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Once more unto the Ultimate Picture Palace (if this keeps up I shall have to consider buying yet another cinema membership card), where they are currently showing a season of classic westerns (and why not). To be honest with you, the collection of films on offer is a bit of a mixed bag – they have The Searchers, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and The Wild Bunch, which obviously all qualify, but also Rio Bravo – I mean, it’s okay, but I prefer the John Carpenter semi-remake – and The Last Movie, which in addition to being fairly obscure also features in a book entitled The Fifty Worst Films of All Time. Also on the list is George Roy Hill’s 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – now, this I would say was an indisputably classic movie, one of my personal favourites, but a classic western?

On paper it looks like a fairly standard example of the genre. The film is set, we are invited to infer, in the very last years of the 19th century, with the charming and ingenious Butch (Paul Newman) and the taciturn but deadly Kid (Robert Redford) well-established as outlaw robbers of banks and trains, and happily ensconced in a not-quite-love-triangle with schoolteacher Etta Place (Katharine Ross). They are local celebrities, sort of, generally trying to avoid hurting people in the pursuit of their activities. The sun shines, the scenery is beautiful; Butch and Sundance barely seem to have a care in the world.

But the wheels of progress crush everyone, and what the duo fail to fully appreciate until too late is that their world is vanishing. They are virtually the last of their kind, and one irate businessman determines to complete the eradication of the old-west outlaw by hiring a crack posse of expert hunters and killers to chase them down and finish their careers permanently. It’s a nasty shock for the carefree duo, who only manage to escape through a desperate gamble and sheer good fortune. Butch and Sundance resolve to take the heat off by travelling down to Bolivia, where there are still opportunities for the old-fashioned banditry they love, and better days return – but only for a while…

Well, it’s always a pleasure to see a film like this back on the big screen, especially given the thick-headed TV edit currently in circulation. It’s actually a little discombobulating to realise that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year, for it feels as fresh and engaging as it ever did (I guess it must: the UPP is also currently showing The Old Man and the Gun, in which a rather more grizzled Redford bids his adieu to the screen playing a role not a million miles away from the Sundance Kid). I first saw this film at a very early age and have lost count of the number of times I’ve seen it since; my appreciation for it has done nothing but grow, and it is on the list of those films which seem to me to be virtually perfect.

But is it strictly speaking a classic western? It might sound like an absurd question. I suppose it boils down to how you define the western as a genre – if you consider it to be any film predominantly set on the American frontier in the nineteenth century, then naturally it qualifies. Some people would be more rigorous and suggest that a classic western must deal with themes of honour, loyalty, individualism, perhaps even rugged masculinity. These are the same people inclined to dismiss Sergio Leone’s films as superficial nihilism, for all their critical and commercial success.

Certainly you could argue that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid often feels much more like a comedy-drama buddy movie, as the title duo banter and squabble their way through the movie; part of its charm is that it is genuinely and consistently funny throughout. The soundtrack, provided by Burt Bacharach, is also hardly the stuff of a classic cowboy movie. Real purists might also take issue with the fact that the closing stretch of the film is set in South America, and the film did apparently struggle to get financed for a while as studio bosses objected to the fact that the heroes essentially spend much of the movie running away (‘John Wayne don’t run away,’ was the comment of one executive).

I think this is to miss the point of the film, which is essentially about the classic cowboy in retreat. It is, obviously, a deeply nostalgic film – there’s probably an interesting discussion to be had about the place of nostalgia within the western genre – fully aware of a world slipping away. The appearance of modern bank vaults and bicycles in the old west are just signs that things are changing on a deeper level, and there is no place for outlaws any more. The film is about the death of this romantic world, and due to the sheer charisma of Redford and Newman, you feel its loss keenly no matter how irrational this is.

One of the most impressive things about William Goldman’s script is the way in which the tone of the film gradually but imperceptibly grows darker as it progresses – Butch and Sundance are never short of a wisecrack or put-down, even in the midst of their final encounter with the Bolivian army, but their exploits become progressively grittier and more violent as the film approaches its end. As bandits, they are presented as committing almost victimless crimes – it is their attempt at going straight that leads to them becoming killers. You could probably view the whole movie as a metaphor for the western genre’s loss of innocence – it opens with footage from a silent movie from the genre, and grows progressively darker and more ‘realistic’, as I’ve mentioned. The bodies of the Bolivian bandits killed by the duo tumble in slow motion very much like something from a Sam Peckinpah film, which the film in some ways begins to resemble. Is it stretching a point to suggest that, by killing off the lead characters at the end, this film is an example of the western anticipating its own imminent demise, in its traditional form at least?

We should also perhaps remember that this film came out in 1969, and there are surely echoes of the sunlit days of the summer of love in the film’s lighter moments. Butch and Sundance are obviously anti-establishment figures, not actively seeking to harm anyone, just to carry on the relatively carefree existence they enjoy – they are rogues rather than villains. Perhaps by the very end of the 60s it was already becoming apparent that the dreams of the counter-culture were part of a world as doomed to pass as that of the two outlaws, and this is why young audiences responded so strongly to the bittersweet mood of the film and the poignancy of its conclusion: we are spared the gory details, left with an image of our heroes frozen in a sepia-toned past, drifting off into the distance. This film is a joy, while never forgetting that all things must pass – but so far, at least, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid itself seems to be timeless.

