watchable (up to a point at least). The movie’s problem is that it doesn’t want to be schlock, but hasn’t figured out a way to not be schlock while still remaining recognisable as The A-Team. The problem isn’t just that the film opens with a sequence providing unnecessary back-story for the team: the whole movie is unnecessary back-story for the team, as it concludes with them just about to commence their careers as good-hearted soldiers-of-fortune operating on US soil, at which point all the familiar A-Team plot beats will presumably start to occur and it will genuinely begin to resemble the TV show. (I mean, the movie is two hours long and the most prominent use of the theme music is diegetic. Also, they write off the A-Team van in the opening sequence. I mean, really…)

But as it is, it’s like the A-Team have accidentally wandered into a particularly downbeat Mission: Impossible movie, or possibly a Bourne, where they keep going off to Germany and getting double-crossed. You don’t expect to have to work quite so hard to follow the plot of The A-Team, to be honest, but there’s a lot of slightly baffling exposition going on here (‘I found it a little confusing and I was in it,’ Liam Neeson later commented). Plus there’s a subplot where Face doubts his own ability to put a plan together, and another one where B.A. becomes a pacifist… the writers don’t seem to have realised that to give these characters extra depth is to lose what makes them recognisable and distinctive. You do wonder about the extent to which the success of the TV show was just down to the charisma of the main four leads, the simple pleasure of watching stuff blow up, and how reassuringly predictable it all was to watch.

If the movie never quite feels like the A-Team TV show, an equally big problem is that it never really feels like a very good movie, either. Quite apart from the problems with the plot, the action sequences are not particularly spectacular or exciting, and the use of CGI is also quite obvious. The performances, I should say, are not bad, given the material the actors have to work with, but they are fighting a losing battle from the beginning of the film to the end.

George Peppard was long gone by the time the movie came out, and Mr T refused to take part, but the other two original cast members (Dirk Benedict and Dwight Schultz) do turn up for cameos – however, these don’t appear until the very end of the closing credits. Supposedly this was for timing reasons, but there is something very odd about this sequence – it feels grudging and uneasy, almost like a contractual obligation. The movie seems to have little interest in or affection for the original TV show, so why else would the film-makers have invited the cast back? This film was underwhelming at the time, joyless and dour where the TV series was silly but diverting. It would probably be quite difficult to make a big-screen A-Team that was both faithful to the show but also good, but the movie shows that doing one which is at least as bad as the TV series while barely resembling it and having little of its entertainment value was entirely possible.

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I used to get a little bit exercised by people choosing inappropriate titles for their movies. I don’t just mean bad movies using good names, just titles which seem… not quite right for the movie. Back in 2011, Paddy Considine released a film called Tyrannosaur, which is a perfectly good title for a film featuring a carnivorous theropod on the rampage. Attaching it to an (admittedly very good) downbeat naturalistic drama about the corrosive effects of male rage struck me as a bit of a waste, to be honest.

When I first started hearing people talking about a movie called Parasite, I was pretty sure I knew what they were on about: I have vague memories of the film in question, which was directed by low-budget maestro Charles Band, released in 1982 and features Demi Moore in an early role. Suffice to say there is a lot of icky body horror and slimy things with teeth infesting various secondary members of the cast. This is exactly what I would expect from a movie called Parasite.

Of course, we now live in a world where – as is occasionally the case with films with mononymic titles – anyone wanting to watch Demi Moore just starting out had best take care, as there is now another, rather better-known film called Parasite. Not that confusion is particularly likely, of course: the 1982 movie has an 11% rating on a solanaceous review aggregation site, and won no awards whatsover, while the new one, directed by Bong Joon Ho, is currently scoring 99%, in addition to winning the Palme D’Or at Cannes and Best Picture at the Academy Awards – the first film to win both in 65 years, and the first film made in a foreign language to win the big prize at the Oscars.

This is the kind of acclaim that often leads to impossibly high expectations, but on the other hand it does work a treat in getting a slightly arty-looking subtitled film a major release – I note that, in the UK at least, Parasite didn’t start to appear in some multiplexes until after it won the Oscar. Certainly, to begin with it bears a passing resemblance to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, another acclaimed Asian movie which didn’t get a major UK release.

