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Irving Cummings’ 1951 film Double Dynamite has the feel of something which wasn’t really getting the full attention of any of its originators. It was produced in 1948 under the title It’s Only Money, as one of the first films made by RKO after Howard Hawks bought the studio; it then sat on the shelf for years, during which time Hawks changed the name – Double Dynamite sounds like a meaningless fridge title, until you figure out it’s a reference to the bust of leading lady Jane Russell (not that she or the bust is particularly prominent in the movie).

1948 was also the year that Frank Sinatra co-starred in On the Town, one of those films which has really lasted. Bizarrely, he’s third-billed in Double Dynamite, despite being the leading man. He plays Johnny Dalton, a reserved and prudent bank clerk, who is engaged to be married to his co-worker Mibs (Russell). But they just don’t have enough money to actually marry or start a life together, something which is causing some angst in the relationship. Their friend Emile (Groucho Marx), a waiter in the local restaurant, doesn’t help matters much when he suggests that the shortage of cash is just a convenient pretext to disguise Johnny’s commitment issues: Mibs duly storms out of the restaurant in tears when she hears this suggestion. ‘Are you happy now?’ demands Sinatra. ‘Not really, I was hoping for a tip,’ replies Groucho. (He’s not wearing the famous greasepaint moustache and eyebrows, but Groucho Marx’s role in the film is basically just to be Groucho Marx – he even seems to be doing a toned-down version of the Groucho lope in a few scenes. The other two, in contrast, are rather cast against type.)

Well, on the way back to the bank, a disconsolate Johnny comes across a man being beaten up in an alleyway, and being a decent sort he steps in to rescue him. The victim (Nestor Paiva) turns out to be one Hot Horse Harris, proprietor of an illegal bookie’s, and in gratitude he gives Johnny (rather against his will) a thousand dubious bucks, which (courtesy of a multiplier bet the crook also insists on treating his rescuer to) ends up as $60,000, obviously a huge sum. Could this allow Johnny and Mibs to settle down together at last? Should he be worried about the dodgy provenance of the cash? Nonsense, says Groucho – it’s only money, so make the most of it!

Cue a slightly baffling but nevertheless charming interlude, as Groucho Marx and Frank Sinatra perform a jaunty duet together entitled ‘It’s Only Money’ (Sinatra later commented, half in jest, that singing was the only thing he could do better than Groucho). There are only a couple of songs in Double Dynamite, so it hardly qualifies as a musical, but I suppose the thinking was that it’s Frank Sinatra, so he has to sing at some point (maybe The Manchurian Candidate would also have been improved by some crooning about the technicalities of brainwashing). This is a perky little tune, but the staging is rather distracting, as the duo caper down a street – thanks to the miracle of substandard back projection, they and the background seem to be travelling at different speeds.

Anyway, all looks good for Johnny, until it is revealed that the bank he and Mibs works for has a huge black hole in its accounts, and investigators are trying to work out if one of the employees has pinched it. This is not a good time for Johnny to be swanning around with large amounts of cash, especially as the bookie he got it from has dropped out of sight and can’t confirm his account of how he got it…

What ensues is a sort of amiable farce, with lots going on: Sinatra has to quietly steal back all the gifts he’s given to Russell, Groucho volunteers to look after the money and ends up impersonating a millionaire who made his money in pickled pig’s feet, Russell is pursued by the lothario son of the bank president, and so on. Groucho’s scenes in particular are good fun – one wonders how much of his dialogue was ad libbed, or at least written by him – but the plot is a bit of a shambles.

It honestly feels like another one of those movies where the makers thought that just casting three stars like Sinatra, Russell and Groucho would be enough to guarantee results. It hardly ever works that way, though – as noted, Groucho is always good value, and Sinatra’s singing is as melodious as you might expect, although Jane Russell doesn’t get quite as good material as either of them. The problem is that one almost gets the impression they’re making the script up as they go along – the best farces are precision-tooled devices of entertainment, relying on intricate plotting and timing. Double Dynamite just meanders about from scene to scene.

You can perhaps see something of an influence from the screwball comedy genre on Double Dynamite – the film is, after all, about a romance, and there are the usual misunderstandings and false identities and scrapes with the police involved. Even before It’s Only Money, the film was provisionally titled The Pasadena Story, something obviously intended to recall The Philadelphia Story and The Palm Beach Story, two of the best-known screwball comedies. Compared to films like that, though, Double Dynamite just feels shapeless and baggy; the characters are nowhere near as strong as the ones in Howard Hawks’ own Bringing Up Baby, and the script doesn’t come close to sparkling in the same way – though, this being a script from the forties, the dialogue is often unexpectedly good (even if there’s a slightly laborious in-joke about the police hunting a man with a ‘strong resemblance to Frank Sinatra’ at one point).

In the end Double Dynamite is one of those films which manages to be very insubstantial despite the presence of three big-name talents. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy watching it, but less than a day later most of the details of the plot are already beginning to fade from my brain. It obviously has a certain curiosity value, but I’m not sure it’s accomplished enough to really be worth seeking out.

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Normally one of the iron rules of cinema – from that subset of the regulatory corpus devoted to the art of the franchise – is that successful sequels are usually a question of providing more of the same thing from the first film. The trick, such as it is, lies in adding just enough novelty to hide the fact that the film is an exercise in repetition. Long-running franchises inevitably mutate over time, but it’s quite unusual for any two films to be radically different in tone or atmosphere (this is usually the sign of a break in production, a change of key personnel, or both).

So exactly what the hell Netflix think they are doing with Matthias Schweighofer’s Army of Thieves seems to be a reasonable question. One of the arch-streamer’s big releases from early in the summer was Army of the Dead, a big-budget horror extravaganza directed by Zach Snyder in full-on taste-and-nuance-free mode. I had a fairly good time watching Army of the Dead, although I think it’s not a patch on the films that obviously inspired it. Army of Thieves, on the other hand, is a completely different proposition.

Schweighofer was in Army of the Dead and reprises the role here in addition to directing. His character is revealed to have led a former existence as Sebastian Schlencht-Wohnert, by day a bank clerk leading a repetitive, dull life, in his spare time an aspiring YouTuber and expert on safecracking and its history. Of particular interest to him are a series of legendary safes made by a man named Wagner, based on his famous namesake’s Ring Cycle of operas.

One day, he is challenged to put his money where his mouth is, when he gets an invite to a secret underground safecracking club in Berlin (my partner has lived there for many years and I don’t recall her mentioning this being a thing, but then I do spend some of the time tuned out while she’s talking). His performance there leads to an invitation to join a faintly ridiculous gang of elite international thieves. So far the overall tone of the film has simply been a bit odd – low-key character comedy with Schweighofer, mixed with bizarre background details about an outbreak of a zombie virus over in Nevada – but its influences and aspirations become a bit clearer, not least because the leader of the gang is Nathalie Emmanuel, best known for playing a supporting member of the Fast & Furious All-Stars in the last few films from that franchise. Also present are Ruby O Fee as an ace hacker and general cool cat, Scott Martin as an especially absurd alpha-male, and Guz Khan as their sandwich-loving getaway driver.

