Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Musings on The Death of Cinema, Part Three – well, hang on, before we really get properly stuck into Will Gluck’s CGI movie version of Peter Rabbit, perhaps a little more context is required. Beatrix Potter’s original tales of the adventures of woodland characters were amongst the very first stories that I was ever read, and as a result they retain a power to affect me on a deeply emotional level: my memories of them have a fondness and delicacy to them that I find it extremely difficult to articulate. Anyone tampering with the elemental stuff of my childhood is, in effect, jabbing a sharp stick down into my subconscious. I didn’t go and see either of the Paddington films for exactly this reason: I wasn’t sure I could cope with the upwelling of emotion even a good Paddington movie would inevitably produce. But at least the Paddington films did get universally good reviews. This is not true of Peter Rabbit.

So why in sanity’s name would I go near this film? Well, to bear witness, mainly; to stare down into the blackest pits of horror and debasement unblinkingly, so I can vent my spleen all over the internet with at least the semblance of an informed opinion. Plus someone asked to me to, because he thought the ensuing review might be quite funny. I ask you.

Proper critics have said some quite peculiar and arguably silly things about Peter Rabbit: ‘not all bad, just very nearly’ is just one of the far too generous notices it has drawn. There have also been various references to Beatrix Potter herself ‘spinning in her grave’, when as any fule kno Miss Potter was cremated in December 1943. However, if the rocks and stones themselves of the Lake District were to rise up in violent revolt against this horrendous travesty, if the trees and waters and small furry creatures were to gather their strength and strike a terrible blow of vengeance against all the works of man – well, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

This is apparently ‘an irreverent, contemporary comedy with attitude’ – yes, think of Miss Potter’s famous The Tale of Peter Rabbit and the first three words that bound into your skull are ‘irreverent’, ‘contemporary’ and ‘attitude’, aren’t they? James Corden voices Peter Rabbit with all the heart-warming charm of a blocked drain, while Margot Robbie is Flopsy Rabbit and Daisy Ridley is Cottontail Rabbit. (Mrs Rabbit has been killed off, as she is obviously just not street enough for modern audiences.) The rabbits spend all their time sneaking into the vegetable patch of grumpy old Mr McGregor (Sam Neill).

The substance of the book is still just about visible off in the distance, but there now follows a sequence in which Peter Rabbit actively contemplates inserting a carrot into Mr McGregor’s rectum while the latter is chasing him about the garden. The exertions of the chase cause Mr McGregor to drop dead, however, before the deed can be done.

Yup, that’s right: this is a version of Peter Rabbit in which Peter Rabbit basically kills Mr McGregor. It makes that film version of Dad’s Army where Corporal Jones shoots someone in the head look like a triumph of authenticity. The film does squirm around on this point, though, claiming that McGregor’s ‘poor lifestyle choices’ were to blame, and including a throwaway gag about Asbestos poisoning. Ha! Ha! Asbestos poisoning! That’s so contemporary and irrelevent, not to mention hilarious!

Well, inheriting the house (and, of course, the vegetable patch) is Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson), a virtually unhinged control-freak who used to work for Harrods (which appears to have financed the film, as it features the most blatant and extended product placement I’ve seen in any film since Power Rangers). Cue another attitude-heavy gag about McGregor drinking water out of the Harrods toilet bowls. Needless to say, McGregor hates the rabbits and their woodland friends, but he is quite taken with his nature-loving neighbour Bea (Rose Byrne, who does not receive her customary ‘sigh’ on this occasion).

Yup, once again you are ahead of me: Bea is, we are invited to infer, Beatrix Potter herself, but rather than a multi-talented artist, natural scientist and expert mycologist, in the movie she is presented as a hippy-dippy free spirit and slightly inept abstract painter. Young McGregor is much taken with her, and she with him, rather to the chagrin of Peter Rabbit. Can Peter Rabbit drive McGregor away? Can McGregor successfully woo Bea? Can Bea make the rabbits behave, and encourage McGregor to be a bit less retentive?

All this, plus rapping sparrows, a sight gag where Mrs Tiggy-Winkle walks repeatedly into an electric fence, and the already-notorious moment when the rabbits pelt McGregor with blackberries, which he is allergic to, causing him to go into anaphylactic shock and collapse. Ho ho ho! Anaphylactic shock! That’s just so contemporary!

Once again, the film tries to smarm its way around any potential taste issues here, as the whole blackberry scene is prefaced by a moment where Peter Rabbit basically turns to the camera and says ‘Allergies are a serious business, and we’re not making fun of sufferers, because we don’t want to get letters’. Before the film proceeds to make fun of sufferers and do the whole comedy-anaphylactic-shock routine.

Just how bad is Peter Rabbit? Well, for once, words fail me. I have to resort to the following picture, which basically depicts the expression on my face for most of this movie:

In short, it is horrendously, almost indescribably bad, assuming you come to it from the point of view of someone wanting a movie with even the barest resemblance to Beatrix Potter’s charming, gentle stories.

It’s not even as if the guilty parties can claim ignorance, for the tiny sliver of the film which is actually pleasant to watch is a fully-animated flashback, done in the style of the book’s original illustrations, depicting the happier days of the rabbit family. It completely gets the sweetness and subtlety of the original tales, which just makes the ghastliness of the rest of the movie all the more reprehensible: they could have done a whole movie like that. They chose otherwise. They have no defence.

This is almost the Platonic ideal of a well-known property being wrenched violently out of shape simply in order to exploit its name-recognition factor. In places this almost resembles a mean-spirited parody of Beatrix Potter, with her stories subverted by the inclusion of a knowing, desperately self-aware sense of humour. Is the whole thing supposed to be ironic on some level? I’m not sure. The closing section certainly seems to be having some fun at the expense of grisly and formulaic Richard Curtis-style rom-coms. Fair enough; there’s fun to be had there. But don’t do it if it means doing this kind of violence to poor little Peter Rabbit.

