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It is with an appropriate sense of dutiful resignation that I find myself turning my attention to David Kerr’s Johnny English Strikes Again, a third outing for Rowan Atkinson’s incompetent secret agent character. I think it is safe to say that there was no particular public clamour for another Johnny English film, and that the main reason for the appearance of this one is that the Atkinson family finances could be in need of a top-up: Atkinson himself seems to be semi-retired these days, his only substantial appearance since the last Johnny English (seven years ago) being as Maigret on the telly.

The movie gets underway with a cyber-attack on British intelligence, compromising the identity of every agent currently operating in the field – and so, to track down the guilty party, the British Prime Minister (Emma Thompson) is forced to reactivate some retired agents, amongst them Johnny English (Atkinson), who has left the service and become a school teacher specialising in knockabout espionage gags (he is clearly beloved by his cute young charges; the presence of all the kids is really the first sign that this filming is pitching to a juvenile audience in every sense of the word).

Well, after an odd little scene where the mere presence of Michael Gambon, Charles Dance and James Fox briefly lifts proceedings (sadly, these are merely uncredited cameos), English is sent out into the field with his trusty sidekick Bough (Ben Miller). They go to the south of France where they end up infiltrating a chic restaurant by pretending to be French waiters (cue silly voices); they encounter the mysterious yet glamorous Ophelia Bulletova (Olga Kurylenko), who seems to be working for the mastermind behind the plans; there are various pratfalls and other very obvious gags in the style of Mr Bean.

Meanwhile, the string of cyber-attacks on the UK continues, driving the PM even further up the wall. She resorts to retaining American tech tycoon Jason Volta (Jake Lacy) in order to try and shore up the country’s defences. What could possibly go wrong?

Oh, well, as you can probably tell, my Anglo-Iranian Affairs Consultant and I ended up going to see this film mainly because dinner-and-a-movie is just something we occasionally do, and – having been to the cinema six times in the previous week or so – there wasn’t much else on that I hadn’t already seen. And, you know, I told myself, it’s Rowan Atkinson, it’s very difficult for him to slip below a certain level of funniness, so it’s not like the film can be a total waste of time. Indeed, a colleague had taken a seven-year-old to see it and reported that she had in fact spent some of the film laughing.

I must be becoming even more of a withered old excrescence, because while I did laugh a few times during Johnny English Strikes Again, I don’t think it was in quite the way that the makers were hoping. There are, truth be told, some inspired moments of physical comedy from Atkinson, not to mention some quite good silly voices. But so much of the film is so painfully obvious and – as mentioned – laboriously telegraphed that while I was laughing, it wasn’t because the jokes were funny – it was at the idea that professional comedy film-makers thought that this kind of material was up to scratch.

As usual, the film operates in the same kind of narrative space as the Bond series. This may be because the original film was actually co-written by Purvis and Wade, long-time workhorses of the Bond franchise, and this time around the movie has managed to snag a genuine Bond alumnus in the shape of Olga Kurylenko (I am terribly shallow, but I do enjoy watching Kurylenko, even in films as dubious as this one) – quite what someone like her, who I would describe as a proper film star, is doing third-billed after TV’s Ben Miller, I’m not sure. It’d really be stretching a point to call this a Bond parody, though – the producers seem to have decided that the core audience for these movies is quite young children, which would explain a lot in terms of how silly and predictable most of this one is. Well, actually, it shouldn’t – even quite young children deserve better than this stuff.

One of the particularly frustrating things about it is that it refuses to engage (even in passing) with the real world. The closest it comes is when Thompson, who is clearly itching to do an eviscerating impression of Theresa May, lets rip about how awful and stressful her job is. Given the movie is largely predicated on the notion of how rubbish English people are at virtually everything, it pointedly refuses to engage on the main political issues of our time, even obliquely. When it does very occasionally seem to be slightly topically relevant, this is a) almost certainly by accident and b) almost uncannily misjudged – the plot revolves around a team-up between British intelligence and their Russian counterparts, for instance. The rest of the time it simply withdraws into a bland world of slapstick nonsense.

And I can’t help thinking that there’s a rather suspect reactionary whiff coming off this film, too, which leads me to suspect it may be intended as fodder for elderly Daily Mail-reading grandparents to take their hyperactive grandchildren to see. The issue of Britain’s place in the world may not be addressed, but there’s a definite sense of the film being suspicious of the modern world – the bad guy turns out to be an Elon Musk-esque tech boffin, there’s kind of a motif about doing things ‘old school’, and various jokes about Health and Safety regulations.

