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All good things must come to an end, but, for the time being at least, Toho’s series of animated Godzilla movies rumbles onward. These suckers are getting theatrical releases in Japan before turning up on a market-leading streaming site, which I suppose is something; it’s just a shame the movies themselves aren’t slightly, erm, less awful. Moderately hot on the heels of Planet of the Monsters, which appeared around the start of the year, here comes the follow-up, which was at one point going to be called Living Robot City Final Battle (gotta love these literal Japanese translations) but has actually appeared under the title Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle (which I presume is a tip of the hat to either Star Trek or, less likely, Blake’s 7).

As before, proceedings have been overseen by Kobun Shizuno and Hiroyuki Seshita, and events pick up pretty much directly after the conclusion of the previous film. It says something about the thorough-going incoherence of Planet of the Monsters that I couldn’t actually remember exactly how it ended, beyond a big battle and a really, really (300m-tall) big version of Godzilla turning up, but picking up the threads is not that challenging.

The story so far: refugees from the planet Earth have arrived at, um, the planet Earth, twenty thousand years in the future (it’s time dilation, or something). They have been dismayed to discover that the whole ecosystem of the planet has evolved to mimic the unique biology of the giant nuclear monster Godzilla (whose appearance was the whole reason they left in the first place). Nevertheless, a landing party under the command of stroppy Captain Sakaki engages and manages to kill one Godzilla, before a second, bigger one turns up and stomps them all.

The sequel gets underway with the survivors regrouping, uncomfortably aware that the mother ship may well just fly off and abandon them all there with the monsters. But there is hope on the horizon as they make contact with natives, who, if not exactly friendly, are not exactly hostile either. There is some heavy and not exactly subtle foreshadowing going on here, for those in the know: it seems the natives also have monster DNA, but rather than that of Godzilla it’s that of some kind of insect. They say their god was killed by Godzilla, leaving behind only a giant egg. Translating on behalf of the egg are a couple of twin girls with psychic powers. All this left me feeling rather conflicted: I do love me a decent appearance by Mothra, which is what all this is clearly setting up, but the prospect of seeing my favourite giant lepidoptera mucked about in a film like this one is hardly appealing. As it turns out, the Mothra appearance, should it come to pass, will be in the next film in the series (which looks like it will also have Ghidorah in it).

This film has other classic kaiju characters to muck up. Our heroes discover that the locals are using arrowheads made of highly advanced ‘nanometal’, which it turns out they have been harvesting from the ancient ruins of the launch site of Mechagodzilla (who was not ready in time to fight Godzilla back in the 20th century). Investigation of the site reveals that… actually, I should say fasten your figurative seat-belt at this point… the wreckage of Mechagodzilla has, over the intervening twenty thousand years, grown into a living, artificially-intelligent city composed of nanometal.

A plan is hatched to lure Godzilla (the 300m version who’s just been standing around up to this point) into attacking Mechagodzilla City (as this rather unlikely piece of urban sprawl has been christened), which should have the ability to kill him, thus reclaiming the Earth for the refugees. Or something. But, given the tendency of the nanometal to go about assimilating and absorbing people, could this not just be a case of trading in one menace for another?

Now, the idea for this movie is a bit out there, but there’s a sense in which that’s what you expect from a Godzilla movie. And the idea of a Godzilla movie where the city itself actually resists being stomped and fights back against the monster (rather than useless toy tanks trundling into sight to do the job) is one that has a certain degree of promise. It almost goes without saying that City on the Edge of Battle does not realise this promise in any meaningful sense.

I think the problem may just be with the nature of the animation in these films. As before, there is a mixture of traditional cel animation, 3D CGI, and what looks very like some form of rotoscoping. The human-scale action is fine, as these things go, and there are some scenes with mecha attack craft in this movie which are also well realised. The problem is that Godzilla himself is almost wholly static; all he does is occasionally blast out a heat ray. The set pieces in this movie mostly consist of Godzilla just standing there being shot at. This is not good. There is no sense of scale or grandeur, and no scenes of Godzilla tearing down the towers of the living city bare-handed.

To be honest, Mechagodzilla City turns out to be a major disappointment: it doesn’t even look anything like Mechagodzilla (you would expect the odd piece of visual reference in the architecture). I was expecting the climax to be Godzilla razing the surface structures of the city, only for the ruins to reconstitute themselves as Mechagodzilla in a more traditional form and a proper monster clash to take place; this does not happen.

(I am aware that this rather negative review of City on the Edge of Battle is perhaps inordinately focusing on things which don’t happen, rather than things that do, but it is the case that this one of those films where not much happens, especially in the first hour. This is taken up with laboured exposition and the script taking vague swings at whatever SF ideas happen across its path.)

I suppose this is still something of an improvement over Planet of the Monsters, in that it is not quite such a nihilistic bore of a movie; it also has the beginnings of a fairly interesting subtext about the place of humanity in the world – on the one hand, the Mothra-worshipping inhabitants of the future Earth are clearly at one with nature, while the refugees’ alien allies are absolutely on-board with the notion of bonding with the advanced technology of Mechagodzilla City and beginning a cyborg phase of existence – this is the kind of theme which pops up in all sorts of Japanese SF and fantasy, and it’s a shame it’s not better realised here.