Yes, with the world’s banks on edge because of the zombie virus outbreak and money being shifted around the world, the gang have decided that this is the optimum time to carry out a series of heists on three of the four Wagner vaults (naturally, all the vaults are about to be decommissioned, meaning the robberies must be performed on consecutive days in different European countries). As the world’s leading expert, it will be Sebastian’s job to crack the safes. What could possibly go wrong?

Army of the Dead had a bit of a fridge title, mainly because the zombies were only figuratively an army, and Army of Thieves really does too, because I don’t think five robbers really constitutes an army, either. This is quibbling stuff, however, as Army of Thieves rather unexpectedly turns out to be really good fun. I must admit that when I first heard of the movie and its premise, the old brow did furrow up a bit – it’s a prequel to a zombie movie that doesn’t actually have any zombies in it? – and there is a sense in which it remains a rather odd proposition. This isn’t really a zombie movie, or any kind of horror movie – and yet they feel obliged to put in background sequences about the zombie outbreak in America, and dream sequences with the undead, and references to the zombie crisis. It’s certainly a new approach to a genre mash-up, but whether it genuinely works or not I wouldn’t like to say.

If you disregard all the stuff about zombies – which is, I have to say, a relatively minor element of the film – what you’re left with is an appealing, slick, almost entirely ridiculous caper movie, built around an engaging performance from Schweighofer and directed by him with a lightness of touch which is very appealing. The Netflix caper comedy which has been getting all the attention is Red Notice, which got a massive audience despite being largely dreadful; there are numerous points of similarity between Red Notice and Army of Thieves (there’s even a casual line of dialogue about one character having been the subject of a red notice since they were a teenager), almost to the point where you wonder if all the people working for Netflix ever actually talk to each other about what they’re doing. However, Schweighofer’s movie is much better, being less smug and lazy and taking the time to establish more rounded characters (some of these guys are well on the way to being three-dimensional) and a slightly more coherent plot. The uninitiated viewer will even learn something about the plot of the Ring Cycle, which isn’t something you can say about most action comedy caper movies.

Quite apart from all the odd bits with zombies in them, the film’s existence as a prequel does result in a few slightly regrettable effects – the storyline about the four Wagner vaults isn’t entirely resolved, because, guess what, the final safe is the one Schweighofer is hired to crack in Army of Thieves (all the Wagner music on the soundtrack in that movie finally makes sense as more than a tip of the hat to Excalibur, which is apparently Zach Snyder’s favourite movie), while some of the violence in this film is just a touch more graphic than you might expect given the overall frothy tone of it. (I must also report yet another appearance of that disagreeable trope where, given a nicely diverse group of characters, it’s always only ever a character of one gender, one orientation, and one ethnic group who turns out to be the traitorous villain – see also Eternals, for another example of the same thing.)

On the whole, though, a really entertaining and fun movie, and one which perhaps even manages to give Army of the Dead a bit of much-needed poignancy and depth, given the way it expands Schweighofer’s character. (Then again, unlikely as it seems, apparently he’s going to be in the next sequel, Planet of the Dead, as well.) This is very possibly a better film than its progenitor, but it’s obviously incredibly hard to compare the two. This is a rare example of a franchise where it’s entirely possible someone could thoroughly enjoy one film but take a violent dislike to the other.

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I’ve been saying for years that there is some irony in the fact that one of the film genres most likely to acknowledge the existence of God as a key plot point is also the one least likely to be watched or enjoyed by your actual people of faith. I speak, of course, of the horror movie (although I suppose the biblical epic is also wont to upset believers of a certain stripe). On the other hand – and join me now as I generalise egregiously – the issue may be that what for most people just seems to be good camp fun – entertainment about ghoulies and ghosties, imps and demons – may appear to those who believe in the supernatural as dangerously frivolous and in desperately poor taste. Well, it’s a working hypothesis, although I am reminded of a story Sir Christopher Lee used to tell, about a priest who revealed he had no problem with any of the films Lee made: ‘The cross always wins.’ (Clearly he never saw The Wicker Man.)

When it comes to religiously themed horror, The Omen probably takes the prize for textual fidelity (if not actual quality), loosely based as it is on the Book of Revelation, but probably coming a close second is William Friedkin’s 1973 film The Exorcist. We should not forget the huge importance of The Exorcist in showing that a well-made horror film from a major studio could be a massive hit: films like The Omen were all following in its profitable wake, in addition to aping its style to a greater or lesser degree.

This is apparent almost from the start of The Exorcist, the opening sequence of which is set in Iraq: linking a story set in the contemporary west to the ancient landscapes and civilisations of the Middle East adds immeasurably to the scope and atmosphere of the narrative. In Iraq we find Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), an elderly priest working at an archaeological dig. He uncovers some unsettling fragments and seems troubled by a towering statue he comes across; the sequence is loaded with significance but the audience is left to interpret its exact meaning for themselves; von Sydow does not appear again until the climax of the film, even though he is playing the title role.

The scene changes to Georgetown, a pleasant suburb of Washington DC; here we find actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) involved in making a movie. For the duration of the shoot she is renting a house with her daughter Regan (Linda Blair). Also living in the area is Damien Karras (Jason Miller), a Catholic priest with special responsibilities as a psychiatrist to his colleagues. Karras is struggling to care for his elderly mother and experiencing a profound crisis of faith.

Karras’ mother eventually dies, leaving him guilt-ridden and in despair. Meanwhile, small events accumulate that lead Chris to suspect not all is well: strange noises from empty rooms, the pointer of a Ouija board flicking out of her hands after Regan confesses to having played with it, Regan complaining of her bed shaking in the night. A local church statue is obscenely desecrated. Regan’s behaviour grows more and more extreme, with medical experts unable to identify what is causing it – until one of them reluctantly suggests that, as Regan seems to believe she is the victim of possession by some kind of foreign intelligence, going through with the pro forma of an exorcism might cause her to cease her strange behaviour…

I first saw The Exorcist on the big screen, when it was given a 25th anniversary re-release. And, I must confess, I wasn’t especially impressed by it, certainly as a horror movie. ‘You probably have to be a Catholic to really find The Exorcist scary’ was a line which was in circulation around the time; it’s certainly one of those movies which makes a virtue over its lingering depiction of some aspects of the Catholic faith. Watching it again, however – well, I still wouldn’t say I was scared by it. Repulsed by some bits, yes, baffled by others, but overall my feeling was really of disquiet and unease – which I suppose in many ways is a harder effect to achieve than simple fright.

Much of this may be due to some of the curious directorial and editing techniques employed by Friedkin – sequences of long, carefully choreographed shots are interspersed with sections of staccato editing, the scenes almost seeming to end prematurely as they pile up on one another. There also almost feels like there is something incorrect, if not actually bad, about the structure of the film – the actual exorcist himself feels almost like a secondary character, despite von Sydow’s prominence and presence, while the abrupt switch to a couple of minor figures as viewpoint characters for the conclusion of the film is also rather jarring. But perhaps it is these very choices – unexpected, unusual – which give the film its unsettling atmosphere.