Normally I could find the generosity to suggest that this film has a certain level of technical competence, and the performances of the two leads are serviceable enough. But not in this case. This is a knowing, premeditated violation of an innocent children’s classic, a wilful, unconscionable cash-grab (and before you say anything, I used my free ticket card to get in to see it, so my conscience is clear) of such mercenary awfulness it is almost impossible to watch without despair swallowing your soul. The success of the Paddington films means more horrors of this ilk are almost inevitable, I fear. The one faint glimmer of hope I can offer is that there were only five people at the screening I went to, and none of them were from the target demographic for this film. So there is at least a chance it is dying on its cotton-tailed arse. It deserves to; it honestly deserves to. Not so much a work of art as a sin against nature.


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Musings on The Death of Cinema, Part Two: you know, the fact that You Were Never Really Here is (famously) only showing at four Odeons in the UK neither surprises nor concerns me, particularly – both the film and its director have art-house critical darling written all over them. What it says about our culture, that we are so ready to accept that such a superbly talented artist is essentially only of interest to a niche audience, is another matter and probably too substantial to be resolved on a humorous film review blog.

What is, perhaps, slightly more worrying are signs of a tendency for films to bypass cinemas entirely and get their first introduction to the world via the bold new frontier of streaming sites. We are here – and I find myself obliged to abandon my usual principled circumlocution and refer to the site by name – in the world of the Netflix Original. Now, some of Netflix’s own films are cheap-ass potboilers, and even when they do spend a lot of money the results are not always impressive (Bright, for instance, apparently had a budget of $90 million). But this is to some extent a whole new ball game, for – unlike a traditional studio – Netflix is not concerned with individual ticket sales, and they seem more prepared to take risks.

Which brings us to the strange case of Paramount Pictures, Netflix, and Alex Garland’s Annihilation. The story goes as follows: Paramount agreed to back Annihilation, an SF-horror movie based on a book by Jeff VanderMeer, to be directed by Garland (also responsible for the well-received but – if you ask me – slightly overrated Ex Machina). $55 million was spent; the movie was made, and previewed to some punters. The punters had issues with it, and Paramount demanded changes. The film-makers refused (I suppose there’s another discussion to be had about the pernicious influence of preview screenings on films: I think it was Mark Kermode who said that if they’d preview-screened Casablanca, no-one today would remember it at all).

At this point Netflix swooped in and a deal was struck: Paramount would distribute the movie in cinemas in the US and China, but as far as the rest of the world was concerned, Annihilation would effectively be a Netflix Original, despite having been made with that big-screen experience in mind.

Certainly I would imagine seeing Annihilation on the big screen would be a memorable experience, for this is a visually lavish movie, if nothing else. Natalie Portman plays Lena, an ex-soldier-turned-biology-professor (go with it) who as the story starts is struggling to come to terms with the loss of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaacs) on a classified mission some time earlier.

But then Kane returns, apparently from the dead, seemingly a changed man, unable to say much about his experiences, and rapidly falling extremely ill. The armed forces descend and both Lena and Kane are taken into custody, under the oversight of Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The truth is explained to Lena: an uninhabited region of swampland on the southern coast of the USA is now host to ‘the shimmer’, a mysterious, rapidly expanding zone which appears to defy the normal laws of physics. Numerous teams of soldiers have been sent into the zone to try and find the source of the phenomenon; Kane is the only one to return.

Lena joins another mission heading into the zone, a primarily scientific one led by Ventress herself. But the zone is a realm of mutation and chaos, where the laws of nature seem to be breaking down – can the team members even preserve their sanity, let alone their lives?

Annihilation is clearly the work of the same sensibility as Ex Machina: it takes some classic, maybe even well-worn SF tropes, and handles them in a stylish, cerebral way. Garland’s familiarity with classic science fiction has been clear ever since his script for 28 Days Later, which is in many ways loosely adapted from The Day of the Triffids; he also wrote the screenplay for the 2012 Judge Dredd movie. While Annihilation is ostensibly based on VanderMeer’s novel, suggestions that the movie draws on a range of other sources seem to me to be on the money.

It seems to me that Gareth Edwards’ Monsters has had some influence on the film, with its scenes of weirdly-hybridised ecosystems and urban desolation; you can also, perhaps, discern a more distant inheritance from the likes of The Thing. The film certainly sits comfortably within a wave of modern SF films which are visually striking but somewhat obscure in their storytelling – here I’m thinking of movies like Under the Skin, Midnight Special, and The Signal.

A number of people have said that Annihilation has at least as much in common with H.P. Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space as it does with VanderMeer’s book, and this strikes me as a very good call. The short story in question concerns the fall to Earth of a strange meteorite, and the insidious and gradual effects it has on the ecology of the surrounding area, to say nothing of the inhabitants. In addition to having very similar premises, both stories have the same queasy feeling of wrongness, of a world being twisted out of shape.

That said, while Annihilation does feature some interesting viscera, it is hardly visceral – as with Ex Machina, it is altogether too cool and measured for genuinely powerful emotions to manifest themselves. There’s no real feeling of tension of threat; even though the team are very likely heading into the zone on a suicide mission (no-one else has returned), there is no apprehension or foreboding involved.

(I suppose I should comment on the fact that the exploration team is made up entirely of women, although this is one of the elements inherited from the novel rather than an innovation of Garland’s. Does it feel like the movie is trying to make a slightly ostentatious and contrived pitch to a certain type of progressive audience? Well, maybe; for me it may just be that it feels a bit odd that the members of a science team are all packing assault rifles, as if this is necessary in order to make it clear that they are strong and independent women – I find the ass-kicking warrior woman to be as tedious a stereotype as her male counterpart. I suspect the film would feel quite different with differently-gendered characters; there is a lot to unpack here. I must further note that despite the predominantly female cast, the film has still been criticised on the grounds that Portman’s character should be Asian, and Leigh’s should be partly Native American, which if nothing else is a reminder that there is no-one more relentlessly uncompromising than the virtuous.)

