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Oh, the wonders of the internet age – up until very recently I had no idea that there even was a record for the most on-screen deaths, let alone who actually held the thing. But apparently so – if you trust Wikipedia, at least – and the holder is… we pause for effect… the late John Hurt, apparently. What, really? Not Sean Bean? Not Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee? Apparently so: forty-three on-screen deaths, the last time anyone bothered to check. Does this list include the last film that he made, Eric Styles’ That Good Night? I suspect that revealing the answer would constitute a spoiler, but it would not be entirely inappropriate, given that (as the title suggests) this film is largely about the ultimate moment of mortality.

Hurt plays Ralph Maitland, a brilliant and celebrated novelist and screenwriter resident somewhere very photogenic in the Algarve, with his rather younger wife Anna (the Swedish actress Sofia Helin, whose stellar performances in The Bridge finally seem to be translating into international stardom). Ralph is, not to put too fine a point on it, a crabby old git, whom his wife and housekeeper seem improbably fond of as the film begins. Then, and the lack of subtlety with which this is handled makes one wish the film had been written by an award-winning screen-writer rather than simply being about one, Ralph has a hospital appointment at which bad news is delivered.

Not bothering to tell Anna, Ralph’s reaction is to get in touch with his son Michael (Max Brown), as there are apparently things which must be said. Nevertheless he is rather put out when Michael turns up with his girlfriend Cassie (Erin Richards), with whom he instantly fails to hit it off, jeopardising his opportunity to say his piece. Time is an issue, as Ralph has plans which he plans to implement sooner rather than later.

So, a little background on this slightly obscure film (it had a marginal release even in the local art-houses, and I only caught it at the local classics and catch-up cinema, the Ultimate Picture Palace, where it played on a Saturday night to an audience of about half a dozen). Apparently it started off as a stage play of the same name by NJ Crisp (probably best known as a TV writer), created as a vehicle for Donald Sinden to act in alongside his son. That was back in 1996; quite why it has taken over twenty years for it to reach the screen is probably down to the glacial way in which low-budget film production happens.

Nevertheless, I think this is pertinent, because I get the sense that screenwriter Charles Savage has not adapted Crisp’s play quite as comprehensively as he might. There’s nothing concrete in That Good Night to suggest anything other than a present-day setting, but there’s something about the attitudes and behaviour of the characters that can’t help feeling very, very dated: if the film was set in the seventies, it might be a bit more credible.

The theatrical origins of the piece are never much in doubt, anyway. You can see where they’ve tried to open the story out by including various scenes of people going to the shops and what-have-you, but the majority of it takes place within about twenty feet of John Hurt’s patio, for this is where the meat of the film transpires. Much of this consists of a succession of somewhat contrived scenes in which Ralph and the other characters laboriously articulate their feelings about each other, in the process filling in some of the back-story. Really, the most distinctive thing about these is Hurt’s willingness to go all the way in his portrayal of a misanthropic sod, but even so, I found my credibility detector starting to ping a little: it feels like the script has been written to give the actor a chance to do his stuff, rather than to present a rounded character, and this is surely melodrama rather than drama.

That said, it is of course John Hurt of whom we are speaking, one of those people who always seemed almost incapable of giving a bad performance, and his talent is the firm pillar around which the somewhat rickety edifice of That Good Night has been constructed. This is a star vehicle for Hurt, and he does his very best with some rather suspect material. If this film has any kind of posterity, it will be as his final filmed performance (though not quite his last film to be released, as he has a supporting role in a thriller called Damascus Cover out later this year). Given the fact that this film is about coming to terms with the end of life – that moment when the horizon stops receding, as the film’s most memorable dialogue puts it – and the fact that Hurt himself was terminally ill while making it, it’s almost a surprise the film does not feel more poignant and affecting. But it doesn’t, and if you ask me this is just another sign of weakness in the material.

I could also complain that Sofia Helin doesn’t get the quality of script she deserves, but at least she gets a chance to show her versatility, performing in English and being almost unrecognisable to anyone who only knows her as the socially-challenged but implacable detective from The Bridge (I suspect this may be down to the magic of a mysterious procedure known as ‘acting’). To be honest, though, the only person to come close to challenging Hurt’s domination of the film is Charles Dance (landing the ‘and’ spot in the credits), who turns up as… well, again I probably shouldn’t say, but let’s put it this way – the film features a sort of plot twist, but it’s the kind of plot twist which it’s extremely difficult not to guess. Hurt and Dance get a number of rather windy scenes in which they debate the nature and ethics of euthanasia, particularly as it applies to the terminally ill. Nothing especially bold or thought-provoking is said, and it really is a tribute to the class and charisma of the actors that they are amongst the more engaging parts of the film.

