Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

We’re going to get a bit spoilery later on. I just thought I would mention that now, so you can brace yourself – or, even, if you prefer, stop reading and absent yourself now. That’s fine by me. (I’m trying to think of a non-spoilery review to recommend to you, but there’s 1500 or so of them on the site, so have a dig about for yourself.) With that out of the way, we can now turn our attention to very important other cinematic matters.

To wit: did Shia get sacked or did he walk? What went on between Liv and Jason? Is it anything to do with Liv and Harry getting together? Is that why Flo got so annoyed with Liv? Is Flo really so busy doing the Dune sequel she couldn’t do all the usual publicity on this one? And did Harry really spit on Chris during the press tour?

Yes, it’s the strange world of the gossip swirling around Olivia Wilde’s new movie Don’t Worry Darling, which I would anticipate has been causing Wilde a great deal of exasperation in recent weeks. I mean, everybody wants their new film to have a bit of buzz and interest around it when it’s released, of course, but I suspect they would rather this was on account of its script or acting or cinematography, not who was knocking off whom behind the scenes, or indeed whether or not the leading actors were spitting at each other during the junket.

For sensible and cultured people who have missed all this nonsense (well done, by the way) – the condensed version goes like this: Shia LaBeouf was supposed to be in the movie, but ultimately wasn’t, and there is some disagreement over whether he was sacked for being difficult to work with or decided to quit of his own accord, possibly because he didn’t get on with co-star Florence Pugh. Wilde herself apparently split up with her long-term partner Jason Sudeikis while making the movie, and promptly launched into a new entanglement with Harry Styles. This apparently annoyed Pugh, which led to some shouting (if you believe all the gossip, anyway), and Pugh limiting her participation in the publicity tour. Any slack in this department was of course taken up by Styles, who heroically drew the media’s attention by appearing to spit on Chris Pine at the premiere.

(What is it with Chris Pine and these weird publicity angles, anyway? I can’t help but remember the release of Outlaw King – another project in which he co-starred with Pugh – which was dominated by what I can only describe as Winkygate.)

Anyway, we have wallowed in this scuttlebutt for long enough, so let’s drag our attention away and think about the actual film itself for a bit. Pugh plays Alice, the wife of Jack (Styles), an engineer working on something called the Victory Project, a hush-hush top-secret undertaking run by the enigmatic-but-charismatic Frank (Pine). The Project dominates the local town and gives all the men there employment; the wives have no idea what they do all day, but are certain of their own role – which is to cook, clean, nurture, and generally do everything possible to support the menfolk, looking fabulous all the time as they do so.

Needless to say, this domestic idyll does not endure: one of the other wives begins acting extremely strangely, and Alice begins to have what seem to be hallucinations, resulting in her breaking the main rule of the Project – that none of the wives ever go near its base of operations. Is Frank really the benevolent visionary he presents himself as, or is some dark secret lurking beneath the placid veneer of Victory?

Well, duh, of course there’s a dark secret lurking beneath the placid veneer of Victory, and one of the problems with Don’t Worry Darling is that this is blatantly obvious from the very beginning of the film. (Spoiler incoming; very soon indeed now.) I went to a midweek matinee of this movie and about twenty minutes in one of the people sitting a couple of seats away from me leaned over to her companion and audibly whispered ‘This is a complete Stepford Wives rip-off’, which was notable basically because I was having virtually the same thought myself.

Now, before we go any further I should say there do seem to me to be various commendable things about Don’t Worry Darling – the cinematography is beautiful, the same goes for the production design, and there are very impressive performances from Pugh and Wilde. Even Chris Pine is not too bad. There is also something very interesting and original going on with the sound design and the soundtrack. It may be that if you are not already familiar with that movie which I have thoughtfully not hyperlinked the title of, you may find Don’t Worry Darling to be a surprising and effective horror-SF-thriller movie.

But for me it did just feel very much like an uncredited rip-off or remake, and a not particularly adroit one. The thing about Bryan Forbes’ film is way in which there is a genuine sense of a mystery unfolding around the characters, and an accompanying slow rise in tension as they get closer to the truth and find themselves in more and more peril. Here, however, there’s just a succession of weird things happening and Pugh gradually getting more and more unravelled. It just gets more exasperating as it goes on. (You may note that I have not made any reference so far to Harry Styles’ accent, or possibly accents – well, it turns out that there is an in-movie reason why his vocal delivery possibly tours many different regions of the world, so I am inclined to give him a pass on that. It’s still not a great performance, but the film honestly does have bigger problems.)

In the end the film just turns out to be riffing on a rather familiar theme of misogyny and male possessiveness – which is not in and of itself necessarily wrong, but there have been so many films built around this kind of idea that it’s almost become a cliche. It doesn’t explore or upturn the notion as neatly as a film like Last Night in Soho did, coming across instead as heavy-handed and earnest.

Normally I will turn up to anything with Florence Pugh in it and have a pretty good time, but this is not one of her most distinguished vehicles – she’s played similar roles in other, better films before. If nothing else she proves, as if it were required, her genuine star quality, by being the best thing in a pretty bad film. This is a very good-looking film, but it takes an age to go anywhere, and when it eventually arrives it isn’t in a place which is new or interesting. Given how good Wilde’s first film Booksmart was, this is a substantial disappointment.

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John Sherwood’s 1956 film The Creature Walks Among Us doesn’t get off to a very promising start, as we meet insanely wealthy, and likely just insane doctor William Barton (Jeff Morrow) and his wife Marcia (Marilyn lookalike Leigh Snowden), whom you just know is going to turn out to be trouble. They are driving to his boat, berthed in Florida, where a gaggle of interdisciplinary boffins have been assembled for a very special, and somewhat nutty mission: they are going to hunt down and capture the gill-man, still on the run (if that’s the right expression – possibly ‘on the splosh’ would be better) despite being shot at the end of Revenge of the Creature. It’s all a bit flat and on the nose.

Sherwood worked on the two previous gill-man films as assistant director, but you really do miss the presence of Jack Arnold, who had been promoted to more prestigious projects by this point (it is, perhaps, significant that none of these ‘prestigious’ movies has anything like the reputation of his SF and horror work). You can’t help thinking that he would have found a way to lift the film out of the rather pedestrian furrow it pursues, for most of its first half at least. We get to know various scientists on the team, most of whom are quite dull, learn that the relationship between the Bartons is strained on account of his jealous nature, get suggestions that one of the team may have designs on Marcia, and so on.

Finally, and we must be about half-way through the film’s allotted 77 minutes at this point – the pacing is really shocking – the hunt for the gill-man bears fruit as the boffins contend with the creature in the Florida swamps. Someone chucks kerosene over the gill-man and it does seem to be a combination of third-degree burns and chemical tranquiliser which overcomes the proud but ornery beastie. As usual, he is dragged off to be examined, poked, and prodded.