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I am given to understand that there were some grumbles that the TV schedule for the festive season just past was in some way sub-standard, with rather fewer ‘treats’ than people have become used to. It may not come as a surprise if I reveal that I am not the kind of person to be particularly stimulated by Christmas specials of Call the Midwife, Strictly Come Dancing or (God help us) Michael MacIntyre’s Big Show, and lavish all-star Christie adaptations don’t really do it for me either. However, on reflection, I must admit to a little surprise and mild disappointment, for at one point all the signs were that one of the BBC’s Christmas offerings was going to be a new adaptation of The War of the Worlds.

Now, when I think about it, I’m actually quietly certain that this thing is going to be a disappointment to me whenever it actually appears, because the BBC, which is usually pretty faithful when it comes to bringing Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope to the screen, has historically shown no such fidelity when it comes to classic genre fiction – see, for instance, the atrocious version of The Day of the Triffids they inflicted on the world at Christmas 2009. But such is my fondness for The War of the Worlds that I will stay optimistic until it actually arrives.

I should make this clear – The War of the Worlds, the novel? Love it. The radio version? Love it. The concept album? Love it. Stephen Baxter’s authorised sequel? Love it. The Spielberg movie? I can appreciate its merits. The 1980s TV show – well, now, let’s be sensible. I watched pretty much the whole first season, which many would say was going above and beyond the call of duty. One of the (many) problems with the War of the Worlds TV show is that it’s operating two steps removed from H.G. Wells, in that it is basically a small-screen sequel to the 1953 movie produced by George Pal and directed by Byron Haskin. You will not be terribly surprised to learn that I really like this movie, too, even though it has an extremely liberal attitude towards the source novel.

After a slightly frantic set of credits, the film gets underway, as any self-respecting iteration of The War of the Worlds must, with the famous ‘No-one would have believed…’ passage from the book, updated to reflect the film’s 1950s setting. Through the wonders of gorgeous special effects and rather dubious astronomical exposition, we learn that the planet Mars is dying, and its inhabitants have only one option when it comes to migrating to another planet – it’s Earth or bust!

Everyone on Earth is oblivious to this, of course, even after what seems to be a rather unusual meteorite lands in the California hills. The locals are delighted, thinking that their ship has come in and a new tourist attraction has arrived, but rugged scientist Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) is less convinced – the new arrival seems to be radioactive, and didn’t behave like a normal meteorite. He goes off to the local square dance with impressively-banged local girl Sylvia (Ann Robinson – not that one) to pass the time while the rock cools down.

Needless to say, the town is in for a surprise, for the meteorite unscrews and a death ray on a stalk proceeds to obliterate the locals left to keep an eye on it, while a powerful magnetic field knocks out the town’s electricity. The army is called in, with a view to containing the Martian invaders – for other Martian cylinders have begun landing all over the world, with reports of chaos and destruction filtering through – and the kindly local priest makes a brave attempt to establish peaceful contact with the aliens. Naturally, the Martians smoke him. The US military aren’t about to let this sort of behaviour carry on unchecked, and unleash their might at the alien war machines, only to find them impervious to earthly weapons. The authorities are forced into a desperate, futile rear-guard action as the Martians expand their terrestrial dominion, and all seems hopeless for the human race…

My general feeling about both The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine are that they are foundation stones of science fiction, but also books which are now sort of dated: both of them are driven by social and philosophical concerns and are indeed essentially topical satire – of the British class system, in the case of The Time Machine, and the British empire with The War of the Worlds. Unsurprisingly, the satirical and allegorical element of the novel does not survive into the film, which is instead almost as pure a piece of Red Scare thrill-mongering as you can find. It is telling that, for all the indications that this is a global catastrophe (we are shown the Eiffel Tower toppling, and Martian war machines in front of a ruined Taj Mahal), there is not one mention of the Martians attacking the Soviet Union, or indeed that the USSR even exists. Wells’ concerns have been extracted and replaced by those of 1950s Hollywood.

I could easily fill the rest of this piece by cataloguing all the other numerous and comprehensive differences between the original novel and this adaptation: most obviously, there is the shift in setting, from southern England in the early 20th century to California in the 1950s, and there’s also the fact that the Martians in this movie cruise around in sleek manta-ray hovercraft, rather than the iconic tripedal fighting machines of the book. It’s really the case that virtually none of the specifics of the novel’s plot survive into the film, which concerns itself almost exclusively with the first half of the book.

This concerns the initial Martian landings, their crushing of the forces sent against them, and the panic and chaos that convulses human society. Other than the conclusion, the second half of the novel – which deals with the Martian occupation of England, and goes into slightly more detail about their nature and technology – is entirely absent. This is no doubt partly due to the technical limitations of the period – it’s hard to imagine how the special effects of the 1950s could have rendered the spread of the red weed, for instance – but Wells’ more philosophical musings are not really the stuff of an American sci-fi movie, while in another key respect the film is entirely at odds with Wells’ conception.

