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Archive for the ‘Film Reviews’ Category

There’s a moment towards the end of Fernando Meirelle’s The Two Popes when Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) decides there is something he really has to get off his papal chest. ‘I’m going to retire,’ he announces.

His companion, the future Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce), is slow on the uptake. ‘Retire? Retire from what?’ he asks, bemused.

(Look, if you think that counts as a spoiler… well, I don’t know what to say, except that I hope that being in the coma hasn’t left you with too many long-term health issues.)

It’s one of many funny moments in the film, which is consistently much lighter on its feet than you might expect. We’re getting to that time of year, after all, when the slower, heavier, and more respectable films start to show up. The Two Popes is a Netflix production, and presumably forms part of the company’s strategy of attracting viewers by being the only place where you can see prestigious, award-winning productions. Of course, in order to win the awards, the film has to get into actual cinemas, which is why it is currently enjoying a brief theatrical run before becoming exclusively available by streaming. I find it hard to find many positive things to say about this way of doing things, but this is an undeniably solid, classy movie.

As noted, the film presents itself as a dramatisation of various events which might very well have happened in recent years. The story proper gets underway in 2005, with the death of the incumbent pontiff, John Paul II. As usual, there is a good deal of politicking about who will take his place, with the hot favourite being the previous pope’s doctrinal enforcer, Joseph Ratzinger (Hopkins – the thing with the papal names means that the two lead characters have multiple names across the course of the movie). Mounting an unexpectedly strong, if rather reluctant challenge, is Argentinian cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Pryce), a man of an entirely different character.

Ratzinger is duly elected, and a somewhat disenchanted Bergoglio, anticipating the rigid conservatism of the incoming pope, returns home to Argentina to plan his retirement. Years pass, and relations between the two men do not improve. However, the problem is that Bergoglio can’t retire to a quiet life in a parish without the Pope’s permission, which Benedict is very reluctant to grant in case it is interpreted by vaticanologists as an implied criticism of his papacy. The Pope summons the cardinal to discuss the problem – and some other things he has on his mind.

What follows is essentially a two-hander between Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, as the two men talk about theology, their upbringings, the role of the church, and many other issues. Mixed in with this are various flashbacks to the earlier life of Bergoglio, depicting his discovery of his vocation, and other key moments from his past (the young Bergoglio is played by Juan Minujin). It does sound like quite a dry and heavy film when you put it like that, which may be why Meirelles goes out of his way to keep things unexpectedly light: the film starts with a jokey scene with the Pope having trouble booking a plane ticket, and things begin to verge on the downright off-beat as the college of cardinals commence their ruminations on who is to be the new pope with Abba’s Dancing Queen playing majestically on the soundtrack. He manages to maintain this throughout: any film which depicts the two popes watching World Cup final together (Germany vs Argentina, of course) is clearly not likely to be accused of over-reverence towards its subjects.

That said, it’s not afraid to pause and reflect on some of the issues it raises. The difference between the two men is dramatically useful – Ratzinger is cold, inflexible, unworldly, not especially imaginative, while Bergoglio is warm, compassionate, engaged, charismatic. And, of course, they are being played by two extremely fine actors. I don’t think the film-makers need have been too concerned about the fact that this is quite a talky film – when you have performers of this calibre working with an interesting and intelligent script, long dialogue scenes become entirely engrossing.

Now, I’ve enjoyed watching Jonathan Pryce ever since his performance in Brazil, but even so I would admit that he is obviously not as feted an actor as Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins does indeed seem to be reining it in and rather underplaying things as Benedict, but then he has also to contend with the fact that the film is rather making him out to be the bad pope in this relationship: a much less appealing figure than Bergoglio, certainly. The film’s partiality isn’t just limited to the present day scenes, either – we do learn a lot about how Bergoglio came into the church, and his travails under the military junta that seized power there in 1976. You initially think the film is doing Benedict XVI no favours by not exploring his past and character in anything like the same way.

But then you think about it a bit and you realise that, actually, not exploring Benedict XVI’s past is possibly one of the kindest things you could do for him in a movie, because there are many big question marks here. I don’t refer to his time in the Hitlerjugend, but the topic which inevitably surfaces in any discussion of the modern Roman Catholic Church: the child abuse scandals and the suggestions of a systematic, institutionalised cover-up. It has been suggested that Ratzinger’s involvement in this, and the damage its exposure could do to the Church, is the main reason for his retirement as pope.

Obviously the film has to address this, or at least touch on it – and it duly does so. I enjoyed this film a lot and found it to be mostly intelligent and well-made, but you could certainly argue it tries to dodge the issue here – or if not dodge, then certainly fudge. The resulting scene, where Benedict intimates to Bergoglio the extent of his knowledge of what’s been going on without going into too much detail, doesn’t just feel like a cop-out – it makes you suddenly realise the extent to which this film must be fictional, a what-if presentation of possible conversations between invented versions of the two men. Prior to this point the film has been plausible enough to win you over.