Still, in the end this isn’t just a bad movie, it’s also a dull one, with any improvements over the first film marginal at best. Normally I would say that the prospect of seeing Mothra and Ghidorah in the next one would be enough to give cause for optimism, but these films have been so flawed in both concept and realisation that it’s difficult to imagine how the next instalment can offer much in the way of redemption.

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It is what people used to call the silly season, when not much is happening in terms of conventional news, and so the more traditional papers are falling back on hopefully-interesting non-news stories. Catching my eye the other day was another piece speculating about the identity of the next James Bond, despite the fact that Daniel Craig has yet to retire and in fact has another film in the works. Current favourite, allegedly, is Idris Elba, which – as I have discussed before – strikes me as a somewhat questionable move (angry mob, please assemble at the usual place). I’m rather more taken by the prospect of the 3/1 second favourite, who is an actor I can actually imagine playing a recognisable and interesting version of Ian Fleming’s character – Tom Hardy.

I’ve been impressed by Hardy for quite some years now, not least by the way he has kept plugging away and overcome some dubious early career moves (his turn as the Picard clone in Star Trek: Nemesis, for instance). Talent will out, it seems – however, if you check through his filmography to see his track record when portraying suave, lady-killing spies, the first piece of evidence which leaps out at you is not in Tom Hardy’s favour. It is in a spirit of public service, and sympathy for the actors concerned, that I must speak of McG’s 2012 film This Means War.

This movie concerns the activities of a pair of CIA agents, played by Hardy and Chris Pine – it is stated quite clearly that Hardy is British, so what he is doing in the CIA is anyone’s guess, but that’s just the level of attention to detail you can expect from this film. Pine and Hardy are partners, and as the film opens they are embarking upon a mission in Hong Kong to capture a pair of international arms dealers. The level of professionalism of this pair is foreshadowed by the way they end up having a gun battle in a crowded bar, killing one of the people they were supposed to apprehend, with his brother escaping to swear revenge. The duo’s boss (Angela Bassett, basically playing the same role as in Mission: Impossible – Fallout, though I strongly doubt the two films are in continuity) confines them to their desks in Los Angeles.

It turns out that Hardy has split up with the mother of his child, and, gripped by nebulous but powerful sentiments, he joins an on-line dating site. (Yes, even though he is a top international spy.) Here he connects with Lauren (Reese Witherspoon), a sort of lifestyle guru who has trouble committing to personal decisions: it transpires she was added to the site by her wacky best friend (Chelsea Handler, saddled with some particularly subpar material). Hardy and Witherspoon are somewhat taken with each other when they meet, but what should happen then? Well, after leaving Hardy, Witherspoon goes into the local DVD rental store (I tell you, this one scene dates the film like you wouldn’t believe) and has another cute-meet with Pine, who has been hanging around in case Hardy needs a hand getting out of his date.

The DVD store cute-meet scene is particularly notable in that it is especially smugly written, with Pine and Witherspoon trading repartee about their deep knowledge of movies and preferences within the field. Except, and this is barely credible, given this film was actually (by definition) written by a screenwriter, neither of them has a clue what they’re talking about, confidently asserting that any Hitchcock film from between 1950 and 1972 is a good choice (one word rebuttal: Topaz).

Well, anyway, the final piece of set-up occurs when Pine and Hardy, both having disclosed they are in a new relationship, discover they are dating the same woman (Witherspoon, crucially, is unaware the two men even know each other). Despite initially having a gentlemen’s agreement to be reasonable about this, this naturally breaks down, with most of the rest of the film taken up with their (it says here) hilarious attempts to impress Witherspoon while sabotaging the other’s chances. (Meanwhile the vengeful arms dealer from near the start occasionally pops up in a B-story, setting up a somewhat obvious climax.)

The best thing you can say about This Means War is that it is visually appealing, on a solely aesthetic level. Basically there are lots of bright colours (garishly so, which sort of matches the cartoonishness of the plot), with extremely attractive people living in immaculately styled apartments. Should you engage with it on any level beyond the utterly superficial (and this includes actually listening to the dialogue), however, this is a very lousy movie.

I watched this movie scratching my head and trying to work out what genre it actually belongs to: it has cute-meets and allegedly comic scenes, but also gun battles and fights and a big car chase. Presumably it is intended to be a sort of mash-up of the action-comedy and rom-com genres, with something for everyone going out on date night. Well, what it really comes out resembling is a rom-com aimed at jocks, which is a novel idea, in the same sense that making ladders out of rubber would be a novel idea.

Let me explain: your typical rom-com is primarily aimed at a female audience, regardless of whether the protagonist is male or female – they are invariably sympathetic and charming enough for the audience to identify with. However, in this film Witherspoon is essentially treated as an attractive trophy for the two men to joust over, too dumb and self-obsessed to notice all the weird stuff going on around her. The two male leads are alpha-jocks and it’s really not clear whether they’re genuinely interested in Witherspoon for her own (undeniable) charms, or just overtaken by the urge to outperform their former friend.

Of course, this leads us onto another major problem, which is that the film is just not very funny. Not only is it not funny, but most of the unfunny comic material is rather questionable: both Hardy and Pine deploy the full apparatus of the intelligence establishment in order to get the girl, which means that Witherspoon spends most of the movie under CIA surveillance with her apartment bugged. Unauthorised government surveillance – that’s the stuff of real comedy gold, folks! There’s also a lot of very broad stuff about Hardy shooting Pine with a tranquiliser gun to stop him having sex with Witherspoon, Pine following their car with a drone (Hardy shoots it down with his handgun), and so on.

