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It’s the time of year when cinemas are usually packed to overflowing with happy crowds settling down to watch epic sword-swinging fantasy adventures with a distinctly Japanese influence. This sort of thing is a licence to print money, apparently, and so I was somewhat surprised to find myself entirely alone in a theatre watching Takashi Miike’s Blade of the Immortal, which is surely the highest-profile film currently fitting that description.

(Well, not entirely alone, as I had taken along my Japanese cultural advisor, who is currently interning on this blog’s staff. Probably just as well she’s not actually on the payroll, as her contributions to the evening mainly consisted of shouting ‘This is ridiculous!’ at regular intervals and claiming that Ken Watanabe is in Blade of the Immortal when he is truth completely absent from proceedings. But I digress.)

Although it is actually based on a manga by Hiroaki Samura, Blade of the Immortal clearly owes rather a lot to the long tradition of Japanese samurai movies, rather in the same vein as Miike’s 2010 film Thirteen Assassins. And if I say that this is a vein which has most likely been recently slashed open and is currently spraying blood everywhere, you may get an inkling of the general tone and content of the new movie.

Hana Sugisaka plays Rin, the plucky daughter of Asano, a noted fencing teacher, in Shogunate-period Japan. However, her parents are killed by Anotsu (Sota Fukushi), leader of the ruthlessly ambitious Ikko-ryu society. Being a dutiful daughter, she swears vengeance on Anotsu and his men, which is a fairly big thing to take on given they are all highly-trained killers and she is only a teenage girl. She encounters the ancient crone Yaobikuni, who advises her to hire a bodyguard, and recommends a man in the area who, she is told, will never die…

This turns out to be Manji (J-pop idol Takuya Kimura), once a noble samurai warrior, now an aimless drifter, thanks to having life-preserving ‘bloodworms’ implanted in him by Yaobikuni fifty years earlier. In addition to stopping him from ageing, the worms also give him the kind of regenerative powers only usually possessed by Hugh Jackman. Tired of his eternal existence and deeply cynical about the world, can Rin persuade Manji to help her in her quest for vengeance? And can even Manji’s supernatural combat prowess help them overcome the many enemies standing in their way?

Well, Blade of the Immortal may not be the biggest or most original movie of the year, but it’s in with a very good chance of being the most extravagantly violent. This is made very clear from the absolute start of the film – the very first sound you hear is that of a sword going through someone, and this is followed by a lengthy sequence in which Manji slaughters a vast mob of deserving opponents, getting royally carved up and losing an eye and an arm in the process (the subtitles helpfully provide ‘Ouch’ at this point).

As I say, it sets the tone, and much of the rest of the film consists of either intricately-choregraphed duels between Manji and the various elite swordsmen of the Ikko-ryu (conveniently, their code of honour means they refuse to all gang up on him), or equally intricately-choreographed massed battles in which Manji and one or two other characters take on literal armies single-handed (the enemy commander is a little slow off the mark, waiting for the first two or three hundred guys to be hacked down before bringing up the muskets). If you’re looking for a film which tension in the climactic duel partly comes from wondering whether anyone involved will be able to keep their footing in the lake of gore where it’s taking place, Blade of the Immortal is the one for you.

There is actually quite a clever and inventive script in the middle of all this, which does all sorts of interesting things – there are some musings as to the meaning of existence, a meditation on the futility of revenge, and the way in which the relationship between Manji and Rin is developed is also impeccable. The various references to classic Japanese action movies are also nicely done – it almost goes without saying that Kimura is giving us his take on the classic Toshiro Mifune ‘scruffy samurai’ character. However, I have to say that all this is just really very high quality dressing on a film which is primarily about people trying to chop each other up with swords, axes, pole-arms, knives on chains, and so on, and so on.

And I can’t help thinking that, as such, there’s a fundamental problem with the film: it’s established early on that Manji is almost literally invincible, due to his immortality, and the question is one of how you make the film interesting and dramatically viable when your main protagonist can only ever be inconvenienced, not actually threatened. The film has a decent go at tackling this, including various grotesque fighters with supernatural abilities of their own amongst the Ikko-ryu, and this makes things interesting for a bit – there’s a battle between Manji and another immortal which is more like an update on the sequence with the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail than anything from Highlander – but I’m not sure they ever quite solve the problem.

In the end, I did enjoy Blade of the Immortal, even though it is much more thoroughly absurd and superficial than any of the Kurosawa movies which it clearly owes a debt to. But I enjoyed it much more as a spectacle, for its lavish and extravagant bizarreness and violence, than as an actual drama or action movie. It is well-made, well-directed, mostly well-acted and a lot of fun to watch – but, it would appear, just a little bit too way out there for the more refined audiences in my neck of the woods. Fair enough: this is one of those movies that will either be your cup of tea or it won’t, but if it is, you’re going to have a really good time with it.