Well, it’s never a completely terrible idea to be reminded that a piece of fiction is a piece of fiction, and this at least is an interesting and often amusing one. And The Two Popes is well-enough written, played, and directed to give the impression that there may be a few grains of real truth sprinkled in amongst the invented sparkle, even if that impression may be completely unfounded. Worth seeing just for the performances, anyway.

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As previously noted, nothing which was once popular – no matter how briefly or how long ago – can ever be allowed to die a dignified death and slide quietly into oblivion any more. No, it must dragged back from the brink, propped up in front of a new audience, given a vague attempt at a new coat of paint, and forced to rake in a few more shekels. This seems to be an iron law of modern culture. I can think of no other explanation for the re-emergence of yet another new version of Charlie’s Angels.

The last couple of years have, after all, apparently brought about a complete rethink about the role and representation of women in popular media. They are no longer mere ornamental objects present only for the gratification of male viewers. Well, fair enough. But even at the time, the original Charlie’s Angels TV show was derided by critics as ‘jiggle TV’, for reasons I hope I don’t have to go into. ‘When the show was number three [in the ratings], I figured it was our acting. When it got to number one, I decided it could only be because none of us wears a bra,’ observed original star Farrah Fawcett. It was a show built around the exploitation of attractive young women.

And yet Elizabeth Banks’ new movie bloody-mindedly attempts to retool it as – according to a proper critic, in The Guardian – ‘weaponised feminism’. My head hurts. However, the new Charlie’s Angels movie is definitely aimed at independently-minded young women, which is surely the equivalent of trying to sell hamburgers to cattle. You can only be doing it for one of two reasons: you’ve radically reinvented the product, or you think your audience is very, very stupid.

In the end it’s probably the first one, I think – by which I means that if the film does treat the viewer as thick, it’s not intentional, just something that many Hollywood movies do without really thinking about it. The paradox inherent in the movie does become apparent from the first scene, which features Kristen Stewart talking a lot about her self-determination and formidable polymathic talents and so on, all the while wearing a sparkly pink mini-dress and a long blonde wig.

Soon enough the movie moves on to something a bit less intellectually demanding and some martial arts action breaks out. ‘I’m your new girlfriend!’ cries Stewart, headbutting a bad guy into insensibility. It certainly gives a whole new charm to the notion of remaining self-partnered. More importantly, Patrick Stewart wanders in, playing Bosley – the implication seems to be that he is playing the David Doyle character from the original show (Stewart is somewhat artlessly inserted into photos alongside the original TV cast and that of the early 2000s movies).

Normally Stewart wraps himself in gravitas and integrity like a cloak, but on this occasion he just twinkles a lot, which is a little wrong-footing. I think it is safe to say that his performance in this film is not quite of the same stature as all that work with the RSC or playing Sejanus, Jean-Luc Picard or Professor X, but on the other hand CGI has been used to carefully remove the dollar-signs appearing in both eyes throughout all his scenes.

On with the plot. Patrick Stewart’s Bosley retires, and is replaced by Banks herself as another Bosley – yes, the world is now so feminist that even the token man is a woman. More importantly, perhaps, over in Berlin nice young computer expert Naomi Scott discovers the revolutionary clean energy technology she is working on has dangerous potential as a deadly weapon, which bad actors are taking an interest in (I mean criminal agents, not the cast, but now you mention it…). It’s up to Banks-Bosley, Stewart, and Ella Balinska (playing another new Angel) to save the day.

This involves whizzing around Berlin, Istanbul, and various other locations, in a style which is some way sub-Mission: Impossible and even further sub-Bond. To be fair to the movie, Elizabeth Banks puts together a functional set of action sequences – chases, fights, sneakings-in-and-out-of-secure-places, and so on – but when the gunfire and revving engines fade away, all one is left with is the sound of comic banter falling flat and people expositing blandly at each other, interspersed with the occasional somewhat obtrusive you-go-girl moment.

It brings me no pleasure to report this, as Elizabeth Banks strikes me as a talented person who makes interesting creative choices: apart from this film, just this year she has appeared in Brightburn and the second Lego Movie, both of which were well worth watching. However, as Banks not only directed the film, but also wrote the final screenplay and co-produced it, it is her name which is most prominent on the charge sheet. As an actress, at least, she appears to be trying hard, and emerges from the film with as much credit as anyone else involved in this department.