The Creature Walks Among Us probably isn’t quite as good even as its immediate forebear, but it does have one curious idea to offer, which enters the narrative at this point. The gill-man’s, er, gills have been badly damaged when he was set on fire, but a medical examination reveals he does have lungs as well, he just needs encouragement to use them. And so, using the kind of complex scientific procedure known only to mad boffins in 50s SF B-movies, the gill-man is surgically converted from an aquatic denizen of the deep to a land animal. As a result of this, the creature’s whole physiognomy begins to change, losing much of his fish-like appearance and becoming rather more human. He also seems to have been put on a strict diet of those protein shakes gym bunnies live on, as he bulks up like you wouldn’t believe – the original incarnation of the creature had a rather sinous, sinewy appearance, whereas this mutated version is just a hulking tank of a monster. The scientists decide that the now more human creature will need clothes, so he spends the second half of the film wandering around in what look rather like medical scrubs.

Quite what the thinking was behind this transformation in the monster, I really don’t know – it doesn’t really have a material impact on the plot of the film. Perhaps the original gill-man suit was falling to bits after two movies, and the revised costume was cheaper to fabricate. What it does make for is an evem greater sense of the gill-man as a victim of human cruelty and callousness – never mind being stuck in a tank and then poked with a cattle-prod, in this film the poor old gill-man even loses his gills! What is a gill-man without his gills, I ask you? Perhaps he’s just a man. Perhaps that is the point after all.

Certainly the more humanised creature is a rather more subdued and less violent individual than he used to be, and much less prone to forming ill-judged romantic attachments to inappropriate partners. (Perhaps more than his gills got surgically taken off.) In this movie, the humans are quite capable of handling all that sort of thing for themselves, as Barton and Marcia continue to drive each other crazy and Jed the boatman (Gregg Palmer) continues to press his adulterous suit with her. It’s all a bit like something out of a melodramatic potboiler, only with a seven-foot-tall guy in a rubber mask in the mix somewhere, and you know it’s going to end badly for quite a few of the people caught up in it.

That’s the other slightly odd thing about The Creature Walks Among Us – in the first two film, the gill-man was the main menace and driver of the plot, mainly due to (as noted) his habit of fixating on the leading lady. Not only is he much more sympathetic in this film than even the previous one, but he isn’t even the main villain – that role goes to Barton. The gill-man’s role in the climax is a retributive one, as an agent of some kind of natural justice – he’s not really a menace, he’s the one who ensures the villain gets what he deserves. (And yet the film still ends on a sombre, ambiguous note, with the gill-man shambling towards an ocean where he can no longer survive, perhaps choosing death over the cruelty and unfairness of human civilisation.)

I’m probably making this film sound much, much better than is actually the case, because as an actual piece of film-making it’s fairly shoddy stuff, not even lifted much by the presence of competent performers like Morrow and Rex Reason (the two of them also appeared together in Jack Arnold’s classic flying saucer extravaganza This Island Earth). As noted, the pacing is rotten, the budget is clearly very low, and Sherwood just doesn’t have Arnold’s way with the camera. But it does have a couple of mildly interesting ideas to its credit, and one thing about the gill-man trilogy I’ve never seen much commented on is the fact that it really does feel like it has a kind of unity of conception – the three films are all about human beings screwing around with nature in general, and the gill-man in particular. He steadily becomes less of a monster and more of a victim as the three films continue – this is possibly the weirdest and least expected bit of sustained character development in the whole of Hollywood cinema. Or perhaps I’m just clutching at straws. In any case, there are just enough interesting ideas here to make the film worth watching – at least, if you enjoyed Creature from the Black Lagoon and Revenge of the Creature, you’ll probably won’t regret watching this one, either.

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Matters of Succession

The very first thing you notice about Aftermath, first episode of Blake’s 7‘s third season, is that Things Have Changed: gone is the old title sequence featuring the domed city and the security camera and Blake being tortured. Apart from his name in the title, Blake has been thoroughly expunged from the opening credits. He’s nearly as absent from the episode itself – but then one of the things that Blake’s 7 is famous for is having the brass neck to continue as a series even after the main, or at least title, character left. (Gareth Thomas went off to the RSC.)

Given how the previous series ended, the new one kicks off with things in a severe state of flux – though some things never change, including the series’ low budget: the savage battles of the Intergalactic War (which has been fought between series) are represented by generous use of old footage from the previous season (it looks like we see Space City being blown up at least twice). The Liberator has taken a right pounding in the fighting and is on the verge of losing life support – so everyone hustles down to the escape pods, the teleport being out of action.

(I’m going to be really picky and suggest that the episode appears to indicate that the ship only has one escape pod bay, which is the one that Avon, Vila and Cally use to get off it. So what happens to Blake and Jenna? Jenna has ‘gone with Blake’, who apparently ‘didn’t want to leave’ – which to me sounds like they’ve already got off the ship by some other method. That said, they seem to end up in different places – later on, Zen manages to locate Jenna but can’t get a fix on Blake, even though he’s obligingly been in touch. It is a bit mysterious, isn’t it, but I suppose this sort of narrative creaking is inevitable when you’re writing out a couple of major characters like this.)

Anyway, Avon and Orac bail out of the ship and end up on the planet Sarran, (possibly) also known as… Dunes, mainly because that’s what most of the landscape seems to be. (Location filming was apparently in Northumbria, which looks very windswept and photogenic here.) Sarran is home to another of those regressive cultures the members of which mainly enjoy hacking visitors to death. It would only really make sense for Sarran to be some obscure backwater well off the main space lanes, but – luckily for the more bloodthirsty locals – on this particular day, offworlders seem to be falling out of the sky like raindrops: Avon crashlands here, so do a couple of Federation soldiers (one played by Richard Franklin, the mildly controversial Dr Who supporting regular), and so does Servalan, who was on her way to the front. What are the chances of that happening, let alone of Avon and Servalan bumping into one another almost at once?

You just have to go with it, I’m afraid: it’s a massive and rather ridiculous coincidence, but the script this week is all about establishing the relationship between Avon and Servalan (they’ve shared scenes before, but never really spoken), so they have to meet. Almost at once it becomes clear that the show has a whole different energy now Avon and Servalan are now unquestionably the leads – Blake and Travis were both comfortingly stolid and rather predictable representatives of liberty and tyranny, but now the series is about amoral psychopaths flirting wittily with each other and it’s really very thrilling to watch. Even Avon expresses regret that he and Servalan have always been in opposition to each other; she makes clear her admiration for him in return – ‘You’d sell out anybody, wouldn’t you?’ ‘I don’t know, I never really had an offer I thought was worthy of me,’ Avon replies modestly. Needless to say, the prospect of a hook-up floats in the air but ultimately seems unlikely: ‘I’d be dead in a week,’ is Avon’s prognosis.