To begin with, we are in the company of the Kim family, a penurious Seoul family reduced to living in a basement and folding disposable pizza boxes to scrape a living. Patriarch of this unprepossessing mob is Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), a moderately successful hammer thrower now gone to seed, his wife Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), and their children Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and Ki-jeong (Park So-dam). The Kims are living so close to the edge that their neighbour putting a password on her wifi constitutes a significant problem for them.

However, this all changes when Ki-woo’s friend Min finds him a job giving English lessons to the daughter of the wealthy Park family – Min has a mind to woo her once he gets back from a trip abroad, and has thus recommended Ki-woo as someone from such a poverty-stricken background can’t possibly be a romantic rival to him. He also gives the Kims a lucky rock, which will supposedly bring them good fortune. ‘Wow, it’s so metaphorical!’ cries a delighted Ki-woo, in one of the script’s many droll touches. Ki-woo duly passes muster with the slightly dippy mother (Cho Yeo-jeong) of the Park family.

What rapidly becomes apparent is that this is the sort of opportunity the Kims have clearly been waiting for for quite some time. With the speed and ferocity of a burrowing maggot, they waste no time in inserting themselves into the Parks’ lovely home: Ki-woo spots that his new employers’ hyperactive younger child likes drawing, and thus introduces Ki-jeong as a potential art therapist for the lad. The sacking of the family servants is ingeniously contrived, creating vacancies that the two senior Kims can fill. Soon the whole family is cheerfully soaking the Parks for whatever they can get, with their hosts blissfully unaware even of the fact they are unwittingly employing four members of the same family. The Kims begin to have dreams of a better life and a better future – because what could possibly go wrong…?

Needless to say, something goes wrong, but the volta that occurs halfway through Parasite is so startling and genuinely unpredictable that one would have to be a real cad to give more than a few hints as to what goes on in the second half of the film. Needless to say, class tensions bubble to the surface, there’s an epically unsuccessful birthday party, the issue of body odour proves unexpectedly significant to the plot and the lucky rock proves to be quite unlucky, for one character at least.

So, this isn’t really a horror movie, but if it is an art-house movie it’s only because of the subtitles (‘the one-inch-tall barrier’, as the director so aptly put it). This is really no more ‘arty’ than a film by Christopher Nolan or Stanley Kubrick, unless by arty you mean made with tremendous imagination and skill. I didn’t see Snowpiercer (someone gave it to me on a hard drive, which then went pop before I could watch it) and my admiration for his giant pig film was qualified at best, but this is a terrific movie.

Obviously, this is a film with things to say about serious and universal themes: the awkward relationship between wealth and power, and class consciousness, most obviously (you could draw a definite thematic parallel between Parasite and The Time Machine, if you really wanted to). Not that the title is without a degree of ambiguity – it’s clear that both families need each other in order to function (so perhaps Symbiosis would be just as apt a title). You could also argue that the film takes the fact that servants and lower-class people often seem to be invisible to the rich and powerful and makes it one of the central metaphors of the movie. There is a lot going on here.

Nevertheless, the denseness of the film’s ideas never get in the way of its entertainment value, or its achievement as a piece of cinema. Almost from the start you are swept along, as the Kims put their plan into motion with a gleeful ruthlessness – they are such an agreeable bunch, and Mrs Park in particular is so useless, that you can’t help but want them to get away with it, even though what they are up to is deeply morally questionable. Towards the end of the film the comedic elements inevitably fall away, however, and the film becomes darker and more complex, but the shift is as impeccably handled as the rest of it.

Parasite has pretty much everything one could hope for from a movie, and it is fully deserving of all its praise and accollades. Hopefully the one-inch-tall barrier will not keep too many people from watching it, for this is a film which balances serious themes with superb storytelling skill and the result is a film which is compellingly watchable from start to finish. Proof that the Academy Awards do sometimes get things right.