However, the name of the game is Charlie’s Angels, and it really stands or falls by the quality of the central trio. Quite what philosophy was adopted by the casting team for this film seems a bit of a mystery, as there is – to put it delicately – a bit of a disparity when it comes to the profile of the stars. Whichever way you look at it, Kristen Stewart is globally famous and has done many big movies; Naomi Scott was very prominent in Aladdin earlier this year; while Ella Balinska is effectively a complete unknown. The effect of this is, again, a bit wrong-footing. However, I have to say that the film does prove again that, no matter how bad some of the later Twilight films were (and some of them were very bad indeed), Stewart does have genuine screen presence and star quality: you do find your eye drawn to her when she’s on. I’m not sure the same is true of Naomi Scott, at least not to the same extent, but I discern considerable potential for a future career playing kooky best friends here. Ella Balinska, on the other hand, can’t deliver a joke or a piece of exposition to save her life, but she is about eight feet tall, which was probably useful for the fight choreography.

Whatever you think of the wisdom of the film’s attempt to reinvent Charlie’s Angels for the post-Unique Moment world, or its gender politics in general, the biggest problems it has are that as a comedy it isn’t funny and as an action movie it never particularly thrills. I would be more tolerant and responsive to whatever subtext it is trying to put across if the actual text of the thing was competently done and entertaining. It is not, and perhaps the most indicative thing about it is that there is no sense of great potential being squandered: it just feels like mechanical Hollywood product, with even its big message closely calculated to appeal to the target audience. I remain convinced, though, that even a brilliantly-executed feminist take on Charlie’s Angels would be a deeply, deeply weird film.

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Disney’s current near-hegemony at the box office is always just a bit more apparent at Christmas time, where for some years now it has been very apparent that everyone else is running scared of the power of the Mouse House. One sign of this is that other studios are releasing their festive movies absurdly early: bringing anything new out at a sensible time, like actually at Christmas, risks being squashed like a bug by their latest stellar conflict brand extension or whatever.

As a result, Paul Feig’s Last Christmas has been out since about the middle of November, which is plainly a bit ridiculous, especially when you consider the grim, steely determination with which it sets about spraying the audience with yuletide cheer, like an Uzi set to fully automatic. As is not entirely unexpected for a film heavily trading on affection for George Michael and his music, it opens with a choirgirl singing ‘Heal the Pain’. This is not unpleasant to listen to, but I was almost at once distracted by the fact she is apparently singing it in a church, in – according to a caption – Yugoslavia in 1999. Did they sing pop songs in Balkan churches in 1999? Was Yugoslavia even still around in 1999?

Best not to get too tangled up in such issues, anyway. For reasons which remain obscure, the bulk of the film is set at Christmas 2017, and concerns the now-grown choirgirl, Kate (Katarina to her family), who is played by Emilia Clarke. She is an aspiring musical theatre actress, but is going through a sort of ill-defined long-term personal crisis. She is also (initially at least, though this kind of gets forgotten about) a huge fan of George Michael and Wham, and (in the name of ensuring the film’s festivity quotient is maxed out) works in a year-round Christmas shop run by Michelle Yeoh.

It is while she is working here that she meets Tom, a mysterious stranger played by Henry Golding, in a more than usually contrived cute-meet involving a bird shitting on her face. All the usual stuff blossoms between the two of them, and slowly she begins to reassess her life, be more considerate of the people around her, and generally attempt to be a bit more positive… WAKE UP!!! (Sorry. I just know the effect that this sort of thing has on me, and I imagine it’s the same for other people.)

The first thing I should mention about Last Christmas is that it is a film built around a plot twist. Nothing wrong with that; many fine films can say the same. The thing about a good plot twist is that it should come as a complete and breathtaking surprise when it actually happens in the film, but (in retrospect) seem entirely reasonable. Last Christmas‘s plot twist does not quite reach these lofty heights: unless all the bulbs in your cerebral Christmas lights have blown, you will almost certainly be able to guess the twist just from watching the trailer. Even then, this wouldn’t necessarily be a fatal problem if most people were not then moved to say ‘That’s a really cheesy/stupid/terrible idea’. But they are. Hereabouts we respect plot integrity (even in bad movies), so I will simply suggest that the film’s plot pivots around a uniquely reductionist interpretation of some George Michael lyrics. Enough said.

So: basically, what we have here is the archetypal seasonal story, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, involved in a head-on smash with the Richard Curtis rom-com formula. Various often acceptable performers are scythed down by the ensuing shrapnel, and quite possibly members of the audience too. The story was thought up by Emma Thompson and her husband, and written down by Thompson and Bryony Kimmings, possibly all on the same afternoon. I can’t speak about Thompson’s husband or Kimmings, but Emma herself always struck me as a fairly smart cookie, and I am surprised to see her so signally fail to figure out that these two story-patterns are just not compatible. For the Christmas Carol pattern to work, you need to have a genuinely flawed character seriously in need of redemption. Rom-com characters are also flawed, as a rule, but not to anything like the same degree: the form requires them to be cute and loveable from the get-go. Last Christmas‘ problem – one of its problems – is that it can’t get over how wonderful it thinks Emilia Clarke’s character is. We are occasionally told what an awful person she is, but that’s all: the film is almost palpably needy in its attempts to make you root for and sympathise with her. Only having watched certain selected highlights of Musical Chairs on the internet, I am not really familiar with Emilia Clarke; but even if she really is as great an actress as my friends often assure me, she would need a much better script to make this particular character work.