It’s this atmosphere which stops the end of the film, in particular, from sliding too far into the realm of camp spectacle (a possibility which is always there). For me the most genuinely creepy moments of the film come earlier, when the clearly troubled Regan is subjected to the full scrutiny of modern medical science – and the doctors are baffled. (Apparently many viewers find the scene in which Regan is given a angiography, causing blood to spurt out of a tube in her neck, more distressing than any of the stuff with the spinning heads or fake vomit.) The film’s great innovation is to place supernatural horror into a realistic modern setting, and slowly build the way in which it manifests – the climax is just a little bit too close to gothic drag to really work.

The effectiveness of the end of the film is thus limited, if you ask me, but it’s helped a lot by very strong performances from Max von Sydow (the popular image of the actor as a severe elder figure of impeccable integrity no doubt originated here – von Sydow was under heavy make-up and only in his mid forties at the time the film was made) and Jason Miller (Miller is quite a long way down the cast list but in many ways it’s his subtly intense performance that carries the film). It would be silly not to mention to remarkable combined performance of Linda Blair and Mercedes McCambridge as the possessed girl and her unwelcome guest.

The Exorcist comes from that brief period in American history between the end of the sixties and the twin traumas of the Watergate scandal and the withdrawal from Vietnam (events which coloured or influenced pretty much every major film for the rest of the decade – even George Lucas’ stellar conflict movie was arguably such a massive hit because it completely rejected the cynical mundane world in favour of idealised escapism). It takes that faint sense of implicit disquiet you find in films from this time and uses the lens of the supernatural to magnify it into something with the potential to be profoundly disturbing: the realisation that the whole world has lost its soul and is completely unequipped to deal with a sudden eruption of spiritual evil. It offers no easy answers; the ambiguity and obliqueness of the film is part of what makes it so effective. A highly intelligent and well-made film, and – whatever its eccentricities – still one of the classiest American horror movies.

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One of the things that frequently surprises even people who know me fairly well is the fact that I do love a good musical: as recently noted, the original West Side Story is one of my favourite films, and any musical aimed at a grown-up audience (as opposed to a Disney movie) will get a fairly sympathetic hearing from me.

I think this is because a really successful musical does that thing of transporting you to a wholly different world and state of being better than virtually any other genre of cinema; I go to the movies in the hope of experiencing that kind of moment. I think the natural home of virtually all movies is on the big screen (I would make an exception for something like Downton Abbey, obviously), but especially for musicals.

Nevertheless, the streamers are muscling in on this genre in the same way as virtually all the others – the big N released the slightly mercenary Sunday-school musical A Week Away earlier in the year, and now they have followed this up with a new project directed by no less an eminence than Lin-Manuel Miranda himself – a screen adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s Tick, Tick… Boom!

Larson is probably best-known as the creator of the game-changing late-90s musical Rent, and one rather suspects that the rights can’t have been available or they’d have made a new version of that instead (I didn’t even know they’d made a movie of Rent; I’m pretty sure it never got a wide release in the UK). This is based on an earlier work, or perhaps a couple of earlier works.

The story behind the film is that Larson (played in the film by Andrew Garfield, who I have to say is a bit of a revelation in terms of his singing and dancing ability if nothing else) spent most of the late 1980s trying to drum up interest in a musical he’d written called Superbia – which, given what we see of it in the movie, sounds rather like an episode of Black Mirror with soft rock songs. The film opens in late 1990 with Larson about to turn thirty, still the definition of a struggling artist, seeing his friends doing well in more mainstream careers, and trying to manage a strained relationship with his girlfriend (Alexandra Shipp). Pretty much all that keeps him plugging away in a field swamped with mega-musicals and ‘safe’ productions is the fact that Stephen Sondheim (played by Bradley Whitford but also by Sondheim himself at one point) once said something nice about his work.

But there is a glimmer of hope when Superbia is chosen for a workshop presentation, something Larson is hopeful will lead to the show actually being produced and his talent being recognised. But staging the workshop puts even more pressure on his shoulders, adding to the fact that he is chronically short of money, one of his friends is in hospital with an HIV-related condition, and things in his love life are likewise at a crisis point.

I’d never heard of Tick, Tick… Boom! until very recently; I’d certainly never heard of Superbia. I suspect most people have never heard of Superbia, outside of the world of musical-theatre wonkery anyway, as (spoiler alert) the show has never actually been produced. But the story of how that didn’t happen was used by Larson as material for a one-man show (or ‘rock monologue’), which is how Tick, Tick… Boom! got started (the title alludes to the sense of time running out and the accompanying pressure to succeed that Larson was feeling).

Does this seem a bit convoluted and self-referential? I should say that the film itself is much more straightforward than I’m probably making it sound: it takes the form of a performance of a slightly expanded version of the show (Garfield is supported by Joshua Henry, Vanessa Hudgens, and a band), with extended flashbacks to the events involved.

As a musical, then, it is partially diegetic – many of the songs are performed either at Larson’s live show or the workshop presentation – and I always feel this is a bit of a shame. The ‘an invisible orchestra strikes up’ moment takes a lot of stick, as do various scenes of people breaking out into song and dance in the street, but this is the heart of what musicals about – doing it all diegetically means you’re only a step away from cutting all the songs out entirely, all in the name of realism. In any case, while the movie never quite goes for a full massed dance routine, there are a few more imaginative sequences – the one grabbing all the critical attention comes when Larson is working at his diner one Sunday morning, and the various patrons all start bursting into song.

The gag, if you will, is that everyone in the joint bears a suspicious resemblance to a bona fide Broadway legend – faces in the sequence include Joel Grey, Bebe Neuwirth, and Phylicia Rashad, while Miranda himself plays the chef – while other scenes are equally stuffed with big-name cameos if you know your stuff.

The danger here is that the film will just come across as a piece of musical theatre exclusively about the history of musical theatre. Parallels have been drawn between the careers of Larson and Miranda, both immense talents who created huge hits while still very young (Miranda’s music has an obvious hip hop influence, whereas Larson came from more of a rock background); the appearance of Sondheim as a character also gives a sense of a lineage going back into the golden age of the musical. There is also a sense of deep concern over the health and prospects of the form – one song, ‘Play Game’, features staging which is bitterly satirical about just how difficult it is to mount an original new musical today. It almost feels strange to have made a movie about something which is so fundamentally about a different form of art.

However, the movie remains accessible and effective, mainly because it proves to be about something more basic and human than any particular art-form: Larson’s struggle to succeed and doubts about his own talent. Lots of films pay lip service to the idea of the struggling artist (usually those about the early life of someone who ends up very successful); few of them put meat on the bones of this idea quite as successfully. At what point do you stop banging your head against the wall and give up? Why suffer in poverty trying to make art when you could put your talent to commercial use and make a comfortable living? You come away from the film with a renewed respect for people who labour under these conditions and eventually get their break.