In the end, though, all the film has to offer on this subject is a sort of nebulous, optimistic sentimentality, which increasingly colours its final scenes. Again, for a film which is clearly trying to hit you where you live, it is curiously affectless and bland. There’s nothing which is outright bad about it (though some of the more melodramatic moments come close), it just never really convinces as a drama. Matters are not really helped by the kind of direction and cinematography that almost puts one in mind of a reasonably classy TV drama, and an intrusive score which adds nothing to the atmosphere of the film and starts to feel like muzak long before the end.

That Good Night does touch on serious and important issues, but that’s all it does – it has no insights to offer, and it never makes you think or really feel anything. If it is worth seeing at all, it is for the performances of a number of very talented actors, but even here it is as a demonstration of their ability to lift a rum script into the realms of watchability. If That Good Night appeared as a Sunday night TV movie, it would pass ninety minutes in an inoffensive manner, but as an actual big-screen experience, it is rather lacking.

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Regular readers may recall my trip a couple of months ago to the excellent Ghost Stories, in the company of a couple of young Russian women who – in defiance of all logic – were unaware they were actually going to see a horror movie. Well, as they say in the more gothic-influenced parts of Switzerland, mein Gott, ich habe ein Monster erschaffen, for – while her friend Yekaterina returned to Russia alarmed and trembling – Olinka, it seems, has developed a real taste for this sort of thing. ‘Can we go and see Hereditary? Can we can we can we?’ ran the general tenor of her messages to me for quite some little while, until we, um, went to see Hereditary, directed by Ari Aster. Filling in for Yekaterina was me good mate and occasional contributor around here Next Desk Colleague, which if nothing else made me hope that there would be less jumping onto and grabbing at each other in the dark on this occasion.

We saw the trailer for Hereditary before Ghost Stories, of course, and were not unimpressed by its unsettling weirdness. Less positive was the response of another group of people who also saw the trailer, according to the media, but as they were a group of small children and their parents waiting to watch Peter Rabbit, this is not really surprising. Oh, the horror! Oh, the outraged screams! Oh, the parents desperately dragging their youngsters out of the theatre! Mind you, I don’t understand why this doesn’t happen during every screening of Peter Rabbit, regardless of which trailers precede it, but there you go – it’s a funny old world.

‘It’s a funny old world’ is not the prevailing ethos on display in Hereditary. ‘It’s a horrendous, bleak, nightmarish existence’ would probably be closer to the mark. The main character is Annie (Toni Collette), a successful artist, who lives with her husband (Gabriel Byrne), son (Alex Wolff), and daughter (Milly Shapiro). As the film opens they are preparing to bury Annie’s recently deceased mother, with whom she had a fraught relationship, to say the least. It soon becomes fairly clear that this is not exactly what you would call an entirely functional family: tensions and resentment, between mother and children at least, seem to be constantly simmering away not far from the surface. And as far as daughter Charlie is concerned – well, the kid just ain’t right, somehow, choosing to spend lots of time alone in a somewhat spooky treehouse, with hobbies that include scissoring the heads off dead birds. Hmmm.

And here we kind of run into a problem, which leads us back to the trailer to Hereditary. This is definitely one from the atmospheric, impressionistic end of the spectrum – it does a very good job of giving you an idea of how you’re going to feel while watching the movie, but in terms of telling you what the actual plot is, or even what the movie is really about… not so much. Let’s just say that something happens, the nature of which is significant, and the rest of the film is about the family’s response to this and the various ways in which things go awry as a result.

So what is Hereditary about? It’s not at all clear at first. If you’re watching a zombie movie, there’s a certain grammar and set of tropes in the storytelling that you know to expect; the same is true with werewolf movies, haunted house films, and all the other odd little subgenres. But for the first hour or so Hereditary offers no hints, at least not openly. The film really seems to be about the dysfunction of an affluent family – you only really know it’s a horror film because the soundtrack makes it clear that there is an ominous significance to many of the events on screen (lots of heavy cello and occasional outbursts of unsettling noise). This, together with the sheer darkness of what occurs on screen, results in a first half to the movie which is genuinely extremely uncomfortable – there is an almost chokingly oppressive sense of darkness and unease. It is not at all easy or pleasant to watch. I have to say it’s not actually very scary, either, as this is traditionally understood, and I did wonder if this was going to turn out to be another one of those post-horror movies we are having so many of currently.

Well, it turned out that Hereditary isn’t a post-horror movie after all, for it turns into a very different film in the second half and a rather more familiar one. Once again, there does seem to have been some deliberate obfuscation on the part of the film-makers as to what audiences should expect, so I don’t feel I can really go into too much detail except to say that it involves seances not going according to plan, conspiracies, the desecration of graves, one of the kings of Hell, a cult, numerous severed heads, spontaneous combustion, and quite possibly a demonically-possessed kitchen sink. In other words, we are very much back in mainstream horror territory, with the important caveat that it still isn’t particularly scary.