It probably doesn’t help that she is sharing the screen for a lot of the film with Henry Golding, who is playing – and let me just pause for a moment here while I reflect upon the mot juste – a git. Specifically, he is a rom-com git, the kind of relentlessly warm, quirky, caring, decent chap guaranteed to evoke feelings of homicidal animosity in any right-thinking viewer (cf Michael Maloney in Truly, Madly, Deeply, for instance). As the name suggests, it takes an actor of significant skill, nuance, and charisma to transcend the essential gittishness of this kind of role and turn them into someone whose appearance in a scene does not cause the heart to sink. Golding brings to bear all the experience and technique he has acquired in his long career as a presenter of TV travel shows, and yet still somehow falls short.

There does seem to be something awfully calculated and insincere about Last Christmas, and I do wonder if this doesn’t extend to the casting. One of the trends I have noticed in commercial cinema over the last few years is the tendency to stick in a couple of Asian actors, just to help flog the film in the far east, and I can’t help wondering if the inclusion of Golding and Yeoh (Anglo-Malaysian and Chinese-Malaysian respectively) isn’t just another example of this sort of thing. It does make the various jokes in the film about the proliferation of horrible commercialised Christmas tat seem rather lacking in self-awareness, given the whole movie is horrible commercial Christmas tat itself. Nevertheless, we are assured this is ‘the Christmas film of the decade!’, although without specifying which one: possibly the 1340s.

It would be remiss of me to suggest that Last Christmas is all bad, of course: there was one moment which actually made me laugh, although as it featured Peter Serafinowicz this is not really surprising. Unfortunately he is only in the film for about a minute. The rest of it is fairly consistently horrible, containing weird plot holes, mistaking quirkiness for genuine wit, and failing to realise that feel-good moments only come at a price: you have to really believe the characters have been knocked down if you’re going to rejoice when they get up again. The film’s attempts at moments of genuine emotional seriousness and pain just feel trite, though I should note that Clarke is trying hard throughout. The film’s habit of occasionally sticking in a glib and superficial political subtext with little real bearing on the plot is also rather crass, and does rather jar with Emma Thompson’s sizeable performance as a comedy Yugoslavian immigrant.

In the end, this is all surface and sentimentality, without any real sense of believeable characters or genuine emotions, with a soundtrack of George Michael songs (seemingly picked at random) trying to hold it together. I imagine that admirers of this thing (and they must be out there, for it has made $68 million to date) would say that its heart is in the right place. Given how the plot turns out, this is somewhat ironic, but it’s not true, in any case. Last Christmas‘ heart is in the right place only if you believe the right place for a heart is between the ears.

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What the hell is the point of the BBC adaptation of The War of the Worlds? This is not a rhetorical question. After what felt like an endless wait and much teasing publicity, what eventually oozed onto the screen was possibly the most God-awful thing I’ve seen on TV all year, including second-season episodes of Space: 1999. The absolute best one could say about it is that it is well down to the usual standards of a BBC adaptation of an SF or horror classic, even worse than their version of The Lost World and quite as bad as their take on The Day of the Triffids in 2009.

There is a weird double standard within the Corporation when it comes to this sort of thing. Andrew Davies or whoever may take the odd liberty and stick in some nudity which doesn’t appear in the original text of a non-genre novel, but they are usually pretty restrained when it comes to the general thrust of the story and its subtext. And so they should, because what’s the point of doing an adaptation if all you’re going to keep of the original is the title and a vague sense of the premise?

And yet this is what we got when it came to The War of the Worlds. Let me put it another way: if the same creative talents get employed to oversee a new adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, I confidently predict that what emerges will focus on a turbulent lesbian romance between one of the minor Bennet sisters and the scullery-maid, all wrapped up in a frame story possibly concerning the Boer War, and quite likely performed on ice, to boot.

The back-of-a-stamp, idiot’s synopsis for both is pretty much the same: early in the 20th century, projectiles from Mars arrive on Earth, disgorging metallic tripods which proceed to devastate civilisation, their occupants pausing to snack on any locals unfortunate enough to cross their path. Doing so without having your pre-trip jabs proves to be a mistake, as Earthly bacteria end up wiping out the Martian invaders. But that is more or less the extent of their similarity to each other.