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Dearie me, here we are again at the end of another year, with everything that it entails: the adverts start a little bit earlier every year, the sentimentality becomes a little bit more glutinous, the doublethink just a little more bemusing. (Yeah, I should say: this is probably going to get extremely cynical, even by the normal standards of this blog. What can I say? So it goes.)

But, you know, let’s do something a bit different and try a Christmas movie for a change. I mean, it’s not as if there aren’t any Christmas films that I have time for: I like It’s A Wonderful Life (well, who doesn’t?). I like Die Hard. I like Brazil. So, there’s every chance that I could end up liking this new film, always assuming it includes one or other of an attempted suicide, blood-sodden gun battles, or delusional insanity as a happy ending. So here’s hoping.

Well, anyway, the new film is Bharat Nalluri’s The Man Who Invented Christmas, a fictionalised account of a period in the life of Charles Dickens (you know, I’m starting to think those blood-sodden gun battles may not appear). Dan Stevens plays Dickens himself, who at the start of the film is making his first tour of the USA, where he is greatly feted. Quite what this sequence is doing here I have no idea, for it contributes nothing to the story; I imagine it is present only to try and sell the movie to America.

Things get underway in earnest some time later, towards the back end of 1843. Dickens finds himself financially embarrassed and in need of a hit, after a number of flops in a row. So he resolves to write a book for the Christmas market which will solve all his problems. But whatever will he write about? Well, there’s a doddery old waiter at the Garrick Club called Marley, he sees a grim-faced old man muttering ‘humbug’ at a funeral, he overhears his new maid telling the Dickenslings a fairy story about ghosts, and so on.

Still, it’s a tough old gig writing a novel in only about six weeks (apparently – although some of us do manage it every November), and things get a bit fraught between Dickens and his family, especially his feckless old dad (Jonathan Pryce) with whom he has Issues. (Hey! Jonathan Pryce was in Brazil, that’s a good sign.) There is also the problem that Dickens can’t come up with a happy ending – is Tiny Tim marked for death???

Hum, well. The Man Who Invented Christmas is clearly a film which has something to say about the Real Meaning of Christmas. Well, let me just stop you there, The Man Who Invented Christmas, not least because (need it even be said?) Charles Dickens did not actually invent Christmas, Christmas not being that kind of discrete, specific concept, but instead a syncretised religious and cultural event which has existed in various forms and under different names for thousands of years, with roots in traditions as widely-flung as Egyptian and Norse mythology. (Glad we got that sorted out.) The film suggests the Real Meaning of Christmas is something to do with our better selves and redemption and kindness and generosity and all that sort of thing. My experience is that this is what many people like to to tell themselves Christmas is all about, before surrendering to the warm glow of self-satisfaction this idea gives them and spending several hundred pounds on a giant TV, which they proceed to fall asleep in front of after consuming enough alcohol to power a small outboard motor. Personally, even if I had invented Christmas, I would not necessarily rush to take the credit for it.

You know what, I’m starting to think I’m not the best person to give this film an objective review. Never mind, let’s press on. The basic idea of this film is not that different from Shakespeare in Love, although in this case Dickens in Debt would obviously be a better title. There’s a lot of slightly strained humour as we see Dickens pacing about his study, trying to think of a name for his protagonist, muttering things like ‘Scrunge? Scrank?’ It is a fairly well-documented phenomenon that, while films require good writing, films primarily about the act of writing are rarely good. This film’s crack at the problem of how to make writing a novel cinematically interesting is to have the various characters from A Christmas Carol materialise and talk to Dickens.

This does at least enable what’s indisputably the best thing in the movie, which is the appearance of Christopher Plummer as Scrooge. (Plummer has been having a bit of a Christopher Lee-type Indian Summer in his career for some years now.) You really want to see Plummer play Scrooge properly, and not engage in the underpowered ‘comic’ banter with Stevens that he is assigned here. There is, I suppose, something mildly amusing about the idea of Charles Dickens being followed around and annoyed by the cast of one of his novels, but it’s not exactly fall-off-your-seat funny, and it’s hardly a convincing depiction of the creative process.

In fact, this is one of those comedy dramas which isn’t that funny and isn’t especially dramatic, either – they have a stab at some kind of psychological insight, by suggesting that Dickens can’t bear to see Scrooge redeemed until the author has himself worked through his various daddy issues, but it feels a little bit contrived. (One wonders what Simon Callow, a noted Dickens authority who appears in a supporting role, made of the script.) Certainly there is little sense of any real darkness or complexity to the Dickens of this film.