So, if you are an elderly, somewhat right-wing grandparent looking for something undemanding to shut up the brood of your brood, then Johnny English Strikes Again could very well be the film for you. For virtually anyone else, though, this is just too lazy and obvious and bland to pass muster. However, there are signs that the makers of this film are taking inspiration from Peter Sellers’ Pink Panther series, which only really concluded with Sellers’ passing. Atkinson is 63 and looks to be in good shape, so there may yet be future offerings from Johnny English in the future. But look on the bright side, there might be an environmental catastrophe and the collapse of civilisation first.

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The thing about a movie like A Star is Born is that, when it comes to doing a properly pithy review, all the best lines have probably been taken already. The new version (directed by Bradley Cooper) is, after all, the fourth iteration of this particular story, which has a strong claim to be the most remade film in history – I know there have been 27 versions of The Three Musketeers, or whatever, but here we are talking about something originated for the screen, not an adaptation of a novel or a play. I will be honest and admit I have not been able to come up with anything as good as the Village Voice‘s verdict on the 1976 version with Barbra Streisand, ‘A bore is starred.’

The long gap between the most recent A Star is Borns does not preclude a tiny bit of behind-the-scenes continuity between the two – presumably for obscure contractual reasons, hairdresser-turned-producer Jon Peters is credited for both despite having no career worth mentioning these days – but otherwise the new film is its own thing – or at least as much of its own thing as one can reasonably expect, given that it credits both the Streisand and Judy Garland versions as contributing to the story.

Cooper plays hard-living country rocker Jackson Maine, a successful musician who is beginning to have serious trouble with various personal demons. One night, after a gig in New York, he drops into a drag bar while desperately searching for something to drink (hey, we’ve all been there). His mind is taken off the booze when he sees a performance by an unknown singer named Ally (played by Lady Gaga, who is played by Stefani Germanotta as usual). He is much taken by her incredible vocal stylings, and soon after the rest of her, even the nose which she claims has been such a brake on her career: shallow and worthless music industry professionals are only interested in superficial appearance, not real talent.

Well, they have a lovely evening together and then part, and Ally assumes that’s the end of it. But what’s this? Jackson sends a car to whisk her off to his next gig, which she of course ends up going to. He drags her on stage for an unplanned duet, and the rest is, well, not quite history, but certainly very late-stage prehistory. (Well, this is one way of picking up girls, I suppose.) Stardom soon beckons for Ally (as you might have anticipated if you were paying attention to the title of the film) – but will Jackson be able to deal with his girlfriend’s fame and talent threatening to eclipse his own?

As I say, all the best lines about A Star is Born have already been taken, and it was Mark Kermode who observed with typical sagacity that the film has two main challenges as a piece of drama: it has to convince you that Bradley Cooper is a famous rock star and Lady Gaga isn’t. Well, I would say it manages to pull this off – Cooper has a decent voice (not sure if he’s doing his own guitar-playing though) and does the business when his character is on stage, while – and I didn’t know this – apparently Germanotta spent ten years taking method acting lessons at the Lee Strasberg Institute in New York. So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that there is really nothing much wrong with her performance at all.

That said, it’s when Cooper is acting and Germanotta is singing that the film feels like it’s operating at full power. Cooper as director seems fully aware that, as a musical (even a diegetic one, which is strictly speaking what this is), having a singer of her range and technical ability in the lead role is the film’s trump card. Where most trailers for forthcoming attractions build up to a big dramatic moment or special-effects money shot, the one for A Star is Born is based around the moment when Gaga lets rip with a (let me just check with a popular lyric-transcribing website) ‘Oooooaahaaaooouoooouooooohaaaa’ and practically lifts the roof off any cinema where it is showing. It is a properly spine-tingling moment and I expect the musical number it accompanies to be inescapably ubiquitous from now until next year’s awards season concludes.

It’s a bit which comes fairly early on in the film, which until this point has been skimming along almost irresistibly, with a very well-judged mixture of grit, warmth, and romance. The opening section is certainly the film’s best – not because the rest of it is actually bad as such, but it’s just not quite to the same standard.

There’s just a bit too much of it, for one thing – the movie feels like it could comfortably absorb ten or fifteen minutes of cuts from its middle section – as it is, it occasionally feels like it’s laying everything on a bit thick. Then again, this is a chunky, crowd-pleasing, manipulative musical melodrama, so maybe that’s kind of the point.