This is still perhaps a bit more arty than most mainstream musicals, and I didn’t really come away whistling any of the tunes. But the backdrop to the film is convincing, the performances are good – very, very good in the case of Andrew Garfield – and Miranda directs with elegance and style. This isn’t the traditional musical blockbuster, but then I don’t suppose it was meant to be. Nevertheless, a well-made and effective movie.

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One of the things the last couple of years has really brought home to me is the fact that while I do, obviously, enjoy watching films, I also have a helpless passion for the theatrical experience: actually going out to a cinema, trying to sit patiently through the adverts, wondering which trailers we’re going to get, and so on. I’ve got West Side Story on DVD and have lost track of how often I’ve seen it, but every time it comes back on at a cinema I try to watch it again there, simply because the context makes a truly great film into an almost overwhelming one. I saw it on the big screen again the other night, where it was preceded by the trailer for Steven Spielberg’s forthcoming version: predictable cries of ‘Spoilers!’ from someone at the back, in addition to a vague sense of bafflement at what on earth Spielberg thinks he can possibly achieve. No film is entirely perfect, but West Side Story comes much closer than most, especially up on the big screen.

It was just as well I went, as the following day Niece tested positive for Covid (life is still not back on an entirely even keel and my family are showing superhuman reserves of patience and generosity by putting up with me for much longer than anticipated) and trips to the cinema are off the agenda for at least the next ten days. So much for an early verdict on the Ghostbusters sequel or Benedict Cumberbatch’s new western.

‘There’s always home cinema,’ someone said, but, you know, that always sounds a bit of an oxymoron to me. But I am in a minority, of course: the home cinema audience is huge, and it seems like an appreciable chunk of them spent the other weekend watching Rawson Marshall Thurber’s Red Notice, which apparently had the biggest audience share for its debut of any film in Netflix history. (It also had the tiny cinema release Netflix usually reserves only for films it hopes will win Oscars: I’m going to stick my neck out and say unless they introduce a new category for Best Film With No Substance, Identity, or Original Ideas of Its Own, Red Notice will be going home empty-handed.)

Red Notice is virtually a fridge title anyway: apparently it’s another name for the most serious kind of international arrest warrant, not that this has any relevance to the plot until the last few seconds. The film gets going with some flim-flam about fabulous jewelled eggs that Mark Antony gave to Cleopatra as a wedding present (the eggs and even the marriage are entirely fictitious, by the way); the quest to reunite the eggs is the plot device the rest of the movie pivots creakily around.

One of the eggs is in Italy, so we get a swooping drone camera shot of the iconic and unmistakable skyline of Rome, which the director then decides to obscure behind a huge caption saying ROME, presumably because he knows this film is aimed at an audience whose carpets and knuckles are frequently in contact. Leaping stoically from a hefty vehicle is genial Dwayne Johnson, whose head looks a bit like an egg these days (he was paid 10% of the very substantial budget): Dwayne basically seems to be playing a variation on his Fast & Furious character, in this case a no-nonsense FBI agent chasing a daring art thief. Johnson thinks the thief has already nicked the egg. ‘Of course not!’ sneers the museum director. But our man knows better, and the thief has made the mistake of swapping the priceless treasure for a fake which dissolves when a well-known soft drink is poured over it. Even more perplexingly, given he must have nicked the egg the previous night (the exhibit is surrounded by tourists all the time), the thief (Ryan Reynolds) has stuck around for some reason.

Still, it enables Johnson and Reynolds to chase about and swap repartee for a bit, which is really the meat of this kind of movie; it looks for a bit like Reynolds has got away, but no, Johnson turns up and nabs him properly, and he gets sent off to the Russian gulag to await trial (I think some of the jurisprudence in this movie is a bit iffy, but I expect you had already figured that out for yourself).

But lo! There is another twist, as another art thief (Gal Gadot, on another 10% of the budget) pinches the egg after Johnson recovers it, having taken on the job of finding all three in return for a huge payday. What’s more, Gadot frames Johnson for the theft, and Interpol send him off to be Reynolds’ cell-mate in Russia.

Yes, we are back in buddy-buddy land, and it falls to Reynolds and Johnson to team up, bust out of prison with virtually a single bound, and try to stop Gadot from getting the other two eggs, bickering and squabbling all the way. Can they find the other eggs in time? Will they come to respect and like each other? And just how big a slice of the budget is Ryan Reynolds actually in line for?

Let’s get one thing straight: Red Notice is a pretty bad movie, even by the standards of Netflix originals. All three stars have basically been nailed into their comfort zones and are required to work with a script where various elements of old Fast & Furious, Ocean’s Eleven and Indiana Jones films are cobbled together, all seemingly with the least demanding of audiences in mind. There are holes in the plot Dwayne Johnson would probably fit through, plot twists that are either very predictable or completely absurd, grindingly obvious expo- and info-dumps, and heavy reliance on slick and (also obvious) CGI. There are some tonal problems for what’s supposed to be a knockabout caper (at one point Gadot, desirous of information, applies electrodes to Johnson’s lower anatomy, and not in a recreational way). Such is the nature of the plot that the film doesn’t even have a proper climax or ending, just sort of crunching its way down into a lower gear while getting ready for the inevitable sequel or two. It is mechanical popcorn film-making of the least attractive kind, and shorn of the benefits of the theatrical experience there is little to disguise this.

However, it would be remiss of me not to admit that watching it was not a wholly horrible experience: genial Dwayne has become the world’s biggest star because he is an agreeable screen presence, after all, and in this film he does the sort of thing audiences like to see him do – the film only really pushes him into new territory at one point where he is required to do the tango with Gadot, which resembles what will happen if examples of industrial architecture are ever allowed to compete on Strictly. Ryan Reynolds, also, is very good at the kind of snarky, faintly camp and knowing schtick he is constantly doing throughout, and the film does have some pretty good gags in it. I must also acknowledge the presence of what I have called for some years the Kurylenko Factor: which is that any film in which someone like Gal Gadot habitually turns up in tight dresses, well-fitted jodhpurs, swimsuits, I think you’re getting the idea here, is always going to have a kind of rudimentary appeal on a very basic level, no matter how bad the script. I’m not proud of it, but it is a fact.

The thing is, though, that the idea is surely to take charismatic stars, adept light comedians, and beautiful women and put them in a film with a really good script where they shine, not just treat them as nearly sufficient in and of themselves and just do the barest minimum to cobble a story together around them. But this is what Red Notice feels like: it’s just dumb and pointless, for all the slick and lavish presentation. A shocking waste of time and talent, and a very bad omen for the future.

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My last memory of the director Ken Russell, prior to hearing of his death, was of his making some very ungenerous comments about Shaun of the Dead in the year’s end review issue of The Guardian, in what was supposedly a feature where the great and the good talked about their favourite films and books and so on of the year just ending. This struck me as a rather mean thing to do, especially coming from someone whose own films – the ones I’d seen, anyway – often seemed inclined to be tacky and filled with a tendency towards look-at-me provocativeness.