The thing about a really good Christmas movie is that it does work hard to earn the happy-feel-good conclusion by going to somewhere genuinely dark and troubled on the way. This one doesn’t – it’s just slightly insipid all the way through, dramatically inert, almost aggressively bland.

You can almost imagine the thought process that led to this movie being made – no-one does costume drama quite like the British film industry, and those are a good bet at this time of year. But, as there have been nearly thirty movie or TV versions of A Christmas Carol already, including ones where Scrooge has been played by a skunk, a smurf, and Michael Caine, obviously the edict was to do something different. This is a competent film in its own way, I suppose, but I just came away wishing they’d done a proper adaptation of the book, so Plummer could have played Scrooge properly. As it is, this is soft in the middle and runny round the edges, and generally about as appetising as that sounds.

 

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I’m hearing a lot at the moment that Things Are Never As Bad As They Seem and The Future Is Bound To Be Better, but even so, I can’t help feeling a bit startled by the optimisim of opening a vast new shopping centre just right now. And yet this is what someone has done: said edifice dominates Oxford city centre like a necropolis for branded goods. The sheer scale of the space seems intended to make one feel tiny, and psychologically bullied into going into a relay outlet to propitiate the trade gods with some kind of financial libation. JG Ballard would have written a novel about it; I went there to watch a movie, of course.

Said cinema is on the roof of the place and is definitely up towards the luxury end of the scale – very much more a winebar than a coffee shop or sweet seller. The staff all seem terribly keen, too, although the decor incorporates different-coloured seats randomly mixed up together (which did my head in) and the place is still so new it has an all-pervading smell of paint. I was left feeling rather nauseated by this, after finding myself unable to hold my breath for the 100 minutes or so I spent watching James Franco’s The Disaster Artist.

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Speaking of optimism and pessimism, success and failure, I am struck by the fact that, for all that Hollywood loves making films about the movie business, there are very few films about the making of genuine classic movies. No fictional accounts of how The Godfather came to be, or Lawrence of Arabia, or 2001 (yes, obviously there may be a mileage differential here). On the other hand, they did a movie about the origins of Plan Nine from Outer Space (this seminal production is covered in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood) and a film has been appeared about how Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero overcame the drawbacks of having no discernible talent or experience and made what’s generally considered one of the worst movies of the 21st century, The Room.

The Disaster Artist opens with a sort of ho-ho-ho-ironic-sensibility sequence in which various hip and cool folk come on and talk about their admiration for The Room – one of them is JJ Abrams, who is on very thin ice when it comes to mocking other people’s films, if you ask me. Hey ho. Suffice to say this initial sequence gives the impression that there’s a central joke here which you really have to be in on to fully appreciate the film.

This does not last, however, as the story gets underway and we meet Greg (Dave Franco), a keen wannabe actor unencumbered by talent or presence, and Tommy (James Franco), a bizarre and enigmatic figure who looks like a vampire saxophonist and talks like a Russian Star Trek alien. An unlikely friendship develops between the two, as they bond through playing football very badly and giving impromptu dramatic recitations in crowded restaurants.

Much to the concern of Greg’s family, the duo end up heading off to Los Angeles in an attempt to make it in the movie business. Greg is marginally successful, Tommy is not, and in the end Greg suggests they stop knocking on the door of an industry which seems (quite sensibly) determined to ignore them and make their own movie.

Tommy duly bashes out the script for The Room, a drama about human behaviour, to star and be directed by him, also starring Greg, and co-starring a bunch of other actors who frankly have no idea what they’re letting themselves in for. But as the stresses of movie production increase, can the friendship between the two men survive?

Full disclosure: I have managed to make it well into my fifth decade on this plane of existence without ever actually seeing The Room. What can I say, maybe I’m cursed. I was a little concerned that you actually do have to have seen this legendary yapper in order to really appreciate The Disaster Artist, but I don’t think this is quite the case – obviously there’s a degree of in-jokiness about the whole project, but I still found it to be a very funny and engaging movie.

It is, first and foremost, a story about friendship under pressure – it struck me that there were very faint echoes of Withnail and I in this tale of struggling creative types, and the corrosive effects of bubbling resentment when your friend is more popular and successful than you are. But you’re never in doubt of the genuine friendship and affection between the characters played by the two Francos (perhaps unsurprisingly) and you never completely lose sympathy for Tommy Wiseau, regardless of how outlandishly strange and arbitrary his behaviour becomes.

Normally I would suggest that James Franco goes howlingly, soaringly over the top as Wiseau, were it not for the fact that Tommy Wiseau himself turns up at a couple of points in the film to show just how spot-on Franco’s impersonation of him is. He comes across as not just heroically weird, but weirdly heroic too – if you want a career as a creative person, I suppose you do need the kind of indestructible confidence in your own talent that Tommy has here. But how can you be sure you’re not engaged in making your own version of The Room? It’s a thorny question.