The backdrop to all this is basically a bit more narrative carpentry, as Avon and Servalan both enjoy the hospitality of Hal Mellanby (Cy Grant), probably the funkiest-looking dissident in the galaxy (he’s almost like a disco version of Forest Whitaker’s character from Star Wars). Mellanby is a fairly interesting character, but he and his adopted daughter are only here to get fridged, thus providing his natural daughter Dayna (Josette Simon – Floella Benjamin also auditioned) with a reason to hang around with Avon and the others. We should remember that Dayna is the first major character to be introduced since midway through the first season, but Terry Nation does his usual efficient job of sketching in the character – exuberant warrior woman, more than enough to be going on with.

Servalan is pretty much unchanged – she was so corrupt to begin with that becoming President of the Federation is unlikely to have had much effect on her – but there is something interesting going on with Avon, whose first episode this is as the lead character of the series. Paul Darrow recalled suggestions that Avon should become a bit more moralistic now he was effectively the hero of the series, which he resisted as much as he could, but there are still signs of this here and there – he stops Dayna from killing defeated Sarrans out of hand, and stipulates that Zen should rescue Vila and Cally ahead of him, should they get in touch. Darrow’s performance makes it clear that, no matter what else may have changed, Avon is still really the same loveable killer we have came to know over the previous two seasons.

And there is a suggestion that the playing field has changed in a significant way: the Andromedan blobs may have been repelled, but at the cost of most of the Federation space fleet going up like fireworks and the destruction of Star One – Avon reflects that, in the end, Blake got what he wanted, winning both wars, and that the Federation is facing an existential crisis – ‘It’s difficult to sustain a military dictatorship when you’ve lost most of the military.’ If there’s a theme to this episode, it’s that the reassuring certainties that underpinned the first couple of seasons – the unambiguous presences of Blake, Travis, the Federation itself – have all been shot away, leaving a more chaotic, ambiguous universe where the likes of Avon and Servalan are more likely to prosper. Whether the third season really follows through on this notion is something it will be interesting to see.

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These days, doing a series of sequels is so often part of the game plan when a movie is made that the key personnel are frequently signed up on multi-film contracts right from the outset. Sequels weren’t always so respectable, nor profitable, and so it’s rare to find all the major cast members coming back in older films of this type. Sometimes, the reappearance of even a relatively minor cast member can feel like a pleasant surprise.

So it is when Nestor Paiva reappears as Lucas the boat captain in Jack Arnold’s 1955 movie Revenge of the Creature, reprising his performance from the same director’s Creature from the Black Lagoon. Paiva’s the only speaking character to come back (Ricou Browning is still in the monster suit for the underwater sequences), but it’s still a welcome touch of continuity when he does. Following all the shenanigans of the original film, word has got out of the existence of the prehistoric gill-man, supposedly a missing link between terrestrial and marine life (though Lucas declares it to be nothing less than a being of demonic power, stronger even than evolution itself!). Ocean Harbour, a water park in Florida, has hired fish-wrangler Joe Hayes (John Bromfield) to bring it back alive for study and display. With admirable briskness he does just this, even though it involves the customary bout of wrestling with the gill-man and the use of what I believe is sometimes known as dynamite fishing. The gill-man is dragged back to civilisation (Black Lagoon, we hardly knew ye) and installed in a tank, manacled to the bottom.

It turns out that Joe Hayes is not in fact the hero of the movie, for this honour goes to animal psychologist Clete Ferguson (John Agar, something of a fixture of Jack Arnold’s SF films). Clete decides to head on down to Florida and check the gill-man out, but not before the moment for which Revenge of the Creature is probably best known and perhaps most notable. One of Clete’s lab assistants gets a theoretically amusing bit about some of the experimental rats: the actual gag is pretty lousy, our interest stems from the fact that the assistant is played by Clint Eastwood, making his big-screen debut. Well, you gotta start somewhere, I suppose: there’s not much here to suggest that Clint would go on to become one of the most popular and acclaimed film-makers of the late 20th century, but there’s only so much you can do with a duff gag about rats and a lab coat. (For his next movie with Agar and Arnold, Clint was promoted to jet pilot, playing the guy who bombs the monster at the end of Tarantula!.)

Anyway, Clete arrives in Ocean Harbour where he quickly becomes fascinated by the gill-man, and very nearly as interested in glamorous icthyology student Helen Dobson (Lori Nelson) – who, to be fair, is extremely pretty and meets the ‘must look good in a bathing suit’ requirement of this kind of film with flying colours. While Clete and Helen are supposedly studying the gill-man, what they actually seem to be doing more closely resembles a rather cruel training regime, heavily dependent on the use of what looks like an underwater cattle-prod (I’m sure there must be health and safety issues with that). Poor old gill-man clearly hasn’t figured out that these surface girls are nothing but trouble and that age-gap relationships never work (especially when the gap in question is between the Devonian Age and the Anthropocene), and falls hard for the lovely Helen. Eventually he busts out, jumps in the sea, mysteriously doesn’t die from osmotic shock, and starts causing all sorts of trouble.

The film’s been a bit of a mixed bag so far, but at this point it takes a definite turn in the direction of Jaws – The Revenge. Clete and Helen decide to take their minds off things by going on a bit of a holiday together (it’s all outwardly very respectable so as not to outrage the censor, but they’re clearly going to be at it like rabbits), and check into a motel on the edge of the Everglades. What a very extraordinary coincidence it is that it is next to this very establishment that the gill-man should clamber out of the swamp and come sniffing around. Clete and Helen try to get on with their holiday, but the finny stalker just won’t quit, and there is bound to be trouble before the film reaches the end of its 82 minute running time…

Even post-Shape of Water, it’s hardly as if Creature from the Black Lagoon is an unequivocally acclaimed movie, so it’s hardly surprising that its sequels have an equally schlocky reputation. This is no great injustice, however, as Revenge of the Creature (I think the working title Return of the Creature from the Black Lagoon has a better ring to it, but it is fairly on-the-nose) is not some great overlooked classic, either as sci-fi or as a monster movie. It starts off sort of acceptably okay and then quickly becomes quite variable – the middle section, in which the gill-man is chained up in his tank while Clete and Helen blandly romance each other in between bouts of shock therapy, goes on for a long time without very much happening, while the final section is just a bit silly, and saddled with an ending which is abrupt and unsatisfactory – you can almost see the film-makers hitting the 82-minute point and then calling it a day.