Then again, I’d mostly seen late period Russell – The Lair of the White Worm and Gothic, in particular, though the BBC ran a weekend of programming about censorship in which The Devils got shown, and I watched that then (along with Beat Girl and a few other things, not that it matters). People whose opinions I usually respect like Mark Kermode do have a lot of time for Russell and his films, so I probably need to give him another chance.

Spurring me on in this is the fact I watched his 1975 film Tommy the other day, mainly because it was on Netflix and I fancied a break from horror movies. The number of older films on Netflix seems to have declined in recent years (boo), replaced by those usually-dull bits of product marked with a red N on the choice screen, so one should make the most of them while they’re still there.

I’d actually seen bit of Tommy before, round about the same time as The Devils (Channel 4 did a weekend of programming about glam rock – themed weekends were a bit of a thing back in the mid 1990s) – but my main memories were of two other utterly dreadful movies that also got rolled out, Side by Side and Never Too Old to Rock. (If I ever feel in the need for a spot of psychic self-flagellation I’ll go back and watch some of these films again.) Whether the Who, who made the album the film was based on, actually count as a glam rock band I’m a bit uncertain about, but there is definitely a touch of the theatrical and operatic about the film (not least in the way it is sung-through).

Not being all that familiar with Tommy, as noted, I was a bit surprised by how star-studded it turned out to be. For instance, after the faintly confusing opening credits (A Film by Ken Russell – Tommy – by the Who) we initially meet Captain Walker, a heroic RAF bomber pilot, on his honeymoon in the north of England. He and his lovely wife Norah are pictured frolicking energetically in a mountain stream together (to which my reaction was primarily ‘that must have been bloody cold’ – it wouldn’t have left me in the mood, certainly). They are played by Robert Powell and Ann-Margret.

However, tragedy strikes when Walker’s plane is shot down, and his son is seemingly born fatherless (on VE Day no less). But Norah does the best for young Tommy, and while on a trip to a holiday camp she falls in with Frank (Oliver Reed under a resplendent DA hairstyle – come to think of it, he’s in Beat Girl, too), who’s clearly a bit of a dodgy character. Well, Frank and Nora get hitched, and things seem to be looking up for the family.

Until, one night, Captain Walker returns, badly scarred, having survived the plane crash after all. He is understandably put out, firstly to find his wife shacked up with Oliver Reed, and secondly when the couple panic and murder him. Tommy witnesses this, and his mother and stepfather scream at him telling he didn’t see anything, didn’t hear anything, and can’t say anything.

Well, obviously, the shock of this sends Tommy into a sort of catatonic trance where he is almost completely oblivious to the outside world. Various attempts at a cure, including faith healing and psychedelic drugs administered by scary prostitutes, come to nothing, and the grown Tommy (Roger Daltrey) has a generally terrible time with the highly unsuitable babysitters (mostly sadists and child molesters from the look of things) he is left with. But a chance of salvation comes when he discovers an unlikely gift for playing pinball machines…

As you can perhaps already tell, studied naturalism and an entirely coherent plot are not amongst Tommy’s strengths as a film. Much of the story you kind of have to accept, and in the case of some of the closing scenes of the film, actually decide for yourself what’s actually going on. This is not normally the hallmark of a particularly good cinematic experience.

However, Tommy really does work as a film, mainly because of the tag-team combination of Russell’s images and Pete Townshend’s music, which come together to remarkable effect. There’s a pop-art surrealism to the best sequences of the film which is immensely striking and memorable – perhaps the most famous of these is the ‘Pinball Wizard’ scene, in which Elton John’s tremendous performance of a belting song is enhanced by the fact he’s wearing six-foot-tall boots. Even when the music isn’t quite so memorable, Russell can be relied upon to keep things visually interesting. The climax of the film, in which Daltrey swims oceans, scrambles up streams, and finally climbs a mountain, singing most of the way as the almost-devotional anthem ‘Listening to You’ builds around him (and, incidentally, demonstrating that he possesses one of the great rock voices) is another remarkably intense and powerful piece of work.

Set against this I suppose we must acknowledge the film’s occasional excesses and excursions into actual silliness – I’m thinking of the scene in which Ann-Margret rolls around on the floor covered in baked beans and melted chocolate, and the general unravelling of the narrative once Tommy regains his senses and voice: Daltrey takes every opportunity to get his shirt off, while travelling the country by hang-glider preaching his message of enlightenment through sensory deprivation and pinball.

It also does not appear to be the case that the words ‘Good, but take it down a notch or two’ were in Russell’s vocabulary while directing some of the performers. Some of them do indeed turn up and do good, restrained work – Eric Clapton seems rather lugubrious during his solo, while Jack Nicholson turns up and gives an impressive demonstration of how to steal a scene from Oliver Reed – but others, frankly, have all the dials turned up well past 10.  Tina Turner spends most of her screen-time maniacally screeching straight down the camera lens, which is a bit unsettling if you’re not expecting it (and maybe even if you are – it kind of put me in mind of Jennifer Hudson in Cats).

But on the whole it is hugely entertaining, thrilling, visually-interesting stuff. Apparently Russell made a few changes to the storyline implied by the original album, most of which seem quite wise to me, and found a way to make a film about a topic he’d been interested in for a while – spiritual leaders who turn out to be deeply flawed individuals. The film is provocative about religion, to say the least, from very early on – remembrance day crosses are juxtaposed with the cruciform shape of bomber planes and Robert Powell in a crucified pose (which must have been useful practice for him), while there’s another extraordinary sequence (the film is not short of them) set in a church devoted to the worship of Marilyn Monroe.

You couldn’t really say that Tommy doesn’t look a bit dated; it almost seems to have become one of those time capsules of pop culture from a past era – the music is classic rock, and in small ways it did remind me of lots of other films from the mid-seventies like A Clockwork Orange (although the extravagant visual sense also put me in mind of Hellraiser II if I’m honest, and that’s a film from much later). Even some of the costumes are re-used from other films (Richard Lester’s Three Musketeers). But it really does hang together as a whole, as a film with its own distinct identity: grandiose, extravagant and surreal, rather like a feature-length music video, and immensely watchable, witty, and entertaining.

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Even before you start watching Todd Strauss-Schulson’s 2015 movie The Final Girls, it’s clear from the title what flavour of film it’s probably going to be – horror, most likely a slasher, from the knowing-ironic-meta-deconstructionist tradition which has developed over the last couple of decades (most likely traceable back to Wes Craven’s New Nightmare in 1994). And so it proves, with the movie immediately launching into a pastiche of the original Friday the 13th, with a film-within-the-film called Camp Bloodbath.

This concerns a lakeside youth camp, a collection of attractive but disposable young people as counsellors, a scarred lunatic with a machete and a grudge, and all the other bits and pieces you might expect from this kind of movie. It’s crashingly unsubtle, but then that’s sort of the point: the film is basically establishing its terms of reference, and there is a fair degree to get straight here.