Reese Witherspoon, who I have always found a fairly agreeable performer, genuinely seems to be trying her best in a very unrewarding role. What’s more interesting is what’s going on elsewhere, for as well as the in-story contest between Pine and Hardy as characters, there is also the issue of which one of them takes the acting honours. Well, it may be that I am biased, but on several occasions I have come away from movies having been very impressed by a Tom Hardy performance, while the best I can say for Chris Pine is that once in a while I have been rather impressed by a film in which his performance was competent. It may in fact be that Tom Hardy is going easy on his co-star and not giving it 100%, but he still easily steals the movie from him.

The resolution of the actual plot of the film is another matter. While watching it, I was scratching my head (again; a lot of head-scratching went on during This Means War) trying to work out how they would conclude the story. Whichever one of the guys Witherspoon chose, I thought, it would risk disappointing that section of the audience rooting for the other one (although I suppose we should be grateful she even gets given a choice). For her to assert herself and (with justification) give both of them the boot would constitute too severe a violation of rom-com norms. The only other option (the three of them settling down to some kind of menage a troi, possibly involving Pine and Hardy admitting to having more than fraternal feelings for each other) would clearly be much too innovative and interesting for this kind of film. Needless to say, the movie bottles it.

Oh well, you can make bad films and still be a good James Bond (just look at some of the things Sean Connery was doing in the late 1950s), and we can only hope that This Means War doesn’t count against Tom Hardy too much. The fact remains, though, that this is one bad movie – not simply because it is unfunny, and unreconstructed, but also because of the way it treats a deeply suspect premise in such a knockabout manner. No-one emerges from this one with any credit.

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Well, many years of moaning and complaining and muttering sourly on social media have paid off – the big multiplex in Oxford City Centre has finally started showing Jason Statham movies! Long-term readers will know what a big deal this is, especially when you consider that the great man’s recent rise in status means he only seems to be making about one film a year these days. Given that this is the case, it would be churlish to complain about the fact that the actual screenings are, shall we say, a little awkwardly scheduled. Certainly the only first-weekend showing of Mr Statham’s new opus, The Meg (directed by Jon Turteltaub), that I could get to was in 3D, a format which I do have issues with normally – but then again, I’m not going to argue with the prospect of a whole extra dimension of this particular performer, so The Meg in 3D it would have to be.

Hard to believe though it is, not everyone shares my passion for Jason Statham movies, and I ended up going to see this one with Sagacious Dave, Grand Master of Advanced Erudition and Head of Self-Realisation where I work, although I should point out that literally everyone else in the office suddenly remembered a previous engagement or developed a migraine when I invited them to see The Meg with me. It was really more in forlorn hope than expectation that I extended the same invitation to Sagacious Dave, a senior colleague whose cinematic tastes, as far as I knew, extended only to the Planet of the Apes franchise.

‘The Meg? What’s it about?’ enquired Sagacious Dave, furrowing his mighty brow (imagine a slightly ursine version of Gandalf).

‘Jason Statham has a fight with a giant prehistoric shark,’ I said.

Sagacious Dave, a man with decades of experience in the field of thinking serious thoughts, looked at me as though trying to decide which one of us had gone mad. ‘Jason who?’

‘Jason Statham. British movie actor. Used to be a diver, did a lot of mid-budget action movies, now he’s parlayed his success in Fast and Furious into potential global megastardom,’ I said, with (I think) admirable succinctness.

Sagacious Dave gave this some thought for an extended period of time. ‘Yeah, all right then,’ he said, with the slightly distracted air of a man entirely unsure of what he was getting himself into.

‘Really?’ Friends, there was an actual jig of pleasure at the prospect of introducing a great intellect such as Sagacious Dave’s to the full Jason Statham experience. Then I quickly legged it to buy the tickets before he changed his mind on me.

The movie we happily settled down to watch largely concerns the crew of an advanced marine research installation off the Chinese coast, and we are introduced to the cast with admirable economy: although the fact that most of them are stock characters helps with this a bit, I suppose. There is an obnoxious American tycoon (Rainn Wilson), a distinguished Chinese oceanographer (Winston Chao), his daughter (Li Bingbing), who’s in the same line, and her daughter (Shuya Sophia Cai), who mostly seems to be there to tick some kind of cute kid box. Running the place is a strait-laced administrator (Cliff ‘Maori Jesus’ Curtis), a bright-but-rebellious tech whiz (Ruby Rose), a comic-relief African-American (Page Kennedy), and so on.

The team are sending a manned sub into a previously-unexplored aquatic realm which is beneath the sea bed, sort of; it is basically a sort of lost world, underwater. Wouldn’t you know it but the sub gets into trouble, stranding three people six miles down. Who can possibly save them? Well, someone suggests ace deep-sea rescue expert Jonas Taylor, even though an encounter with a mysterious creature at the bottom of the sea some years previously led him to abandon deep-sea rescuing and become a beach bum in Thailand.