The Disaster Artist doesn’t worry overly about that and instead gets most of its mileage and best moments from its depiction of the making of The Room, which is basically presented as one man’s journey into creative megalomania. There are some very, very funny scenes, and Seth Rogen is good value as the bemused script supervisor attempting to act as the voice of sanity on the production. (Such is The Room‘s notoriety that various big names like Bryan Cranston and Zac Efron turn up in small roles throughout The Disaster Artist.) I share no spoilers, of course, if I reveal that the film concludes with Tommy as outlandishly enigmatic as ever and The Room on its way to becoming a genuine cult movie.

I’ve been fairly unkind about James Franco’s acting at various times in the past (someone I know does not have many kind things to say about his novel-writing, either), but The Disaster Artist is a bit of a triumph for him as both an actor and a director. I’m not sure what to make of the fact that a film as good and entertaining as this owes its existence to one as bad (but still apparently entertaining) as The Room. But there you go. Obviously, the world often doesn’t make as much sense as it should. There’s a time to worry about that, and a time to go and see films, and going to see The Disaster Artist would be a pretty sensible choice.

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I must confess that my fondness for the Phoenix, my local art-house cinema, has taken the odd knock over the last few years, mainly because with each new refurbishment (there have been several) it seems to have become more and more bland and corporate and just a little bit less charming. Admittedly, the complete rebuild of the smaller theatre is a vast improvement, but then the big one has also been totally redone and it didn’t really need it. Hey ho; that’s progress, I guess. One reason to still love the place is its habit (on the verge of becoming a tradition) of digging out a classic fantasy or horror movie to inaugurate the start of every Christmas season. Last year it was the wonderfully nasty Blood on Satan’s Claw, and this year it was Neil Jordan’s 1984 film The Company of Wolves, based on a story by Angela Carter.

Looking at this film now inevitably takes one back to a lost age of the British film industry, a time when companies like ITC were cranking out movies like Hawk the Slayer and The Dark Crystal on a fairly regular basis, while the hip young gunslingers at Palace Pictures, who started out by distributing art house movies from abroad, were chancing their arm with projects like Mona Lisa and and Absolute Beginners. The Company of Wolves is an ITC-Palace production, of course.

This is one of those movies which it is rather difficult to give a capsule synopsis for, but let’s have a go anyway. The story opens in what appears to be the real world, with a well-off couple (David Warner and Tusse Silberg) returning home to their rather expansive country home and their two daughters. The elder (Georgia Slowe) is packed off to rouse the younger (Sarah Patterson) from her attic bedroom, but it quickly becomes apparent that there is tension between the sisters. The younger girl continues to sleep, and suddenly the atmosphere darkens, the vista beyond her window becoming that of a dark, fairytale world.

She dreams of her sister becoming lost in the woods, initially encountering giant sized, animated toys, and then – as the forest itself becomes more grotesque and fantastical – a pack of wolves, which pursue and set upon her (this is still a very creepy and effective sequence three decades later). But the dream continues, and makes up the rest of the movie, as she herself appears as a young girl named Rosaleen, along with her parents, and her grandmother (Angela Lansbury, back in the days when she was much less controversial).

What follows is a kind of adult fairytale, very loosely following the plot of Little Red Riding Hood, but with many discursions and embellishments along the way. Quite apart from the main plot (which concerns a wolf menacing the village, and also, not to put too fine a point on it, Rosaleen’s incipient sexual awakening), there are a number of shorter stories woven into the film, usually as tales told by either the grandmother or Rosaleen herself, most of them taking a lupine bent – for example, a young woman marries a ‘travelling man’ (Stephen Rea), who disappears on their wedding night while answering, ha ha, the call of nature (there is a full moon), while a village girl dishonoured by a local aristocrat turns up at his wedding party to exact a startling revenge on the degenerate nobility there. Most of these are not much more than vignettes – one of them, featuring an uncredited Terence Stamp as the Devil, materialising in a white Rolls Royce, is very short indeed – and all of them are rather impressionistic and allusive.

Then again, this is the sort of film where everything seems to allude to something else. There are layers of meaning heaped upon each other as the film goes on, and in a rather ostentatious way. This is not the sort of film where the allusions and symbolism contribute another layer of meaning to the story – this is the sort of film which makes virtually no sense unless you accept that it is intended as a kind of coded parable, to be interpreted as such. At one point Rosaleen, hiding in the forest from an amorous boy, climbs a tree to discover a stork’s nest full of eggs. The eggs all spontaneously hatch out into tiny homunculi. On the face of it this is just weird, but it is clearly a moment of deep importance.