Apart from its spectacular visuals, Annihilation‘s main virtue is its icy weirdness, for it never quite gets you where you live, and there’s not enough going on for it to qualify as an action-horror either. It is a film of ideas, and most of those ideas are fairly rarefied ones, about the nature of identity and what it means when this starts to disintegrate. Opinion, I suspect, will be divided by this film, especially by the closing section, which will either be a bravura exploration of complex themes or a borderline-absurd piece of pretentious artiness, depending on your point of view.

Has the cinema-going world beyond the US and China been deprived of a treat, given that Annihilation is only available over the internet? Um, well, maybe: certainly this film is frequently stunning to look at, and that would only be emphasised on the big screen. Worse films than this one will certainly get a major cinema release this year. But then it’s not really an issue of quality, is it, but rather one of how commercial a movie should be. Annihilation is somewhere on the outer limits of mainstream genre cinema, and I think it might have struggled to find an audience if it had received a conventional release.

I suppose in the end it is just the nature of cinema as a commercial undertaking: films are defined as successes or failures by their box-office take at least as much as by their creative achievement; studios don’t produce films to support the arts, they do so to make a profit. I suppose it is preferable to have the film-makers’ cut of Annihilation available to a wide audience by whatever means, than for it to be loitering on a shelf somewhere, or slipped out direct-to-DTV as a famous flop, or savagely recut to turn it into something more comfortingly conventional. I don’t think Annihilation is a truly great film, but it is well-made, full of ideas, reasonably well-performed, and has a very strong sense of what it wants to be; we need more films like this, and less designed-by-committee lowest-common-denominator movie-making. The fact that Annihilation hasn’t got a cinema release is a bit of a shame; if it came to be the case that films as quirky and unusual as this could only get an internet release – well, that would be very bad news indeed.

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Heaven knows there are enough reasons to be alarmed by the state of the modern world, but this can manifest in some unexpected ways. ‘This is the death of cinema! We’re talking about a major director, here! Black Panther showing on three screens, and Peter Rabbit! It’s just commercial slop everywhere! Stock, Aitken and Waterman! I don’t believe it!’ cried a friend of mine, the cause of this outrage being the news that Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here was only showing at four Odeons nationwide and that we would have to go slightly further afield to see it than usual. (I hesitate to share more details of his Howard Beale-esque outburst, partly because I am not unsympathetic to the general gist of it, but mainly because he sits next to me at work and is wont to complain if he feels he’s been misrepresented on the blog.)

I have to say that for a film which at least one major cinema chain seems reluctant to touch, You Were Never Really Here attracted a decent crowd to the late-on-a-Friday-afternoon showing that we eventually strolled up to. I must admit to being slightly curious as to whether people had been drawn in because of the ostensible thriller trappings of the film, or Ramsay’s own reputation. She is not, one has to say, the most prolific of film-makers, this being only her fourth full-length movie in nearly twenty years, but she regularly gets acclaimed as one of the best film-makers working in the world today: I had almost forgotten that I saw her second film, Morvern Callar, fifteen years ago, and was rather impressed by it.

The new film stars Joaquin Phoenix as Joe, a private security operative – basically, a mercenary – with a somewhat chequered past. After concluding his current mission, Joe heads home, where he keeps an extremely low profile as he cares for his elderly mother. Soon enough, however, a new assignment comes his way: a senator’s teenage daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) has fallen into the hands of the darkest elements of the underworld, and he is commissioned to retrieve her, ideally with the maximum incidental brutality (Joe is happy to oblige with this).

Initially Joe’s planning and preparation pay off, but very soon the job goes bad on him, and he finds that not only he but those around him are in deadly peril. And beyond even this, he may now be the only one with a chance of saving the girl.

Everyone’s obvious touchstone when it comes to comparing You Were Never Really Here with other things is Taxi Driver, and you can certainly understand why – this is a dark, brutal film, driven along by an exemplary central performance. However, as you may perhaps have been able to tell from the synopsis, there’s also a sense in which – on paper at least – the actual plot of the movie sounds like the stuff of a much more routine thriller – you can imagine Luc Besson doing almost exactly the same story, probably starring Liam Neeson. For all that this is essentially an art-house movie – that’s the kind of release it seems to have received, anyway – the structure of the story is also very conventional; you can imagine all the various screenwriting gurus and writers of craft books like How to Plot Your Movie watching it and nodding approvingly, for only in its closing stages does it really depart from narrative orthodoxy.

However, if we should take only one thing away from You Were Never Really Here, it is that it’s not just about the ingredients, but the delivery – fond as I am of a good solid no-frills thriller, no-one would ever mistake Ramsay’s film for one of those. A few years ago I read a piece discussing the whole subgenre of vigilante movies, suggesting that they basically come in two flavours: one where the use of violence fixes the world, and one where the use of violence is just representative of how irretrievably broken the world is. This is only marginally a vigilante movie, but as such it definitely falls into the latter category – there is nothing thrilling or cathartic about the film’s occasional eruptions of grisly mayhem, and Ramsay does not present them in a remotely glamorous way. As Joe lumbers into action, gripping his weapon of choice (the domestic hammer, usually applied to the skull of anyone who gets in his way), your first instinct is simply to shrink down in your seat and cover your eyes, because you know that the film is not going to shy away from the awful consequences of violence. When Joe is forced to fight for his life against a gunman sent to kill him, around the midpoint of the film, this is not some set-piece demonstration of martial arts, but a blurred and confusing chaos.