Even so, I did find myself wondering what this story is supposed to be about – is it trying to make a point about the brutal nature of the fame game, or is it really just about the stresses and strains on this particular relationship? The story is obviously trying to tick all the bases, by showing Ally’s rise to stardom while depicting Jackson’s decline and fall, but it almost feels as if these things are happening in isolation from each other – the film makes it clear from its opening moments that Maine is a man with serious issues, which only get worse as the story continues. It’s not difficult to imagine his story following a vaguely similar trajectory even had he never met Ally – as a result, they almost feel like ships passing one another, the ups and downs of their actual relationship incidental, and this inevitably impacts on how affecting and moving the drama of the film is.

Nevertheless, this is the kind of big, sentimental movie that audiences often take to their hearts in a very big way, and I can imagine A Star is Born becoming a major success, both critically and commercially. Is it too soon to talk about next year’s awards? Possibly, but the Academy in particular has a distinct weakness for this kind of new-take-on-an-old-favourite offering. And while I don’t think this is a particularly great film, it’s a substantial one with some wonderful individual moments.

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You know, until I just looked it up, I would have said that Michael Caine had basically forsworn his once-notorious ‘I’ll do anything’ work ethic and had spent the last few years only doing cameo appearances in Christopher Nolan movies. But apparently not: twenty-one films in the last decade, more or less, which is not a bad average by anyone’s standards. Still, you don’t see the great man in really juicy leading roles very much any more, and the chance to see him in action in just this style was the main reason why I trundled along to see James Marsh’s King of Thieves.

Caine plays Brian Reader, a recently-widowed professional criminal (Francesca Annis, who plays his wife, manages to scrape a prominent billing despite carking it in the opening few minutes) who is feeling his age and perhaps looking for a purpose in life. Now, most people in his situation would probably think about taking up yoga or possibly bowls, but given his past and particular skill-set, Reader decides his last hurrah will be to knock off the vault underneath the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit building, stuffed with cash, gold, jewellry and diamonds.

He duly assembles a crack team, or – to be more strictly accurate – a crock team, consisting of Jim Broadbent, Tom Courtenay, Ray Winstone and Paul Whitehouse, in addition to the young security expert who is making the whole undertaking possible (a sop to the streaming generation in the form of Charlie Cox). Potentially employed as their fence is an incontinent fishmonger nicknamed named Billy the Fish (Michael Gambon).

Well, as you might expect, things do not go entirely to plan with a team of this calibre (and vintage) on the job, and the traditional heist-movie falling-out between the principals actually occurs before the robbery is even completed. Will the gang of crinkly crims get away with it? Will their clashing egos be their undoing? Or could the police prove to be rather more competent than anyone is giving them credit for?

You know you’ve made it as a British crook when they start making films about your exploits – this has been a flourishing subgenre of the Brit crime movie for many years now. And, before we consider King of Thieves as a piece of entertainment, we should remember that this is a film based on true events (and not even the first one purporting to retell this particular story – The Hatton Garden Job came out last year, and got rather unfavourable notices). All right, so it’s not quite on the same level as some of those jolly fantasies which seem to be just a bit too fascinated by Jack the Ripper and other serial killers, but still – stuff got nicked (most of which remains unrecovered as of the film’s being released). A company went bankrupt as a result. People lost their jobs. You know, just mentioning it.

The film really attempts to skate over this, and initially at least seems to be intent on making use of its cast’s undoubted credentials when it comes to comedy. It is a particularly black, deadpan kind of comedy, mostly revolving around the gang’s advanced ages and the inevitable impact on the execution of the robbery – the look-out keeps dozing off, they have to remember to pack enough of their various medicines and ointments for the duration of the job, and so on. It’s quite broad stuff, but with a cast of this quality it’s still very watchable and entertaining stuff. Even so, to begin with I found myself a little nonplussed: the plot seemed very linear and quite shallow. Would King of Thieves just prove to be another disposable piece of knockabout frivolity, elevated only by its performers?

Well, not quite, because as the film goes on it becomes rather more interesting. What starts off looking like a typical piece of romanticised nonsense glamorising loveable London gangsters actually acquires unexpected depth and grit, and has moments of genuine grit and drama. The gang fall out, in earnest – the cosy camaraderie which initially seems to exist between them is replaced by real tension, and the old saw about honour amongst thieves is shown to be a myth as they set about double-crossing each other with an enthusiasm that belies their years. And here the cast get a chance to show what they can really do: given some of his former roles, it’s hardly a surprise that Ray Winstone can be an effective heavy, but I find I am constantly surprised by Jim Broadbent’s range and ability as an actor. You always kind of expect him to be someone slightly vague and somewhat jolly, but here he turns out to be a genuinely menacing and nasty piece of work, quite capable of holding his own in a confrontation with Michael Caine.