Whether you consider the end of The War of the Worlds to be an outrageous deus ex machina or a subtly-foreshadowed denouement entirely of a piece with the rest of the book is probably a matter of personal taste, but it survives in the movie more-or-less intact. However, Wells intent has been comprehensively subverted, in another fundamental change. Wells’ atheism is discarded, and – like many classic SF movies from this period – the themes of the film are presented in almost spiritual terms. People take refuge in churches; there are many references to prayer and miracles; when one boffin gravely announces the Martians will conquer the world in six days, Ann Robinson reminds us all that this was the same length of time it took to create it. In short, the film is basically reminding the audience that technological superiority is all very well, but victory only comes by the grace of God – the death of the Martians here isn’t simply a matter of biological process, but presented as divine intervention. The end of the film, with church bells tolling and a grateful population flocking to give thanks, appears to have been an influence on at least two other films – the film version of Day of the Triffids, and the British catastrophe movie The Day the Earth Caught Fire.

It seems, therefore, that very little of the actual substance of the novel survives into this adaptation. Why, then, am I so fond of it? Well, quite apart from the fact it often has a kind of hokey charm unique to itself, it’s also the case that while the film changes virtually every detail of the book, it captures its tone and spirit with an accuracy which is hugely impressive. The Martian onslaught against the US army, death rays slashing in all directions as the human guns fail to hit their targets, is absolutely of a piece with the novel; the eerie scenes with Forrester and Sylvia trapped in a ruined house, Martians all around them, are also closely inspired by the similar section in the book. The climactic sequence depicting the breakdown of law and order and near-rioting in the streets as the Martians advance on downtown Los Angeles also catch the essence of Wells’ description of ‘the rout of civilisation… the massacre of mankind’ extraordinarily well, in the circumstances.

In the end I’m almost moved to describe the movie of The War of the Worlds not so much as an adaptation as a cover version – it retains only the most basic outline of Wells’ book, changing virtually every detail of narrative and theme. And yet it also seems to have locked onto the most vivid and powerful segments of the story and retained them, in terms of their emotional impact and effectiveness. It’s a fairly irregular way to go about adapting a book, but the result is a movie that still somehow does credit to the source material. Not many adaptations of classic SF novels stand up as well as this one.

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Is it just me, or was the back end of last year particularly busy when it came to the kind of big commercial studio releases that tend to guzzle up multiple screens at the typical multiplex? The reason I ask is that a couple of films which I would have expected to make at least some kind of appearance on the big screen in central Oxford seem to have been squeezed out entirely. It’s not unheard of for this to happen when it comes to a certain kind of low-brow action-thriller, but here we’re talking about much more distinctive pieces of work – as I mentioned, I missed Bad Times at the El Royale UK release entirely and had to go to Berlin to see it, while Boots Riley’s extravagantly well-reviewed Sorry to Bother You likewise barely seemed to trouble either the big chains or my art-house cinema of choice, and I only just managed to catch it at the Ultimate Picture Palace (doing sterling work in its function of providing exactly this sort of last chance saloon).

Set in a sort of version of present-day San Francisco, this film retells the curious odyssey of Cassius ‘Cash’ Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a young African-American man struggling to establish himself financially: he and his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), a performance artist and sign-twirler, are having to live in his uncle’s garage, for example. He seems to be making some kind of progress when he gets a job as a telemarketer with a company named RegalView, although the work is initially challenging. Success comes when an older colleague (Danny Glover) suggests that he use his ‘white voice’ when making calls as this will be more reassuring for his clients (in the first of many quirky choices, when using the white voice Stanfield is dubbed by David Cross).

This leads to great success for Cash, even as his fellow employees are agitating and trying to organise for better working conditions. Eventually he is promoted to ‘Power Caller’, handling extremely lucrative and important business transactions, especially for a company named WorryFree. Owned by the visionary tycoon Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), WorryFree has become greatly successful by playing on people’s stress and uncertainty about modern life – by signing away all rights to self-determination, they are provided with work and the essentials for living. Is this exploiting a gap in the market or simply a clever re-branding of slavery? Cash does his best not to worry about it and concentrates on the material rewards his new success is bringing him, until Steve Lift himself approaches him with a proposition that could change both his life and the world to an almost inconceivable degree…

I suspect that Boots Riley won’t thank me for saying so, but the shadow of Charlie Kaufman does seem to me to hang rather heavily over Sorry to Bother You – this is the same kind of wildly absurdist comedy that Kaufman made his name by writing: the structures of modern urban life are present, but have had their normal contents emptied out and been refilled with things which are almost palpably ridiculous. The sheer inventiveness of the film is impressive, not to mention the strike rate of its jokes – there are some unforgettably funny moments in the course of the story.

However, this is the kind of satirical comedy which is setting out to draw blood, and while Charlie Kaufman often seems to me to be playing with ideas for the fun of it, Riley clearly has serious social and political points to make throughout this film. The element of this film which most of the early coverage settled on was the gimmick of the ‘white voice’, which as well as being a striking cinematic gag is a convenient metaphor for the different modes of behaviour many people, perhaps especially those from ethnic minorities, are obliged to adopt. That said, it’s still a relatively minor element of the film, which is about… well, lots of different things, to be honest, perhaps even a few too many for it to be entirely coherent as a narrative. Many of these are, admittedly, about the somewhat-vexed question of race in America – I thought that one sequence, in which Cash, as one of only two black men at a party for the super-rich, is commanded to rap for his hosts, manages to be funnier, more provocative, and say more about cultural appropriation than all of Get Out.