This is, needless to say, the role given to Mr Statham. They take a swing at the scene where he initially refuses to come back but is eventually forced by his own better nature to agree, but this is such a formality than no-one’s heart seems to be in it. Soon enough, and despite apparently having been in an alcoholic stupor for the last five years, Mr Statham is piloting his own version of Thunderbird Four towards the murky depths. But there is a problem, for it seems that something big and hungry is menacing the trapped divers – an eighty-foot shark, long thought extinct. ‘It’s a megalodon,’ says Jason Statham, his grim face that of a man recognising a terrifying threat. Or, possibly, that of a man who has pronounced megalodon wrong on the previous sixteen takes and is on the verge of having a serious row with the director.

Well, there is inevitably some chomping and frantic rushing about and a good degree of defiance of death, and the monster fish ends up venturing into the upper waters where there are many more people to eat. Not unreasonably, the local authorities treat our heroes’ warnings of a giant prehistoric shark on the loose as the equivalent of a prank call, so it’s clearly up to Mr Statham to deal with the problem. But what can he do? Well, based on my own reading of the Statham canon, I was expecting him to lure the shark into a disused garage, take his shirt off, and punch the fish to death…

The Meg is a movie which has enjoyed a lengthy stay in the hotel known as Development Hell, from which it has emerged as one of those family-friendly transnational blockbusters clearly gunning for the same dollar as the Jurassic Park movies – indeed, this film is basically Jurassic Shark. (For a long time it was just known as Meg, but the title has been changed, presumably so no-one mistakes it for a film about the Duchess of Sussex.) There is astonishingly little gore, given the subject matter, and the presence of actors like Zhao and Li, not to mention the Asian settings, are an obvious pitch for the lucrative oriental market. In some ways it kind of reminds me of the recent Dwayne Johnson blockbuster Skyscraper, in terms of its tone and the very calculated way it has been rendered as commercially attractive as possible – indeed, I wonder if the producers originally tried to recruit Johnson for the project, and had to settle for the guy he spent much of Fast and Furious 8 standing next to, Jason Statham being (literally) the next best thing.

As I say, the downside of Jason Statham’s rise to superstardom over the last five years or so has been that he simply doesn’t make as many movies as he used to: basically, he just does one movie a year now, as opposed to the three or four you could expect back near the start of the decade. Of course, the movies are bigger, but I would hate to see his essential Stathamity blanded out by the demands of a megablockbuster. Happily, this does not seem to be the case, for The Meg finds our man on fine, laconic form, and the film itself has many moments of tongue-in-cheek humour and in no way takes itself at all seriously. Some of the character-based stuff feels a bit redundant – Statham’s ex-wife is one of the people he has to rescue, but this just feels like over-plotting more than anything else – but I guess that’s the nature of the transnational blockbuster: focus groups like laboriously-articulated character moments and cute kids, so they will appear in this kind of movie.

Along with all that, there’s a rather obvious three-act structure going on here: the effects-heavy deep-sea rescue sequence setting the whole thing up, then a section basically restaging all your favourite bits from Jaws in a Chinese context (this concludes with a rather so-so plot twist), and then finally the shark arriving at a big seaside resort and carving a swathe through the holidaymakers while Statham and his friends prepare to attempt to deal with it. And, you know, it’s not scintillatingly original or insightful stuff, but it’s very competently assembled and a lot of fun to watch. You’re never actually in any doubt as to what’s going to happen next, but that’s really the nature of a genre movie, which is what The Meg is.

But what, you may be wondering, did Sagacious Dave make of all the stereoscopic wonders taking place before us? (In my opinion the 3D is just as annoying and distracting as usual, but I forgot to ask him what he thought of it.) Well, I am happy to report that there were many amused huffs and chortles coming from the seat next to me throughout the film. ‘I want more death! It would add to the authenticity of it,’ was whispered in my ear at one point, and there were approving noises shortly after when a few minor cast members were summarily devoured. Audible delight followed during the shark’s rampage just offshore of a major tourist beach, and an actual cry of ‘Captain ****ing Ahab!’ at one point during the climax. (Sagacious Dave and I were in agreement that the conclusion of the film is particularly inventive and satisfying.)

So, in the end, we decided that The Meg is commercial cinema of the most unashamed kind, but none the worse for that – ‘for a genre movie, that was actually a lot of fun,’ was Sagacious Dave’s final, considered opinion. And I can hardly disagree with him on that. I am not sure the world has actually been waiting for a 3D Jason Statham movie in which he has a fight with a giant prehistoric shark, but if it has, then The Meg is definitely the one.

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Even in our experience-intensive modern world, it turns out that people can go through their lives without ever having one of those normal, routine experiences that most of us take for granted. I’ve never ridden a bike, for example (well, to be honest there are many physical-type pursuits which are completely alien to me, mostly due to my total lack of coordination); I know other people who have never had a curry or flown on a plane. Nevertheless, the film-following contingent where I work were surprised to discover that in our midst was someone with a startling secret that they eventually decided to disclose. ‘I have never seen a Marvel Comics movie,’ our colleague announced.

I know, hard to believe, isn’t it? Well, we are a compassionate bunch and rallied round, providing advice and flow-charts about how best to rectify this, which films to watch first, and which ones to possibly skip (tougher than you’d think to decide on this stuff: personally, and I know this is controversial, I think Iron Man 3 is one of the studio’s most entertaining films, but it’s hardly essential to the ongoing meta-plot). It almost goes without saying that when the next Marvel film came around – and , let’s face it, it’s not like the wait is ever a particularly long one, even when the UK release gets delayed, as has been the case here – we took our colleague along to see it. ‘I can’t believe I’m finally going to see my first Marvel film!’ whispered our friend as the lights went down. There was much clasping of shoulders and smiling; we may actually have shared a moment, swept away on a tide of heady anticipation and self-regarding smugness.