Michael Caine is 85 and it is inevitably a little sad to see him somewhat diminished, physically, by the passage of time: he looks frailer, and it is noticeable that he doesn’t have quite the screen time one might expect; the film seems to have been sympathetically constructed to spread the burden amongst the whole ensemble. But he is still the indisputable guv’nor of this film, still one of the biggest names in British cinema, and he has lost none of his charisma or technical ability as an actor. This is a proper actor’s performance, finding the subtleties of the character and not afraid to be unsympathetic – as the film goes on there’s a suggestion that Reader isn’t just the loveable old burglar he’s initially presented as. This isn’t one of Caine’s best films, but this is still an excellent performance.

There’s nothing very original about King of Thieves, but it’s a pacy and engaging little film and a consistently entertaining one. The gear-change between droll black comedy and semi-serious crime drama is something it never quite manages to pull off as smoothly as it probably needs to, and as I say there is the whole true-crime-as-entertainment thing to consider. But it’s still worth seeing, if only for an excellent cast doing very good work, led by one of Britain’s greatest movie stars.

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For a very long time, it was almost axiomatic that you could likely go your whole life without ever coming across a decent Stephen King adaptation; opinions were divided as to whether this was down to some inherently hard-to-reproduce quality in the man’s massively popular doorstep-novels, or simply because he was just really unlucky in his adaptors. People don’t seem to go on about this quite so much anymore, though this surely isn’t because there’s been a sudden spike in the quality of the films involved – maybe everyone’s expectations are lower. Or it may be because at least a couple of movies based on King have achieved a certain kind of critical respect – The Shawshank Redemption was regularly topping polls as one of the most popular films in the world, not that long ago, while the consensus with regard to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining has also become markedly more favourable since the movie’s 1980 release.

This is a movie which King himself seems to have a rather ambivalent attitude about, once observing that Kubrick was just a bit too much of a cerebral rationalist to be able to come to grips with a story of the supernatural (which is what he wrote). Whether The Shining is a movie about supernatural events is just one of the many questions clustering densely about it; the real issue, if you ask me, is the extent to which Kubrick intended the film to provoke quite as much debate as it has done.

Jack Nicholson plays Jack Torrance, a struggling writer, who as the film starts agrees to take the post of winter caretaker at the beautiful but very isolated Overlook Hotel, in the mountains of Colorado. The job will mean being effectively cut off from civilisation for five months, but Jack rationalises this as giving him a good opportunity to get stuck into writing his new novel. He is bringing along his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd); there are suggestions of past tensions in the family, not to mention that Danny seems to have some rather unusual faculties of his own.

The hotel’s head chef Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) is quick to spot this, telling Danny that they share something called ‘the shining’, a psychic ability. Unfortunately, according to Hallorann the hotel itself has a similar sort of supernatural sentience, one perhaps shaped by – or responsible for – some rather traumatic and bloody events that have occurred there in the past. (The fact it was built on an Indian burial ground may also have something to do with it.)

Well, the family moves in, and initially all seems well: Jack works on his book, Danny plays in the hotel, and Wendy… does stuff too (King’s complaint that Kubrick reduces the character to a weak and irritating non-entity does seem to me to be justified). But soon it becomes apparent that other forces may be at work: Danny has terrifying visions, while Jack begins to find himself losing control of his anger and resentment towards his family, and perhaps even coming unstuck in time…

We should probably begin by addressing the question of whether The Shining is, indeed, one of the most terrifying horror movies ever made. I can only give my own personal opinion on this one, but I would have to say no – I find it to be a curious and rather mesmerising film, but not actually particularly scary (indeed, a couple of moments presumably intended to shock are actually quite funny). The film has the same kind of extremely measured and calculated quality as Kubrick’s previous film, Barry Lyndon, which is admittedly very atmospheric but unlikely to generate much in the way of thrills or scares.

I am not sure that Kubrick’s decision to make the film quite so carefully ambiguous really works, either – it is never made entirely clear what exactly is going on. With the exception of a couple of events (one of them admittedly quite a key one, the release of Jack from the store room), there is no clear-cut evidence that supernatural forces are at work in the hotel – people could just be having hallucinations brought on by a psychological breakdown (although there does seem to be some reality to Hallorann and Danny’s ‘shining’ abilities). Even if one accepts that the malevolent ghosts of the hotel do have some kind of objective existence, the nature of their interest in Jack is never completely explained – Kubrick himself, in a rare moment when he was in the explanatory vein, suggested that Jack Torrance is the reincarnation of a former inhabitant of the hotel they were seeking to ‘reclaim’, but there’s not much evidence for this on screen.