Taking the creature from the Black Lagoon out of the Black Lagoon was probably a necessary step for the sequel, but it does rob the film of something of the original’s atmosphere. I can see there’s something to the school of thought that the first film is, on some level, an eco-fable about the destruction of the environment, but that doesn’t seem to have carried over as such – what is interesting, though, is that there seems to have been a deliberate attempt to make the gill-man more sympathetic this time around. He is blown up, dragged off to civilisation in a coma, chained to the bottom of a tank, repeatedly electrocuted, and so on – if only he didn’t have these wildly over-optimistic designs on pretty girls in bathing suits, the audience would probably be rooting for him.

As it is, the film is just too silly to really get that involved with. The script and setting aren’t as interesting as in the first one, but in every other respect, while it’s a step down, it’s no more an outright disaster than Creature from the Black Lagoon. It doesn’t do anything particularly interesting or original with the gill-man, but it’s sort of mildly diverting – no more than that, though.

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I have a certain grammatical inclination – I’d say it was an interest but it’s really more of a complex – and it struck me just the other day that there are lots of films with titles that are just made up of nouns, and quite a few with titles where the only thing you’ll find are verbs. Apart from the occasional quirky exception, though, these tend to be films with reasonably short titles. With a longer title, you’re really heading into the realm of the sentence, with all the associated baggage that comes with that – articles, conjunctions, maybe even punctuation. And prepositions, of course – if you want to do a movie with a long name, you’re probably looking at most of these things.

And so the first thing that struck me about Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song, is just how unwieldy a title that is (I’ll be referring to it simply as Hallelujah from this point on, hope that’s okay). I mean, it kind of does the job of telling you what the movie is about, but does it trip off the tongue? I put it to you that it does not.

Still, being clumsily on-the-nose is a bit like underestimating the intelligence of the average viewer, it’s not a brilliant thing to do but it’s not going to cost you money, either – the last documentary about Leonard Cohen went for a much more oblique title, to the point where it wasn’t immediately clear who and what it was about. It’s a hard life in the documentary business sometimes, especially as people seem to be running out of things to make films about – this is the second Cohen documentary in three years, while 2022 has also seen two films about the same pair of married French vulcanologists. (The Amazing Johnathan Documentary from a few years back kind of addressed this issue, also obliquely. (I think we’re going to be using the word ‘oblique’ a lot today.))

So this Leonard Cohen guy must be pretty famous if everyone keeps making documentaries about him! Constant reader, I take nothing for granted – I’m sure you’re extremely well versed (and indeed chorused) in everything from Death of a Ladies Man to You Want It Darker, but there may be people happening by here who aren’t, so: Leonard Cohen, scion of a wealthy Canadian family, first rose to fame in the sixties as a novelist, poet, and eventually singer, and probably one of the most unlikely people ever to become a massive influence on pop music.

This film’s way of carving out a niche in the somewhat crowded Leonard Cohenomentary market (there have been many, some dating back to the mid sixties – also an appearance in Miami Vice as a French crime lord, which I bet you didn’t know about, but on the other hand Bruce Forsyth was once in an episode of Magnum and no-one ever mentions that, either) is to present itself more as a kind of biography of one of Cohen’s songs, for which a certain amount of biographical detail on the singer himself is required. Which song? Well, as you will know if you’ve been paying attention, it’s Hallelujah, the inescapable blues-gospel-spiritual-rock song which has become as much of a standard as any other of the last forty years.

To be honest, Cohen is such an interesting figure – erudite, thoughtful, charismatic, witty – that this particular bit of framing probably wasn’t necessary, and the story of the first twenty years or so of his music career (pre-Hallelujah) is engaging in its own right, touching on classic themes of struggles against adversity and to retain artistic integrity. Is there a sense in which you are waiting for the moment where Cohen sits down and thinks, ‘You know what, it’d be a good idea to write a song about…’? Well, maybe, but only very mildly.

You will have noted that I just skipped over the whole question of what Hallelujah is actually about: so does the film, and key contributor John Lissauer (who arranged the original version of the song) reveals he never asked Cohen this question either. You’d expect it to be about something, given it took Cohen seven years to write it, producing somewhere in the region of 160 verses in the process – but perhaps the obliqueness of the song, the ambiguity of it and the contradiction it embodies (it’s a very downbeat song to be named after what’s traditionally a cry of joy) are partly why it has acquired such a status in modern culture – you can project anything onto the song, interpret it however you like, deploy it in any situation, and it will always somehow feel appropriate.

Once Cohen has finally written and recorded the song, the singer himself yields the focus of the film to his creation for a while, as it considers its long, inexorable rise, mainly due to it being covered by other people – Bob Dylan, John Cale, and especially Jeff Buckley (who may owe his particular influence – many people still think it’s a Jeff Buckley song – to the fact his was the first version in general circulation by someone who could sing in the conventional sense of the word). Then came the unlikely springboard presented by the song’s presence on the soundtrack of the first Shrek movie, endless versions done by TV talent show hopefuls, and so on.

This, as you have probably guessed, is not a movie for anyone who doesn’t like Hallelujah. Even if you’re only mildly ambivalent about it, this may not be the movie for you, as watching it will involve listening to about forty different performances of just this one song (not all in full, but even so). There are obviously many different Cohen renditions, of the original Old Testament version, the later ‘secular’ version, and finally a kind of ‘fusion’ version, but also covers by John Cale, Bob Dylan, Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, Brandi Carlile, people off The X Factor, someone singing it to her husband at their wedding (yes, this is a bit of an ‘eep’ moment), and so on.

(One striking omission (from the film as released, anyway) is the version done by Kate McKinnon, in character as Hillary Clinton, on the first Saturday Night Live after the 2016 election. Close scrutiny of the credits reveals that both McKinnon and the SNL writers are thanked for their participation, so I guess they either ended up on the cutting room floor, or – hopefully – as a DVD extra.)

The structure of the film is helped by the fact that Cohen himself essentially dropped out of sight for six years in the 1990s, just as the song was becoming known, spending the time in a Zen monastery in California (I’m tempted to add ‘as you do’). The image of him finally returning to society, suitcase in hand, only to discover one of his songs has become so ubiquitous in his absence, is an almost irresistible one, but not much dwelt on by the movie – the directors seem more interested in the fact that Cohen was forced to go back out on tour after his business manager ran away with all his money (I think this may be the kind of thing that happens if you spend six years in a Zen monastery, to be honest). Still, the film ends with the singer at peace, or at least as close to it as someone like Leonard Cohen ever gets, and presumably living very well off the royalties of a song which is so widely beloved.

Do you have to be particularly interested in Leonard Cohen or this song to enjoy the documentary? I don’t think so – though that would certainly not hurt. It’s a curious tale of slow-burning triumph, both for the song and its creator – there aren’t really any formal innovations or oddities here, just a straightforward telling of the story. But it’s a good enough story and much more than a good enough song to be a very engaging and satisfying watch.