The film in question was Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man and the Wasp, the follow-up to the same director’s Ant-Man from 2015. Of course, much water has flowed under Marvel’s bridge since then, which the film does a decent job of attempting to accommodate. As things get underway, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd, who also co-wrote the film) is coming to the end of a lengthy stretch of house arrest, as a result of his role in smashing up that airport towards the end of Captain America: Civil War. He is estranged from his former mentor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Pym’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), who are on the run from the authorities for providing him with the Ant-Man suit in the first place.

But Hank and Hope are not just quietly hiding: Scott’s visit to the quantum realm of the micro-universe at the end of the first film has given them hope that Hank’s wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) may still be alive down there somewhere, and having been working on a plan to rescue her. It turns out that in order to do this, they need Scott’s help, and so he is quietly extracted from house arrest and whisked off to assist.

However, it turns out that many people are aware of the potential value of Pym’s shrinking technology and keen to get their hands on it, which will inevitably complicate proceedings quite considerably. Around to help or possibly hinder the trio are Scott’s old cell-mate Luis (Michael Pena), criminal and restauranteur Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), Pym’s old associate Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne), and an unstable young woman known as Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) – she’s not really evil, just going through a phase. Luckily Hank has provided Hope with her own (somewhat more capable) suit, and she has taken up her mother’s mantle as the Wasp…

Ant-Man and the Wasp is Marvel Studios’ twentieth film, although strictly speaking it should probably be the nineteenth: attentive readers may be wondering just how the plot outlined above meshes with the state of affairs pertaining at the end of Infinity War, the previous film in the series. Well, suffice to say that Marvel have got a little bit creative with the chronology of their films, and all is explained before the end of the credits (one can only hope that Ant-Man actually appears in the Infinity War follow-up). Possibly more important is another aspect of the relationship between Infinity War and Ant-Man and the Wasp – to my mind, the first film rather benefited from being released immediately after one of the studio’s less accomplished and purely entertaining films (Age of Ultron), for its breezy lightness was a refreshing contrast. Infinity War, on the other hand, is a great summation of what Marvel have achieved over the last ten years, and surely Ant-Man and the Wasp runs the risk of seeming just a bit small-time and disposable in comparison?

Well, to some extent this is true, at least – there are only a handful of characters with your actual superpowers in this film, as opposed to a couple of dozen (Fishburne does not actually get to appear as Goliath, who’s one of those characters most notable for the circumstances of their death anyway). And, like the first film, this is as close to being a pure comedy as anything that Marvel has released – although, to my mind, the films have generally been getting lighter over the last few years.

In many ways this one put me in mind of Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2, in that the key change behind the scenes is that different writers are responsible for the script. My main problem with the second Guardians film was that it didn’t feel particularly well-structured or cohesive as a story, and the same is really true here. The film kind of plays out as an extended farce or sitcom, with Scott more than once having to rush home to fool the FBI into thinking he hasn’t breached the terms of his house arrest – it’s much more about overcoming obstacles and minor antagonists than actually defeating a villain. Ghost (quite well-played by John-Kamen) isn’t actually malevolent as such, and may even strike some viewers as being somewhat sympathetic.

Certainly it’s not quite the radical development of the first film that the title might suggest: the movie still feels very much focused on Scott, although the Wasp does get some good action sequences. You might just as accurately call it Ant-Man, the Wasp, and the Wasp’s Dad (who was the first Ant-Man), because Douglas is doing good work in a prominent role. On the other hand, though, there’s a kind of conceptual progression here, building on ideas only touched on in the first film. The film’s plot may be a little underpowered and lacking in focus, but what keeps it very watchable and entertaining is the way in which the concept of things being grown and shrunk to the wrong size is explored. There’s a delightfully fantastical quality to it, particularly in the closing chase, with people, vehicles and even buildings undergoing rapid changes in scale at a frantic pace. And, of course, the film’s more comedic moments are solidly written and performed by people who are simply very good at that sort of thing. A lot of people in Marvel movies have been trying to be funny recently, but none of them are quite as good as Paul Rudd, if you ask me: one can only hope the studio makes more use of him in this respect (the campaign starts now: put Ant-Man in the Avengers!).

So, in the end, is this one of the essential keystone movies in Marvel’s project? No, absolutely not. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t an entertaining and very inventive addition to the MCU canon. I’m not quite sure where they can take these characters next, should a third movie prove forthcoming, but for the time being this is a fun, accessible, undemanding film that most people will probably enjoy.

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The Phoenix in Oxford is officially in the middle of a Hitchcock season at the moment (Psycho this coming Sunday, Vertigo the week after that), but if one didn’t know better one might suspect that the cinema’s film booker was quietly running another, unofficial season at the same time: this week the place is showing not two but three films with a religious theme to them. (I enjoy a revival as much as anyone else, but not usually in this sense of the word.)

Yes, this week, currently showing at a cinema near – well, likely not you, but certainly me – is First Reformed (previously discussed hereabouts), Apostasy (a British drama about life in a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses), and finally Xavier Giannoli’s The Apparition (titre Francais: L’Apparition), which will be our main focus on this occasion.