Nor is the beginning of Torrance’s descent into madness really established: one minute he’s enjoying long lie-ins, and being generally mild-mannered and pleasant with his family, the next he’s staring out of the window at them with apparently murderous intent. Apparently a scene depicting Torrance discovering some old clippings about the hotel’s history and apparently being inspired by them, thus establishing the connection between man and place, was written but cut by Kubrick. I suppose this is also the place to comment on the wisdom of casting Jack Nicholson in this key role – he certainly gives a bravura performance, especially as the film goes on, but – given Nicholson’s general screen persona and acting style – it’s hardly a surprise when the character goes mad, nor does he particularly seem to fight it.

Then again, Torrance’s going crazy is one thing that everyone watching The Shining can agree upon. There is not much else, for the film is filled with curious little examples of what are either deliberate contradictions or simple continuity errors – the name of the previous caretaker is different on the two occasions it is mentioned, for instance, while furniture appears and disappears mid-scene. The interior lay-out of the hotel makes no topographical sense (there are impossibly large rooms and windows where no windows can exist). Kubrick seems to make such a point of certain elements of the film – for instance, Duvall spends most of it wearing clothes of the same colours, while there are unusually lengthy dissolves between scenes – that you can’t help thinking it must all mean something, that there is some kind of Shining code, which – once cracked – will allow you to figure out what the film is really about.

Then again, I recently watched Room 237, and I’m probably being influenced by it: this is the documentary that gave a number of especially dedicated Shining-watchers an opportunity to put forward their various wildly diverse and utterly irreconcilable theories about the film. Odd as it may seem, I’m not sure there is a particular interpretation of this film which is the ‘correct’ one – the point of it seems to be suggestive and ambiguous, without ever allowing the viewer the luxury of genuine certainty. You can see how that might potentially produce a genuinely unsettling and disturbing horror film, but The Shining is not it (for me, at least) – this is a substantial film (in every sense), but only in terms of its impressionistic power to mesmerise.

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You could probably argue that the world, or at least that part of it concerned with cultural matters, tottered off some kind of precipice a couple of years ago with the release of Suicide Squad, a film largely concerned with Batman and Flash villains, sent out into a world which had yet to receive a proper Batman or Flash film from the same producers. We seem to be skipping straight to the spin-off, which probably says something about the pace of life in the modern world – or maybe it’s just that people are more interested in bad guys nowadays, which says something else rather different and somewhat more worrying.

Are we dealing with the same sort of thing when it comes to Ruben Fleischer’s Venom? Part of me wants to say yes, for I am of that generation for whom Venom (the character) is essentially a bad guy from the Spider-Man comics. Doing a whole movie about a character who is basically a demented pool of alien slime who spends most of his time lurking down dark alleys planning how to eat people also strikes me as… well, I can’t deny it has a certain originality, but I would argue that we’re losing our grip on the essential moral core of the superhero story in this case. But, on the other hand, this character has a seriously dedicated fan-base. ‘This is the first really popular movie in a while,’ said the person on duty at the cinema (their job was to hand out not very good free comic books based on the film). I had to admit to a certain degree of anticipatory curiosity myself: which voice was Tom Hardy going to use in the role? Bane? Ronnie Kray? The Welsh accent? Patrick Stewart?

Venom

Hardy plays Eddie Brock, a loose-cannon investigative reporter living in San Francisco, who at the start of the film manages to torch his own career while investigating Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), a tech magnate with a surprisingly diverse portfolio. Brock’s use of sensitive material pinched from his lawyer girlfriend (Michelle Williams) to make some unsubstantiated allegations results in him losing his job, his apartment and his relationship, which is all rather unfair as the film makes it clear that Drake really is up to some dodgy stuff, specifically bringing back samples of alien life for use in biological testing.

Well, I say ‘samples of alien life’, they look more like ‘splashes of multicoloured CGI vomit’. It turns out the aliens are symbiotes which have to bond with a local organism in order to really survive on Earth, and Drake has terrible trouble trying to find compatible hosts from amongst the local population, winding up luring in homeless people under false pretences.