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I’ve been rather negative about the second season of Blake’s 7, particularly the second half – there are a lot of dud episodes, and, of the two ongoing storylines, the search for Star One is pretty lightweight (and prone to being switched off), while the travails of Travis don’t actually make sense and seem to be being made up as the season goes along. I should probably come clean and admit that my recollection of the season is that it was an improvement on the first – and while it’s true that the best episodes (Shadow and Pressure Point, for example) are better, even at his most stolid Terry Nation never wrote anything as bad as Hostage or Voice from the Past.

I get the impression that some of this may be the result of behind-the-scenes turbulence, anyway: the story goes that after suffering badly from writer’s block during the latter stages of the first season, Nation, though contracted to write a two-part season finale, found he had completely run out of ideas (well, perhaps he had one rather startling idea, but we’ll come to this in a bit). As a result the two-parter was scrapped and replaced by The Keeper and Star One, another Chris Boucher script.

Star One doesn’t get off to the best of starts, as it opens with a lengthy model sequence – some of the model work in this episode is quite effective, but some of it definitely isn’t. Two spacecraft collide in orbit over a Federation colony, resulting in a catastrophe. It’s all the result of computer control failure, apparently – at least, this is what Servalan’s advisors are telling her. Similar disasters are occurring all over the Federation, all due to computer breakdowns. The only common factor is the involvement of the Federation computer network – and the conclusion the boffins have drawn is that something has gone horribly wrong with Star One, the central computer hub.

Servalan’s job in this episode is basically to help with the exposition and raise the stakes, but Jacqueline Pearce manages to find interesting things to do with it anyway. Possibly as a result, Boucher throws her a bone – with the Federation apparently under attack and the politicians proving their usual feckless selves, Servalan decides to get rid of them and seize power for herself (finally). It’s a logical and potentially interesting development, but it’s a bit throwaway here.

Meanwhile, Blake and the others are finally closing in on Star One, which is on an icy planet orbiting a pale star, far out beyond the galactic rim (the model shots suggesting this are the best in the episode). They still haven’t reached an agreement on what to actually do once they find it: Blake wants to destroy it, breaking the power of the Federation, even though this will result in chaos and cost untold lives (Cally in particular has issues with this). Avon still seems to think that taking control of the Federation would be more sensible, but also understands that Blake will never accept this. And he’s fine with that: ‘As far as I am concerned you can destroy whatever you like. You can stir up a thousand revolutions, you can wade in blood up to your armpits. Oh, and you can lead the rabble to victory, whatever that might mean. Just so long as there is an end to it. When Star One is gone it is finished, Blake. And I want it finished. I want it over and done with.’ There is a genuine drama and tension to these scenes between the crew which only seems to be there when Boucher is writing the scripts – it almost feels like a different programme to the last few weeks. It’s also quite clear that everyone involved knew that they would be going forward into series three without Gareth Thomas as Blake – Avon gets lots of good lines and important things to do as the story proceeds.

However, not all is well down on Star One – Lurena, one of the small team of technicians who has effectively been exiled there to maintain the systems (if literally no-one is supposed to know where the place is, who’s going to do the maintenance once this lot die off?), has noticed her colleagues are acting strangely and sabotaging some of the systems, even though their conditioning is supposed to make this impossible. She ends up having to hide from them after they decide to get rid of her.

Blake, Cally and Avon beam down and it quickly becomes apparent that Star One has fallen into enemy hands. Isn’t this good news for our heroes? (The enemy of my enemy, and all that.) Well, maybe not – Avon has already noticed that out beyond Star One, in the intergalactic gulf, is an enormous anti-matter minefield, clearly intended to defend the Milky Way against incursions from the galaxy of Andromeda. The Andromedans have already taken on human form (they are naturally a bit blobby, it would seem) and replaced most of the Star One techs. They are planning to shut down the minefield and bring in their invasion fleet (I have to wonder about the extent to which this storyline resembles one from Deep Space Nine, twenty years later).

One of the main Fun Facts about Star One in general circulation concerns Terry Nation’s original idea about the identity of the aliens wanting to invade the galaxy and, ahem, exterminate all humans. Have I given you a clue? Yes, never averse to a bit of cross-promotion, Nation’s first choice for the extra-galactic threat was the Daleks, but Maloney and Boucher apparently squashed the idea as soon as it was suggested. You can see why, but it’s still an intriguing idea and you can kind of imagine it working, despite the headaches it would cause continuity cops. (Other Blake’s 7 characters – including, it is implied, Avon himself – ended up appearing in some of the more obscure Dr Who spin-offs, many years later.)

But anyway, we’re left with the blobs, and their not-very-impressive battle fleet. The Andromedans have teamed up with Travis, who duly arrives to switch off the minefield and seal the fate of the human race. Travis also gets to (finally) shoot Blake, though he makes a predictable hash of it – our hero survives, mainly because Travis doesn’t bother to check he’s dead. From zealously loyal Federation officer to willing participant in a conspiracy to destroy human civilisation – it’s been an interesting character arc for Travis, and a potentially great one – but, as we have noted, the scripts just haven’t been up to scratch.

As it is, Avon kills Travis, the Andromedan infiltrators are all shot or blown up, and everyone returns to the ship – but the minefield has been partially disabled, creating a gap the blobs can use to invade. It’s Casual Blake’s 7 Irony time again, as the crew find themselves thrust into the role of defenders of the Federation, with Avon commanding the Liberator in an attempt to hold them off until the Federation battle fleets can arrive. Why is he doing this? Apparently he gave his word to Blake: what almost gets lost in all this is the fact that Avon and Blake, who seemed barely able to tolerate each other’s presence at the start of the episode, conclude it with a demonstration of loyalty: ‘For what it’s worth, I have always trusted you, from the very beginning,’ says Blake, famously.

It’s a strong and impactful conclusion to the series, with big changes to the status quo clearly in prospect – and a genuinely suspenseful cliffhanger, with the Intergalactic War on the verge of breaking out. It’s only when you actually sit down and reflect that it becomes apparent that this episode is rather frantic and riddled with plot-holes and convenient story developments. If there’s a minefield keeping them out, how did the blobs infiltrate Star One or get in touch with Travis? What exactly is his end of the bargain? It seems unlikely that the Andromedans need him to tell them where Star One is, given it’s literally the first place you come across when you arrive in the Milky Way from their home galaxy. Why haven’t they killed Lurena along with all the other techs? Why is Lurena’s file photo apparently current given she’s supposedly been in exile at the edge of the galaxy for years? Once you actually sit down and engage your brain there are many elements of Star One which don’t actually make sense, but for once this isn’t enough to ruin the episode – it has a tremendous pace and sense of significance, and Boucher writes great scenes for all the characters. It just about gets away with it – it’s very flawed, but also undeniably watchable. Which is a fair verdict for the whole of the second season, to be honest.