That said, I think this is much more a film about economics than race, although Sorry to Bother You is naturally smart enough to acknowledge that the two things are inseparably linked in modern America. Riley has said that the title itself doesn’t just refer to a telemarketer’s usual opening line, but also the film’s intention to confront the audience with some uncomfortable truths which they may habitually try quite hard to ignore. Well, maybe so, but I wonder who he imagines the audience of this film will be – I imagine that most people seeing it will already be aware of the immense social and financial inequities in western civilisation, the immense power wielded by the wealthy, the dehumanising effects of many modern jobs, and so on – these things are not secrets, they’re just treated as facts of life. Once you look past the larger-than-life characterisations and ridiculous gags, the parable of Cash’s socio-economic awakening is actually fairly straightforward, as the young man has to make a choice between getting very rich very quickly or doing the right thing. It’s only the relentless onslaught of outlandish jokes and ideas that makes the film so memorable and entertaining. Similarly, the only real solution the film has to offer basically seems to be for workers to unionise, which some might consider a little anticlimactic (well, there’s a suggestion that a violent uprising might also solve some problems, but given its context in the film it’s hard to see this is a serious proposal).

I would say that the film possibly outstays its welcome by just a few minutes, and the third act in particular shows signs of becoming completely unravelled, but the film is a satire and heavily allegorical, so this is less of a problem than it could have been. It is, in any case, quite bracing to discover a film which is so smart, so energetic, and so willing to be openly political in its comedy. I’ve heard Sorry to Bother You described as the best SF film of 2018 – I can see how someone might think it qualifies, but the science fiction elements are just part of a brew which defies conventional genre descriptions. A very funny, very sharp film, driven along by great performances from Stanfield and Hammer; one could perhaps reasonably take exception to its politics, but not to the skill with which it has been made.

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‘What -‘

‘It’s a thriller.’

‘Oh, good.’

In 2006, Lithuania entered the Eurovision Song Contest with a catchy, up-beat, rather tongue-in-cheek number entitled ‘We are the Winners of Eurovision‘ – in the end this proved to be rather optimistic as the song eventually came sixth. So it goes sometimes, but while ‘We are the Winners of Eurovision’ did not eventually win Eurovision, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite has managed to become the buzzy film of the moment and, quite possibly, The Favourite for the awards season which is just about getting under way. Considering that most people know Lanthimos from The Lobster, likely only to win an award for ‘Weirdest Film to Feature a Crustacean’, this is a fairly noteworthy achievement.

The Favourite is not, in fact, a thriller (this was just a cunning ploy I used to get Olinka to come and see it), but is instead… hmmm, well. A very cursory glance at the trailer might lead one to assume this is a grand costume drama in the traditional style – certainly, the setting and characters are the stuff of many a lavish, perhaps slightly staid drama (the film concerns the royal court of England in the early 18th century). However, something much more peculiar is on the cards here.

Ostensibly on the throne is Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), but the monarch is temperamental, self-obsessed, stricken with gout and obsessed with her large collection of rabbits. Much of the de facto power rests with her confidante and the keeper of the Privy Purse, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), who is happy to manipulate the queen, supposedly in the national interest.

Into this situation comes the Duchess’ cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), a young noblewoman fallen on hard times. The Duchess is not overly moved to help her and Abigail initially finds herself working in the kitchens. However, her knowledge of herbal medicine proves to be her ticket into the queen’s good books and she finds herself moving in more elevated circles, eventually winning the approval of Anne herself.

Needless to say the appearance of a rival is met with steely hostility from the Duchess, and a superficially well-mannered but actually deeply brutal struggle for ascendancy soon breaks out. Who will eventually become the queen’s favourite? And is the queen herself quite as oblivious to what is going on around her as it appears?

The Favourite is one of those films which has been made from a script which has being kicking around film companies for nearly twenty years, with the early response usually being something along the lines of ‘We like it, but…’ – the main problem usually having something to do with the fact that all three of the main characters are women, thus making the film difficult to market according to industry logic (Nicholas Hoult appears as the scheming politician Robert Harley and Joe Alwyn as one of his dimmer lieutenants, but these are both relatively minor roles). However, as I suspect we are likely to see across the coming weeks, in the wake of the Unique Moment there are a number of high-quality female-dominated movies jostling for attention, and there are few films more female-dominated than this one.

As I say, it may look like a traditional costume drama, but this is something really much more idiosyncratic – we were treated to some surly chuntering from a prominent right-wing writer in the weekend’s Mail on Sunday, grumbling about the film’s wild divergence from historical fact and (supposed) obsession with lesbianism, and if you turn up to The Favourite actually expecting to see a conventional film about the court of Queen Anne then I expect you will be sorely disappointed. Certainly it all looks ravishing, with sumptuous costumes and wigs (all the men look like Brian May, the women are generally more restrained), and many scenes shot solely by candle-light. This inevitably puts one in mind of Barry Lyndon, 15-18 foot lamberts and all, and there is a certain resemblance, but only up to a point. I don’t do that invidious ‘this film is X meets Y’ thing, but if I were, then I would say that, feminine dominance notwithstanding, The Favourite is almost like a cross between Barry Lyndon and The League of Gentlemen TV show – indeed, Mark Gatiss appears in a supporting role, and seems to be very much at home.