Oh, they manage a few mechanical jump scares, and there are bits which will make the average person go ‘eww’ and no mistake, but it won’t get into your head and mess you up in the way that a truly great horror film will. The best it can manage is some so-so gore and other old favourites: when a shot is composed so that the main character in it is off to one side in front of an open doorway, you don’t have to be Thelma Schoonmaker to figure out that something spooky will be ‘unexpectedly’ appearing in the frame behind them in the not too distant future. And the problem is that all this doesn’t even seem to be there in support of a story which makes sense. There are a lot of ominous red herrings which don’t seem to go anywhere: Next Desk Colleague observed that it looked like a film where they were making up the story as they went along. Maybe they were.

Not surprisingly, by the end people were openly laughing at Hereditary in the screening we attended, and not the nervous-tension-diffusing kind of laughter either. I myself found I was more inclined to look at my watch, but I did emit the odd derisory snort as things went on. As the credits rolled I looked around at the rest of the team, wondering if they would agree with my snap ‘what a load of cobblers’ judgement. Apparently so: ‘terrible,’ was NDC’s response, while all Olinka had to say was ‘I’m so sorry for making you watch that.’

This does seem to be one of those films which everyone loves apart from the audience, though – I note that Hereditary currently enjoys a 92% approval rating from your actual professional film critics, but only a D+ from paying audiences. I do have to say it would be remiss of me to give the impression that this is an entirely worthless experience – the way in which the atmosphere of the first half is created and maintained is extremely impressive, highly unpleasant though it is to experience. Also, while all the main actors are good, the film has a particular virtue in Toni Collette’s performance, which is often mesmerising, and manages to engage and affect the viewer even when the film is beginning to unravel. So there is lots of promise and potential here, but for this to be realised it would need a film which is more coherent and original. There are certainly things of interest in Hereditary, but if this is the future of the horror movie, we are looking at a genre heading into serious trouble.

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In the early 1960s the American actor Richard Harrison was living in Italy and had carved out a bit of a niche for himself starring in movies there, including the very first of what are now known as spaghetti westerns. The makers of a new movie in that genre approached Harrison with a view to his appearing in it, but not having enjoyed his previous experience, the actor declined. So the director asked him to recommend another actor who could conceivably carry a new kind of western. Harrison, a veteran performer with over 120 films to his credit, nowadays wryly comments that his response may have constituted his single greatest contribution to cinema, both as an industry and an art form.

The director was Sergio Leone, the film was A Fistful of Dollars (Italian title Per un pugno di dollari, while – somewhat curiously – the on-screen title card omits the indefinite article), and the eventual star was Clint Eastwood, at that point best-known as the star of TV western Rawhide. These days A Fistful of Dollars is famous as the film which brought both Leone and the spaghetti western subgenre to international attention, while Eastwood has gone on to have the most distinguished of careers as a film-maker – even to the point where his fame and success as a director surpasses that of his acting work. It all started here, in an unauthorised and uncredited remake of the Japanese jidaigeki movie Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa and Toho duly sued, to which Leone’s response was that Yojimbo itself was a derivative work, ultimately drawn from an Italian commedia dell’arte play. But he still settled out of court in the end, with Kurosawa claiming he earned more from Fistful than he did from his own film).

The plot of A Fistful of Dollars will certainly seem very familiar to anyone who has seen the Kurosawa film. A taciturn stranger (famously known as the Man with No Name, but a minor character in this film repeatedly calls him ‘Joe’) arrives in a desolate town in Mexico to find it moribund, paralysed by a struggle between rival gangs of smugglers and bandits – the Rojos and the Baxters. The local cantina is almost deserted, and the only person doing good business is the man who makes the coffins.

But the stranger sees an opportunity to maybe make a little money, for he is a lethally skilled gunfighter and quite prepared to play both sides off against each other in pursuit of a bigger payday. But Ramon (Gian Maria Volonte), one of the Rojo brothers, is also a dangerously intelligent killer, and the stranger may not find his scheme as straightforward to implement as he first thinks…

I have to say that Sergio Leone was really trying it on when he tried to assert that A Fistful of Dollars is not a fairly obvious remake of Yojimbo. There are a few tweaks to the storyline early on – a visit from a government inspector is replaced by a double-cross involving some stolen gold – but in many places this is very nearly a shot-for-shot recreation of the Japanese film, dramatically at least.

Looking slightly beneath the surface, things are somewhat different. A Fistful of Dollars is a much ‘straighter’ movie than its precursor, which – in its early stages at least – functions as a kind of black comedy. Fistful is by no means po-faced, but it is a particularly cynical kind of humour, articulated many in terms of one-liners from Eastwood’s character. But then the film as whole feels like it is operating on a more limited, superficial level.