I was seized by a terrible sinking feeling before the first episode even got properly going, as the continuity announcer let rip with some blether about ‘spheres from Mars’. Spheres? As any fule kno, your self-respecting Martian invader travels by cylinder, not sphere. Then again, these were not Wells’ Martians – huge-eyed, glistening, tentacled creatures the size of bears – but apparently the work of someone angling for a job on the sequel to A Quiet Place: all angular, scuttling legs (the dubious logic involved seems to be that the Martian Fighting Machines resemble tripods because they themselves are tripedal, an idea pinched, whether knowingly or not, from John Christopher).

But these are just cosmetic issues and don’t really take us to the nub of the issue. I would have thought it was simple good manners on the part of an adapter to do the original writer the courtesy of focusing on the characters from the actual source, not new creations, and likewise focus on settings and incidents from the text, rather than making new ones up. Yet we ended with a story a good chunk of which was set in a doomy post-apocalyptic wasteland, an Earth tainted by the Red Weed, with various survivors staggering about miserably. Key amongst these were the character played by Eleanor Tomlinson, and her small son, played by a small boy whose name I can’t be bothered to look up: wife and child of the Rafe Spall character, who I guess was supposed to represent Wells’ original narrator. Tomlinson and the kid are not in the book. The post-apocalyptic wasteland is not in the book.

I mean, what the hell? Really, what the hell? In what sense of the word does this qualify as an adaptation? The brutality to the English language is nearly as appalling as the brutality to one of the foundational texts of science fiction. Let us see what the writer responsible had to say when interviewed about his aims for the new adaptation:

The version of The War of the Worlds that I wanted to make is one that’s faithful to the tone and the spirit of the book, but which also feels contemporary, surprising and full of shocks: a collision of sci-fi, period drama and horror.’

Let us put to one side the mystery of what exactly he thought was the ‘tone and spirit’ of Wells’ book and consider the rest of this startling utterance. I was certainly surprised to the point of shock at various points throughout the three hours of the series, but contemporary? What, honestly, the hell? This is an adaptation of a late-Victorian novel, set in Edwardian England, so what are you bibbling on about when you say you want to make it feel contemporary? How is that remotely supposed to work? If you want to make The War of the Worlds feel contemporary, the best way is to set it in the present day: George Pal and Steven Spielberg figured this out when they came to make their versions, both of which – perhaps not coincidentally – genuinely do seem to capture the tone and spirit of the novel much, much better than the new BBC effort.

(I am fairly sure that ‘contemporary’ is modern writer code for ‘female lead character’. Certainly, in this version, Wells’ actual narrator is too psychologically fragile to survive, and his brother is too hidebound and seized by jingoistic impulses to make it through. Of Wells’ men, only Ogilvy, a very minor character in the book, makes it through to the end of the new version, and this may or may not be because we are invited to assume he is gay. My God, I wish I were joking.)

I expect that the makers of this thing will defend their work by saying that it does stay faithful to Wells: the novel’s original subtext (in which the British Empire gets a taste of its own medicine from technologically-superior colonisers from elsewhere) is clumsily elaborated in a long speech in the final episode. Well, for one thing, Wells didn’t feel the need to articulate his subtext in quite such an ideas-for-the-hard-of-thinking way. The whole point of subtext is that it should be obvious without needing to be made explicit, and I suspect the reason it did need making explicit was that the story had been so thoroughly mangled by this point that the original message was no longer discernable without the aid of expository dialogue.

Instead we got a story we didn’t seem to be about anything, much. The innards of the story had been roughly scooped out and replaced by… well, not a great deal of anything, really. Some stuff which was presumably about climate change. Other bits riffing on imagery from recent real-world disasters. A lot of faintly mystifying material about Edwardian social mores. Possibly some of this was there in the name of making the adaptation more ‘contemporary’ – but, really, it’s a book from 1898. It’s never going to feel contemporary unless you do severe violence to the story. Why would you bother trying to bring it to the screen, if contemporary is what you’re after? Let it be itself, let it be a late-Victorian novel full of late-Victorian ideas about evolution and society. Put modern special effects in it, to be sure – but don’t lose track of what the author actually intended it to be like, and to be about. If you do that, you just end up with something that bears a vague, superficial resemblance to the source novel, but isn’t actually about anything and has nothing to say for itself. This is an adaptation in name only, made by people who seem only marginally interested in H.G. Wells. It takes real determination and talent to screw up such a great story so thoroughly.

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It’s always a sure sign that the year hasn’t got long left to run when the independent cinemas start cranking out their seasons of traditional Christmas favourites. Frankly, my response to this depends what they show: I was much taken by the Phoenix’s decision to revive Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Company of Wolves a couple of years ago, but more traditional choices seldom light my tree. Perennial over-exposure has left me indifferent to The Muppet Christmas Carol and even It’s a Wonderful Life, while they could put every copy of Love Actually into a shipping container and dump it in the ocean and I would not be especially troubled.