By this I mean that The Favourite contains a great deal more (mostly implied) sex and (explicit) vomiting than is generally found in a costume drama, and the whole thing has a twisted, blackly comic sensibility. This is probably the source of all the grumbling about the film’s supposed departures from strict historicity – it is apparently ‘considered unlikely’ that Queen Anne was actually a lesbian, and in any case I doubt that casual conversation around the court was quite as profanity-laden as it is depicted here – but Lanthimos makes it fairly clear from very early on that the cabinet of grotesqueries he has assembled is not intended to be taken at face value. The film keeps wandering off and focusing on oddities – the Prime Minister is obsessed with his prize-winning pet duck, a formal court dance quickly develops into something that looks more like break-dancing, and so on. The choice to use distorting lenses in the camera to give a warped, fish-eye view of events at court at certain points is also something of a giveaway.

So if The Favourite isn’t actually about the rivalries at the court of Queen Anne, what is it about? Well, I suppose on one level it’s a character piece, especially with regard to Emma Stone’s character: the story of how a (relatively) innocent young woman learns to survive in the snake-pit of court politics, eventually becoming just as ruthless and deceitful as everyone around her. Stone is very good and manages to hold her own against Olivia Colman and Rachel Weisz, who are both operating on full power throughout – Colman gives the bigger performance, of course, but Weisz has the least obvious character arc and perhaps gets the most nuances to play with.

Beyond issues of gender and sex and history, though, the film is basically about power: what it means to have it, what it means to use it, what people will sacrifice for it, and the other effects it has on them. If the film ultimately has a particular message to impart, it is not immediately clear: it has an oblique, slightly cryptic ending (Olinka thought it was ‘very sad’) – it may be about the isolating effects of power and its tendency to kill anything resembling a genuine relationship.

In the end, though, The Favourite does a very good job of not resembling a particularly serious film, and it really does function as a quirky black comedy-drama powered along by some fine performances. It’s certainly a striking film, but I suspect it may be just a little too off-the-wall to become more than a critical darling. Fun and thought-provoking, though.

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I’m not really one for New Year resolutions – I usually end up with the same ones, along the lines of ‘get more sleep’ and ‘do more productive stuff’ – but it does seem an appropriate time to break a long-held resolution, something which is probably more of a surprise to me than anyone else. I occasionally make a big fuss about how open-minded I am, and how I’ll go and see nearly anything at the cinema, but astute readers will probably have noticed that there are a few high-profile franchises which I refuse to touch with a ten foot pole, magic free ticket card or not. When it comes to the live-action Transformers movie franchise, which has been befouling multiplexes worldwide for over a decade now, this is simply because I had such an utterly appalling experience watching the first one that I vowed not to bother with any of the others, something I have stuck to with unusual (for me) firmness.

And yet now I find myself about to write about Travis Knight’s Bumblebee, a prequel/spin-off type offshoot of the Transformers series. How come? What happened? Well, to cut a short story even shorter, the trailer looked genuinely fun and charming, and – this second fact may explain the first – Michael Bay has vacated the director’s chair. Collecting critics’ pithy lines about Bay and the Transformers films has been a bit of a hobby of mine for some years now – I particularly enjoyed Vern’s observation that watching the first movie is a bit like climbing into a tumble dryer which is then pushed down a hill, not to mention Peter Bradshaw’s insight that one of the sequels (I forget which) is essentially ‘a machine for turning your brain into soup’. Nevertheless, these films seemed to be critic-proof for years, and the fact that Bay has been forced from his dreadful throne of power is probably just due to the fact that the 2017 movie was sort of a flop, as gargantuan bombastic effects movies go, only making about six times the GDP of a small country at the box office. So, following Transformers: The Last Knight, we now have the first Knight Transformers (do you see what I did there?), and I have to say… well, where was this guy in 2007?

The movie gets underway on the machine planet Cybertron, where the heroic Autobots are taking a right pasting from the evil Decepticons. (The whys and wherefores of this conflict are not gone into; this isn’t that sort of film, although that probably goes without saying.) Stentorian Autobot leader Optimus Prime packs a bold young Autobot scout (he who will become known as Bumblebee) off to Earth in the year 1987 in order that the planet can be used as a refuge by the rest of their faction. However, Bumblebee is tracked and ends up taking the Transformer war to Earth with him, earning the hostility of a secret US government agency in the process. Having fended off his initial pursuers, a mute and amnesiac Bumblebee lapses into whatever the equivalent of a coma is for a giant robot that can turn into a car.