It has many of the same strengths as the Kurosawa film, most notably the pairing of Eastwood and Volonte as protagonist and antagonist. (In an attempt to pitch the movie to xenophobic American markets, many of those involved are credited under somewhat unlikely American pseudonyms – Leone’s original credit was as ‘Bob Robertson’, Volonte ‘John Wells’, Mario Brega ‘Richard Stuysevant’, and so on. I’m not sure how convincing this would have been, even at the time.) It doesn’t quite manage the beautiful simplicity of Yojimbo‘s swordsman-versus-gunfighter finale, but negotiates around this with reasonable elegance.

However, Yojimbo, like most of Kurosawa’s films, is a study of character and the world, as well as being an entertaining narrative. Kurosawa loved working with Toshiro Mifune because, the director said, he was the most expressive actor he had ever come across. It seems Leone loved working with Eastwood in the same way, but for diametrically opposite reasons – he saw the actor as an inscrutable mask, observing that he had two basic expressions: hat on or hat off. (Leone was, of course, joking: he was the first, after all, to recognise Eastwood’s ability to shift, almost imperceptibly, from neutral-featured juvenile lead to flinty-eyed spectre of annihilation, as he does most famously in the ‘My mule don’t like people laughing at him’ sequence.)

A Fistful of Dollars seems largely to have been conceived in visual terms. Most of the dialogue doesn’t go far beyond ‘Ey, gringo’ cliches, and the plot is, as we have discussed, obviously derivative. What makes it distinctive is the big set piece moments: rapid intercutting between wide shots and huge close-ups of silent actors, their faces filling the screen as the trumpets of Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack soar above the action. This is a director’s movie, a cinematographer’s movie, perhaps above all an editor’s movie.

It’s perhaps inevitable that the film feels a little superficial as a result (although the constraints of the production – it was filmed ‘as silent’ with dialogue and sound added later – may also have had an effect). Leone doesn’t seem particularly interested in making any specific point, with the result that the film just feels like a very violent melodrama, about and punctuated by acts of cruelty and murder, populated by thin (maybe ‘archetypal’ would be a better way of putting it) characters. A key moment in the plot comes when the stranger risks himself to help a family torn apart by the Rojos – in Yojimbo, Mifune’s performance effectively foreshadows this moment of hazard, but here it just seems rather out-of-character for Eastwood.

Nevertheless, on its own terms this is a highly accomplished film, and very entertaining too. All the intelligence and charisma that Eastwood would show throughout his acting career is on display; the same is true of the artistry and skill of Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone. Opinion may still be somewhat divided as to the place of A Fistful of Dollars in the history of the western – is it a bold new take on, or perversion of the genre? – but it is still a great movie.

 

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There are some films which are timely, other films which are timeless; very few are consistently both. Like any other sane person, I was quite content for Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 movie Dr Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb to remain the latter, but – the world being what it is – some great cycle seems to be on the verge of completion and one watches it now with a queasy sense of recognition; the realisation that some things, perhaps, never really go away.

The movie starts innocuously enough, with RAF officer Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers), on secondment to Burpelson Air Force base, receiving some slightly eccentric orders from his commanding officer General Jack D Ripper (Sterling Hayden). It seems that Ripper has taken the concept of personal initiative a little too far and ordered the B-52s of the 843rd Bomb Wing to launch an unprovoked and unauthorised nuclear attack on the USSR.

Flying one of the planes is Major ‘King’ Kong (Slim Pickens), who is slightly surprised to be sent into action but determined to do his duty. (For latter-day audiences the scenes on the bomber are further distinguished by the fact that Kong’s crew includes the future voices of Scott Tracy of International Rescue and a Dark Lord of the Sith.) The bomber sets course for its target, with all appropriate counter-measures activated.

Needless to say, this is all the cause of some consternation in the Pentagon’s war room, where President Merkin Muffley (Sellers again) struggles to make sense of what is going on, trying to keep the Soviets from doing something intemperate in response, and attempting to keep his more excitably belligerent generals under control. As Ripper has predicted, the hawkish faction led by General Buck Turgidson (George C Scott) has worked out that the only way to avoid the devastation of America by a Soviet counter-attack is to support Ripper’s planes with a full-scale offensive.

Muffley isn’t having any of that, and attempts to keep things reasonable, while sending troops into Burpelson to capture Ripper and extract the code signal required to recall the B-52s. But matters are complicated by the revelation by the Soviet ambassador (Peter Bull) that the Russians have recently completed a ‘doomsday machine’ intended to obliterate all life on the surface of Earth should their country come under nuclear attack. Looking on the bright side throughout all of this is the President’s science advisor Dr Strangelove (Sellers yet again), who has his own ideas about how people might spend their time in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust…