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James Bridges’ 1979 film The China Syndrome opens and closes with the garish stripes and strident tone of a TV test screen, which is entirely appropriate given that most of what occurs in between is concerned with the media and its complex relationship with power (both literally and figuratively, in this case). This is a film which is very much of its period, but also one which remains entirely convincing and relevant to the world today. The film is mostly populated by characters either from the news media, or from large industrial concerns, and the conflict at the heart of the story is about just how much people deserve to be told about things which will directly affect them. Caught between the two sides is a decent everyman, played by Jack Lemmon. who realises the nature of the game but is perhaps not entirely capable of playing it.

To begin with we stay with the lead characters, Kimberley (Jane Fonda) and Richard (Michael Douglas); she is the on-screen talent for a roving news team, he is a freelance cameraman. As the film opens Kimberley is doing frivolous filler items, such as pieces on a singing telegram business, but would like to cover more serious news. She gets her chance when they are sent to the Ventana nuclear power plant outside Los Angeles, ostensibly to do a jolly where-your-power-comes-from piece. Everyone at the plant seems welcoming and professional, they are shown all the places security concerns permit – even into the gallery overlooking the main control room, which is thoroughly secure behind armoured doors and soundproof glass. Then there is what feels like a small earthquake. The PR man escorting them assures them it is nothing to be concerned about.

At which point the camera cuts to the room behind the soundproofing, where sirens are blaring, control boards are lighting up in red, and the technicians and shift manager Jack Godell (Lemmon) are desperately trying to keep the nuclear reactor from going out of control – faulty indicators have given a bad reading on the level of coolant in the system and their attempts to rectify the non-existent mistake have come perilously close to exposing the core and causing a catastrophe. They manage to salvage the situation and the reactor is shut down, but they are left badly shaken.

What nobody at the plant has noticed is that Richard has secretly filmed the whole thing, in the reasonable belief that a nuclear near-miss is newsworthy. He and Kimberley take it to their editors, only to find the network coming under severe pressure from the nuclear power industry to bury the story, arguing that the film was made illegally and the incident was not a serious one. Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they; particularly so in this case, as the company is applying for a license to build another nuclear power plant in California and the last thing they need is any kind of bad publicity. Even keeping the plant off-line while the incident is investigated is costing them many millions of dollars every day.

Kimberley is bluntly told she is not an investigative reporter and should stick to the frilly human interest stories she was hired to do; Richard is incensed enough to steal the footage of the incident and show it to experts involved in the public hearings connected to the safety (or not) of the new plant. They are told that, based on the film, the plant came very close to a core meltdown and what is referred to as ‘the China syndrome’: the superheated core melting through the foundations of the plant and burning its way through the centre of the Earth to emerge somewhere in Asia. (This expression is only figurative – the culmination of this kind of accident would likely be the core reaching the water table, resulting in either rivers and lakes being poisoned with radioactivity, or an explosion producing enough radioactive vapour to render large regions of the continent uninhabitable for thousands of years to come.) Meanwhile, Godell has been carrying out his own investigation into the accident, and discovered that the plant’s safety records have been falsified in order to save money. If the plant is brought back on-line and brought up to full power, the same thing could happen again with cataclysmic results…

The element of The China Syndrome which has entered the public consciousness is the nuclear power angle, and rightly so: it does seem that every few years we get an ominous reminder of exactly what the forces are that we’re attempting to harness here, and the price of failure (the Chernobyl disaster came back into the public consciousness recently, and we are nearly a decade on from Fukushima). If the average person understands what the ‘China syndrome’ actually is, then it’s because of this film. The film’s producers, who were accused of slandering an entire industry by the operators of American nuclear plants, would doubtless say they were merely being socially responsible by drawing attention to the dangers involved – the film is not intrinsically anti-nuke, just opposed to these facilities being run by corporations putting profit ahead of any other concerns.