It may be off-putting to some, but the film is all obviously the work of the same clear vision – aside from a couple of scenes early on, there is very little in the way of genuine exposition, just a succession of signs and implications as to what is actually happening, and what it all means. This is especially true when it comes to Joe’s own past. The film’s Wikipedia page informs the reader very breezily of who he is and where he comes from (it also fills in a few plot details which are less than clear on-screen) – it may be that the novella by Jonathan Ames, on which the film is based, is more on-the-nose about these things – but in the actual movie, this is all presented as a series of disjointed, almost nightmarish flashbacks, some of them almost subliminal.

Despite all this, you are never really in doubt about what is happening, partly due to Ramsay’s skill, but also thanks to an intensely powerful performance from Joaquin Phoenix as a man who is, not to put too fine a point on it, deeply messed up. Joe is more-or-less sympathetic for much of the movie, but no-one in their right mind would want to be him – and this is made clear by Phoenix’s dead-eyed stare, his aura of defeat, his almost total withdrawal from the normal world of human interaction. Phoenix’s main co-star in this movie is, in an odd way, the actual soundtrack of the film (a brilliant contribution by Jonny Greenwood), and it’s almost as if we are hearing the contents of his head – driving, percussive rock when he is going into action, a more discordant, atonal soundscape when he is at the mercy of his demons.

This is not an easy film to watch, coming from a very dark place and concluding on, at best, a finely-judged moment of ambiguity. I would honestly struggle to call it art, but it is at the very least a superbly crafted piece of art, that has something to say which it communicates with tremendous skill.

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2017 was a somewhat noteworthy year by recent standards, in that we did not get a single new Woody Allen film at any of the cinemas in Oxford. (Compare this to 2010-11, when Whatever Works, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, and Midnight in Paris all appeared in the space of not much more than a year.) Should we read anything into this?

Well, it doesn’t appear to be the case that Allen’s legendary work ethic is declining, for his next film, A Rainy Day in New York, has already been filmed, and the fact that he can still get financing for his movies indicates they retain an audience. All this is despite the more-miss-than-hit quality of his last few films and an occasional sense that he’s just going through the motions (I’ve commented on a couple of recent projects that they feel like he’s just filmed the first draft he wrote).

If there is a shadow over Woody Allen’s future career (and there are suggestions that Rainy Day may never be completed or released), then it is because of the Unique Moment. Allegations of the most serious kind were made against Allen back in 1992, and in the current climate this alone apparently makes him untouchable by any right-thinking actor: virtually the entire name cast of Rainy Day have been queueing up to announce how much they regret making the movie, and donating their fees to charity. (Given that Allen’s reputation has always enabled him to attract impressive casts to his films, improving their marketability and chances of a wide release, this may prove to be especially significant.)

I don’t usually go about courting controversy, but this strikes me as the whole Me Too juggernaut spinning out of control and potentially crushing an innocent victim. I think it would be grossly unjust for Allen’s career to be terminated off the back of this; he is not Harvey Weinstein, who by all accounts was a serial offender, whose behaviour was apparently an open secret in Hollywood, who has been accused by dozens of victims, and who may yet face criminal proceedings. Obviously there are problematic elements in Allen’s work – he is perhaps just a little too fond of the notion that refined, intellectual men are devastatingly attractive to much younger, beautiful women – but the fact remains that we’re talking about a single allegation, made a quarter of a century ago, which was fully investigated by professionals, whose judgement was that it had no factual basis. I’m all for zero tolerance of people who commit these kinds of crimes, but if we’re going to assume that being accused automatically equates to being guilty, we’re heading to a place I’m not sure we’re going to like.

Oh well. On to Wonder Wheel, Allen’s forty-eighth movie as writer and director (so far as I’ve been able to figure out, anyway), which finds him in serious drama mode – or should that be ‘serious melodrama’ instead? Despite working with Amazon’s movie wing, and apparently contending with a somewhat limited budget, the look and feel of an Allen movie remains unchanged – there’s the same style of opening credits, and the same use of period music (this time it’s ‘Coney Island Washboard’, which is played roughly every ten minutes throughout the film and nearly drove me mad). And there’s the use of a narrator, who on this occasion is Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a character in the film who styles himself as a playwright and storyteller. Mickey is upfront about the fact he likes melodramatic stories and broad-brush characterisation, but I’m never convinced that acknowledging you’re making a melodrama excuses making a melodrama in the first place.

Anyway, this is not really Mickey’s story: that honour falls to Ginny (Kate Winslet), a somewhat frustrated ex-actress working as a waitress in the Coney Island theme park in (we are invited to infer) the early 1950s. Ginny is unhappily married to Humpty (Jim Belushi), who basically looks, talks, and acts like Fred Flintstone, and further stressed out by her young son’s pyromaniac tendencies. Seeking to escape from all this, she has begun an affair with Mickey himself, and dares to dream that they may have a future together.

Things become considerably more complicated with the arrival of Carolina (Juno Temple), Humpty’s estranged daughter from his first marriage. Now fleeing from her mobster husband, Carolina seeks sanctuary with Ginny and Humpty, and, after some initial hostility, is able to win her father over. It just places more strain on Ginny’s domestic situation, though – and when it becomes very apparent that Mickey and Carolina are rather taken with each other, it may be more than Ginny can bear…

The days of Woody Allen’s attempts to pastiche Ingmar Bergman seem to be long since over, and if anything he’s going through a period where, once in a while, he has a go at being Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams. This is certainly one of those, although the great American playwright whose name gets checked in the film is Eugene O’Neill. This is a confined, talky movie, with very much the feel of filmed theatre much of the time – it’s certainly not especially cinematic, and you could imagine it turning up as a TV premiere without it losing much of its impact.