Die Hard, on the other hand – now that’s my idea of a proper Christmas treat, especially back on the big screen. I know that its status as such has been a bit debatable on occasion in the past – ‘it’s not a Christmas movie! It’s a goddamn Bruce Willis movie!’ is the considered judgement of, er, Bruce Willis – but in addition to leaving you with a warm feeling inside, it is ultimately about a family being reunited, the forces of goodness and justice being triumphant, and people recapturing the joy of living (by the end, Reginald VelJohnson has rediscovered how satisfying it is to gun someone down in the street). It’s still the only Christmas favourite to feature someone being repeatedly shot in the crotch at close range, but that just makes it all the more distinctive.

It seems a bit odd to recap the premise of a film as iconic as Die Hard, but the form demands it. Wiseacre New York cop John McClane (Willis) flies into Los Angeles on Christmas Eve to attempt a reconciliation with his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) – see how Christmassy this is already? – and is taken to the skyscraper where she works, where he mingles with various archetypal yuppie scumbags (this is 1988, after all) at her office party – see, yet more Christmasiness. Needless to say, not all goes well at the office party, with the appearance on the scene of a truck full of armed, mostly European miscreants, led by the eminently hissable Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman).

Through sheer good fortune McClane manages to evade capture by the bad guys, and soon figures out there is more going on here than initially meets the eye. Very soon the upper reaches of the building become a battlefield as Gruber’s men hunt McClane through the corridors, elevator shafts and air vents of the tower. How long can he manage to stay one step ahead?

Die Hard is one of those rare movies which, seemingly ex nihilo, manages to create its own subgenre – and one which was virtually done-to-death within ten years, with endless new variations on the formula – Die Hard on a train, Die Hard on a plane, Die Hard up a mountain, Die Hard on a battleship, and so on. Yet the origins of the film are remarkably obvious once you become aware of them – author Roderick Thorp saw The Towering Inferno, had a dream where the fire was replaced by men with guns, and turned it into his 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever, which was eventually turned into this film.

One consequence of this was that, for slightly obscure contractual reasons, they had to offer the lead role in the movie to Frank Sinatra. To say it is difficult to imagine Ol’ Blue Eyes hurling himself about in a vest and blowing away terrorists at the age of 73 is something of an understatement, but thankfully he said no. It seems like they offered almost every actor in Hollywood the part of McClane before they reached Bruce Willis, but reach him they eventually did, much to the film’s benefit. If nothing else this film shows that great Hollywood careers can start long before people reach Hollywood itself, for at the heart of Die Hard are two actors, neither of whom had starred in a major movie before, and one of whom had never appeared in a movie of any kind: Willis’s background was in American TV, while Alan Rickman had been a stalwart of the RSC and the BBC classic serial.

Much of the film’ energy and excitement comes from the clash of these two very different actors, playing very different characters. Hans Gruber is sleek, composed, and has clearly planned everything down to the last detail; McClane is sweaty, frantic, and obviously making it all up as he goes. There is perhaps the faintest touch of Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan in McClane’s characterisation, but apart from this he is a very different kind of action hero, compared to what had been seen prior to this point – he is defiantly rough around the edges, a blue-collar hero.

This element is essentially carried through into another of the film’s more crowd-pleasing features, namely the way in which it is openly scornful of pretty much every authority figure on the scene outside the tower: police chiefs, news reporters and FBI agents alike are all depicted as self-serving idiots who are really only pawns in Gruber’s elaborate scheme. (The film arguably improves and refines Thorp’s book, where it is implied that if the McClane character had not become involved, the situation would have resolved itself without anyone actually dying.) McClane is there with a pithy, probably profane wisecrack, keeping it real (I believe that’s what the kids are saying), doing what needs to be done to save the day.

McTiernan makes it all look very easy, naturally, although even the most cursory examination reveals that the script for this movie is every bit as clever and intricate as Hans’ brilliant plan to steal $640 million – both of them depend for their success on very specific things happening in a specific sequence. Quite apart from this, the director mounts some brilliant action sequences, which are still genuinely thrilling nowadays.

It is customary, when thinking of how the reputations of some genuinely great movies have effectively been slimed by their proximity to horrid, tossed-off latter-day sequels, to discuss things like RoboCop, Alien, Predator, and The Terminator – it does seem that eighties action movies are particularly prone to this sort of thing. And yet it does seem to me that Die Hard is very deserving of its place on the same list. True, most of the sequels aren’t too bad – although the most recent one was a bloody awful mess – but they still don’t come close to the immaculate near-perfection of the original. A tremendous Christmas movie, but also a film for all seasons, and the ages.