The film came out at the end of the 70s (famously, only a matter of days before the Three Mile Island accident, after which industry complaints about the movie presumably became rather more muted), and the latter stages of the decade did give rise to a whole slew of slightly paranoid thrillers in which, post-Watergate, ‘deep state’ forces and the military-industrial complex are shown to have essentially unchecked power within American society – I’m thinking of films like Executive Action (though this predates Watergate itself), Capricorn One, and so on. What is striking about these films is that they do absolutely function as thrillers – and The China Syndrome is amongst the best of them – while still managing to address serious contemporary concerns. In this case, the film seems rooted in a profound distrust of the profit motive, certainly when it clashes with public safety: the big corporations are not above falsifying records and even attempted murder in order to guarantee their revenue stream. (There is also a secondary but still well-handled subplot about Fonda’s character struggling to be taken seriously as a journalist in a male-dominated environment: understated but still effective, a lot of modern films could learn a lot about how to handle this kind of issue without seeming preachy from older movies like The China Syndrome.)

The whole film is rather admirable for the way it takes care to function firstly as a thriller, with its political subtext left implicit – and, within the drama framework, equal attention is paid to basic but important things like characterisation and dialogue. None of it is over-the-top, all the characters are essentially credible and well-performed to boot – there are good performances from Fonda and Douglas, and a predictably excellent one from Jack Lemmon, particularly in the film’s very well-structured climax. No wonder the film was so acclaimed and successful on its release: it still seems credible and timely today.

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What do you get when you put an IT expert, a rocket scientist, an electrical engineer and an unemployed God-only-knows-what into a darkened room together? Either experimental theatre, or – as was indeed the case on the particular occasion I am thinking of – a night out to the cinema for my gaming group. This, I should make clear, is a fairly unusual occurrence: when we get together, it’s usually to play games, as the fact we are a gaming group might lead one to suspect. Our only previous outings of this nature were to see the two most recent stellar conflict movies, and this was simply because it is our shared love of the stellar conflict franchise (and associated entertainments) that originally brought us together. Needless to say, there was a similar rationale behind our decision to go and see William Eubank’s Underwater.

That said, I knew literally nothing about this movie beyond the title and the fact that it contained one particular story element, and was half-expecting something very low-budget and rough around the edges. It was therefore a fairly pleasant surprise when the opening credits indicated that leading the film would be Kristen Stewart and Vincent Cassel, for these are both classy performers, and Stewart, in particular, has acquired that talent of always being impressively watchable even when the film she’s appearing in is not really up to much.

Underwater is very much part of Stewart’s return to mainstream entertainment. She (still with basically the same haircut as in Seberg) plays Norah Price, an engineer working at a deep-sea drilling installation at some time in the fairly near future. Pretty much the first thing that happens in the movie is that the station suffers a catastrophic breach, killing most of the crew. Stewart survives, obviously, and together with a couple of fellow survivors she makes her way to the command deck where she encounters the captain of the project (Cassel) and a few others. Something has gone horribly wrong – but what, exactly? It’s not at all clear. In any case, survival must come first and Cassel has a plan: all the escape pods in the station itself have gone, but if they descend through the wreckage of the rig to the ocean bed and then trek across it to what’s left of the drillhead, they may yet find the means to return to the surface alive.

This, naturally, involves clumping around in damaged deep-sea suits under pressures that would almost instantly reduce any normal person to mulch (and, this being a horror movie, that indeed happens to someone). But it gets better, by which I mean worse. Hostile and grotesque new forms of marine life have apparently been stirred up and are infesting the area around the station and the drill site. What exactly has the drilling project woken up…?

The first thing one should say about Underwater (not the most imaginative title, but accurate) is that it is a solid genre movie that understands and respects the conventions of the kind of film it clearly is, which is to say it is a horror-SF film. (By this I mean that you can guess more-or-less in which order the cast are going to get killed, you see progressively more of the monsters as the thing goes on, and there are various sequences in which Stewart and the other female cast member, Jessica Henwick, run around in their underwear.) However, this itself almost constitutes a surprise given William Eubank’s CV: he also made (though I had forgotten this) The Signal, an impressive piece of slightly experimental pure SF, stronger on visuals than strict narrative coherence. This film boasts the same kind of solid production values and impressive special effects, but it’s the kind of movie which you can’t imagine had its origins in anything other than the director watching a film they really enjoyed as a teenager and really wanting to do their own version of it.