You really can see why Allen still manages to attract good casts to his movies – he writes them big, chunky parts they can really get their teeth into, even if the characters are just a bit hokey sometimes. The main performances here are all very strong – Justin Timberlake has turned into a rather fine actor, doing good work as Mickey, who seems blissfully unaware of his own self-absorbtion and amorality. Juno Temple is also good. Carrying the movie, however, is a tremendous performance from Kate Winslet, who really does run the gamut of emotions in the course of the story and fully wins your sympathy. I can’t remember the last time she was quite so good in anything, and a little surprised that she didn’t receive more recognition for the role. (Dragged over the coals by some for her refusal to condemn Allen, or at least apologise for working with him, Winslet recently attempted to address the issue by saying she ‘bitterly regretted’ working with some unspecified people, a formulation unlikely to entirely please anyone.)

That said, the whole thing is thoroughly earnest, with no particular moments of lightness or comedy in it. And, once again, you can’t help wishing Allen had gone through at least a couple more drafts of the script – ‘I’ve become consumed with jealousy!’ cries Ginny at one point, which is just inexcusably bad dialogue. There is perhaps a flicker of self-awareness later on with the line ‘Spare me all the bad drama!’ – but as this comes near the end of the film, it’s a bit late for that.

Apart from Winslet’s performance, the best thing about Wonder Wheel is the cinematography, which gives the whole thing a warmth and colour and life which is often missing from the script. Odd things occasionally happen here too – a scene will begin drenched in colour, with the characters almost seeming to glow, only for everything to abruptly fade to a much more subdued, naturalistic hue. If there’s an artistic rationale for this, I couldn’t figure it out; maybe they just ran out of money for the digital grade.

This is ultimately much more of a character piece than many recent Woody Allen movies, and this really works in the film’s favour – there’s no sense of a particular theme or message being clumsily rammed across – and the fact that the main relationship is between a (somewhat) older woman and a younger man means that some of the more awkward Allen tropes don’t put in an appearance, either.

It’s really still competent rather than great or inspired film-making, but there are enough good things about Wonder Wheel to make one think that Allen may yet have one really great film left in him. Of course, he is 82 now, and no-one would begrudge him or be especially heartbroken, I expect, were he to announce his retirement. But I think it would still be infinitely preferable if that were a decision he made on his own terms.

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Well, here’s something which has kind of snuck up on me: having recently watched Takao Okawara’s Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla II, I find myself in the position of having seen all thirty-two of Toho’s Godzilla movies. This has been a long road, to be perfectly honest: there were only seventeen when I started, back in 1990, and the fact that most of the recent films are very difficult to track down in the UK did not help much. Thank the stars for the internet. It seems quite appropriate that this should form the basis of the landmark 1002nd film review on the blog (look, I do literature, not mathematics).

Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla II was released in 1993, and was apparently intended at the time to mark a pause in production for films in the series: the first big-budget American Godzilla was believed to be imminent at the time (in the end it was another five years before it arrived, so Toho made another two movies before finally putting the series on hold). Watching the movie now I suppose you can just about discern the suggestion that things are being concluded, but for the most part it resembles the films around it, not least in the way it reintroduces famous characters from the films of the 60s and 70s.

The film gets underway with the United Nations Godzilla Countermeasures Centre unveiling their new weapon to sort the big lizard out once and for all: the severed robotic head of Mecha-King Ghidorah has been fished out of Tokyo bay (where it ended up at the climax of 1991’s Godzilla Vs King Ghidorah) and reverse-engineered so its futuristic technology can be employed in two new vehicles: Garuda, one of those flying tanks which seem to be common in tokusatsu movies, and Mechagodzilla, which is, um, a mecha which looks like Godzilla.

(There is a bit of a departure here from the original incarnation of Mechagodzilla, which – if memory serves – was basically a robot. Here it is essentially a somewhat outlandishly-designed vehicle. This take seems to have gained some traction, for the third incarnation of Mechagodzilla – the Kiryu version, from Tokyo SOS – sticks very close to the same concept. On the other hand, this may have something to do with the same guy, Wataru Mimura, writing all the recent Mechagodzilla movies.)

Flying Garuda, to begin with at least, is lovable lunk Aoki (Masahiro Takashima). In a piece of foreshadowing about as subtle as being hit by a truck, we are informed that Aoki is a huge fan of pteranodons, not that this particularly informs the plot much. However, quite early on he is redeployed to elsewhere in the anti-Godzilla corps, which if nothing else means he gets to wear a snappy cravat with a big G on it (this is actually part of the uniform).

From here we cut to a bunch of scientists on one of those remote Pacific islands which are such a common feature in these films. They are excited to have discovered some impressive pteranodon fossils, and also an actual intact egg. Excitement shifts to alarm when they realise that another egg has already hatched, and a giant pteranodon is roosting in the vicinity. The unlikely size of this beastie is explained by one of the boffins as the result of nuclear waste irradiating the island, though I’m not sure this entirely explains what pteranodon eggs are doing on a Pacific island in the 1990s.

(Now, the pteranodon is – obviously! – a new take on Rodan, one of the A-list Toho kaiju with a long and distinguished career which extends back to his own 1956 movie and is due to continue next year in a new Hollywood incarnation. The American dub of Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla II is unique in that it reverts to using Rodan’s Japanese name, Radon. I’m going to stick with Rodan, however, as it would feel odd not to.)

The scientists go beyond alarm into actual panic when the sea erupts and Godzilla himself appears on the scene. Godzilla and Rodan catch sight of each other and promptly begin to party like it’s 1964, laying waste to most of the island in the process of their rumble. The scientists take this as a cue to make a swift departure with the egg. Being such a pteranodon nut, Aoki turns up to check out the egg in the Kyoto lab where it ends up, meeting nice young scientist Azusa (Ryoko Sano) in the process. Psychic Miki (Megumi Odaka), a regular character in these movies, is also hanging around and discovers that – fasten your seatbelts, friends – some moss sticking to the egg is actually telepathically singing to it. (Well, of course it is.)