Vincent Lindon plays Jacques Mayano, who as the film opens is a deeply traumatised figure: we first find him hunched in a hotel bedroom, somewhere in the Middle East, clutching a battered and bloody camera. The situation soon becomes clear: Mayano is a war reporter, and his photographer colleague has recently been killed in action. Mayano is consumed by grief and guilt, and upon his return home to France shows every sign of being in the throes of some kind of psychological breakdown.

Then a message comes, from the Vatican no less. He is invited for a confidential meeting with one of the cardinals there. The Catholic Church has a job for Mayano, if he is prepared to take it on: a young girl in rural France claims to have been visited by an apparition of the Virgin Mary, and has attracted a dedicated following of pilgrims and other believers as a result. The girl is named Anna (she is played by Galatea Belugi) and she is a novice in the local convent. Her local priest (Patrick D’Assumcao) is a rebellious type and not being especially cooperative with the Holy Office, who generally like to keep a lid on this sort of thing, at least until it can be authenticated (Mayano is told that the Church would prefer to let a genuine case of a supernatural manifestation languish in obscurity than give publicity to something that might be fraudulent).

And authentication, or not, is what is on the cards for this particular phenomenon. How does this involve Mayano? Well, the Church would like him to participate in the process, essentially being lead investigator for the assessment panel (which also includes a psychiatrist, a priest from the local diocese, a theologian, and so on). More out of curiosity than anything else (or so it is implied), Mayano takes the job – but as he gets to know Anna and the other principals in the case, he finds himself being more deeply affected than he had anticipated – especially when it seems there may be a connection between Anna’s supposed visions and his own recent trauma…

I saw Xavier Giannoli’s previous film, Marguerite, a couple of years ago, and was rather blown away by it: a very subtle and impressive piece of work, especially in the understated shifts in tone which see a film that begins as a smart comedy end as a genuinely moving and rather tragic drama. His name rang a vague bell when I saw it on the poster for The Apparition, but I didn’t put two and two together until after seeing the film – I have to say this is probably just as well, as it would only have raised my expectations for the new movie.

As it is, The Apparition gets off to a notably assured and compelling start, detailing Mayano’s personal situation and then his summons to Rome. This all plays rather like a more naturalistic and credible version of something that Dan Brown might write, with the understated way that various church officials discuss extraordinary phenomena only adding to the impression that the film makes. You are left genuinely wrong-footed and unsure of just which way the film is going to go as it proceeds – is this going to be a slightly arty drama about Mayano’s own personal issues? Some kind of paranormal mystery, with a touch of the theological about it? Or a more conventional thriller, exploring some of the murky backstory of Anna’s visions of the Virgin?

Well, if I say that even at the end of the film, I wasn’t entirely sure which way the film had gone, you may get some idea of the problems with which The Apparition is saddled: it has a great opening, to be sure, but by about halfway through it has lost most of its momentum and cuts back and forth between a number of plotlines, with no great sense of this being a film which is in a hurry to go anywhere in a hurry. Indeed, ‘hurry’ is definitely not the word, for The Apparition is knocking on the door of being two and a half hours’ long, and this is frankly just too much. The story wanders off on odd tangents and explores obscure subplots, but there’s not much sense of anyone being in command of the narrative. When I say that by the end of the film I still wasn’t entirely clear if anyone had genuinely seen the Virgin Mary or not, and what this might mean, you may get some idea of how impenetrable the film becomes – not because it’s difficult to follow what’s going on from scene to scene, but because it’s clearly all supposed to mean something but it’s very difficult to tell what. You’re in no doubt as to Mayano’s mental state as the film concludes, but you have no real sense of it yourself, nor any real understanding of why he’s feeling this way.

Now, it would be remiss of me to suggest that there’s nothing of interest going on here at all: Giannoli takes a balanced view of the Church, comparing the genuine faith and decency of some adherents and members of the hierarchy with the willingness of others to exploit Anna for her visions, and puts this across with a light touch. The film also benefits enormously from two tremendous performances from the two leads – Lindon does just enough to suggest that beneath the surface of his world-weary journalist is a man who may actually want to believe in something greater, while Galatea Belugi is astonishingly self-assured in a very demanding role as the young devotee: I suspect she may very well be going places.

However, if so it will almost certainly be in vehicles which are better assembled than The Apparition. There is enough good stuff here for me to put it in the pile marked ‘Creditable Misfire’, and one certainly gets the impression that Giannoli managed to get reasonably close to the subtle and thoughtful film he was clearly aiming for. Nevertheless, it still looks to me like he fell some way short of his target, with the result that this is an ultimately disappointing movie on many levels.

 

 

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It is with a bit of a jolt that I realise that I have been going to see Mission: Impossible movies at the cinema for half of my life. It doesn’t seem that long since I had only been going to see the first one for a couple of hours, at a rather lovely old cinema in Hull city centre, but there you go, that was 1996. I just wish that I had lasted in the interim as well as Tom Cruise, for he doesn’t look that different to how he did in the first film, whereas I’m honestly starting to feel slightly ravaged.

These days, a nice Mission: Impossible movie is Tom Cruise’s best shot at getting the kind of hit which sustains a career, which may be why he’s finally settled down to making them approximately in accordance with a standard blockbuster franchise release schedule – to wit, one every three years or so. The new one is as punctuation-heavy as ever – Mission: Impossible – Fallout, directed (like the last one) by Christopher McQuarrie. The first few films in the series were essentially standalones without much connecting them, but the retention of McQuarrie as director signals that a bit of a change is in the air, although ‘change’, where this series is concerned, is a relative thing.