As chance would have it, the now washed-up Brock hears about this and decides to investigate once more, sneaking into Drake’s facility and – wouldn’t you just know it – coming into contact with one of the symbiotes, which immediately takes up residence in his system. Drake wants the alien back. The alien doesn’t want to go back. Brock isn’t quite sure what he wants, but the ability to shoot tentacles out of his armpits probably isn’t it. But there are bigger issues afoot, as another symbiote is on the scene with a diabolical plan of its own – could it be up to the Brock-alien fusion, calling itself Venom, to save the day?

I still can’t quite get my head around the idea of doing a Venom movie in which Spider-Man isn’t even mentioned, any more than I could doing a movie about Bizarro without mentioning Superman. Venom is basically a kind of Bizarro-Spider-Man, with extra late-80s dark kewlness: the whole point of the comics version of the character is that he was, not to put too fine a point on it, Spider-Man’s costume for a number of years, losing the gig when it was discovered he was actually a living organism (a kind of idiot’s version of this story formed part of the plot of 2007’s Spider-Man 3). Still, if you’re going to give Venom his own independent origin story, this one’s about as good as any, and the whole issue of ‘how come he can stick to walls and do whatever a spider can?’ is somewhat obfuscated by the fact that this version of the character seems to have a usefully vague set of powers.

Actually, there are lots of things about which the movie is usefully vague, although perhaps I am being just a bit too generous here (yes, it’s not like me, is it?). Perhaps ‘vague’ is not the word so much as ‘conveniently inconsistent’. There’s a big plot point early on about the symbiotes only being able to fully bond with certain individuals, which is later completely forgotten as Venom and the antagonist, Riot, hop between hosts as the whim takes them. At one point we are told that the Venom symbiote is devouring Brock’s internal organs to sustain itself. Until it’s not, suddenly. Character motivations are likewise subject to unexpected and somewhat arbitrary change. Things that the film really should mention early on – like the fact that Drake has his own rocket-launching facility tucked round the back of his biology lab – never get told to the audience. In lots of ways, this film is a confusing mess.

The thing that makes Venom more watchable than most of the bad late-90s comic book movies it often resembles is Tom Hardy. I have to confess, I do like Tom Hardy (not as much as many young women of my acquaintance, but I digress), and he is very good in this part, both in terms of the physical portrayal of the conflicted Brock, and of course his two vocal performances. Considering this is a movie about a cannibalistic alien monster, Hardy finds an impressive amount of comedy in the role and he certainly earns his star billing (and fee).

Despite that, the weak script and uninspired visuals of the movie really mean that Venom is not up to the standard of the average Marvel Studios film. The question, of course, is one of how closely the makers of Venom are looking to align themselves with that particular project – there has been a lot of enthusiastic chatter about a potential Spider-Man/Venom team-up movie in future, even though this film has been made by Sony as a completely separate undertaking from the recent Spider-Man films (which are now made by Marvel Studios).  The exact relationship, in terms of who shares a universe, remains unclear. Once again, I think this is probably useful vagueness as far as the film-makers are concerned, for they seem intent on exploiting their connection to Marvel as much as possible without necessarily giving anything back. In that sense, while Venom the character may make a big deal about being a symbiote, not a parasite, Venom the movie is on much shakier ground.

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Paul Feig’s A Simple Favor (I am going to stick with the American English spelling, even though it does make my teeth itch somewhat) is not a film I would necessarily have chosen to watch, even during the bacchanal of cinema-going which I am currently enjoying after an enforced one month drought. There’s no particular reason for that, but – and I do have to remind even friends of this sometimes – I don’t go to see absolutely everything, even when I’m at a loose end. Then again, there I was: all proper work done and dusted by noon, having agreed to go and see another movie with a friend in the early evening, and with a fairly sizeable space in my schedule until then. To be perfectly honest my first choice of movie-to-fill-the-gap would probably have been Mile 22, but it had finished the previous day (lots of big new movies starting today), and Feig’s film seemed like the best option.

Anna Kendrick plays Stephanie Smothers, a cheery, upbeat, perky, fluffy, home-oriented single mother whose life revolves around recipes, her son, and her vlog (which heavily features recipes and parenting tips). She is quite terrifyingly wholesome, upbeat and proactive, but is there something missing from her own lifestyle? Just what does she secretly aspire to? Well, the barest suggestion of an answer comes when she meets Emily (Blake Lively), another mum from her son’s school. Emily appears to be everything that Stephanie is not: elegant, sophisticated, a bit of a hedonistic rebel. The two women become unlikely friends, despite some occasional signs of odd behaviour on Emily’s part.

