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The musical biography has been around as a movie genre for ages: it’s one of those things that will likely never completely go away, as doing a film about someone famous and popular is at least as good a bet when it comes to luring in an audience as making an adaptation of a well-known book or TV show. Nevertheless, in recent years it does seem to have been enjoying a moment in the sun – the Queen biopic turned out to be quite astonishingly popular, while Rocketman also did rather well (in addition to arguably being a more interesting and creative film).

Actually, Rocketman was a bit of an outlier in a number of ways, not least because Elton John is still alive and well (some might say despite his own best efforts) – most music bios deal with someone who is dead, or at least extremely doddery, presumably because this cuts down on the number of awkward moments when the subject is first shown the movie. The other difference is formal: the key creative decision in what’s settled down as the classic music bio structure is when to start the thing in earnest, and when to finish it. These films usually conclude with the subject experiencing the zenith of their success – for example, the Live Aid moment making up the climax of Bohemian Rhapsody – but, the only comparable performance in Elton John’s career taking place at a royal funeral, they reasonably elected to skip it.

Liesl Tommy’s Respect doesn’t take any chances when sorting out its start and end points. The film, I should make clear, concerns the life – or a relatively brief period in the life – of Aretha Franklin, and opens with some scenes of a very young Franklin being made to sing at parties by her father Clarence (Forest Whitaker). Not much encouragement is needed, of course. The film zips through some other establishing material until it reaches the point at which the child actress can withdraw and Franklin can be played by Jennifer Hudson (I’m going to be a bit ungallant and point out that Hudson is considerably older than Franklin is at the end of the period covered by the movie, let alone the beginning, not that this is especially obvious).

Off she goes to New York as a teenage prodigy to launch her career, but experiences little success until a falling out with her domineering father leads to her taking up with her domineering manager and future spouse Ted White (Marlon Wayans). Given a modicum of control over her own career, Franklin suddenly breaks through with a string of hits, but must contend with various tumultuous personal relationships, not to mention her own demons. Can she bounce back when it matters?

One of the odd things about Respect, considered as an actual bio-pic, is that it almost completely skips the last 46 years of its subject’s life. Did Aretha Franklin really do nothing of particular interest after the age of 30? Even the film suggests not, but it nevertheless wraps up with the gospel concert at New Temple in Los Angeles in 1972 (already the subject of a feature documentary), filling in the rest with the usual slightly gushy captions about Franklin’s achievements (for the film she is always Ms Franklin, of course).

There’s not much actively wrong with Respect that I can actually put my finger on – it looks okay, the acting is fine (apart from those already mentioned, there’s a decent turn from Marc Maron as one of Aretha’s record company bosses), and of course there is a completely banging soundtrack, mostly courtesy of Hudson herself. Now, let’s be honest here: Jennifer Hudson is a very fine singer, especially when she eschews the attention-all-shipping vocal style she deployed in Cats, and which made me want to hide under the seat. But she’s not Aretha Franklin, who was an utterly unique and breath-taking talent. The film closes with footage of the real Aretha performing, close to the end of her career, and its inclusion is possibly a mistake – you suddenly realise just why the various Hudson covers filling the movie have been just a bit unsatisfactory.

Nevertheless, while you may well learn something about Aretha Franklin’s life (or maybe a lot about Aretha Franklin’s life), the movie never quite takes flight and becomes as entertaining as one of her records. I think this is probably due to the stifling sense of reverent solemnity which permeates the film pretty much from beginning to end. It does that bit where the origins of a particular, well-known song are delved into at considerable length (Good Vibrations did this with the Undertones’ Teenage Kicks, Love and Mercy did it with Good Vibrations, and Bohemian Rhapsody did it with – er – Bohemian Rhapsody), and when the title track is finally unleashed in full, it is as irresistibly funky and vibrant and sassy as ever.

But away from the performances, the rest of the film is staid and rather stolid stuff. The director herself comes on in a cameo as a fan who basically tells Aretha what an important and inspirational figure she is – which is fair enough, but we’re told more about Franklin’s importance than actually shown it. Of course, there’s a lot going on here which the film-makers clearly feel obligated to touch on in some way, but duck out of featuring in the film in any detail – the circumstances by which Franklin ended up the mother of two children by the age of fifteen almost feel like they’re skipped over, presumably because they would just send the film off into quite dark and uncomfortable territory. Her early relationship with Martin Luther King is likewise only really mentioned in passing.

So with these key elements of her actual biography kept to a minimum, what kind of portrait of Franklin emerges? I’m sorry to say it’s not a particularly distinctive one. All the texture and possible ambiguity in her life story seems to have been smoothed away so that she can fit the template of the musical biography subject – early years, struggles, breakthrough, success, wobble, bounce-back, triumphant return to even greater success. You may learn stuff about Aretha Franklin’s life, but I doubt there’s much sense of what she was actually like as a person in this movie. It’s not a bad film, and indeed parts of it are very entertaining, but I strongly doubt it does its subject justice.