So, to coin a phrase, what is The Company of Wolves really all about? Well, for all that it occasionally resembles a rather superior Hammer horror pastiche, made with 1980s production values, I don’t think I would call this an actual horror movie as such – though, as mentioned, there are plenty of unsettling sequences, gory moments, and bits you wouldn’t necessarily want to show your own granny. It is clearly framed as a combination of fairy story and folktale (hence this revival, as part of a season of films in that kind of vein), and as for its central theme…

Well, to begin with, the stories all have a cautionary bent – not quite Beware of the Dog, but certainly Beware of the Wolf – the wolf in question often having something to do with aggressive male sexuality (I have an essay on the topic of lycanthropy as a metaphor for toxic masculinity in a book coming out next year, but what do you know, The Company of Wolves was there decades ago). All men are beasts, especially ones whose eyebrows meet in the middle (and this film was made years before the Gallagher brothers became famous).  The thing is, though, that as the film progresses, it becomes quite clear that everyone’s a little bit lupine occasionally – it doesn’t shy away from accepting the existence of female desire, nor is it treated as something wrong or shameful.

I suspect that one of the reasons the film remains so oblique and obscure in its meaning is because the structure established at the beginning is never really resolved. Normally, when a film opens in the ‘normal world’ and then moves to a dream reality, the conclusion sees the main character waking up and putting the lessons they have learned from the dream into reality – the classic example being, of course, The Wizard of Oz. This does not happen here: the end of the film sees a pack of wolves breaking through the walls of the dream, into the bedroom where the ‘real’ Rosaleen is still sleeping, but then abruptly concludes on an unresolved note of menace. I was not surprised to hear a group of people a couple of rows behind me discussing the film and admitting that they had no idea what the frame story was supposed to mean.

Nevertheless, this is a handsomely mounted and atmospherically directed film, even if the fairy-tale forest is fairly obviously a soundstage somewhere in Shepperton. There is also an undeniable pleasure in seeing people who are undeniably proper star actors (Lansbury, Warner, Rea) rub shoulders with folk you’d more normally see on the telly – Brian Glover is in it (his second British-made werewolf movie of the decade), so is Graham Crowden, so is Jim Carter (uncredited). Sarah Patterson, on the other hand, is so good in what was her movie debut that it’s genuinely surprising she didn’t go on to have a much bigger career. For what was a fairly low-budget movie even in 1984, it looks rather good, although some of the special effects – I’m thinking here particularly of the flayed werewolf transformation – have not aged particularly well.

I have to say I didn’t enjoy seeing The Company of Wolves again quite as much as I did The Blood on Satan’s Claw last year, but that’s probably because the latter is a (no pun intended) full-blooded supernatural horror movie, while the former uses some of the trappings of the genre to explore its own areas of concern. While the results are thought-provoking, it’s also a film where the narrative is there to service the author’s ideas and message. As a result it’s a film which is clearly at least as interested in making you think as it is in entertaining you – not that there isn’t a lot here to entertain, anyway. If nothing else, it’s a reminder of a time when British films were not afraid to be properly ambitious, experimental and imaginative.

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Yet more proof, perhaps, that in Hollywood nobody knows anything. The various tribes of American cinema (in the form of George Clooney, his regular collaborator Grant Heslov, and the Coen brothers) have come together, and the resulting script has been filmed as Suburbicon, with Matt Damon and Julianne Moore in the leading roles. With such a gallimaufry of talent both in front of and behind the camera, you would confidently expect the movie to be both a popular smash and a contender for critical recognition too.

And yet, of course, things have not quite turned out that way. Apparently this is the least financially successful film of Matt Damon’s career, a genuine bomb at the box office, and not exactly loved by people who comment on films for a living, either. The natural question to ask is: what went wrong with Suburbicon?

The movie is set in the late 1950s in Suburbicon itself, which is a model community just entering its second decade of existence. It advertises itself as a virtually perfect place to live, a paradise of white picket fences and social harmony. However, the town is rocked by a series of unexpected events – the arrival of its first African-American family, and a brutal murder.

This occurs one night when thugs break into the home of mild-mannered local businessman Gardner Lodge (Damon) and take him, his wife Rose (Julianne Moore), her sister Margaret (Moore again), and his son Nicky (Noah Jupe) prisoner. The family are drugged into unconsciousness, and when they awake it is clear that Lodge’s wife is not going to recover.

In the aftermath of the killing, Lodge and Margaret inform Nicky that she will be staying with them while everyone gets over the traumatic events which have just taken place. Nicky is a little unsure of what to make of it all, and his concerns become extreme when he is taken to the police station so Lodge and Margaret can view a line-up of suspects – only for them to confidently assert that the killers are not present, when they very plainly are…

The fact that the Coens are co-credited with Clooney and Heslov on the script for Suburbicon inevitably gives the impression that the four of them spent some time recently round at George’s place, possibly having a barbecue while they tossed ideas for the story back and forth. This is another one of those things which is not as you might expect, for apparently Suburbicon is based on a script they wrote over thirty years ago and then put to one side.