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Given the popularity of so-called Scandi noir, with all the darkness and moral ambiguity implicit in the notion, it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that the past year has seen something of a bumper crop of horror movies from the Nordic countries – the weird livestock-based psycho-drama Lamb, the profoundly disturbing ‘what I did on my summer holidays’ movie The Innocents, and now Hanna Bergholm’s Hatching. In some ways this is more of a conventional horror film than either of those, but there’s always something to be said for the classic style.

Hatching is centred on the members of an affluent family living somewhere in Finland (though there is nothing intrinsically Finnish about the story). The father is amiable but clueless, while Mother (Sophia Heikkila) rules the roost, demanding nothing but domestic perfection from everyone else, mainly because this is best for the video-blog which seems to be her main concern in life – we see a few glimpses of this cringe-making project, which is entitled Lovely Everyday Life. In the case of her daughter Tinja (Siiri Solalinna) this extends to constant and gruelling gymnastics training, to which she submits without complaint.

One day the domestic idyll is disrupted when a bird flies into the house – the distressed creature swoops around, flapping and cawing, breaking plates and generally wreaking havoc amongst Mother’s carefully-managed decor. Tinja manages to catch the frightened bird – only for Mother to snap its neck, seemingly out of simple spite. Mother has a thinly-disguised ruthless and manipulative streak, as quickly becomes apparent – when Tinja walks in on her cavorting with the handyman (Reino Nordin), she quickly manages to make her daughter complicit in her infidelity.

It’s a lot for a young girl to deal with, and Tinja has more to contend with than this, anyway – racked with guilt over the death of the bird, she has brought what initially seems to be one of its eggs into the house and is secretly trying to incubate it. This at least seems to go well, for the egg grows to an enormous size – before cracking open and disgorging…

Well, thereby hangs the tale, of course. The hatchling is a remarkable creation, a fusion of CGI and the puppeteer’s art – a rather disquieting bird-thing and yet not entirely without the capacity to evoke sympathy. Perhaps even more disturbingly, there is clearly a profound bond between Tinja and the creature, which she names Alla. For her part, Alla seems very prone to becoming outraged on Tinja’s behalf, even violently and excessively so – a local dog which nips at her meets a grisly fate. Needless to say things do not bode well for her annoying little brother or her rival on the gymnastics team…

This is a slick and impressive production which has clearly been thought-through by the writers. It’s kind of curious that several of the things I’ve been saying about horror movies recently certainly apply to Hatching – firstly that it is, to some extent, clearly inspired by E.T. the Extra-terrestrial – a troubled pre-teen develops an extremely close connection with an unearthly creature they keep hidden in the family home – but done as a horror movie. (My understanding is that the original conception was for the protagonist to be male, which would have made the derivation even clearer.)

The origins of the film are just a starting point, of course, for this eventually goes off in a quite different direction. Whatever the alien is meant to represent in E.T., Alla is clearly a symbol of something else. When I was writing about Men, one of my complaints about the film was that while the central metaphor was entirely clear, the film didn’t make sense in any terms other than those of the metaphor – while the thesis was clear, the narrative delivering it was a nonsense. Hatching doesn’t fall into the same trap, but it pushes the limits of the narrative right to the limit, by which I mean that the horror story is just good enough to serve the director’s purpose. The decision to frame and present the story almost as a fable or fairy tale helps smooth some of the more awkward edges, too.

What Hanna Bergholm is up to here is another film about the pressures placed on young people, particularly girls, in modern society: forced to adhere to a certain set of standards and requirements, they have no socially-sanctioned outlet for their negative emotions – which nevertheless build up and lead to a destructive outburst. Here, the eruption takes the form of an alarming bird-monster, but I am sure that many parents of teenagers can empathise, plumage or no plumage.

The film is well-made, and extremely well-acted, with an astonishingly self-assured performance from Siiri Solalinna (who apparently has never acted before). The eruption of gore and grue into the carefully-curated family home is striking, and there are a few effective jump-scares sprinkled into the story (even the most atmospheric horror movie is sometimes enlivened by the odd jump-scare). However, once it becomes clear what’s going on – and, to be fair, the film is so well-paced that this takes a while to become apparent – the film inevitably seems a bit less interesting than it did to begin with, like a song where you can guess many of the rhymes in advance.

To be clear, there’s a definite pleasure to be gained from finding yourself so in-synch with a film, or when a film is so congruent with the conventions of whatever genre it is operating in. Hatching is a satisfying and effective film, certainly a success by any rational metric – both as a horror story and a film with something to say about the dehumanising and pressurising elements of modern life. But the distinctiveness of the early part of the film, when it is at its most fairy-tale-ish, led me to anticipate something as original and striking throughout. Nevertheless, this is a very good movie, and one which will hopefully mark the debut of a number of talents who will go on to do interesting work for years to come.

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Some movies don’t really need a directorial credit on them: the identity of their creator is imprinted on every frame, every casting decision, every line of dialogue. It’s the brushstroke of an artist or some other mark that a great stylist is about his or her craft.

Crimes of the Future (the new version) is mostly concerned with the doings of Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and his partner Caprice (Lea Seydoux), who are performance artists. The duo live in a strangely-divergent world where digital technology does not appear to exist and the process of human evolution has become somewhat fractious. One of the forms this takes is that Saul’s body spontaneous generates new and mysterious organs – causing him some discomfort in the process – which Caprice then extracts on-stage using a device which resembles a sort of bone coffin sprouting bio-mechanical arms.

This has earned Saul and Caprice something of a following, amongst both other art-lovers and the people running the National Organ Registry, which keeps track of new pieces of internal human architecture (they are played by Don McKellar and Kristen Stewart). He is invited to enter the forthcoming Inner Beauty Contest, where he is likely to stand a good chance in the Best Original Organ category. But he has other things on his mind, such as an encounter with members of a cult with a very strange dietary restriction, and their idea for a new show in which the victim of a shocking murder is autopsied on stage…

Do I even need to tell you who wrote and directed Crimes of the Future? Does their identity not blaze forth from even this simple description? It’s David Cronenberg. Of course it’s David Cronenberg. It’s such a David Cronenbergy film that if anyone else had come up with it (a fairly unlikely eventuality, of course) they would have been greeted with derision for such a blatant act of plagiarism. As it is, it is the most David Cronenbergy film that even Cronenberg himself has made in over twenty years – which I suppose is another way of saying that Cronenberg has, fairly effortlessly, managed to shed the trappings of his early films in favour of a less instantly recognisable mode of storytelling.