As a result of the discovery of the singing telepathic moss, the egg hatches out, not into another pteranodon but a baby godzillasaurus, which everyone refers to as Baby Godzilla. Baby Godzilla seems essentially benign and doesn’t appear to be especially irradiated, which just adds to his cuteness. It’s never really confirmed that Baby Godzilla and the full-sized version are closely related, but big Godzilla certainly seems to take an interest in the newborn and starts heading for Kyoto. There’s only one thing to do: stand by to launch Mechagodzilla!

Well, if nothing else, I feel like I’m beginning to understand why so many of the sub-par Godzilla movies of the 1990s and early 2000s feel so samey – it’s because most of them were written by Wataru Mimura (Tokyo SOS, which is the best of the post-1992 Godzilla films, was the work of someone else). Quite apart from a rather Gerry Anderson-esque take on Mechagodzilla, what these films have in common is a tendency to treat Godzilla like bad weather – one of those annoying facts of life people just have to come to terms with – rather than the terrifying menace he is in some of the other films. Godzilla just turns up and attacks places in this film whenever the plot slows down a bit.

I say ‘plot’, but the main problem with Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla II is that in a very real sense it doesn’t actually have a plot – not to the extent that it feels in any way structured or thought-through. Things just happen one after the other, frequently without much in the way of explanation or causality, to say nothing of occasional odd tangents. The film is reliant on things happening without any real explanation – where do the eggs come from? What the hell is the deal with the singing telepathic moss? Why does Baby Godzilla seem to have psychic powers? How come Rodan mutates into a more dangerous form halfway through the movie? I could go on.

One result of this is that something rather odd happens with audience sympathy in the course of the film. To begin with, Godzilla is the same ambiguous anti-hero as in all the movies since the 1984 relaunch of the series, and the operators of Mechagodzilla are heroic defenders of Japan. But by the end of the film, one finds oneself rooting for Godzilla – or at least expected to do so – as he takes a beating from characters who are theoretically the protagonists. The only catalyst for this is the fact that the bosses at G-Force are unspeakably cruel to Baby Godzilla, using him as bait even though he is so small and cute. I suppose if nothing else this speaks volumes about the famous Japanese vulnerability to anything cute with big eyes.

Oh well. There are a few good things about this film – Megumi Odaka, perennial second banana in this series, gets some good material, and the monster suits are generally excellent. The Rodan puppet in particular is extremely impressive. The initial battle between Godzilla and Rodan is also boisterously good stuff. Apparently this was choreographed as it was due to complaints that too many monster battles in the previous few films just consisted of monsters standing off and zapping breath-rays at each other – which makes it slightly odd that the other battles in this film consist of pretty much that exact same thing. (Although the traditional scene where the massed model planes and toy tanks of the JSDF trundle out to engage Godzilla and have no effect whatsoever also makes an appearance, and it’s like seeing an old friend when it does.)

In the end, though, one has to remember that this film is predicated on the idea that, having salvaged priceless technology from the future, the best thing the UN can think of doing with it is to build a giant cybernetic dinosaur with laser-beam eyes. Normal standards of logic and sanity are clearly not in effect. In the past I have spoken of the special pleasures of a Good Bad Movie – Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla II is not quite a Good Bad Movie, but it is at least an Okay Bad Movie, and the dedicated Godzilla audience it was clearly made for will probably find stuff to enjoy here.

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A couple of years ago we trundled off to see the movie Suffragette and had a reasonably good time. This is not a movie notable for its ability to cause mirth in an audience – at least, not before the closing credits, anyway. At this point a sort of roll of honour unfurls, giving the names of various nations and the year in which they finally granted women the right to participate in elections: The United Kingdom, Austria, Germany, and Poland – 1918. Belgium, Sweden, and the Netherlands – 1919. Ecuador, Spain, and Mongolia – 1924. Switzerland – 1971. At which point people generally fell about laughing in the aisles. (Look on the bright side, any Swiss citizens who may be reading this – there’s always Liechtenstein, which didn’t take the plunge until 1984.)

One of my current semi-regular movie-going companions and I sat down to review the listings the other day, in search of our next cinema trip. We’re at one of those slightly annoying points in the year where almost the only things in theatres are films which we’ve already seen at least once, or ones which frankly don’t interest us much. Having disposed of the multiplexes we moved on to the art house, at which point my companion’s eyes lit up a bit at the sight of Petra Volpe’s The Divine Order (Schweizerdeutscher Titel: Die göttliche Ordnung), a movie about the Swiss women’s suffrage movement which had arrived just in time to miss International Women’s Day. Despite apparently being a thundering misogynist, I have the greatest respect and admiration for the feminine world, as befits someone whose mother was a woman. So naturally I readily agreed to accompany my friend to one of the screenings.

Now, with the evening slots at the Phoenix all filled with Lynne Ramsay’s new thriller (expect a review at the end of the week), The Divine Order was only showing in the afternoons when we couldn’t both make it. So we decided to go to the Saturday morning show (going to the cinema before noon was an exciting new experience for my companion). Knowing what a right-on and progressive place Oxford is, I felt strongly that we should probably book our tickets in advance, suspecting that everyone who likewise couldn’t make the weekday matinees would turn up for this one show and it would be packed out, as sometimes happens at the Phoenix.

So it was that we settled happily into our seats in an almost totally empty 164-seat cinema, alone except for someone intent on doing the giant-sized general knowledge crossword in the weekend paper. I suppose I must have overestimated the appeal of a subtitled Swiss-German film about feminism in the 1970s (or maybe Oxford’s liberal credentials are in peril), but what’s the price of a booking fee between friends? In the end, we were actually a little sad that more people hadn’t come to see The Divine Order, because it’s certainly not a film that deserves to languish unwatched.