One of these elements is the distinction between Nancy, one of the victims in the film-within-the-film, and Amanda, who is the actress playing her (they are both portrayed by Malin Akerman, who I have recently learned is of Swedish extraction – that explains a bit, I suppose). The main character is Max (Taissa Farmiga), Amanda’s daughter, who – nearly thirty years on from the release of Camp Bloodbath – has developed a real dislike for the film, feeling it ruined her mother’s career.

Still, it has become a cult classic, and Max finds herself persuaded into going to a revival, on the somewhat inauspicious occasion of the third anniversary of Amanda’s death in a car crash (Max feels responsible on level, also being in the car at the time). With her are her kooky best friend (Alia Shawkat), the bitchy local queen bee (Nina Dobrev), a guy she’s sort of into (Alexander Ludwig, who managed to spend 2015 appearing in both The Final Girls and another film called Final Girl, which to me only suggests some kind of clerical mix-up at his agent’s office), and the horror geek responsible for the revival (Thomas Middleditch).

The film begins, but quite early on there is an accident and the cinema catches fire. Max and her friends have no alternative but to hack their way through the screen in order to escape. However, rather than the back of the cinema, they find themselves in woodland, in the daytime. A vintage minivan trundles past, and the occupants stop for directions: they are the characters from Camp Bloodbath, on their way to the camp!

Yes, Max and the others have somehow managed to get themselves stuck inside the film they were watching; quite why this has happened and the finer details of how this new reality functions are never completely addressed – initially it seems to be the case that the events of the film are happening on a permanent loop, repeating endlessly, but this rather gets forgotten about, as is the question of whether the film itself is as inimical to them as Billy, the killer from the movie, is.

Getting stuck in a slasher movie is naturally cause for concern, even if they do know in advance how events are going to play out. What rather complicates the situation is the fact that Max can’t help responding to Nancy as though she really is a younger version of her lost mother, which makes her absolutely determined to change the plot of the film and save her life. Things get even more complicated when the newcomers’ interference causes the plot to take a radically different course – the ‘final girl’ who is supposed to slay the killer meets a sticky end much too soon. With her gone, who is qualified to take on her mantle and save the day?

The Final Girls apparently had its genesis in the fact that one of its writers, Joshua John Miller, was the son of Jason Miller, who achieved horror immortality of a sort when he appeared in The Exorcist: watching a parent repeatedly die on screen was what planted the seed. Most of the obvious influences on the film come from elsewhere, however – quite apart from Friday the 13th, there are clear debts to the Scream series (the geeky character who delivers a lecture on ‘how to survive a horror film’) and the Halloween series (the Camp Bloodbath sequel has a hospital setting, like Halloween II, and perhaps the daughter of a famous victim in turn becoming the final girl is another oblique reference). There’s even an obvious debt to the Woody Allen film The Purple Rose of Cairo, in which the fictional world of a film gets problematically tangled up with reality.

The thing about The Final Girls is that it is much more of a playful deconstruction of slasher flick tropes (and other movie conventions) than it is a genuine horror movie – not that there aren’t a few effective scares along the way, but most of the entertainment value comes from the inventive way in which the script keeps finding new spins on its metafictional conceit – characters have to step over or around captions as they appear ‘on screen’, are fully aware of when they’ve gone into slow motion, and so on. There’s a clever plot thread where the characters realise that only one of them can be the ‘final girl’ (obviously), and start jockeying for position, listing their qualifications for the role. The movie’s ability to genuinely feel like an old-school exploitation horror film is a bit hobbled by the fact they film-makers clearly don’t want to go all-in on the elements of gratuitous sex and nudity and graphic violence that most of these films were notorious for.

To be honest, this would probably jar with the emotional core of the film, which is the relationship between Max and her ‘mother’: there’s a sense in which the film is essentially about the grieving process and the need to let go. Needless to say, this is an odd premise for a metafictional horror comedy, almost to the point where one would be inclined to assume the thing simply isn’t going to work. Bizarrely, it does, possibly because the film takes the time to set this up with just as much care and attention as the horror pastiche, and also thanks to some unexpectedly good performances: Taissa Farmiga is spot-on throughout, and you have to envy Malin Akerman her genes as well as her acting skills – she plays both the youthful Nancy and the older Amanda, the latter part being (to put it delicately) somewhat closer to her actual age, and is convincing in both roles. But this is a film which is consistently well-played and written, the only criticisms that I can send at it being that the low budget is sometimes a little obvious (the effect put on the Camp Bloodbath footage intended to make it look like it’s 35-year-old 16mm film doesn’t really convince) and the direction is very occasionally just a little bit showy-offy. Apart from that, The Final Girls is an unexpectedly smart, funny, and effective film that seems to have rather vanished into undeserved obscurity, which is rather a shame.

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With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps it was always the Eternals who had the most potential to throw a spanner in the works of the mighty Marvel machine. One of the more abstruse debates in the realms of comic book history is the exact nature of the working relationship between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and who, if anyone, was the dominant creative talent. Both men claimed it was them, one way or another; Lee was a more flamboyant self-publicist by far, and had another quarter-century to put his side of the story after Kirby died in 1994, hence his status as the perceived Prime Mover of the Marvel Universe.

Not that this is necessarily untrue. Working together, the Lee-Kirby partnership produced the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, the X-Men, Daredevil, Black Panther and the Silver Surfer. Lee working with other artists, most notably Steve Ditko, created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. Kirby working alone, on the other hand… well, he co-created Captain America back in the 1940s, but apart from that – Machine Man, anyone? Devil Dinosaur?

The original Eternals comic-book was the product of Kirby’s mid-seventies sojourn with Marvel Comics, something he wrote and pencilled himself. Heavily influenced by (amongst other things) the ‘ancient astronaut’ books of Swiss hotelier and convicted tax-fraud Erich von Daniken, it was never really supposed to be a part of the larger Marvel universe, being a cosmology separate to itself. It didn’t stay that way, of course, but the grafting of the Eternals characters onto the wider continuity has never quite taken: someone has a go at doing something with the Eternals every few years, which is briefly successful, but then they all get quietly forgotten about for a while, until the next revival comes along (one obscure bit of the lore is that, in the comics, Thanos is technically an Eternal; it’s not entirely clear if or how the movies are going to deal with this).

Will Chloe Zhao’s movie do anything to break this age-old (well, decades-old) cycle? Let us not forget that Zhao has the singular distinction of releasing a Marvel movie in the same year that her previous film (Nomadland – no, still haven’t seen it) won Best Picture at the Oscars. (What was that quote about what Fred and Ginger individually brought to their partnership?)

Well, the film gets underway with the first of several big whomps of exposition to the viewer’s head – delivered by roller caption, no less. It all boils down to a bunch of almost infinitely powerful aliens called the Celestials sending a slightly less infinitely powerful bunch of aliens called Eternals to Earth, to protect the developing human race from some considerably less infinitely powerful aliens called Deviants. (Lots of blazing cosmic power in the mix here, along with Kirby’s gift for rather oddball nomenclature – which the film rather cheekily cocks a few snooks at.)