Then one day Emily asks Stephanie for a favour (Hah! Take that, American English!) – will she collect her son from school? Stephanie happily obliges, but then Emily fails to get in touch, and vanishes, apparently without a trace. Emily’s husband Sean (Henry Golding) doesn’t have a clue where she’s gone, and nor do her employers, and so the police are called. Soon everyone is beginning to fear the worst, and Stephanie and Sean find themselves drawn closer together in their shared grief. But is everything quite as it seems…?

It’s always a slightly curious thing when you find someone apparently trying to get out of their comfort zone and do something genuinely new and different, and from a certain angle this is what Paul Feig appears to be doing with this film. Feig, as you may or may not be aware, is best known as the director and occasional writer of comedy films, most frequently starring Melissa McCarthy: he’s the guy who did Bridesmaids, and also Spy and the All-Female Ghostbusters remake. So for him to be directing what looks on paper to be like a fairly mainstream thriller is a bit of a departure. Then again, the film stars Anna Kendrick, who is also not really known as a dramatic actress – okay, she’s done things like The Accountant, but even then I distinctly remember being somewhat nonplussed by the fact that this sort of thriller would feature someone who’s essentially a musical-comedy performer. (Blake Lively, on the other hand, isn’t primarily known for comedy. But then she seems to limit her film appearances rather strictly, so her profile in general is a bit more limited than I might have expected, and she hasn’t really been typed in the same way.)

My feeling is that comedy is much more difficult than straight drama, and so all things being equal I’d much rather watch a drama made by comedians than a comedy film made by drama specialists. The question is whether this film really is a drama made by comedians. Well, several key creative people on it are best known for comedy, as previously discussed, so that part is not really in doubt. But is it really a drama?

Well – I suppose it is, because lots of serious and often quite dark stuff goes on (Kendrick’s character has a particularly off-kilter element to her backstory), crimes are committed, unpleasant secrets come to light, and so on. The weird thing is that all the time you are laughing – not in a sustained, from-the-belly way, but nearly every scene contains a little bit of business or a snappy line or a reaction from Kendrick or so on. It may be that this is genuinely a comedy thriller, but if so then it is one of the blackest possible shade.

Then again, the fact that this is such a peculiarly and unexpectedly funny film works very much in its favour, because it works very well to give it its own distinctive identity. This is something that it definitely needs, because otherwise this tale of apparently-affluent couples with corrosive money troubles, mysterious disappearances in suburbia, Machiavellian scheming behind a domestic facade, and so on, would owe just a bit too much of an obvious debt to Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl and its movie adaptation.

There really did seem to me to be quite a lot of similarities between Gone Girl and A Simple Favor, but the fact that A Simple Favor doesn’t come across as being quite so thorough-goingly misanthropic, and actually contains some pretty good jokes, made me warm to it much more than its precursor. There are also signs of the film-makers being willing to admit just how implausible the story of their film is, which is always welcome (there is a joke at one point about a character writing a novel, which is apparently dismissed by other people because of its ‘far-fetched plot’).

I don’t actually mind watching movies with absurdly contrived storylines, as long as you don’t also try to tell me that this is actually a serious and mature story about deep unpleasant truths in contemporary society. Feig’s film doesn’t try to pull any of that – it’s more or less up-front about the fact that it’s a disposable piece of entertainment. This doesn’t mean that it’s a poorly made film, by any means – the performances are strong, the direction good, and the script hangs together pretty well (there are occasional slow patches). It is a little bit strange that such a dark film should also feel so upbeat and lightweight, but this is hardly a fatal flaw. Tonally odd and very derivative, but also rather entertaining.

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Movie lead-times are substantial beasts, and the fact is that if you’re making a smaller, independent film, you’re probably looking at another lengthy wait between its festival outings and whatever kind of general release you eventually manage to swing for it. So it is always a bit of a bagatelle as to whether any given movie will actually come out looking topical or relevant to the great issues of the day, and when one does the makers should be congratulated for their good fortune rather than any particular insight or skill.

And so one should be wary of being too fulsome in praising the makers of The Wife (directed by Bjorn Runge): this is a film which is certainly hashtag-friendly and very much resonant with the Unique Moment and its aftermath, but it’s not as if anyone planned it that way. However, this would have been a noteworthy film, no matter when it was released, and it’s not as though a little extra oomph will do it any harm when awards season finally rolls around.

thewife

The movie plays with that old notion that behind every great man there is a great woman, and pondering just whose greatness we should really be paying attention to – not mention how all this feels from the woman’s perspective. It opens in the USA in 1992, with distinguished grand old man of letters Joseph Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) receiving a long-anticipated phone call from the Nobel academy in Sweden – he has been awarded the Nobel prize for Literature! Well done old boy! Castleman is utterly delighted, as is his wife Joan (Glenn Close). Soon they are on a plane to Stockholm, accompanied by the son with whom they have a somewhat strained relationship (Max Irons).