At this point we switch focus to the story of Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld, who’s been picking good scripts lately), a teenage girl living in California and having to cope with annoying family members, a terrible job, unresolved issues from the premature death of her beloved father, and so on. A glimmer of hope appears when she discovers a rusty old yellow VW beetle in a local scrapyard, and is allowed to take it home and try to get it running again. Yup, you are ahead of me: Charlie takes the discovery that her new ride is actually a sentient multi-form extra-terrestrial warrior remarkably well, and she and Bumblebee soon form a close bond. Which is probably for the best, as it transpires that a couple of Decepticons have detected Bumblebee’s presence on Earth and have arrived to hunt him down, with the help of the authorities…

I feel that at this point I should just clarify that my issue with the Bay Transformers films has nothing to do with the inherent absurdity of the concept. I have nothing against absurdity as a story element; many of the Marvel movies are pretty absurd, but they’re still probably my favourite current blockbuster franchise (it almost scarcely needs mentioning that the Transformers once ostensibly shared a universe with the Marvel characters, even teaming up with Spider-Man, without it feeling at all forced or tonally inconsistent). We have to bear in mind that the whole canon of Transformers fiction is basically a marketing device to shift toy robots that turn into cars or planes (or vice versa) and so it is almost inevitably going to be a bit silly. No, my issue with the Bay films is with their empty, pointless bombast, their sheer over-excitability, their shallow objectification of both human and machine, and their interminable running-times.

Knight has managed to avoid all of these things and come up with a film that is genuinely charming and likeable, and seems unlikely to inflict long-term cerebral damage on even the most enthusiastic viewer. Much of this is to the credit of Hailee Steinfeld, who essentially carries most of the movie once the prologue is out of the way – nobody else gives a substantial performance, but then nobody else really needs to, for Steinfeld gives the film warmth and heart. (John Cena plasy the chief government agent, but honestly doesn’t make much of an impression.) The whole story strand about how accidental involvement in an extra-terrestrial war helps Charlie process her personal issues is a bit clunky, and the film has some of the most spurious foreshadowing I can recall in a serious movie, but somehow this just adds to the fun.

So does the 80s setting, although I get the sense this isn’t really genuine nostalgia aimed at or made by people who actually remember the mid 80s, but more a sort of tick-list of pop culture icons from the period – ALF, Mr T, and so on. It virtually constitutes an acknowledgement that the Transformers themselves were another 80s fad as far as many people are concerned. As I say, while this element of the movie is fun, it’s also quite superficial and not thought-through – for me, the most impossible-to-believe thing in the movie was not the existence of shape-shifting alien cars but the suggestion that the same person would own a Motorhead T-shirt but also have both The Smiths and Rick Astley in their tape collection. (Maybe the tribes run differently in California.)

I have to say that part of the reason I was so unimpressed by the first Bay Transformers was because I didn’t recognise either the tone or the characters from the Transformers stories I remembered from back in the middle of the 1980s – it was all very dark, very violent, very grungy. One of the genuine pleasures of this film was being able to recognise many characters in their original form (I believe these are known as G1 Transformers) – sitting in a cinema going ‘It’s Optimus Prime! It’s Ironhide! It’s Cliffjumper! It’s Starscream! It’s Soundwave! It’s Shockwave!’ isn’t the most high-brow kind of entertainment, but entertaining it still is. The rest of the story doesn’t take itself too seriously, either – at one point one of the characters openly observes that it’s just possible aliens calling themselves Decepticons may not be entirely trustworthy – and I don’t think there’s much here to inflame the sensibilities of most reasonable-minded parents looking for something to show their children (Bumblebee is fairly unusual for a big studio franchise movie these days, in that it only has a PG certificate in the UK).

All this said, this is still a fairly goofy and obvious movie about a girl who makes friends with an alien robot car, albeit one with a lot of charm and a very enjoyable atmosphere. It’s not going to change the lives of anyone in the audience, probably, and it may indeed be that I’m predisposed to praise this one slightly more than it warrants, simply because it’s so unlike the Bay movies. But nevertheless: an extremely likeable movie; hopefully from now on all Transformers films will be like this.

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Well, here we are in a brand new year, still with that fresh plastic aroma, but I am saddened to have to report that a stench not unlike that of rotting leftovers is lingering on in movie theatres internationally. Yes, 2018 produced many outstanding films, but it also unloaded on us a higher than usual number of genuine stinkers, and just to remind us of this, right at the back end of the year we were treated to Etan Cohen’s Holmes & Watson, a film which manages the feat (which I would have thought impossible) of seriously challenging Peter Rabbit for the title of Worst Film of 2018. (I initially thought Etan Cohen was a jokey pseudonym, for hopefully obvious reasons, but apparently not. This is a shame, as if so it would have been mildly amusing, which is more than you can say for anything else in this shocking non-comedy.)

Let me just describe the opening scene of Holmes & Watson and see if that gives you a taste of the very special quality, if that’s the right word, this film possesses. It opens in 1881, with Sherlock Holmes (Will Ferrell) tending his beloved giant marrow, which he has clearly devoted many months to growing. Meanwhile, Dr Watson (John C Reilly) has recently returned from Afghanistan and, shaken by his experiences, decides to commit suicide (good comic stuff this). However, he opts to do so by jumping from the roof overlooking Holmes’ vegetable plot. Holmes, alarmed by the threat this poses to his marrow, tries to persuade Watson to jump off a different roof or possibly shoot himself instead. Naturally, Watson misunderstands all of this and believes Holmes to be genuinely concerned for his wellbeing. In his delight, he loses his footing and falls off the roof, but his fall is broken by Holmes’ marrow, which is destroyed in the process. The two men become firm friends and partners in Holmes’ detective activities as a result.