We get to see the Eternals arriving on Earth in 5000 BCE: there is a nicely understated raid on Kubrick as their black slab of a starship slides toward the planet out of the void of space, followed by some well-staged superhero action in the classic style as they save some primitive humans from marauding, sinewy Deviants. All this stuff in the ancient past with the Eternals introducing humanity to various innovations (agriculture, steam-power, the Mexican accent) takes place in a lyrical-pastoral-mythical mode which I found rather pleasing, to be honest.

Cue a jump forward to the present day, where Eternal Sersi (Gemma Chan), who has vast cosmic powers and never ages but still apparently can’t grasp the concept of an alias, is working in London. An immense earthquake is followed by the emergence of a new strain of Deviant (whom the Eternals figured they’d killed off centuries ago, after which they went their separate ways). Her old flame Ikaris (Richard Madden) turns up to help out, and they decide it is time to get the band back together. When it turns out that one of their number has already been slain (the awkward bit of comics lore where Eternals are literally immortal and indestructible has been dispensed with for the film), the scene is set for the revelation of the truth about the Eternals’ true nature and that of their mission on Earth…

So, a bit of an outlier as Marvel movies go: so much so that you can almost imagine Eternals working better as a standalone film with no ties to the rest of the franchise (in line with Jack Kirby’s original concept). The links that do make it in feel more than usually contrived; Marvel seem to feel obliged to cram obscure characters into each new film at this point, to say nothing of a voice cameo by… ah, I shouldn’t spoil it. (There are also a couple of references to DC Comics characters, who are apparently part of pop culture in the Marvel world. One wonders if the DC movie adaptations are any better over there.)

On the other hand, the fact the Eternals are such an obscure property – I could only have told you the names of a couple of these guys – means that the Progressive Agenda Committee have been very free to come in and give them a proper seeing to, retaining the names and (to some extent) power sets of the characters but changing ethnicities, genders, and almost everything else, regardless of Kirby’s original conception or indeed whether it even makes sense on the film’s own terms. But then this is the nature of modern culture, as is the appearance of a disagreeable trope, the nature of which would be another spoiler.

There are still a whole bunch of Eternals, though, which means many of them inevitably spend a lot of time in the crowd scenes just standing around in the background – one main character is completely absent throughout the climax and I honestly didn’t notice he wasn’t involved. Who manages to cut through? Well, Madden does okay as Ikaris, as does Salma Hayek as the matriarch Ajak; Angelina Jolie undeniably makes an impression in a rather secondary role as mentally-fragile war-goddess Thena. There’s an interesting role for Kumail Nanjiani as an Eternal who’s become a Bollywood star – however, as ostensible lead Sersi, Gemma Chan is amiable but essentially affectless.

And the result is… well, the film certainly has scope and a sort of visual majesty about it, even if some of its ruminations on the nature of belief and free will and destiny aren’t anything like as profound as the film-makers were probably hoping for. It’s all a bit like a galleon under full sail: deeply impressive and beautiful to look upon, and maybe even rather stirring, but at the same time hardly agile and not exactly what you’d call sparky fun, either. (Some might say this gives it the authentic feel of one of Jack Kirby’s solo projects.) It may well be that this is the best adaptation of Eternals one could realistically hope for, but at the time of writing this is the worst-reviewed film in Marvel Studios’ history (‘the script is a load of hooey’ is the considered opinion of one writer on a major British paper), and while I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that, it’s hard to think of another film in the Marvel meta-franchise which is less obviously a crowd-pleaser.

That said, a healthy crowd turned out for the first showing at my local multiplex (what can I say, I needed to get out of the house to avoid the cleaners), and the two evening showings that day were close to selling out, so it would be foolish to declare Eternals to be the death-knell of the whole Marvel project. But this will be a considerable test of the brand’s ability to retain an audience, I suspect. Future plot developments may prove otherwise, but for now this looks like the least essential Marvel movie in ages.

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Any film featuring the final performance of a talent as singular as that of someone like Diana Rigg instantly acquires a significance – and, perhaps, a set of expectations – it wouldn’t otherwise have. Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho doesn’t really do itself any favours by reminding everyone of this fact at the very beginning, featuring the dedication to the legendary actress and icon as virtually the first element of the film. It’s a brave step, but also a laudable one, and the film does not feel swamped by this unexpected (and unwanted) new element.

Wright is one of those directors who can be rather tricky to read: he bounces around across all kinds of genres, usually managing to make each his own in a rather quirky way – so far his CV includes a zombie rom com, a buddy action movie set in rural England, an offbeat comic book adaptation, an alien invasion movie, a diegetic musical car chase thriller, and a documentary about one of the world’s weirdest bands. (For a long time he was also attached to direct Ant-Man, but the whole ‘making it his own in a rather quirky way’ thing fell foul of the Marvel Studios method.)

The new movie is certainly creative, but largely tones down the overt oddness and games with genre. Thomasin McKenzie, who for a while has looked like one of those actresses one really good film away from significant stardom, plays Ellie, a young girl who has grown up in Cornwall with a head full of the sights and sounds of the swinging sixties. She is determined to go to London and make it as a fashion designer – what also rapidly becomes clear is that a suitcase full of old LPs is by no means the only baggage she is carrying with her: her mother took her own life, which has not stopped Ellie from seeing her about the place sometimes.

Despite some misgivings from her gran (Rita Tushingham), Ellie heads off to fashion designer university in the smoke anyway, and almost at once begins to find the reality does not match up to her dreams. Problem number one is the self-absorbed and callous room-mate she’s been assigned (Synnove Karlsen), which she manages to solve by renting a bedsit from a local resident (Rigg).

The fact that, after moving into the flat, Ellie starts to have some rather strange dreams does not initially appear to be a problem. She finds herself transported back to the half-mythical London of the swinging sixties (Thunderball is showing at the cinema, along with The Plague of the Zombies and Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, from which we can conclude that it is supposed to be early 1966 – even though the Amicus film came out six months earlier), experiencing the life of another hopeful young woman named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) – though in Sandie’s case, her disillusionment comes faster and harder and altogether darker. Ellie sees Sandie fall under the sway of Jack (Matt Smith), a shady and controlling character, and begins to fear for what eventually happened to her. But isn’t she just making it all up? As the boundary between her increasingly nightmarish visions and the waking world begins to splinter, it becomes difficult to tell…

Last Night in Soho might not be quite the genre-bender that some of Edgar Wright’s films have been, but it’s still a slightly tough film to pin down. Is it a psychological thriller, or a full-on horror movie? (I was amused to hear two very earnest patrons at the showing I attended intently persuading each other, as the final credits rolled, that – despite its legions of genuine alarming spectres and some rather gory revelations in the third act – this couldn’t possibly be a horror film as it dealt with some serious issues. Hey, money from genre snobs is as welcome as anyone else’s, I suppose.

I’m pretty sure this is a horror movie – it’s genuinely unsettling for long periods, deals with proper horror material, and Wright deploys a few classic horror gags along the way – but it is also a very modern piece dealing with the topics of mental health and misogynistic violence. The sense being alone in a new place, feeling isolated, and never quite fitting in no matter how hard you want to, is superbly created, as is the sickly reality of being a vulnerable single woman constantly having to deal with the calculating male gaze.