Also on the plane is Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), another writer of slightly less respectable stripe, who is very keen to write Castleman’s biography. Castleman vehemently objects to this idea, but that doesn’t seem to be putting Bone off the idea of doing it on an unauthorised basis.

Soon enough everyone is in Sweden and preparations for the Nobel ceremony are underway (it’s not really the focus of the film, but The Wife does make very clear just how odd some of these Swedish traditions are). But everyone seems to be stressed out, for reasons that are not immediately clear. Joan needs to get away from her husband for a while, and finds herself having a drink with Bone, who finally raises the topic that must never be raised: she was a talented writer in her youth. Castleman was not. He only began his ascent to success and acclaim after they got married. Could it possibly be that there are aspects of her contribution to the marriage that have gone hitherto undisclosed…?

There’s a sense in which you turn up to watch The Wife expecting something which is, putting it broadly, a let’s-give-the-patriarchy-a-good-kicking movie: the film is after all about a woman whose talent and hard work are ignored in favour of her husband’s much more marginal contributions, with the theme raised to an almost operatic pitch by the nature of the story.

As such, the film shows a lot of diligence in establishing its theme: Joan is, in every sense, the adult in her marriage, acting as Castleman’s caregiver – almost a surrogate mother – and having to excuse his various indiscretions. She appears to be there in a supportive, almost wholly passive role – ‘You don’t have to do anything, just lie there,’ whispers an in-the-mood Castleman at one point, in one of the less inspiring pieces of seductive dialogue I’ve heard recently. The film makes it very clear that for all his fame and endless praise heaped on him by the Nobel academy, the writer is really a rather less substantial figure than his public image suggests: reliant on the same schticks, lines, and routines to impress those around him, particularly the younger women to whom he seems especially drawn.

Of course, this is a long-established pattern of behaviour, and – as is practically a convention in this kind of film – we also get to see the couple as young people; Joseph is played by Harry Lloyd (who’s almost made a career out of this kind of part: he played Young Denis Thatcher in The Iron Lady, for example), and Joan by Close’s daughter Annie Starke (who’s almost made a career out playing her own mum as a young person). He was her university professor, unhappily married when they met; the scenes make clear that…

Well, to be honest these scenes make it clear that whatever’s going on here, it’s not quite a clear-cut as you might initially think. Of the two main characters, Joan is the more sympathetic of the two (Joseph emerges as a fairly needy, petty individual), but that’s only a relative thing – Joan isn’t just steely, she is often cold and ruthless, especially when the couple themselves start to discuss that which must never be mentioned as the film goes on. What has happened is unfair, of course, but she has also been complicit in it for decades – and the film also makes it clear that this hasn’t exactly been pleasant for Castleman, either.  Women writing under male (or male-sounding) pen names in order to get published is also a long-established matter of record (just ask J. K. Rowling) – it feels a little unfair that the film almost seems to be implying it’s all Joseph’s doing.

You could probably argue that the whole movie is done in slightly broad strokes this way – there’s perhaps just a touch of melodrama about the whole thing – it was put to me, for instance, that it kind of beggars credibility for Castleman to be as totally ignorant of the contents of ‘his’ books as the film implies – the grand deception wouldn’t have lasted two years, let alone over thirty. However, it is saved by the strength of the two lead performances – Pryce isn’t the one most people are looking at, but he is very good as Castleman, convincing as the famous author, but also as the little man behind the legend.

But it’s Glenn Close that people will be looking at, I suspect. The thing that makes her performance here such a very notable one, and such an impressive piece of technical acting, as simply because she is playing such an apparently quiet and passive figure – for most of the movie she doesn’t get the big scenes of tempestuous emotion, she’s just quietly there reacting to other people. And without really doing very much at all, she communicates with perfect clarity exactly what her character is thinking, how she feels, the immense patience, the long-smouldering sense of injustice tamped down so hard it has become part of the foundation of her character.

The Wife is a solid and enjoyable drama, even though it does have that slightly broad-brush quality in places. What makes it work are the quality of the two leads, whose performances are both immaculate. Glenn Close currently holds the record for being the actor who has received the most Oscar nominations without ever winning the award; I would not be surprised if this was the film which relieved her of that distinction.

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