Just to reiterate, this is supposed to be a comedy film. This scene is, I think, fairly representative of the whole endeavour – in fact, I may have been quite generous, in that there are several other bits which are much, much worse. (I suppose it is just possible you may have read the foregoing and concluded ‘You know what, that actually sounds quite funny’ – if this is the case, then your imagination is doing a better job of realising this scene than anyone in the actual film, and you may want to consider a change of career.) Do you want to hear about the rest of the plot? Oh, God. The general tone of the film is one of knowing and self-satisfied stupidity. Holmes and Watson, who are both depicted as morons, are challenged to solve a murder in four days in order to prevent the assassination of Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris). Along the way Watson falls in love with an American doctor (Rebecca Hall) and Holmes falls in love with a woman who thinks she’s a cat (Lauren Lapkus).

There is actually quite a good cast here – regardless of what you think of Ferrell and Reilly, both of whom have made films I really like, it also includes Ralph Fiennes, Steve Coogan, Hugh Laurie, Rob Brydon and Kelly Macdonald. Unfortunately, the film also seems to have been afflicted by some sort of dreadful supernatural curse, which means that hardly any of these people show any sign of being genuinely amusing or showing more than marginal signs of creative talent of any kind. I would not have imagined it possible to watch a film with all these people and not once, in an hour and a half, feel the slightest inclination to laugh or express pleasure or amusement of any kind. It actually required an effort of will to stay to the end and endure the succession of witless jokes about gerontophilia, masturbation and projectile vomit.

The film’s signature joke is to insert modern ideas into its late-Victorian setting (not that historical accuracy appears to have been a concern). Thus, we have Holmes donning a red ‘Make England Great Again’ fez (along with some other unimpressive jokes about Donald Trump), Watson sending a telegram of his winky to a woman he’s attracted to, jokes about pay-per-view entertainment, and so on. I will say it again – none of it is funny. The film somehow exists within a negative-humour vortex, which even seems to be sucking the usual feeble jokes out of this review. It is uncanny. This comedy version of Sherlock Holmes is without a doubt the least funny version of these characters I have ever seen. The Benedict Cumberbatch version of Sherlock Holmes is funnier. Hell, even the Jeremy Brett version is much funnier than this.

One could, of course, pause to wonder at the wisdom of doing a comedic spoof of something which was always intended as light-hearted escapism in the first place: your typical Sherlock Holmes adaptation may look like a serious costume drama, but the original stories were cut from a different cloth. One could also note the rather bemusing fact that much of this film appears to be methodically spoofing the Robert Downey Junior and Jude Law Holmes movies, the most recent of which is seven years old. Why bother? It is genuinely confounding. The only thing about this film which sort of makes sense is the news that, apparently, Sony sensed what a horror they had on their hands and tried to offload it on Netflix – but even the streaming giant, which spends money so heedlessly it apparently thought spending $80 million on Bright was a good investment, didn’t bite on this occasion.

I have to say that Holmes & Watson has caused me to question my whole choice of lifestyle as a regular cinema-goer. I saw over eighty new films on the big screen in 2018, mainly because I always like to see as many as possible and I do genuinely enjoy the mechanics of going to the cinema, buying my ticket, getting  a good seat, watching the trailers, and so on. But why on earth did I go to see this film? I knew going in it was going to be bad – word of a 0% approval rating on review aggregation websites travels, after all. And I know I always say I don’t mind watching bad films, just boring ones. But what is wrong with me? Am I some kind of masochist? Is breaking my own record worth this kind of experience? Is this review genuinely going to dissuade anyone from going to see Holmes & Watson? I don’t know. I don’t know. I may only have another 35 years left to live; do I really want to spend them trying to assimilate this kind of worthless rubbish?

The least I can say is that 2019 can only get better from this point on, because pretty much any film is going to look good after this one. Even so: this is not so much a movie as ninety minutes of existential trauma. An almost incomprehensibly bad film.

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…anyway, while the distaff members of the family and our patriarch were off enjoying Mary Poppins Returns, in the screen next door Young Nephew, his dad, and your regular correspondent were settling down in front of perhaps the most-directed film of the year, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, from Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsay and Rodney Rothman.

This has been an exceptional year at the movies even by Marvel’s standards, and it feels entirely appropriate that it should end with a movie showcasing the company’s most iconic and popular character – all the more so, given that the year has also seen the passing of both Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, the creators not just of Spider-Man but also of much of the wider Marvel world, the sheer extent of which is perhaps the raison d’etre of the new film.

It opens conventionally enough, with a brisk recap of the career of Spider-Man, aka Peter Parker (Chris Pine), super-heroic protector of New York City. But then things switch to the perspective of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who is basically just an ordinary kid struggling with fairly typical problems: mainly that he doesn’t get on with his dad (Brian Tyree Henry), who is insisting that he starts a new school, curtails his hobby of making graffiti, and spends less time with his beloved but slightly shady uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali). Miles is out with his uncle one night doing something mildly illegal when he is bitten by a rather peculiar spider, and finds his life becoming even more complicated and stressful.