But here all those trappings return: gristly, throbbing bits of bio-machinery, a morbid fascination with rebellious organic matter, strange pseudo-erotic interactions between human and technology… at one point Kristen Stewart’s character says ‘Surgery is the new sex,’ which is almost certainly the most Cronenbergy line you’ll hear in a cinema this year. Needless to say this is followed up by a moment in which Mortensen and Seydoux, in what looks very much like a post-coital embrace, recline ecstatically together in a skeletal sarcophagus as robotic scalpels carve into their soft flesh. Someone tells an artist ‘Seeing you makes me want to cut my own face open’, as a compliment.

Needless to say it is extreme and provocative, and arguably less well-mannered than most of Cronenberg’s recent films. Apparently this was an old script that he fished out of his bottom drawer and reworked, which may explain why it seems to have more in common with a film like Videodrome than anything from this century. Then again, rumour had it that Cronenberg was actively contemplating retirement from film-making, such was his disillusionment with the whole process of raising finance, so we must be grateful for his making anything at all. (The strange world of film financing means that the new version of Crimes of the Future (Cronenberg’s debut movie from over fifty years ago was also called Crimes of the Future, but the two are distinct entities – this isn’t a remake) is a Greco-Canadian co-production, filmed on location in Athens, giving it a very distinctive atmosphere and visual style.)

I must say that it is a real treat to see Cronenberg making this return visit to an area where he has previously produced so much of his most distinctive work. The visceral impact of the various strangenesses and outright horrors that he unleashes only gains in power from the fact that the director is clearly not just attempting to shock or nauseate the audience – even though there are moments in this film where I thought the director was in genuine danger of going too far – everything is in service to ideas and metaphors with real heft to them. At the heart of this film is a grotesque metaphor for the creative process; it also deals with questions of consumerism, ecology, and political freedom. The stew of ideas is almost overwhelming, both in its richness and in the casual way that Cronenberg presents the individual elements to the audience.

This is very reminiscent of what I suppose we should refer to as Classic Early Cronenberg – the string of unambiguous horror movies running through the 1970s and early 1980s that includes such famous works as Rabid, Shivers, The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome and The Fly, all of which found new ways to employ the notion of body-horror as a metaphor. The new Crimes of the Future does this, but I do feel compelled to admit that it resembles some of the earlier films in another way, too – when Cronenberg is really in full flow, the onslaught of ideas and images can be so irresistible that the actual plot can become a little oblique or, on the initial viewing at least, somewhat incoherent. That’s the case here too: there’s a plot about a cult and a couple of assassins that I never really felt like I entirely understood. It’s solely the fact that parts of Crimes of the Future seem a bit obscure and oblique that keeps me from suggesting the film contains rather more gratuitous nudity than is generally the case these days, even in a horror movie – for all I know the naked female cast members are all vital to the plot and theme of the movie, I’m just not recognising the connection.

Normally I’m very harsh on movies with incoherent plots, and it may indeed be the case that I am letting my respect for David Cronenberg get in the way of treating this film objectively. But I don’t watch his films for the details of the plot, I watch them for the ideas, the squelchy bits, the metaphor. Crimes of the Future has all of those things in abundance, together with some excellent performances from a talented cast. It’s a grisly, potentially disgusting, deliberately obscure and really rather challenging film. But it also feels like a bit of a treat.

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Goths Go Shaky

Allan Prior’s first Blake script seemed to find him attempting to emulate the theatrical style of a writer like Caryl Churchill or Edward Bond, in an allegorical piece about the nature of colonialism. His second saw him progress to seemingly try very hard to write in the style of Terry Nation himself, which was fairly successful as a technical exercise but practically a disaster in terms of it working as a piece of drama. His third episode of the year, The Keeper, sees him moving on to bigger dramatic game than even Terry Nation.

Still pursuing the elusive location of Star One, the Liberator is on course for the primitive planet Goth, where the natives live underground to avoid toxic gases (and also the expense of filming on location). Decor and couture are all very much in the style of about 6th-century Wessex: not so much Space Age as Dark Ages. What they have learned is that one member of the ruling house of Goth has the only copy of a brain-print revealing where Star One is, which they wear on a thong around their neck (according to one report, says Cally, it’s not just the print, it’s the whole brain). Find the print and find Star One, which will give them the power (finally) to destroy the Federation.

Of course, it has occurred to Avon that they don’t necessarily need to destroy the Federation – with Star One, they could just as easily take the place over and run it between them. Blake, of course, takes the boring old principled stance that no-one should wield that much authority, and they will go ahead with the plan to blow Star One up (as it turns out, there turn out to be very good reasons for not blowing it up, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves). Also on their minds is the fact that Travis is ahead of them somewhere, and is unlikely to share Blake’s selfless ethical view.

Another one of those very understated guest performances this week.

This week it’s Vila and Jenna who get to beam down with Blake to Goth, leaving Avon in charge. Almost at once the ship detects a Federation ship leaving Goth, which Avon instantly identifies as Travis’ vessel (quite how, it is not made clear, but this is something else which we will be coming back to). Scenting a chance to solve at least one problem for good, Avon takes the Liberator out of orbit to destroy the other ship – but, wouldn’t you know it, the Goths choose just this interlude to attack Blake and the others, soundtracked by a music cue in which Dudley Simpson does his best to channel the spirit of Basil Poledouris. Jenna and Vila get grabbed by the natives, leaving Blake to escape back to the ship and give Avon a proper telling-off.

Naturally, Blake still opts to go back down to Goth by himself, leaving Avon with the strictest of strict instructions not to go off the reservation again in his absence – it’s one of those casual Blake’s 7 ironies that this results, eventually, in the Intergalactic War, the destruction of Star One, the collapse and reconstruction of the Federation and ultimately arguably the deaths of Blake, Avon, and everyone else. (This time Avon is obliged to obey orders, which means passing up a genuine chance to kill Travis.) It’s not a fantastic excursion for Blake, as – despite making friends with one of the local nobility, Rod – he spends most of his time hiding in a dungeon. Goth architecture features fewer arches and flying buttresses than you might expect, but a lot more tents – erected in caves, for no immediately logical reason, and with their own dungeons. It’s a funny old planet, this one.

Jenna, meanwhile, is getting much more to do than usual, as she is (in a manner of speaking) romanced by the rough-and-ready leader of the Goths, Gola. (There is some irony to this, as it was Sally Knyvette’s good relationship with Bruce Purchase, who played Gola, that influenced her decision to leave the series at the end of the year.) Vila, meanwhile, gets a job as Gola’s court Fool, rather to the chagrin of the previous incumbent. It turns out that the children of the previous king of Goth have deposed him and then fallen out rather viciously – or, to put it another way, Blake and the others have walked into the latter stages of a version of King Lear.