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I don’t want things to get too confessional around here, especially so soon after I owned up (again) to not being that big a fan of Blade Runner (probably best not to mention I’ve always been fairly lukewarm about Goodfellas, too), but: I’ve never entirely seen what all the fuss is about when it comes to Agatha Christie, either. I know, I know: two billion sales, translated into over a hundred languages, author of the best crime novel ever, apparently – words like massive and enduring don’t begin to do justice to her appeal. She is the kind of writer, it seems, that other people don’t just read and enjoy, they read and enjoy and want to have a go themselves – a friend of mine writes Christie pastiches as a hobby. (This isn’t just limited to her particular brand of suspense, of course; another friend has half a dozen Scandi noir mysteries for sale on Amazon.)

Oh well, I suppose I will just have to get used to being in the minority about this, along with everything else. Someone else in the Christie fan club is the writer-director Rian Johnson, whose new movie Knives Out is the purest example of knocked-off Agatha I can remember seeing on the big screen in a very long time. Johnson is best known for work in a different genre – he made the superior SF movie Looper a few years back, and was then responsible for the last main-sequence stellar conflict movie (apparently the worst movie ever to make $1.3 billion, if you believe the voices of the internet) – but if you dig down into his career he clearly has a fondness for the mystery genre. One of the good things about your last film making $1.3 billion, is that – regardless of how derided it is – you can basically write your own ticket for a while, and Johnson has made wise use of this.

The plot of Knives Out is, not surprisingly, twisty-turny stuff, but the basic set-up goes a little something like this. Famous and successful mystery author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead, the morning after his eighty-fifth birthday party, apparently by his own hand. The police make the necessary enquiries, interviewing his various children and their partners (Michael Shannon, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson and Toni Collette amongst them); it soon becomes apparent that nearly everyone in the family had a reason for wanting the old man dead – but they also all have alibis for the time of his demise, and there is no forensic evidence of any foul play. The cops are inclined to list the whole thing as a suicide and go about their business, but also on the scene is renowned private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, deploying an accent as outrageously thick as his pay packet for the next Bond movie), who is convinced there is more going on (not least because some unknown individual has retained him to consult on the case). He confides all this to Harlan’s former nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), who has her own insights into the family’s somewhat unusual internal dynamics – and, from Blanc’s point of view, the useful psychological quirk that she is incapable of telling a lie without experiencing an alarming degree of projectile emesis. Can Blanc and Marta crack the case? Is there even a case to be cracked?

As you can perhaps discern, all the essential elements of the classic country house murder mystery are present, making this a recreation of a form which was probably creaking a bit even before the Second World War. In those terms it probably sounds like a bemusing folly, the continuing popularity of the genre notwithstanding, but Johnson is smart enough to be aware of this and deftly update the form for a modern audience. Part of his response is to ground the film firmly in the present day: there are jokes about the alt-right and snowflakes, and references to the modern political situation in the US; if you look hard enough, there is a sardonic subtext about the tension between established, entitled American citizens and the immigrant workers they are so reliant on. Of course, this may mean the film is liable to date rather quickly, but I suspect this is incidental enough to the plot for it not to be a major problem.

The other notable thing about Knives Out is how knowing it is: the film isn’t desperately ironic, but it is fully aware of how camply absurd Christie-style plotting is, and makes it work by embedding it in a film with its film firmly in its cheek. This borders on being a full-blown comedy thriller, with a lot of very funny moments mixed in with the detective work and exposition. The family are a collection of comic grotesques, while Craig turns in one of the biggest performances of his career so far. Just how much fun he is having playing Blanc is palpably clear, and one could easily imagine a post-Bond career where he swaggers his way through another film like this every few years; rumour has it that talks regarding a follow-up are already taking place. Craig pitches it just a bit too big to be credible, but big enough to be so entertaining you don’t really care; Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael J Shannon, Toni Collette, Don Johnson and Chris Evans follow his lead. That some of the other participants turn in much more naturalistic performances without the film collapsing into a mess of jarring styles is also to Johnson’s credit.

It seems that you can still make this kind of story work for a modern audience: the trick is not to try and make it terribly relevent to contemporary concerns, but to embrace the confected nature of the form and run with it, concentrating above all else on simple entertainment value. It sounds simple, but this is a ferociously clever, witty film, both in its mechanics and in terms of the sly games it plays with the audience. Fingers crossed that it connects with cinema-goers to the extent that it deserves to; the early signs are good. As noted, I am agnostic about Agatha Christie and that whole subgenre of mystery fiction, but I still had a whale of a time watching Knives Out; I imagine most people will have a similar experience.

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Time was, when the films that were made in expectation of their being possible awards contenders started to appear round about New Year. That hasn’t been the case for a while now (though there is still usually a glut of serious and improving films starting in January), but it still feels a bit odd to come across a film quite as staunchly… what’s the word? …worthy as Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet.