One wonders why, for this movie still has a certain Coeniness about it – saying that Clooney is attempting a pastiche of their style is probably overstating it, but it has that kind of slightly off-kilter quality that many of their films possess, as well as the way in which a thriller plotline is combined with the blackest of comedy.

Still, you can’t help wondering which bits of the story are original Coen, and which were inserted by Clooney and Heslov. I say ‘original’, but this would still have been an obvious pastiche even if the brothers had stuck with it – there are all kinds of subtle references to the kind of dark suspense stories that people like Alfred Hitchcock and Patricia Highsmith were telling half a century ago. The notion of something very unpleasant incubating behind the all-American facade of small town life inevitably recalls Blue Velvet, too.

One thing you can certainly say about Suburbicon is that the plotting of the main story is up to scratch, in its closing stages at least. The film threatens to become a kind of black farce as the bodies pile up, but this never feels forced or contrived. The performances are also strong – Noah Jupe is particularly good as Nicky, who’s the viewpoint character for much of the movie. I’m not entirely sure why it was necessary for Julianne Moore to play both sisters, but she is customarily good, as is Damon. There’s an impressive appearance, in what’s really little more than an extended cameo, from Oscar Isaacs – an able young actor who might do quite well for himself if he could only find a lead role in a high-profile franchise.

Much of Suburbicon is clever and inventive and very well made, and yet I can still understand why this film has failed to find an audience: it left something of a sour taste in my mouth as well, despite all its positive elements. I think this is mainly because the B-story of the film represents a serious tonal misjudgement – if I had to bet money on it, I would say this was the main addition to the script made by Clooney and Heslov.

It concerns the Mayers, the first African-Americans in Suburbicon, and their treatment by the rest of the town. This is almost cartoonishly ghastly, with mobs assembling outside their house every night to jeer and shout abuse, the town council paying to have high fences built around their property, local shops basically refusing to serve them, and so on. Now, I am sure that this sort of thing really happened in America in the late 50s, and I am by no means saying that it should not be depicted and reflected upon in films set in this period. But I’m not sure juxtaposing scenes of naturalistic drama about appalling racial abuse with a blackly comic suspense thriller entertainment really serves either project especially well.

When coupled to a few loaded references to how ‘diverse’ Suburbicon is – it contains white families from places as far apart as Ohio and New York! – you’re forced to conclude that Clooney’s thesis isn’t just that nasty things happen under the surface of suburbia, it’s that nasty things happen as a result of a society being insufficiently diverse – not just racism, but murder. For me that’s a big stretch, not least because there’s nothing in the film to support the notion. (Quite why some apparently normal characters should develop into such sociopathic murderers is not a question which the film answers, but that’s a possible flaw in the script, nothing more.)

I have a lot of time for George Clooney and generally find myself in agreement with many of the currently unfashionable ideas he often attempts to smuggle into his films, as both an actor and director. But on this occasion he just seems to be trying too hard to make a rather suspect point. As the blackest of comic suspense thrillers, there was a lot about Suburbicon that I admired and enjoyed, but as an attempt to make some kind of social commentary about America, either now or in the 1950s, it badly misfires. Still just about worth watching, I would say, even if it’s not the film it wants to be or the one you might be hoping for.

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As regular readers may recall, not too long ago I shared my thoughts on David A Goodman’s The Autobiography of Jean-Luc Picard, which is hardly a great book, but still hardly deserves some of the venom heaped on it by dedicated Trekkies. What caught my eye was the fact that Goodman wasn’t actually being dissed for writing a bad book, but for ignoring what was apparently a much better one: namely, Christopher L Bennett’s The Buried Age. Now, I don’t much go in for tie-in fiction these days, but I was somewhat intrigued, so I decided to check out Bennett’s novel and see if it was as good as everyone seemed to think.

The Buried Age differs from the Goodman book in that it only seeks to cover one interlude in the life of Jean-Luc Picard, albeit a significant one: namely, the almost decade-long gap between the loss of the Stargazer to a Ferengi ambush and his assuming command of the Enterprise in the early 2360s. Bennett discharges his responsibilities with great punctiliousness – the book opens with Picard on one bridge, minutes before the attack, and concludes on another, just as the TNG pilot is getting underway. The question is whether the author does so in a way which is both satisfying and entertaining.

Anyone criticising Goodman for disregarding other tie-ins in his ‘autobiographies’ has a point, but then again he is equally wont to disregard generally-accepted parts of the canon if he doesn’t like them (the animated show and at least one of the movies, for instance). It’s certainly true that there is no way to reconcile the two books, for all that they cover the same events and the same period – the Stargazer has different bridge crew, just for starters, and The Buried Age depicts Picard taking a lengthy sabbatical from Starfleet, whereas Goodman just has him piloting a desk for many years.