The movie opens with a reminder of the seismic social and cultural upheavals gripping much of the world in 1971, before making it quite clear that at the time Switzerland remained resolutely ungripped by anything of the sort: life is going on much as it has for decades, which basically means the men going out to work (farming, banking, and making cuckoo clocks, I guess) and the women staying at home, doing the housework, and taking care of the children. In just this situation as the story starts is Nora (Marie Leuenberger), a young housewife who is just beginning to recognise her dissatisfaction and frustration with her lot in life.

She’d quite like to go back to work, but her husband (Maximilian Simonischek) needs to give his permission, and he refuses on the grounds this will disrupt their home and make him look bad at his own workplace. This is bad, but others have it much worse: Nora’s niece is sent to a women’s prison, simply for being a bit wayward, mainly because her father has sole legal authority over the family. Another friend loses her home, a pub, due to her husband’s death and the fact that women are not allowed to run businesses (I think; the subtitles were not entirely clear on this). A vote on possibly allowing women the vote is coming up, and simply refusing to support those campaigning for the status quo marks Nora out as a dangerous iconoclast in her village.

Quite unexpectedly, she finds herself the focal point of activism in her area, even its leader, and other women join her in beginning to organise. Needless to say, this causes ructions in the deeply conservative village, where many inhabitants believe the subordinate role of women is the will of God (the divine order referred to in the title). Even members of her own family are violently opposed to the stand she is taking. As the stakes get higher, the pressure becomes immense – can Nora and the others find the strength to stand up for what they believe in?

It’s not that unusual for the Phoenix to be showing a certain type of socially-motivated movie depicting the struggle of women for self-determination in deeply traditionalist societies – back in January they showed In Between, for instance, and in recent years there have also been movies like Wadjda, Mustang, and Sonita. What does make The Divine Order somewhat distinctive is the fact that it is the same kind of story, but set in a recognisably modern European country. On paper it may look like a semi-remake of Suffragette with added fondue, but without that film’s period trappings, it has a bit more punch – even though the overall arc of the story is never in doubt, there are moments which are genuinely shocking.

As I say, you go into this kind of film knowing almost exactly what to expect, and there are no startling surprises in terms of the actual plot. That said, The Divine Order benefits from a very solid screenplay that takes care to work as a genuine piece of drama rather than fierce agitprop – the focus throughout is on Nora and the others as characters, rather than participants in a particular movement. There are some lighter moments, as well, and Volpe orchestrates proceedings with a subtle touch – at one point there’s a slightly odd moment when Nora seems to be equating oppressed women with the fish that live in deep ocean trenches (I’m not sure this metaphor really works, if you follow it through), but the rest of it is admirably understated. The male characters are not quite all caricatured brutes, and in a slightly unexpected choice, one of the main opponents of universal suffrage in the village is a woman herself – a well-judged performance from Therese Affolter.

This is a well-played movie throughout, with Leuenberger well-supported by Rachel Braunschweig, Sibylle Brunner, and Marta Zoffoli. Turning up for a scene-stealing cameo is the wonderful Swedish actress Sofia Helin, who has a whale of a time as a visiting advocate of ‘Yoni Power’ (and if you’re really curious what that is, you can google it for yourself, as no matter how sympathetic I am to the cause of equality, there are some places I’m just not going in a comedy film-review blog).

The Divine Order does a very good job of balancing its different imperatives as both a genuine piece of entertainment, and a film with a particular message to deliver. It’s engaging and ultimately very rewarding, and ultimately the only criticism we could make of the print we saw was that some of the subtitling was rather substandard – ‘I worked in this pub for 0 years’ is the rather unlikely claim made by one of the women at one point, while a later caption announces that following the limited suffrage introduced in 1971, full equality was ‘written into the Swiss constitution in 981’. Maybe the bit of the subtitler’s keyboard with the numbers on it was a bit sticky, or something. I suppose if nothing else this sort of thing only reminds us of what a good job subtitlers usually do.

I expect there are good commercial reasons why The Divine Order has received such a limited release in the UK, but even so, given the Unique Post-Weinstein Moment (not to mention International Women’s Day), I would have thought it was worth at least a little bit of a push. It’s not blazingly original or breathtakingly accomplished, but it tells its story sincerely and well, and we both felt we had benefited from watching it. Worth tracking down if you get the chance.

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Jennifer Lawrence was as prominent as ever at the Oscars the other night, as befits a star of her calibre and popularity (I can’t remember when they started calling her ‘America’s Sweetheart’, and even if this was originally meant semi-ironically, that doesn’t seem to be the case any more). She wasn’t actually up for a gong this year, and one is tempted to suggest this is mainly because David O Russell didn’t have a film out this year (her last three Academy nods have all come from appearances in Russell movies).

Instead, she was plugging her new movie Red Sparrow, directed by Francis Lawrence (no relation, I find myself obliged to say), which mainly appeared in involve showing up on a cold London rooftop in a slinky and rather revealing black dress while her male co-stars were decked out in nice warm coats and scarves. Needless to say, t’internet had things to say about this double standard, and most of it was not complimentary. Surprisingly enough, reaction to Red Sparrow itself has been rather more mixed – personally, while I find Jennifer Lawrence’s decision to appear in that dress to be fairly unremarkable, I find her decision to appear in Red Sparrow to be borderline baffling.

The film is mostly set in present-day Russia and eastern Europe, not that this is immediately apparent. Lawrence plays Dominika, a nice young ballerina whose career comes to an end after a gruesome work-related injury nearly results in one of her legs coming off. Things look bleak for her and her poorly mum, until her sinister uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts), a member of the security services, appears with an offer: if she exploits her natural charms to get close to a person of interest, he will see she and her mum are looked after.