We throw the word genius around with great abandon these days, but there is certainly a case to be made that Dr Strangelove is a demonstration of what can happen when two mighty talents collaborate in near-perfect harmony. Dr Strangelove is the blackest of black comedies, obviously, but as such it is fuelled by the contrast between the absurdity of its characters and the deadpan, near-documentary naturalism of the situations which it depicts. Much is always written about truly great movies such as this; it is quite well-known that Kubrick set out to make a ‘straight’ drama based on Peter George’s novel Red Alert, but found the scenario lent itself all too easily to dark comedy. (A sense of what the ‘straight’ version of Strangelove might have been like can be gained from the movie Fail-Safe, which tells a very similar story without humour, and came out a few months after Kubrick’s film – partly because Kubrick hit the rival production with an injunction in order to ensure his movie came out first.) I suppose we must be grateful to Columbia Pictures for taking a risk on what must have seemed like a very questionable proposition – the American President, the Cold War, nuclear weapons, and the presence in the US administration of former Nazis were not commonly the stuff of satire in the early 1960s.

Then again, it was apparently Columbia who specified that Kubrick cast Sellers in the movie, and in multiple roles, too. Reports suggest that Sellers was originally intended to play Kong as well, and possibly Turgidson too: whatever you think of this idea (and personally I find it hard to imagine anyone other than Pickens and Scott in those roles), we are certainly left with three brilliant comic creations – Mandrake, the out-of-his-depth RAF officer still talking about ‘prangs’ and fondly recalling his Spitfire; Muffley, the beautifully underplayed politician; and Strangelove himself – initially very much a background figure, until he develops into an extraordinary grotesque in the final moments of the film – other cast members can be seen visibly trying to suppress their own laughter as the doctor contends with his own body’s rebellious, fascist inclinations.

Sellers is assisted by a superb, brilliantly quotable script, stuffed with great lines – ‘You can’t fight in here! This is the war room!’, ‘You’re gonna have to answer to the Coca Cola company’, ‘A feller could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff,’ ‘One of our base commanders… he went and did a silly thing,’ and so on. Then there are the visual gags – American soldiers slaughtering each other in front of a sign saying PEACE IS OUR PROFESSION, and the surreal image of Kong, whooping and hollering as tumbles to his fate, nuclear warhead gripped between his thighs.

It’s one more piece of phallic symbolism in a film which functions, in a rather odd way, if not quite as a sex comedy then certainly a film about libidos running amok. It opens, after all, with a rather suggestive scene of planes refuelling in flight, set to the strains of ‘Try a little tenderness,’ General Ripper is obsessed with the purity of his bodily fluids (it is fairly clear which in particular concerns him), and even the Russians are impressed by Strangelove’s plan to survive the aftermath of armageddon through the creation of, basically, subterranean sex farms (‘You have an astonishingly good idea there, Doctor’). There is, of course, only one woman in the cast, Turgidson’s secretary and mistress, played by Tracy Reed. Most of the rest of it is populated by unhinged alpha males.

‘I couldn’t help thinking about Donald Trump,’ said the woman next to me as Dr Strangelove concluded its latest revival screening (part of a run of most of Kubrick’s work from the 60s and 70s). I could really see her point. We are, as I type, hours away from a summit about the control of nuclear weapons, taking place between two men who at times seem more grotesque than any of the comic monsters in Kubrick’s film. And yet here we are again, over fifty years later, still miraculously un-nuked but with that possibility still very much on the table. almost feels like a timely movie again; I suppose there is some consolation in the fact that it is also such a timeless classic.

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‘So, do you think they’ve left the door open for another one?’ asked this blog’s Anglo-Iranian affairs correspondent, as we left our screening of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (I should point out he was not there in his professional capacity). After a picosecond’s thought I was moved to observe that when a film franchise has earned more than $3.5 billion at the global box office, and shows no sign of running out of steam in terms of audience appeal, the door will most likely not just be left open but carefully taken off its hinges and burned. Whichever way you cut it, the Jurassic Park films (as I still think of them) do make squijillions of dollars, although why they continue to be quite so successful I have no idea: the original movie had Spielberg at the height of his powers, plus gobsmackingly innovative special effects, but none of the others have really done more than remix the ideas from that movie.

Is this true of Fallen Kingdom? Well, for this outing, previous director Colin Trevorrow has been replaced by J.A. Bayona, whose last film was the (really good) A Monster Calls. So you could be forgiven for cautious optimism (it is never a good idea to be uncautiously optimistic when dealing with major movie corporations and $170 million budgets). Things kick off with a highly promising, genuinely scary prologue as a team returns to the ruins of the Jurassic World park in order to retrieve the genetic material of one of the engineered hybrids from the previous movie. Lightning flashes, shadows lurk, people get chomped; hope begins to flutter in the chest of the jaded so-called film critic (hope is the thing with feathers, as Emily Dickinson observed, unlike Jurassic World’s dinosaurs – but we went over that last time around).