It’s actually rather peculiar to compare the two books. Obviously both authors have done their research when it comes to the TV show, and are aware of certain established points of history which they have to abide by – Picard first saw Tasha Yar negotiating her way through a minefield, for instance, and met Geordi LaForge when he was on a piloting assignment – and as a result there are weird moments of them echoing each other, momentarily coming into synch.

But for the most part The Buried Age follows a wildly different path. It opens with an extended prologue, not having much to do with the rest of the story, depicting the Ferengi ambush, the loss of the Stargazer, and the subsequent court martial of Picard.

Following this, our man leaves Starfleet and becomes a mature student of archaeology at the University of Alpha Centauri, where he seems well on course to get his doctorate and become an academic. Guinan, of course, has reasons of her own for wanting to get Picard back in a captain’s chair, and beguiles him with tales of artifacts left behind by lost alien civilisations from two hundred and fifty million years ago, in the hope this will stir his spirit of adventure.

It does, but there are inevitably unintended consequences, chief amongst them the resurrection of the Manraloth, a frighteningly advanced and subtle alien civilisation from the ancient past of the galaxy, and an existential threat to the Federation as Picard knows it. Feeling responsible for the appearance of this new menace, Picard dedicates himself to ending it – but what will the cost to him be?

I don’t read much tie-in fiction, as I say, partly because I can’t help thinking of it as second-order stuff, and there’s still a lot of original fiction I’d like to get through in the comparatively few decades left to me. Also, so much of it is undemanding stuff – I used to write fan fiction myself, and I quickly learned that all you needed to do to be acclaimed as a ‘master storyteller’ was to have a reasonably competent prose style and insert the requisite number of continuity references for other fans to spot and feel smug about understanding.

Well, Bennett seems to have got this part of the job down pat, for The Buried Age is shotgunned with references to various bits of Trek, ranging from fairly obscure Enterprise episodes to song lyrics from the original series. There are doubtless many I didn’t even notice, what with me not being a Trekkie and all. However, they don’t get in the way, and many of them are there because they serve the plot.

One level, the book serves as an answer to one of those questions about the Trek world it never occurs to most people to ask – just why are there so many dysfunctional godlings knocking about the place? It also attempts to reconcile the different versions of Picard from the TV show, and explain just why he’s initially so aloof and withdrawn as TNG is getting underway (no spoilers, but let’s just say he’s been through a rough time) – also why, for such a keen archaeologist, it’s a couple of years before he even mentions this on the show.

Suffice to say that, yes, Bennett does a much more satisfying job of this than Goodman, and writes the Star Trek universe much more deftly too – I knew I was going to have a good time reading this novel when Bennett’s extrapolation of Ferengi culture included the fact that the commanders of their ships have to bribe the rest of the crew to do their jobs properly. He writes an excellent, authentic Picard, a superb Data, and pretty good versions of Troi, Yar, and Worf, too. How he deals with Janeway probably depends on how much you like Voyager: here, she’s a smirking cleverclogs.

However, The Buried Age goes beyond this and into the realm of what I would describe as genuinely classic literary science fiction – not just because the book attempts a higher standard of scientific rigour than most Trek, although it does (there’s a lot of stuff about quantum physics, and the intersect with how this influences and is influenced by transporter function), but also because it has clearly been influenced by the likes of Olaf Stapledon’s cosmic myths and Iain Banks’ Culture stories – in some ways, the book is about the difference between the Federation (a society still recognisably based on our own) and a genuinely transhuman milieu not entirely unlike the Culture itself.

There are well-drawn characters here, thought-provoking ideas, and well-written action sequences. Picard is, perhaps, written as a little too gullible in places, but then the point of the story is that he’s dealing with intelligences vastly older and more experienced at manipulation than he is, so perhaps this is forgiveable. On the whole, however, this is an enormously satisfying book, both as a Star Trek novel and a piece of science fiction. At the very top end of the tie-in genre; highly recommended.

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There may well have been papers written on the curious nature of the sports-cinema interface. As I have noted in the past, there’s really only one-way traffic when it comes to this sort of thing – making a film about a famous athlete or sporting event seems logical in a way that reenacting the plot of, say, Logan’s Run during a football match does not – but even beyond this it seems to be the case that some sports lend themselves to having movies made about them much more readily than other.