Even the brief capsule synopsis I have provided is possibly quite indicative of just how derivative Underwater feels: the grimy, industrial aesthetic and some elements of creature design instantly recall Alien; there’s a sequence strongly reminiscent of Gravity; you can point out elements which have been pinched from everything from The Abyss to the 2014 Godzilla to DeepStar Six. New ground is not really being broken here.

Now, obviously I am not suggesting that derivative films are necessarily bad ones; you could possibly argue that genre movies are by definition to some extent derivative. Underwater indicates from the start what kind of film it’s going to be and then proceeds to be that film. It’s a solid, meat and potatoes piece of work: I can easily imagine it making regular appearances in the 9pm slot on the Horror Channel a few years from now, but possibly the only thing it will really be remembered for is the fact it was the very last film put out under the 20th Century Fox marque before Disney renamed the studio (sic transit gloria Mickey).

Well… that said, there is of course still the question of just why this film lured four veteran role-playing gamers out to the late night showing which is the only one this film managed to secure. Here I am a little reluctant to go into much detail, although talking about ‘spoilers’ in this instance may well be pushing it: I’m not so much talking about plot points as a kind of massive in-joke or Easter egg. You’ll either get it or you won’t; my understanding is that it wasn’t in the original script and even the film’s producers weren’t really informed about it. Oh, well: word of the ‘twist’ in Underwater has spread like wildfire through certain sections of the internet so I expect most people who would be interested will already know. Nevertheless, ‘spoilers’ will follow the poster.

This is a horror movie; we are currently playing the world’s best-known and best-loved horror role-playing game, based on the work of H.P. Lovecraft (there is perhaps something slightly ironic about the fact that Kristen Stewart’s famous ex is also appearing in a distinctly Lovecraftian horror movie at the moment). Anyone familiar with Lovecraft’s work will have a very good idea of just why it is a very bad idea to go poking around in the deepest, darkest parts of the Pacific Ocean, and just what it is you are likely to disturb. If you know your HPL you will now have a very good idea of who or what turns up in the third act of Underwater, and I have to say the realisation is pretty good (although everyone probably has their own idea of exactly what Lovecraft’s Dreamer actually looks like). Seeing ol’ squidhead on the big screen is certainly a memorable moment, but on the other hand it isn’t much more than the in-joke or Easter egg I mentioned earlier. I’m a bit of a purist about Lovecraftian horror (couldn’t you guess) and I wouldn’t really call this a Lovecraftian movie per se: the decision to include one of Lovecraft’s monsters was made during post-production, so it’s not like it’s strongly present in the script. Still, maybe if this film does good business, coupled to the decent notices received by Richard Stanley’s adaptation of the Lovecraft story Color Out of Space, there may be more interest in doing this kind of thing properly – maybe even Guillermo del Toro’s long-mooted crack at At the Mountains of Madness. A man can dream (of weird, cyclopean architecture, with hideous, non-Euclidean angles, probably). As it is, this is a decent SF-horror film with a fun and quite cool treat for the initiated.

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One thing which it strikes me as highly remarkable (it may indeed have been highly remarked upon, but I stopped watching the news nearly two months ago) is the fact that the winner of one of the most prestigious Academy Awards this year – indeed, the most nominated film at this year’s ceremony – was a comic book movie made under the DC marque. Given that not all that long ago, any discussion of a DC movie’s popular or critical reception included words like ‘disappointment’ and phrases such as ‘urgent talks are in progress at the company’, the turnaround they have achieved is startling. I still think Joker is an uneasy splicing together of two concepts that don’t really fit very well, but a billion dollars at the box office and considerable awards success speaks for itself.

So, if a Batman movie without Batman has done so well, what next for DC? How about a Joker movie without the Joker actually in it? I am fully aware that this was not the thought process behind the origin of Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey (Or the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) – following the sort-of success of Suicide Squad in 2016, this was the film which was selected as the best option for a follow-up) – but it could almost look that way. Actually, it looks like a number of things, and one of them is DC’s bad old days, returned with a vengeance.