So it’s front and centre once more for crack American fun-and-games squad the Impossible Missions Force, in this film comprising toothsome legend Ethan Hunt (Cruise, 56), comic relief Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg, 48), and computer whiz Luther Stickle (Ving Rhames, 58). Clearly the new young generation of agents just ain’t cutting the mustard, even though Luther’s ability to do all the running about and hiding in plain sight demanded by a typical Impossible Mission is somewhat compromised by the fact he looks about seventeen stone and is always wearing a selection of rather incongruous hats. Jeremy Renner, somewhat ironically, has not come back this time as apparently his commitments to Infinity War got in the way – I say ‘ironically’ as all of Renner’s scenes in the Marvel movie ended up on the cutting room floor.

Plotwise, it turns out that capturing the international terrorist mastermind Solomon Lane (Sean Harris, 52) at the end of the previous film has only annoyed his various acolytes and caused violent global upheaval and terrorism (which only makes one wonder why Cruise et al bothered in the first place), and they are now intent on getting some plutonium so they can blow things up. They are assisted in this by the mysterious John Lark, a shadowy figure intent on causing international disruption and chaos whose real identity is a mystery (I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he turned out to be a golf-loving Washington DC resident with an active Twitter account).

Well, things do not initially go to plan, as Cruise opts to save a comrade rather than secure the plutonium, and the team is obliged to proceed in the company of beefy CIA hard-case August Walker (a luxuriantly moustachioed Henry Cavill, 35 – this is the moustache that Warner Brothers had to spend a bomb digitally erasing from Cavill’s mush after the Justice League reshoots), who is under orders to get nasty if Cruise looks like going rogue at any point (which is a pretty sure thing, given he seems to go rogue on a weekly basis in these films). It turns out that securing the plutonium will involve another run-in with Lane, not to mention ex-MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson, 34 – one thing about these characters is that they do lower the average age of the ensemble a bit), with whom Cruise had a bit of a thing last time round…

So, anyway, another new Mission: Impossible movie. As usual, I sat there watching the movie, making mental notes of pithy little observations I could make when it was time to write this here review which you are reading (if indeed you still are). But a strange sense of familiarity, even perhaps deja vu, crept upon me as I did so. In the end I went back and re-read the reviews of Mission: Impossibles 3, 4, and 5 from this blog, just to make sure I didn’t end up repeating myself.

And, seriously, I’ll tell you what a really Impossible Mission is: it’s telling this film apart from the previous ones. Now, I know that probably sounds quite negative, and I should qualify it by saying that it’s every bit as competent a piece of glossy, big-budget entertainment as the other films in this series. There are some stupendous, absurd stunt sequences, a ridiculously byzantine plot, first-rate action, competent performances, and all the rest. But the fact remains that, just like the previous films, it primarily resembles a series of set-pieces strung together by minimal plotting, said plotting revolving around double- and triple-crosses and characters ripping off their faces at key moments to reveal they weren’t who they initially appeared to be.

The real Impossible Mission – or certainly, the very challenging one – is to identify the bits of Fallout which actually make it distinctive from the other films in this franchise. Well, initially it seems like the dramatic meat of the film is going to be built around the Big Moral Question of whether Tom Cruise is capable of dealing with a Hard Choice. Will he save a team-mate or grab the plutonium? Is he prepared to shoot a cop for the good of the mission? Is he even prepared to go head-on with Ilsa? Sounds quite promising, doesn’t it, until it becomes apparent that the script is always going to let Cruise cop out of actually making a Hard Choice, or contrive it so that whatever dubious choice he makes works out in his favour. In the end this angle just gets dropped in favour of slightly vacuous stunt sequences (although, to be fair, the film concludes with a set-piece with a couple of helicopters that is absolutely eye-popping).

The other innovation in this film is the fact that it’s much more a sequel to the previous film than is usually the case in this franchise – the same villain recurs, along with various other supporting characters. You also really need to be more than passingly familiar with the plot of Rogue Nation in order to completely follow that of Fallout (not that following the plot of one of these films is strictly necessary in order to enjoy it). The links go further back, with another appearance by Michelle Monaghan (most prominently seen in Mission Impossible 3), and the implication that a new character played by Vanessa Kirby is the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave’s character from Mission Impossible 1 (I’m not sure this is even biologically possible, given their ages, but I suppose fertility experts get assigned Impossible Missions too). In this case at least, it’s just something to reward those of us who’ve been turning up faithfully for over two decades.

When you really get down to it, Mission: Impossible – Fallout is basically just product made to meet the demands of a formula – there’s still more than a little of Bruce Geller’s classic TV show to proceedings, and there’s a particularly bombastic version of Lalo Schifrin’s classic theme this time around, but the film series has probably now eclipsed its forebear in terms of audience awareness. It basically just has all the fights, chases, stunts, twists, turns, and tricks you expect from this kind film, delivered with a lot of gloss and conviction. And the end results are undeniably entertaining, even if six months later you’ll be hard pushed to remember what this film was actually about, and probably find it blurring together with the others in your head. But this is the world of the popcorn action blockbuster – it’s not intended to be a film for the ages, but a film for the moment when you’re actually watching it, delivering a pleasant and familiar buzz. And, on those terms, it is undeniably a successful movie.