I know, I know, it’s one of those odd things, isn’t it? Call a film worthy and instantly you start thinking about making your excuses and finding something else to watch. It implies a sort of self-conscious seriousness, the cinematic equivalent of the kind of book you were forced to read at school, all the while having its importance and quality drummed into your head. Call something worthy and you’re basically implying it’s not going to be any fun.

It may be the case that I have just shot my bolt as far as this particular movie is concerned, for Harriet contains all the irreverent, high-spirited fun and subversiveness you would expect from a studio costume drama depicting the life of a revered black female folk hero of the Civil War period. I must confess that until the trailers for this film started rolling, I was vaguely aware of the name of Harriet Tubman (she’s the sort of person Lisa used to name-check back when I still watched The Simpsons) but I could not have told you anything specific about her life. So I suppose the film is educational as well. Worthy and educational – that’s not the kind of quote that ends up on a movie poster, more like the sort of thing that drives film producers to hire hitmen. Hey ho.

Cynthia Erivo plays Harriet Tubman, who doesn’t actually acquire that name until well into the movie. It opens in Maryland in 1849, where she – under her original name of Araminta Ross – is a slave owned by the Brodess family. It soon becomes apparent that she and her family should have been manumitted some years earlier, but her owner refuses to recognise the will stipulating this, and it seems she is unlikely to ever be granted her freedom. With the threat of being sold to a buyer somewhere in the Deep South looming – something no-one ever returns from – she decides to make a run for it, and with the assistance of a few sympathetic allies makes her way to the border with Pennsylvania, over a hundred miles away. The people she encounters there are, perhaps understandably, sceptical when they hear the tale of an illiterate woman making this journey without any supplies and very little guidance.

Nevertheless, she takes a new name to mark her freedom and initially settles down there, but finds she is unable to entirely put aside thoughts of friends and family who are still enslaved in Maryland. And so she embarks on a series of hazardous journeys back into the slave states, made all the more hazardous by the fact that her former owner’s son (Joe Alwyn) has refused to relinquish his legal hold on her and is still looking to reclaim his property…

The last high-profile film to deal with this sort of material and milieu was Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave five or six years ago. I was quite lukewarm about that one, not least because its relentless, unmodulated bleakness and horror eventually became desensitising and alienating rather than genuinely affecting. You need a bit of light and shade, or you just end up grinding an axe – even if that does happen to be a worthwhile axe that deserves to be ground. One of the achievements of Harriet, in the first act at least, is that it doesn’t go pedal-to-the-metal on the grimness, while still managing to evoke the reality of life in slavery.  As a result the film does produce a genuine sense of anger and outrage, at least as great as in the McQueen film (your mileage may differ, of course). The film’s other strong point is its depiction of life in the slave states, which is slightly more nuanced and complex than you might expect from a studio movie: for instance, Tubman was born into slavery, but her first husband was a free man; while later in the film, one of the main antagonists is a black slave-catcher played by Omar Dorsey.

So far, so good, but the problem is that once Tubman completes her initial journey to freedom and re-invents herself as a staunch and fearless abolitionist, the film kind of loses the plot a bit. I mean this in a literal sense: the story becomes disjointed and rather repetitive as Tubman rattles up and down the Underground Railroad, eventually bringing dozens of others to freedom as well. You kind of start looking at your watch, waiting for the Civil War to start, but it really makes up only a small part of the film.

In the end it’s not so much a story as much as a selection of scenes from the life of someone effectively regarded as a secular saint of American history – and indeed, Tubman is explicitly likened to Joan of Arc at one point (albeit by one of her enemies). As a result, the tone of the thing is about as dry and reverential as you might expect – Harriet Tubman emerges as an icon rather than anything approaching an actual human being, and the rest of the characters are equally sketchily drawn. I expect this won’t trouble some viewers, for whom the mere existence of the film will be an unqualified positive, and things could possibly have been much worse (there was a possibly-apocryphal story floating around last week alleging that at one point in the early 90s a studio executive wanted to cast Julia Roberts as Tubman). The Progressive Agenda Committee should find little to gripe about here, and neither should viewers of a strongly religious disposition, either: the film takes the stories that Tubman was prone to receiving prophetic visions from God at face value (the closest it gets to scepticism on this topic is the suggestion these are the result of abuse by her master leaving her with possible brain damage).

Erivo’s performance is good, though, even if it eventually just boils down to her making inspirational speeches while the music swells around her, and for those of us not especially well-versed in American history the film has some points of interest. However, the life of a great and important person doesn’t automatically result in a great and important film – regardless of the subject matter, you don’t get a pass when it comes to things like structure and script. This starts well but by the final act it has turned into a clumsy historical melodrama. Not unwatchable, by any means, and not without some successful moments and sequences, but it’s often rather hard work.

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