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Annette begins with an orchestra and singers preparing to make a recording; instruments are plugged in and tuned, everyone seems to slowly be getting ready for the moment of truth. Observing from the control booth is the director, who looks a lot like Leos Carax (this role is played, in a strikingly well-judged bit of casting, by the director Leos Carax). He asks if it would be possible to start.

And so they begin, singing a song on the topic of starting. Very quickly, however, the key members of the band (the instantly recognisable figures of Ron and Russell Mael, aka Sparks), the backing singers, and so on, all get up and proceed out of the studio into the street. And I do mean proceed: this is a procession in the classic style. The Mael brothers cede their position at the front to Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, and Simon Helberg, but the parade continues out into the streets of Los Angeles, the lyrics addressing the anticipation inherent in beginning-of-movie moments like this, but also including the reasonable request that the audience ‘shut up and sit’. Eventually Driver and Cotillard depart to get into character and things become marginally less odd for a while.

(The closing credits of the film feature another procession by the cast and crew, this time politely wishing the audience a safe trip home after the movie, a thoughtful touch which is rather more endearing than the usual post-credits scene.)

Annette is a musical directed by Leos Carax, based on a story and with songs by Sparks, so this is never what you’d call a conventional movie experience for long. Adam Driver plays Henry McHenry, a misanthropic stand-up comedian not entrely unlike Andrew Clay or Bill Hicks, while Marion Cotillard plays operatic soprano Anne Defrasnoux. Henry and Anne have recently begun a relationship and fallen deeply in love with one another: they sing a song about this, called ‘We Love Each Other So Much’, which – in authentic late-period Sparks style – largely consists of the title repeated over and over again, albeit with the couple in increasingly startling situations as they sing the line.

Soon the news breaks that Anne is pregnant, and the world awaits the birth of the child. (I particularly enjoyed the singing obstetrician and chorus of midwives who appeared at this point to perform a song largely about breathing and pushing.) The baby is named Annette, but her arrival marks a change in the fortunes of the couple: while Anne meets with success after success, Henry finds it hard to maintain his edginess and his career struggles as a result. And so they decide to take Annette with them on a fateful boat trip…

‘Not mainstream’ was my partner’s considered opinion after watching Annette, and this strikes me as a very accurate assessment of the kind of film this is. Of course, few films have the capacity to become beloved crowd-pleasers in quite the same way as a great musical can, but I suspect the relentless weirdness of Annette will prove a bit of a barrier to mainstream success.

It’s not quite the conventional ‘sing a bit, talk for a bit, sing a bit’ musical, for one thing: this is practically sung through, which always produces some slightly odd moments. The effect is something akin to actual opera, with all the strangeness associated with that – Driver, Cotillard and Helberg play the only developed characters, so a lot of the time they are interacting with choruses made up of supporting roles – the audience of Henry’s stand-up show get a song with the lyrics ‘Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha!’, the police interrogate people to music, and so on.

What of Annette herself, you may be wondering? Well, just in case a slightly self-referential rock opera starring people without trained voices and with music by Marc Bolan and Hitler lookalikes isn’t offbeat enough, baby Annette is played by a wooden puppet. It is fair to say this is a slightly creepy wooden puppet (though still not as unsettling as the CGI baby in the last Twilight film). As the film goes on it proves to be the case that there are sound artistic and metaphorical reasons for the baby to be played by a puppet. But this doesn’t make the various scenes of Driver and Cotillard putting the puppet to bed, and so on, any less bizarre.

The baby puppet only really becomes prominent in the later sections of the film, by which point the plot has soared to such heights of extravagant madness that it probably registers less than it would in a film with a more naturalistic plot. Someone is murdered (they keep on singing even as they are being done in), someone comes back as a vengeful ghost, Annette the baby puppet turns out to have a borderline-magical gift which leads to her becoming the subject of much attention, and so on.

I think the non-naturalism of the movie musical is one of its greatest strengths, but there’s non-naturalistic and then there’s Annette. This is one of those rare movies fully in the self-aware, presentational mode, which is open about its own artificiality. Normally this is a recipe for camp, pretentiousness and a rather desperate reliance on irony, but – and this is probably Annette’s greatest achievement – the remarkable thing about this film is that it still packs a significant emotional punch in its key moments. Much credit must go to the actors, particularly Adam Driver (especially since most of the songs seem to be pitched rather higher than he seems comfortable with), but of course the Mael brothers deserve praise for an inventive score which includes some extraordinary pieces of music.