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By one of those weird little resonant coincidences which might almost make a person believe in stuff beyond the humdrum quotidian, we currently have a situation where two films on release feature an uncanny degree of similarity in one element of the script. Were you to mosey down to your local UK cinema and say ‘I want a ticket for the film… I can’t quite remember the title… it’s the one where Amanda Seyfried has recently become pregnant but is having trouble in her marriage… can you help?’ you would be basically be taking a gamble. While this is essentially a large chunk of the premise to Mamma Mia! Oh No Not Again, currently occupying an unfeasibly large number of screens in the UK, it is also an essentially accurate description of the set-up to First Reformed.

I would say it is a very good idea to get your pregnant Amanda Seyfried films sorted out before heading to the cinema, because they are in other respects cut from slightly different cloth. The Mamma Mia! sequel is a fluffy, glittery, feel-good piece of froth that doesn’t make many demands of the brain from anywhere much higher than the medulla oblongata; its sole intent is to distract and delight. First Reformed, on the other hand… well, I’m reminded of a Stephen King quote about the literary style of James Herbert – who, according to King, performed the equivalent of grabbing you by the collar and screaming in your face.

This should not come as much surprise once one learns that the writer-director of First Reformed is Paul Schrader, a veteran film-maker long renowned as the grim observer of a certain kind of damaged masculinity: he wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, not to mention The Last Temptation of Christ. You don’t go to a Paul Schrader film for a cheery Swedish power-pop singalong. You go there to have the harsh realities of modern life scraped across your face like a handful of broken glass, and First Reformed really delivers on this score.

Ethan Hawke plays Ernst Toller, pastor in charge of the small, little-attended ‘tourist church’ First Reformed, in upstate New York. Toller has a broken marriage and an intense personal tragedy behind him; he is a lonely man, not in the best of health either physically or mentally, perhaps actually very sick indeed. As the film begins he has just begun keeping a journal of his private thoughts, primarily (it seems) to justify the voice-over which Hawke delivers throughout the movie.

The church is about to reopen for its 250th anniversary, the renovation having been bankrolled by various wealthy local businessmen. Toller is more preoccupied with the lot of one of his flock, a young woman named Mary (Seyfried). She is with child, but concerned by her husband’s response to this news. He is an environmental campaigner, though one who has now fallen somewhat into despondency, and feels it is a fundamentally selfish act to bring a new life into a world which will soon be ravaged by the consequences of human-caused climate change.

Well, this has a big impact on Toller, but how should he respond to it? The very men his church is so reliant on are industrialists and polluters on a massive scale. His superiors in the church do not seem very sympathetic either. It’s almost enough to make a man, even a priest, contemplate the darkest of notions…

So, and I’m not sure I even need to reiterate this again but let’s be on the safe side, not a great many laughs in this one. The trailer for First Reformed looked interesting, and the 94% approval rating it enjoys on a popular solanaceous review aggregator site also suggested it might be worth a look, but I was especially intrigued when a couple of people from work went to see it and came back grumbling loudly. ‘Awful. I fell asleep. It’s so slow. Not what you’d call entertainment,’ was the capsule version of their collective opinion.

Well, I can kind of see where they’re coming from, as even at the viewing I attended, someone behind me stood up at the end and announced with a huge grin ‘It was even bleaker than I’d hoped!’ You would have to be some kind of sociopath to come out of First Reformed skipping and whistling: this is a film which will test you and attempt to shred your soul. Not in any particularly explicit, horrific way – this is first and foremost a personal drama. But it is about as heavy a drama as I can remember seeing at a UK cinema, recently at least.

Initially the film seems content to deal in a sort of non-specific gloominess, as various scenes of Toller drinking too much, peeing blood and sitting in darkened rooms with his head in his hands are intercut with gloomy pronouncements about the state of environment and the theological ramifications and aspects of this. You do wonder where it is going and, indeed, what it’s actually about.

Eventually things acquire a little clarity, and it seems to me that while the film does have some interesting and perhaps challenging things to say about environmentalism and how society deals with this issue, it is really about hope and despair. How does a sensible person fend off despair these days? How can you maintain any sense of hope in the era of Trump, Brexit, accelerating climatic disaster, the collapse of western civilisation as we have known it, and the prospect of any number of apocalyptic futures?

It is, to say the least, a very considerable challenge – or so the film seems to suggest. Unsympathetic viewers might say that First Reformed goes off the deep end in the sheer scale of its darkness and willingness to toy with disturbing notions and imagery. If it were made with less commitment and focus, and had a less impressive performance than Hawke’s at its heart, it might become risible and preposterous, not to mention extremely tasteless, towards the end. The film still often feels like a calculated act of provocation against normal standards of good and bad taste, and it does make unusual demands of the viewer – there’s a sequence towards the end which had me going ‘What the hell…?’ so abruptly and thoroughly surreal is it.

The fact remains, though, that this is still clearly a highly intelligent film, the product of a distinctive directorial vision, and lifted by a superb performance from Ethan Hawke. There are big questions about faith and society being asked here, even if the answers that are given seem provisional at best. First Reformed is absolutely not for everyone, and contains material likely to disturb and perhaps even offend – but if you like some slightly more demanding, chewy material in your cinematic intake, then this is a film with the potential to satisfy you.

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