Well, from here we’re off into the film proper. It turns out that Isla Nublar, where Jurassic Park and then Jurassic World were located, is volcanic, and fixing to blow up and kill all the dinosaurs, and people are not sure what to do about this. (Just what happened to the dinosaurs on Isla Sorna, the setting of Jurassic Parks 2 and 3, is not addressed.) Many, including former park visitor Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum, but don’t get too excited, as he appears for literally only about two minutes), are of the opinion that this is very much not a problem. Others disagree, including former park manager Claire (Bryce Dallas Cowboys, who clearly had one of those ‘make my character less irritating’ discussions between films), who is now a dinosaur rights activist. Helping her are a couple of new characters, a young man who is a somewhat craven comic relief clown, and a young woman who is incredibly feisty and competent – such is the way of the modern blockbuster, as any disgruntled stellar conflict fan will tell you.

Claire is contacted by representatives of an old business partner of John Hammond, who was involved in the very early development of the technology that recreated the dinosaurs. This man (James Cromwell) has a plan to transport the dinosaurs to a nature preserve where they can live peacefully, but he needs Claire’s knowledge of Jurassic World’s systems and also the help of her old beau Owen (Chris Pratt), the animal behaviourist and raptor trainer. (Owen has retired to the countryside to build a cabin, clearly unaware of the iron law that nobody who starts building a cabin in this kind of film ever gets to finish it.) Well, Claire recruits Owen and off they all go to the island to save the dinosaurs. What could possibly go wrong…?

It is a bit naïve to suggest that a tentpole blockbuster such as this is motivated by anything other than financial concerns – the studio’s notes to the director really only have one line, which reads ‘Make as much money as possible.’ But it always seems to me that this is particularly obvious with the Jurassic Park films – if there are any genuinely interesting or unexpected new ideas in any of these films, it is because they have managed to sneak in without anyone noticing, rather than being put there on purpose. Well, perhaps that’s not quite true, because I did note a slightly knowing and rather subversive element to the last one, albeit kept under extremely strict control.

The directors of these latterday movies do seem to be trying to move the series on, for all that the first half of Fallen Kingdom adheres strictly to the Jurassic Park formula (characters go off to an island infested by dinosaurs). Here things go pretty much as you would expect, with many imposing beasties, an altogether too nonchalant attitude to being thirty centimetres away from molten lava, and so on. People inclined to disparage Chris Pratt’s range as an actor should bear in mind the material he is usually given to work with – at one point in this film he is required to run stoically downhill, pursued not only by stampeding dinosaurs but also a volcanic eruption. I’m not sure even Sir Ralph Richardson could have given much nuance to that.

It’s where the film goes after this which is curious, as it becomes less of a traditional monster movie and more of a kind of faintly surreal gothic suspense thriller, with killer dinosaurs lurking in and around a stately old manor. But there’s also almost a sense of the film trying on lots of different ideas to see which, if any, fit: there are elements of an action thriller movie, a subtext in which the dinosaurs become symbolic of the natural world and its treatment by man, some (carefully veiled) criticism of Donald Trump, and even a move towards a much purer form of science fiction (it turns out that not just the dinosaurs have been genetically interfered with). The narrative ticks all the required boxes, but it still feels like a really mixed bag, and one reliant on some dubious plotting in places.

The key difference, I suppose, is that whereas the previous films operated purely in terms of ‘run away from the dinosaurs!’, this one is much more ‘save the dinosaurs!’ There are scenes involving our extinct friends solely intended to elicit pathos from the audience. Goldblum’s character, it is implied, is wrong to want to see all the poor dinosaurs killed off, despite the fact that these films have mostly been about dinosaurs causing trouble and eating people. It’s a curious shift and one the film struggles to negotiate elegantly – the workaround is that ‘natural’ dinosaurs are noble creatures which deserve to survive, it’s only the genetic hybrids created by man which are monsters with no right to exist (this film features an especially preposterous laser-guided prototype military dinosaur). It’s a rather artificial distinction, if you ask me.

Still, as I say, Fallen Kingdom does pretty much what you want it to, even if the first few minutes are by far the most impressive. The special effects are impeccable, and there is actually a really impressive cast – Rafe Spall is in there, along with Toby Jones, Geraldine Chaplin, and Ted Levine. I don’t think the studio need worry too much about getting their money back, even if the film is only competent rather than genuinely great. And the ending implies that the next one will be a thoroughly different kind of film, even if the basis for this doesn’t really hold up to serious examination. In the end, this is a capable blockbuster with some curiously weird touches.

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We have reached that point in the year when the cinema release schedule falls into a kind of rhythm – one week, a major studio plops out one of their tent-pole movies of the summer, most likely concerning superheroes, or stellar conflict, or possibly dinosaurs, which then occupies movie-houses soaking up audiences. No-one bothers releasing another major blockbuster the following week, for the potential audience for these things is not unlimited, and this clears the way for films aimed at a different audience.