And that’s just some of the present day sequences: the stuff set in the late sixties is arguably much worse. It initially looks like this is going to be a love letter to the glamour of that period, the London of Carnaby Street and the Beatles and their peers – a young Cilla Black appears as a character – something only emphasised by the appearance in the cast of such iconic sixties faces as Diana Rigg, Terence Stamp, and Rita Tushingham. But the film is also a ruthless deconstruction of the notion of that kind of glamour and the reality it was built on, which was one of ruthless exploitation and abuse.

It’s a powerful thesis and one the film puts across highly persuasively – I was even slightly surprised that Wright was making a film which was quite so on-the-nose with its moral premise, although I should say the film also works exceptionally well as a piece of dark, hard-edged entertainment, with the director showing off his usual casual mastery of the craft.

However, what definitely came as a real surprise was the conclusion of the film, in which Wright and his co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns opt for something rather more unexpected and nuanced. To be honest, it does feel like the film is reaching a bit, mainly because some kind of twist ending is what the form calls for, and while the ending is still strong and effective it is a little bit contrived.

Nevertheless, this is up there with the very best of Wright’s other films, taking you on a journey into another world (more than one, in this case). It does a good job of suggesting how foundational the pop culture of the sixties remain in the modern world, making full use of the music of that period (along with a few interlopers: the most recent song I recognised was Happy House, released in 1980 by Siouxsie and the Banshees), but is more than just a casual piece of nostalgia. That said, Stamp, Tushingham and Rigg all get meaty roles that allow them to show their quality, and there is something rather marvellous and touching about seeing Diana Rigg command the screen so effortlessly one final time, far removed though she is from her iconic persona of so many decades ago. But nearly everyone involved in this production emerges with credit. Last Night in Soho is a terrific film, one of the best of the year so far, and a worthy valediction for a great star and a great actress.

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Stabbing, shooting, gas explosions, falling from a great height, decapitation: some people just can’t take a hint, and so it is little surprise that Shatner-masked homicidal vessel of pure evil Michael Myers has once again shaken off apparently certain death and is back doing his thing on screen. This time the movie is Halloween Kills, directed by David Gordon Green. Technically this is Halloween XII, but that’s the sort of title that doesn’t go down too well with focus groups, I imagine, and the one they’ve gone for is concise and catchy and tells you what to expect (like you couldn’t already guess).

The eleventh film, just called Halloween, disregarded all of the previous sequels and remakes, and displaced Halloween II as the continuation of the 1978 original. Perhaps it is therefore slightly ironic that there are quite a few call-backs to Halloween II, both explicit and structural, in the new film, not least in the way that it carries straight on from the end of the last one.

As you will of course recall, in that film Michael ended up caged in a burning cellar by Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), the final girl from his 1978 killing spree, after she spent decades and a fortune preparing for his eventual return. However, no plan is perfect and what Laurie has reckoned without is the prompt and diligent response of the Haddonfield fire department, who get stuck into trying to put the fire out. Suffice to say that not everyone who goes into the burning building comes back out.

It actually takes a little while for the film to get to this point, as it opens with an extended flashback to Halloween 1978 and the events surrounding the end of the original film (in this continuity at least). Quite what purpose all of this serves doesn’t immediately become obvious, but what Green is seemingly trying to do is establish the sheer extent of the psychic trauma inflicted on the town by Michael’s visitations and the long-term effect it has on many of the inhabitants.

Back in the 2018 narrative, news of Michael Myers’ return slowly filters out, initially causing panic and distress – but a group of survivors and their friends decides they have done enough running and hiding, and decide to go on the offensive by hunting Michael down and dealing with him permanently. Laurie and her family are initially oblivious to this, as she is in surgery at the hospital (much less gloomy and deserted in this movie).

Michael, on the other hand, has polished off the fire crew and is steadily making his way through the town, visiting gory trauma on everyone in his path. But just who or what is he heading for…?

I note that Halloween Kills has had some rather mixed reviews, some suggesting the film is about nothing more than finding new ways for a man in a mask to bash people’s heads in, but I think it’s another rather superior Halloween film, respectful to the original to a degree that verges on reverence. Certainly they’ve done their due diligence in terms of getting the original cast on board: apart from Jamie Lee Curtis and Nick Castle, Charles Cyphers comes back as the sheriff, Nancy Stephens as the nurse, and Kyle Richards as one of the now-grown-up kids being babysat back in 1978 (making the transition from child actor must be a bit easier when you’re in a super-long-running franchise like this one). The other now-grown kid is played by Anthony Michael Hall, who is rather good in the part. It also looks like they digitally resurrect Donald Pleasence for a few scenes, but this is kept to a respectful minimum. There is also a rather bizarre pseudo-cameo by Bob Odenkirk as the yearbook photo of one of Michael’s original victims (apparently they couldn’t track down the original actor and then someone noticed the resemblance).

One consequence of this big cast is that it isn’t immediately at all clear what the focus of the story is going be this time around, beyond the requisite scenes of regular bloody slaughter. Slowly it becomes apparent: Laurie may have been the most prominent survivor of Michael’s 1978 attack, but there is a town full of other people who lost friends and family and their sense of security, and the film is largely about how they respond to his return. And while this initially seems positive – friends banding together to support each other and take steps to defend themselves – as the film progresses it transforms into something disturbingly similar to mob hysteria, something nearly as ugly and dangerous as a masked killer on the loose. Perhaps there is a political subtext too – Laurie observes that the system has failed all of these people, and hence they are taking matters into their own hands. Quite what comment the script is trying to make is wisely left for the viewer to decide, but it brings a welcome extra layer of texture to the film.

That said, this isn’t the most tense or scary film, with the main innovations being some reasonably inventive killings and a repeated motif where Michael finds himself confronted with large mobs of armed and aware enemies. What ensues is more like a kung fu movie than anything else, as they essentially charge him one at a time and get gorily despatched. (You would have thought that the seventh guy in line, the one with the power saw, would have thought, ‘You know what, on the basis of what’s happening, I’m not going to chance it,’ and run away.) The careful ambiguity as to whether Michael is an actual human being or something more fantastical is really stretched to its limit, anyway: the film is openly playing with the character’s mythic aspects by the end, even suggesting he is somehow powered by the fear and anger of the people around him.

The film certainly ducks the issue of actually attempting a conventional conclusion to the story, although this is probably because it was announced as the same time as Halloween Ends, due out next year (the title is suggestive, but as the Akkad family (long-time producers of the franchise) apparently have a legal clause preventing anyone from actually killing Michael Myers off without their permission, we’ll have to see). In the meantime, though, I think this is an effective and satisfying new riff on the Halloween franchise.

*Yes, I know that because some of these films take place on the same night and another doesn’t feature the character at all, the strictly accurate title would be The Nine Nights of Michael Myers. But you try coming up with names for these things.

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