Well, naturally things do not go quite according to plan (or do they…?) and Dominika is presented with a choice of options: be shot in the head and dumped in the river as a witness to a secret operation, or go to a special training school and become a ‘sparrow’, a highly-trained specialist spy-stroke-prostitute (and you can probably guess what gets stroked the most). After due consideration of the alternatives, Dominika agrees to enrol in what even she describes as ‘whore school’.

Intercut with all this is the marginally more conventional tale of rugged CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) – do not let the fact his name means ‘ours’ in Russian, as any fule who have seen From Russia With Love kno, lead you to expect a twist – who is running a top-level mole inside Russian security. He knows who the mole is. The Russians know he knows who the mole is. He knows the Russians know he knows who the mole is. Rather than let this go on indefinitely, sinister uncle Ivan decides to send in Dominika to make contact (hem-hem) with Nash and persuade him to reveal who the traitor is. But will she stay loyal to the motherland? Could she in fact be playing a game of her own?

I suppose the first thing one has to say about Red Sparrow is to question the extent to which it is in good taste to make blockbuster entertainment about Russian espionage activities at the moment. Whether you think that Russian involvement in western politics and society is a serious problem (as I write this the UK news is full of what appears to be an attempted assassination on a former Russian national which took place on British soil, to say nothing of the protracted shenanigans in which President Man-Baby finds himself embroiled), or that the Russian government is an essentially harmless paper tiger, this kind of depiction is unlikely to move the world closer to unity and peace. ‘Your body belongs to the state!’ snaps the commandant of sparrow school, played with inimitable menace by Charlotte Rampling, who later goes on to announce ‘It is time for Russia to take its place at the head of other nations’. Russia is shown, in short, as being an almost cartoonishly awful and sinister place.

However, and somewhat startlingly, this doesn’t even begin to deal with all the most problematic elements of Red Sparrow. All right, films are in production for a long time – years, in the case of one like this – and I’m sure no-one involved had any more inkling that the Post-Weinstein Moment was on its way than the rest of us. But it remains the case that this film feels almost uncannily, supernaturally misjudged in its sexual politics, at the moment. We’re no more than twenty-five minutes in before the first time Jennifer Lawrence is forced to undress, and this is followed by a sequence which plays almost like a reconstruction of certain of the allegations that have been doing the rounds, as a rich and powerful man engages in a violent sexual assault on a vulnerable young woman in a hotel bedroom.

This isn’t the only recent film to add a little dash of this sort of thing – I have occasionally complained about Hollywood’s blase attitude to misogynistic violence in mainstream thrillers in the past – but what makes Red Sparrow different is that, ever since the first trailer, its advertising and marketing has focused solely on the fact that this is a Jennifer Lawrence vehicle and she is a very comely young woman. The whole subtext of the trailers could really be summed up as ‘Jennifer Lawrence as a sexy spy – cor! I mean – COORRRR!!!’ And the film is really no different – it really does feel like the sine qua non of the film is to show Lawrence in various alluring states of undress, and engaging in various provocative activities. It’s overwhelmingly prurient and actually rather repugnant: I emerged from the theatre feeling like I wanted to be hosed down with sheep dip, the film is that icky.

So, as I say, you really have to wonder what possessed as sharp a customer as Lawrence to make a film where she is depicted almost entirely as a sexually-objectified victim, where her physicality seems to have been at least as important as her acting ability. With regard to rooftopdressgate, Lawrence’s response was that she liked the dress, thought she looked good in it, and it’s nobody else’s damn business what she chooses to wear. Which I suppose is good strong feminist stuff, from a certain angle at least. And I expect one could make a similar defence of her appearance in the movie – it’s her career, after all, and if she wants to receive a massive cheque for doing gratuitous nude scenes in tacky sex-thrillers then that’s nobody’s business but hers. She owes no responsibility to anyone else.

Well, therein hangs the question, of course: Lawrence is free to do whatever she wants, and is unlikely to be casually exploited, no matter what happens. Other young women who are not influential celebrities with an estimated net worth of £84 million may find themselves in a different situation, and the issue is the extent to which Lawrence is personally responsible for the state of the world.  It’s a big one, of course, and probably too big to be properly discussed here, but I will just say this: Lawrence’s talent and power means she is never going to be short of films to appear in, so I don’t see why she felt it necessary to appear in this particular one, given it is so tawdry and unpleasant.

The thing is that once you get past the objectionable sexual politics of Red Sparrow, all you are actually left with is a turgid and overlong spy thriller. There are plenty of twisty-turny bits along the way, but it all feels curiously inert and is never especially engaging. For most of the film, the agendas and goals of the different characters remain enigmatic and shrouded in mystery: the problem is that this doesn’t engage or intrigue the viewer very much, you just don’t care, for some reason. This is despite a couple of pretty decent performances from Jeremy Irons (who recently, and with no discernible sense of irony, announced in a TV interview that actors shouldn’t pocket a big cheque if it means appearing in rubbish) and Schoenaerts.

Of course, even when it’s not being leery and exploitative, the film still often finds time to be graphically, sadistically violent – and there are even bits where it manages to be leery and sadistic at the same time: oh, look, here’s Lawrence having her clothes cut off preparatory to torture! Here she is actually being tortured! Here’s someone else being flayed alive!

Normally I would say all the violence was over-the-top, but in Red Sparrow‘s case it suits the tone of the rest of the movie all too well; that’s really the problem. And, as I’ve said (possibly at too great a length: what can I say, I’m a Guardian reader), this film does have more serious issues going on. It is competently made, up to a point – this is almost a problem in itself, as it gives the film a veneer of respectability it really doesn’t deserve – but beneath that surface is something comprehensively misogynistic and deeply objectionable.

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