There are two ideas stitched together in the new movie, as well, but at least this time they seem to have something in common. Birds of Prey is a comic book which started in the mid-1990s, and was basically about a group of masked female vigilantes: the main members of the roster were originally Batgirl, Black Canary, and Huntress (don’t worry if you’ve never heard of some of these characters, it’s quite understandable). Notably not a member of the team, on the other hand, was Harley Quinn, a sidekick for the Joker who actually originated in one of the Batman TV shows and was then introduced into the comics. Nevertheless, most of these characters are lumped together in the new movie, because – well, they’re all women, aren’t they? Stands to reason they would go together. (This is the level on which the new movie operates, I fear.)

More-or-less disregarding the events of Suicide Squad, the new movie opens with Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) being dumped (off-camera) by the Joker, which she takes about as well as you would expect from an unhinged, stubbornly wacky homicidal pole dancer. Eventually she gets it together (relatively speaking) and decides to strike out on her own, sending a message by blowing up the chemical plant where both she and her former inamorata had their origins. This has the regrettable side-effect of informing everyone in Gotham City that she is no longer under the Joker’s protection, which makes Quinn a target for a whole army of lowlives and psychopaths, many of whom have very justified grievances against her.

She decides that the best way to save her own skin is to win the protection of a sadistic crime boss known as Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), by locating a diamond of great plot significance he is after. The stone is currently in the possession of a teenage pickpocket named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) – despite having the same name as someone in the comics, this is essentially a new character. Also mixed up in what is a rather chaotic situation are metahuman nightclub singer Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), tough GCPD detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), and vengeful assassin Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winsome). Could these five very diverse women come together and kick the asses of some presumptuous chauvinist men before the final credits roll?

Well, this is a modern movie gunning for a youth audience, so it would qualify as some kind of miracle if they didn’t, I suppose. I expect a calculation has been made that, given the popularity of Robbie and/or the Harley Quinn character, and factoring in also the fact that a comic book film with an ensemble female cast is likely to prove resonant and successful just now, a movie featuring a load of mostly-female, mostly-very-obscure Batman characters is likely to do well at the box office. This may very well turn out to be the case: I just wish the film itself was less of a mess.

I mean, I still think Joker has been rather over-praised in some ways, but the one thing that Birds of Prey (etc) does exceptionally well is make it look like a serious, heavyweight movie with interesting things to say for itself. The new film, on the other hand, is just garish and frantic and almost totally superficial. Watching it did my head in. I could go on at some length about the disjointed plot, laboured humour and awkward performances from uncomfortable-looking stars. But I won’t.

Instead, I would like to focus on just one moment from the film (and it’s my blog, after all, so I can do whatever I like). This comes quite early on and features Harley Quinn playfully (and graphically) breaking both the legs of another character, because she is drunk and he does something that annoys her. The makers of the film might argue that this sets up a vital plot point (I don’t see it myself), or, more likely, that the victim of the leg-breaking is a bad person who deserves whatever they get. I think this rather misses the point that it still leaves you with a protagonist for this movie prone to brutal, sadistic violence on a whim: the movie even openly admits that its main character is a really terrible person. She’s also really, really irritating: I have no idea whether or not Robbie deserves actual credit for managing to produce such a gratingly irksome performance: my instinct is to say a firm ‘no’.

The other consequence of the leg-breaking (this moment is just emblematic of the amorality which much of Birds of Prey (etc) so enthusiastically embraces) is that it cuts the film’s own legs out from under it when it attempts to be more than just a lurid cartoon. You want us to empathise and identify with Harley Quinn in her moments of despair? No chance, she’s a leg-breaking psycho. You want us to listen while you make some kind of point about gender politics? No way – not only is your point really facile (given the chance, women can shoot men in the head! Yay!), but you seem to think it’s cool and funny to go around breaking people’s legs. What makes you think you have any kind of moral authority worth mentioning?

I could go on and on about the sadistic violence and awkward political positioning which suffuse the movie, but I think I’ve communicated my concerns. In the film’s favour I will admit that it does rattle along pacily enough, and that some of the action choreography is pretty good in a sub-John Wick sort of way. But honestly, the most alarming thing about Birds of Prey (etc) is that it made me think back quite fondly to some of the films DC put out when it was normally Zack Snyder in the director’s chair. This one undoes many months of hard work, and we can only hope it proves to be a blip on DC’s general upward trajectory.

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