While coming to terms with his new-found wall-adhering powers, Miles finds himself caught up in a battle between Spider-Man and the forces of the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), who has constructed an ominously big and complicated gadget with the power to blow holes in the fabric of the universe. Spider-Man charges Miles with helping him to destroy the Kingpin’s machine before – and this is probably quite a shocking moment if you haven’t read the publicity for the movie – he is killed in action battling the supervillain and his henchmen.

The city mourns, naturally – and so does Miles, of course, not least because he’s accidentally broken the gadget Spider-Man gave him to save the day. And then things take another left-field turn, with the appearance of another Spider-Man (Jake Johnson) at the grave of the one Miles originally encountered. It turns out that this new Peter Parker is a slightly gone-to-seed middle-aged Spider-Man from a parallel universe, who has been dragged here by the Kingpin’s machine.

The older Spider-Man basically just wants to leave, before being out of his home universe causes his cells to disintegrate, and initially turns a deaf ear to Miles’ plea that he train him or help in the destruction of the machine before even more damage is done to the fabric of the cosmos. But soon enough that old heroic spirit is rekindled and the duo set out to thwart the villain and save the day. But it seems that the damage to the multiverse is more extensive than anyone has realised, with a bevy of other Spider-People also in the mix…

Now, I like to think of myself as a fairly open-minded sort of person, not carrying around too much in the way of prejudice or bias – but I have to say that while it would take hospitalisation or worse to make me miss a live-action Marvel adaptation, I suspect there are a large number of parallel universes where I didn’t see Into the Spider-Verse on the big screen, simply because it’s an animated film. I suppose I can take some comfort from the fact that I’m not alone in this, because this movie is doing appreciably less business than the live-action Aquaman movie, despite being at least as good.

Then again, I say this as a fairly dedicated follower of all things comic-booky, which really puts me into the target audience bracket for this film. I’m pretty sure this is not the greatest Spider-Man movie ever made – that title is still surely held by Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, and it will take something very special indeed to dislodge it – but in one very specific way at least, it certainly challenges for the title of greatest comic-book movie.

Up until fairly recently, most comic-book films were rather conservative beasts, largely determined not to appear silly or childish and keep the mainstream audience on board. The stories inevitably lost some of their colour, energy, and inventiveness in translation because of this, and it’s only in the more recent of the Marvel Studios films that the film-makers have become confident enough to let some of the sheer exuberant goofiness and innovation of the comics creep back in. Into the Spider-Verse isn’t a Marvel Studios film, but in the same way it isn’t afraid to trust the audience’s ability to get its head around some new ideas – most obviously, that the whole movie is set in an alternative continuity (or parallel universe, whichever you prefer). This allows the introduction of not just the Miles Morales Spider-Man (a comics presence, initially in Marvel’s Ultimate imprint, since 2011), but also a striking new version of Dr Octopus (voiced by Kathryn Hahn).

At the centre of the film is an origin story for the Miles Morales version of Spidey, which is handled with immaculate deftness and storytelling skill. But going on around it, and really making the film sing, is a very different kind of story, basically just celebrating the boundless imaginative palette of comic-book storytelling in general, and super-hero stories in particular. Miles Morales and the initial pair of Peter Parkers are eventually joined by a parallel-universe Spider-Woman who turns out to be Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), and also a manga-influenced version of the character who’s a teenage Japanese girl from the future, not to mention the anthropomorphic pig Spider-Ham (secret identity Peter Porker). Perhaps most joyously entertaining of all is the appearance of a hard-boiled black-and-white version of Spider-Man from a pulp-inspired universe, who is voiced by Nicolas Cage in his own inimitable style.

The film’s defining visual conceit is to animate each of these extra-dimensional visitors in a different style, even when they’re all in the same scene – Spider-Ham always looks like a Looney Toons character, the Japanese character is presented in an anime style, and the Cage Spider-Man comes from a noir universe where the only colours are black and white (there’s a lovely running gag about him trying to make sense of a Rubik’s cube). The result is a dazzling visual treat, before we even reach the bravura climax where the different dimensions collide with and collapse into one another.

The script manages to do full justice to the potential of the concept, and – unsurprisingly, because this is a project in which Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have had a hand – is also immensely clever and funny. I was still a bit unsure about whether my decision to come and see this film had been the right one as it actually started in front of me, but one of the very first things that happens is a gleeful gag at the expense of Raimi’s somewhat less-than-wholly-beloved Spider-Man 3, which completely disarmed and delighted me.

Into the Spider-Verse is filled with good things and inspired bits of invention; the moment at which Lee and Ditko are given due credit is especially moving, of course. Despite its relatively modest box-office take so far, apparently the film has done well enough for a slate of spin-offs and sequels to already be in development. We have been here before, of course, with Sony’s arguably over-ambitious plans to diversify its Spider-Man series following The Amazing Spider-Man 2. In the end that just led to Spider-Man being leased back to Marvel Studios on a sort of time-share basis, and also the distinctly so-so Venom movie (which doesn’t explicitly mention its links to the parent franchise). Hopefully this time things will be different, for Into the Spider-Verse shows that there is potential for a really interesting series of films just focused on Spider-Man himself.  This is the best non-MCU Marvel movie in ages.

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