Although quite what this ‘different audience’ consists of is a little unclear sometimes. The main studio release this week, for example, is Book Club, an alleged comedy in which ‘the lives of four lifelong friends are turned upside down after reading Fifty Shades of Grey, leading them to make a series of outrageous life choices’. I can only assume this constitutes an attempt by stealth to fend off the risk of overpopulation by causing people to violently lose the will to live. (And before you complete the thought: no, absolutely not. I have done my tour of duty in the Fifty Shades trenches – dear lord, I’ve seen things which no-one should ever have to see – and it would take more than that which Diane Keaton and Jane Fonda have got to make me go back.)

So this week I went to see Lucrecia Martel’s Zama, instead. Argentinian movies like this one do not often make an appearance on UK screens, and I can only attribute Zama’s presence at a local cinema to the involvement as producers of Pedro Almodavar and Danny Glover (yes, that Danny Glover; I checked). This is the art-housiest of art-house movies, I would submit, the kind of thing which two or three decades ago would wind up being shown on BBC2 late on a Friday night after Newsnight had finished, to an audience mostly comprised of dedicated culture vultures and teenage boys fervently hoping there would be some good nudity.

Well, there is some good nudity, I suppose, but it’s all handled in a very art-housey way in that no-one makes very much fuss about it. Hardly anyone makes a fuss about anything in Zama; at least, not outwardly. The film’s traumas are mostly kept deeply internalised (though there is one very significant exception to this).

This is the story of Diego de Zama (Daniel Gimenez Gacho), a functionary in a remote South American outpost of the Spanish Empire at some time in the 17th century. We first see Zama standing on the beach, looking out to sea; he has a sword and a rather fabulous hat, and behind him some of the locals are wandering about. Despite the beauty of his posting’s surroundings, Zama is very keen to be elsewhere, and is desperately awaiting news from the King of his transfer.

The news is not forthcoming. Zama finds himself caught up in the petty schemes and politicking of the other colonial masters in his area, none of which really come to much. Zama’s only distraction from his attempts to get away is his libido, which appears to be in something of a state of hyperactivity: in addition to fathering a child with a local girl, he engages in a quietly energetic pursuit of the wife of the local finance minister (Lola Duenas).

Events conspire against him: he ends up brawling with a subordinate over a petty matter, with the deeply ironic result that the other man is sent elsewhere, with Zama left in place. Governors come and go, concerns shift: Zama seems to be stuck there in perpetuity. In the background of all of this is the near-mythical figure of the bandit Vicuna Porto (Matheus Nachtergaele). Zama eventually signs on with a mission to track this man down, in the hope this will earn him the transfer he has for so long been denied, but life away from the outpost can be savage…

As I say, this is art-housey stuff for the most part. The story takes a sort of Heart of Darkness-style turn in its closing stages, as Zama’s inner desolation is finally matched by the circumstances in which he finds himself, but for most of its reasonably substantial running-time (just shy of two hours) this is the kind of film where the fact that not very much is going on is really the point of proceedings. It is about a man feeling becalmed in life, unable to escape his situation: there is an existential dreariness to the whole thing.

The irony is that Zama is desperate to extricate himself from surroundings which, in some ways, border on the idyllic – the film is set amidst magnificently-photographed vistas of stunning natural beauty. The cinematography is beautiful, filling the film with vibrant colour whenever the camera surveys the natural world. It is less generous, however, when Martel surveys the world of the Spanish colonial masters. There is an element of quiet surrealism to this, for instance in the scenes where serious matters of state and trade are discussed with llamas in the background (even indoors), but for the most part the members of the colonial administration are depicted as shabby, rather pathetic figures engaged in a sort of cargo-cult emulation of polite Spanish society – Zama and the others are obliged to put on rather bedraggled courtly wigs while carrying out their official functions, and so on.

There is, as you would expect, a lot of implicit (and not so implicit) criticism of the colonial sensibility here – the fact that Zama has a pretty miserable time throughout certainly suggests the empire is not doing anyone any favours. But on the whole the film functions on a more personal, existential level. It seems that Zama eventually forgets exactly where he wants to get away to, the means becomes an end in itself, one which (it appears) is perpetually denied him.

This is a film of slightly eerie contrasts, of all kinds: occasionally bleak and even rather horrible sequences are punctuated by some rather mellow jazz guitar. The end result is something which washes over you, rather – a subtle movie, obviously well-made, which will probably go down very well with the art-house audience it was made for.

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In my line of work, you may occasionally find yourself having to teach opposites, which is not always as straightforward as you might think. The opposite of ‘long’ is easy; it’s ‘short’. The opposite of ‘difficult’ – well, that’s easy, too. But what about ‘light’? Is it ‘dark’ or ‘heavy’? Or is it both? What about ‘strong’?