Take football (so-ker, as I believe it is known in former colonial lands) – probably the most popular sport in the world today, but genuinely good movies about it are about as frequent as Gary Lineker getting a red card (oh, yes, I can do topical jokes). When I think of football movies, the first one springing to mind is Escape to Victory, in which Michael Caine leads a team of footballing PoWs (including Bobby Moore, Ossie Ardiles, and Pele, with Sylvester Stallone in goal) to a 5-4 win over a side of Nazi all-stars. (I imagine in a few years people will be inclined to dismiss the very existence of Escape to Victory as some sort of mass hallucination. Hear me, children of posterity: this film really does exist.)

Where were we? Oh yes, sports films, specifically good ones. It may be due to the nature of storytelling, but the true-life sports film in particular seems to be more successful when it deals with the individual disciplines, like athletics or boxing. Or, indeed, tennis, which is why we’ve had two tennis-themed dramas this autumn – the first being Borg Vs McEnroe, the second Battle of the Sexes, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.

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The film is set in the early 1970s (the temptation to go overboard with the crazy seventies styles is thankfully resisted), and opens with US tennis champion Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) leading a breakaway group of women players after the disparity in prize money between them and their male counterparts simply becomes too great to be tolerable. The formation of the WTA results, a politically-charged step given the atmosphere of the day and the appearance of the Women’s Liberation movement.

Amongst those reacting to this is middle-aged former Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), a pathological gambler and tennis hustler who sees the opportunity to potentially score a big payday and attract some serious publicity by challenging and then defeating one of the top female players. But King is reluctant to participate, rightly suspecting that what Riggs has in mind is a circus rather than a sporting event. But then events conspire to force her to change her mind…

I’m not sure how well remembered the Battle of the Sexes match would be were it not for the fact that this is the second movie to come out about it in the space of a few years (a documentary, also called Battle of the Sexes, appeared in 2013). You can see why the makers of this film might consider it rather fortuitous that it’s coming out at this particular time: we are having a bit of a cultural moment when it comes to the notion of gender relations, with Hollywood engaged in some uncomfortably public house-clearing that is bound to leave it more inclined to honour films with an ostensibly feminist theme next awards season.

Then, of course, there are the ongoing aftershocks from a non-tennis-related battle of the sexes which was concluded in November last year. In the movie, at least, Riggs is presented as an outrageous man-baby with a narcissistic streak a mile wide, prone to making the most outrageous public pronouncements, enthusiastically adopted by an establishment mostly comprised of middle-aged white men. The prominence of a subplot about King’s burgeoning romance with her hairdresser (played by Andrea Riseborough), not to mention the presence of a character, played by Alan Cumming, who basically represents the Spirit of Gayness, might also lead one to suspect that this is intended as an on-the-nose piece of agitprop about America today rather than in 1973.

However, perhaps thankfully, the film itself is a rather subtler and warmer piece of work than that, much more concerned with characters than ideology. It’s quite a long time into the film before the idea of the titular clash really becomes central to the story – prior to this it is much more about the formation of the WTA and King’s relationship issues, intercut with various escapades involving Riggs – Stone plays it all straight, so to speak, but Carell is pretty much off the leash in comic scenes such as one where Riggs turns up to a meeting of Gamblers’ Anonymous and tries to organise a card school amongst the attendees.

The ingrained prejudice and sexism of the time is presented in a relatively subtle manner, for all that it’s more or less non-stop. What’s interesting, though, is that the film-makers don’t really seem interested in vilifying Riggs as the misogynist he purported to be – maybe it’s just Carell’s performance, but he does remain weirdly likeable, in a Jeremy Clarkson-ish way (NB I’m aware your Clarkson tolerance may be different to mine), and the film does imply it’s just a pose he adopts to win more publicity. The real ire of the film is reserved for the head of the US tennis association (played by Bill Pullman), who’s a thorough-going patronising chauvinist, and to some extent Margaret Court (played by Jessica McNamee), who’s depicted as some sort of religious bigot.

In the end the film’s story is resolved in the match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, and naturally I will not spoil the result for you (that’s Wikipedia’s job). The slightly crazed nature of the event is evoked well. The weird thing is, though, that after over ninety minutes of build-up, in a movie actually named after it, the Battle of the Sexes match actually feels quite anticlimactic, not being filmed especially imaginatively or dramatically. This is a sports movie which is not particularly adept at handling sport.

(Oh, go on, then, one spoiler, maybe: something the film doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of are various suggestions that Riggs, who was allegedly heavily in debt to the Mafia, rigged the match in order to square things with them. Then again, this is still quite controversial even today.)

Then again, Battle of the Sexes is a movie which treats tennis as the backdrop for wider issues – some of these are to do with issues of equality and freedom of personal expression, but it’s also about the people involved. It does take a while to get to the King-Riggs clash, but in general the writing and performances are more than good enough to make it extremely watchable and entertaining. Given the state of things currently, I would say this is a film with a very good chance of picking up trophies itself next spring.

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