You can’t fault Prior’s ambition in trying to pull a stunt like this one, and it’s not as if the roots are particularly well-concealed: there’s something very BBC Shakespeare about many of the sets and costumes – although, as was customary with a lot of the corporation’s drama of this period, it’s all very over-lit, considering. The problem is that the script just doesn’t sparkle – Blake and the others go from royal to royal, looking for the brain-print, while the royals themselves engage in fairly laborious power-politics and declaim at anyone in sight. Leaving Avon on the ship all episode probably doesn’t help much.

Somehow the setting and premise of the episode never really grab the interest: in my case, anyway, less than some of the other odd elements Prior inserts into the script. For example, Travis and Servalan are both on Goth, too, and are apparently in alliance again despite strong suggestions otherwise last week (putting a bomb in someone’s prosthetic limb is not usually a sign of affection or a good foundation for a working relationship). They are both now looking for Star One as well, having figured out they can use it to rule the Federation too. (The delineation between the generally-bad institution of the Federation and the specifically-bad prospect of Servalan’s tyranny is clearly established.) But still – when did this happen? Why are they working together once more? How come Avon can recognise Travis’ ship on sight? The whole storyline of what’s happened to Travis since Trial, his agenda, his standing, his relationships, has just been a mess virtually every step of the way. In this episode he even leaves the story half-way through, without even trying to find and kill Blake (supposedly his overriding obsession).

Well, it’s not one of the very worst shows of the season, but that’s only because some of them were so extremely bad. The Keeper kind of passes the time acceptably, and it does trail the prospect of a momentous conclusion to the series (the Liberator sets course, finally, for Star One, where the destiny of the crew and the Federation itself will be decided). But given how inconsistent this series has been – the episodes by Nation, Chris Boucher, and Robert Holmes have all been reasonably watchable, everything else not so much – expectations for the end of the year are inevitably subject to downward management.

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I have a confession to make: I sometimes struggle to tell my McDonaghs apart. I like both of the brothers, John and Martin, which is another way of saying I like the great majority of their films, which include Calvary, The Guard, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Seven Psychopaths, War on Everyone, and In Bruges. However – and please imagine blushing sheepishness appearing on the countenance of your correspondent – if you put a gun to my head and asked me to tell you which were made by John and which were made by Martin, I would almost certainly struggle. They’re both fond of casting Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, their films have a tendency to turn into darkly witty black comedies… do you begin to see the problem?

Having said all that, John has a new film out which doesn’t quite fit that description (while Martin’s imminent one, The Banshees of Inisherin, is apparently a black comedy-drama starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, so it’s entirely congruent with the McDonagh intersection zone). John McDonagh’s new film is The Forgiven, based on a novel by Lawrence Osborne, which in turn was apparently based on true events (this seems to be a bit tricky to pin down).

It certainly has a very literary sort of feel about it, although to be honest I was expecting to discover it was an adaptation of a book from the 1930s – many things about this tale of dissolute Europeans taking their leisure in Morocco have a vintage touch to them, from the names and attitudes of many of the characters to the string-backed driving gloves which prominently feature in a few key moments. But no: it is set in the present day, complete with jokes about Twitter and odd pop-cultural references (one of which seems likely to earn the Terry Nation estate a few quid: everything is indeed connected, but it’s sometimes odd to be reminded of the fact).

Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain play David and Jo Henninger, an affluent English couple – he is a doctor, she is a moderately successful children’s author – travelling to Morocco to attend a party being held by their wealthy acquaintance Dickie Galloway (Matt Smith) at his palatial desert home. The fellow guests are artists, writers, nobility, sleekly prosperous Americans, together with a swarm of interchangeably glamorous young women, all waited on by an army of Moroccan servants. It does sound rather like the premise of an Agatha Christie novel – the only element of doubt being, who is going to end up murdered?

The twist proves to be that the Henningers arrive having brought their own dead body with them – on a desert road, just outside the estate, they struck and killed a young Arab man apparently only seeking to sell them a fossilised trilobite. (We see the moments before the accident, but for a long time only hear the Henningers’ account of what actually happened.) Henninger pays a sort of lip-service to remorse, but denies any real culpability, despite having had a few drinks before setting out; Jo seems more genuinely concerned about the loss of a young life.

The couple get on with trying to enjoy their weekend, even though word has got around and David is pelted with stones by the local kids while out riding. Dickie does his best to smooth things along with the local police: the subtext to all of this is that one poor local boy is of very little consequence compared to the convenience of Dickie and his assembled guests. Then the boy’s father (Ismael Kanater) materialises out the desert, stone-faced, implacable, demanding that Henninger do the right thing – if nothing else, accompany the father and the body back to their home village for the funeral. It will mean a trip deep into the desert, in the company of strangers who have every reason to wish him ill…

There is something faintly stylised and self-consciously emblematic about The Forgiven from the start – it’s always clear that this is meant to be more than just a story about a clash between cultures and social strata. This never quite topples over into outright clumsiness, but one might still wish for McDonagh to have exercised a slightly lighter touch in both his writing and direction. For a while it’s not clear what the film is going to be about, beyond a forensic portrait of the filthy rich at play in all their awfulness – David Henninger is a self-justifying racist alcoholic, and many of the others are very nearly as bad. (This is a rare example of a film which has earned an 18 certificate in the UK despite not including graphic violence or sexual content – the reason given is the inclusion of drug abuse, but I suspect some extremely strong language and bigoted attitudes will also have played a part in this.)

But the film proves to be something a bit more thoughtful and humane: Henninger sets off into the desert half-expecting the worst, certainly to have cash extorted out of him. But the experience he has exposes new sides to his character, while at the same time the fun and games at Dickie’s mansion are perhaps showing Jo in a new light. The guests continue to thrash about in a swamp of their own moral turpitude, while deeper issues of moral responsibility, retribution and justice are explored far away.

In the end it’s a relatively simple story, though it doesn’t always feel that way at the time: McDonagh has turned it into a thoughtful, very good-looking film, and something of a rarity these days – a serious drama obviously intended for a grown-up audience. The cast respond to this by contributing a strong set of performances, all showing just how good they can be given the right material. Said Taghmaoui is particularly impressive in a relatively small role as an Arab driver who gradually comes to befriend Fiennes’ character; not being having to play someone who is required to symbolise something probably helps his cause a bit.

Some of the film’s oddities eventually prove somewhat explicable – McDonagh opt to open the film by running virtually the entire set of credits over footage of the Henningers arriving in Morocco, but this is mainly to facilitate the ending of the film through a powerful coup de theatre. Others prove a little harder to decode. But the end result is an impressive drama, more measured and less cheerfully provocative than many of his other films. I’m not sure I’ll be putting The Forgiven on as a piece of entertainment in quite the same way that I do The Guard, but this is still a fine piece of film-making.

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