Long-term readers may recall my occasional amusement at some of the prefatory guidance provided by the British censor on their certifications, and it seems I am not alone in this. ‘Contains strong sex and sexual content’ ran the blurb ahead of Dominic Cooke’s On Chesil Beach, which I saw a matinee showing of at Oxford’s best-mannered cinema. The audience there looked so respectable and well-brought-up I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if some of them had actually read Ian McEwan’s novella, upon which it is based. Nevertheless, someone at the back said, just a bit too loudly, ‘Strong sex? As opposed to what, weak sex?’

Well, many a true word spoken in attempted jest, for weak sex is in a sense what On Chesil Beach is about, not that it initially shows much sign of this. Perhaps this is really the point. The film opens in 1962, with the arrival on the eponymous UNESCO world heritage site of a young couple, Edward (Billy Howle) and Florence (Saoirse Ronan). They are newlyweds, and both clearly nervous, aware of the significance of their first night together as a married couple, and – outwardly at least – keen to discharge their responsibilities to each other.

Through an extended series of flashbacks, the film sketches in their backgrounds and history – Florence is a musician, from quite a posh background: her mother and father are ferociously Tory and perhaps incline somewhat towards a tough parenting style. Edward, a historian, is from a slightly more humble background, his life somewhat defined by the fact his mother has been prone to rather eccentric behaviour since she was hit in the head by a train. They are clearly utterly in love with one another.

However, this being 1962, with the permissive society still to really get going, Edward and Florence really don’t have much idea about what comes next. From the beginning one is instantly struck by the sense that these are two people playing roles, going through the motions simply because they believe it is what expected of them. It is sort of funny, sort of sad; you really do feel for them. But then it becomes simply rather excruciating to watch two people, at considerable length and in considerable detail, fail to have sex, especially because you can tell this is all they really want to do, and this failure is clearly going to have consequences.

On Chesil Beach starts off by looking like the kind of well-heeled period literary adaptation which we produce on a fairly regular basis here in the UK – the cinematography is beautiful, the recreation of Oxford around 1960 is superbly done. This is initially presented as a kind of halcyon era – there is warm beer and cricket matches, people wandering about on Christchurch Meadow, catching steam trains (when not being hit in the head by them), and so on. And there is the kind of very strong cast you would expect for this kind of film. Saoirse Ronan is the big draw, obviously, but she is matched step for step by Billy Howle, and there is an excellent supporting cast – principally, Anne-Marie Duff, Adrian Scarborough, Emily Watson and Samuel West.

It initially seems like this is to be a forensic, not unsympathetic depiction of the mores of the period, which seems like an unimaginably distant and different one: Florence has no idea who Chuck Berry is, but upon hearing one of his songs on the radio decides it sounds ‘merry’. The class tension between Edward and Florence’s parents, in particular, is also sharply drawn. There are moments of comedy as well as drama, with the two subtly shading into one another – West’s performance as Florence’s absurdly driven father would certainly qualify as a brilliant comic miniature, were it not for the fact that there are definite hints of genuine darkness in his history.

And then – well, it is difficult to say much without spoiling what seems to me to be one of the best films of the year so far. Things do not go according to plan, someone quite possibly overreacts, decisions are made that cannot be unmade. There is a sense in which the film is obviously suggesting that this is all the result of the kind of repressed society where young people are forced to educate themselves in matters amatory, but it never feels like it is pointing a finger or apportioning blame. Everyone is shaped by their background, after all, whether they decide to adopt the role expected of them or rebel against it; no-one is really wholly self-made. And yet the film’s sense of sadness is overwhelming as it progresses; what looks like it may simply be another one of those somewhat bleak films about British people being bad in bed ultimately turns into a crushingly tragic story, made all the more so because there is so little to suggest this as the film begins.

This is a product of the BBC’s film division, and many people might say that one of the distinguishing features of a BBC movie is the fact that it seems very much at home on the small screen – that BBC Films productions are frequently just a bit too genteel and not really cinematic enough to fully satisfy. Well, I would say this one is a bit different – most obviously, it has two marvellous performances from Ronan and Howle, both of whom appear to be carved from solid star quality, but Cooke’s direction has a style and ambition about it which is very much at home on the big screen. The creation of a nostalgic picture-postcard world is finely achieved, as is the moment where our departure from it is signalled by the sudden intrusion into the soundtrack of the growling opening riff from T-Rex’s 20th Century Boy, signalling a jump forward in time of many years. There is also something beautifully simple and symbolic about the closing shot of the film, the camera constantly pulling back to keep the two characters involved at the edges of the screen as they move inexorably away from each other.

As I say, On Chesil Beach is hardly a cheery film, but it is one of the highest quality on pretty much every level. I had heard good things about it, but I did not expect it to move me so profoundly in the way it did. Not the kind of entertainment you walk home from whistling, but there’s a reason why people listen to sad songs, too – this is a deeply humane and beautifully-made film, well worth watching.

 

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