I was hoping to see rather more of Ron and Russell on screen during the film, but apart from the opening and closing sequences they stay behind the scenes, except for a brief cameo as aeroplane pilots. But the film does have the mixture of wit, playfulness, and sincere emotion that is the hallmark of much of Sparks’ music. The central metaphor of the film is an effective one, and if the things it has to say about modern culture are not terribly original, it at least puts them across well.

This is a soaringly weird and often deeply strange film, but also a rather beautiful and affecting one. It’s a coming together of such special and diverse talents that it’s almost certainly a unique, one-off piece of work – not that this shouldn’t instantly be clear to anyone watching it. I doubt there will be a more distinctive film on release this year.

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One of the nice things about Marvel Comics, back in the days of my youth, was how diverse they were. I mean this not in the slightly reductionist modern sense, where it is often just a question of ticking boxes during the scripting and casting stages, but in terms of the tone and subject matter of the comics themselves. When I was about seven my mother bought me a discounted three-pack of different Marvel titles as a holiday treat. One of them was about Spider-Man and Ghost Rider fighting an evil magician in an amusement park; the next was a grandiose underwater piece of high fantasy with Namor the Sub-Mariner; and the third was something rather unexpected, a book entitled (in full) The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu, which seemed to be some sort of spy adventure with a lot of pulp influences and Asian cultural references.

Master of Kung Fu seemed to be happening in its own little world, completely separate to the other Marvel books (though the character ended up fighting the Thing, amongst other superhero characters), but it seems we have now reached the point where Marvel Studios have already made movies about every other character with any kind of traction, and so even outliers like Master of Kung Fu are now getting the big-screen treatment – Eternals, due out in a couple of months, is likewise based on a book not originally intended to share a universe with Spider-Man and all the others. (I once made a joke about Marvel doing movies based on characters like Squirrel-Girl and Brother Voodoo; it now just feels like it’s only a matter of time.)

And so I found myself in the foyer of a bijou cinema in the depths of Somerset, asking for a ticket for the evening showing of Shang-Chi – and until a few years ago I would have never expected to ever be typing that sentence. The full title of the film is Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and the director is Destin Daniel Cretton, who got the job off the back of the (rather good) legal drama Just Mercy.

Our hero is played by Simo Liu, who is an amiable screen presence, and when we first meet him he is living in San Francisco and working as a parking valet along with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina), who is there to do the ironic comedy relief. Neither of them have figured out what to do with their lives yet, but destiny (not to mention Destin) gives them a little push when they are menaced on the bus by a gang of toughs led by a chap named Razor Fist (Florian ‘Big Nasty’ Munteanu). ‘I don’t want any trouble!’ cries Shang-Chi in the time-honoured chop-socky manner, but the bad guys do want trouble, and so it behoves our lad to break out his invincible kung fu skills.

Yes, it seems he is a parking valet with a past: son of Wenwu (Tony Leung), an immortal warlord who is possessor of the ten rings of the title: as well as letting him live for a thousand years, they also make him unstoppable in battle (except when the plot requires it to be otherwise). Shang-Chi was raised by his father’s criminal empire to become the perfect warrior and assassin, but he threw a bit of a teenage strop and ran away to America instead.

But now it seems his dad wants a reunion. Wenwu is seeking to gain access to Ta Ro, a magical realm in another dimension filled with fantastic sights and mythical creatures (not to be confused with K’Un-Lun from the Iron Fist TV show, a magical realm in another dimension filled with fantastical sights and mythical creatures, of course, or indeed any of the vaguely similar locales in the other movies), from whence his wife (and our hero’s mum) came from. Wenwu’s children have a role to play in this scheme, but what is it? And why is Wenwu so determined to reach Ta Ro? Could the survival of the universe be in peril, again?

Master of Kung Fu’s nature as a book only tangentially linked to the rest of Marvel’s output was exemplified by the fact it featured characters heavily implied to be the descendants of James Bond and Sherlock Holmes, while Shang-Chi’s original father (dear me, only when writing about comic book universes to you end up using formulations like ‘original father’) was the fiendish Dr Fu Manchu, Sax Rohmer’s diabolical mastermind and racist stereotype as featured in many novels and movies. Then again, at various points Marvel’s sprawling cosmology has included such improbable inhabitants (mostly licensed from other sources) as Godzilla, Dracula, the Transformers, and the black monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey (the monolith’s own comic book series was not a big seller for some reason).

These days, of course, you can’t really do a movie with Fu Manchu as the bad guy, to save nothing of the rights issues involved, and so Shang-Chi’s parentage has been tweaked. This has been quite inventively done: the Ten Rings have been a story element in these films since the very beginning, and Tony Leung’s character seems to be at least in part an attempt to placate that small segment of the Marvel audience annoyed with the presentation of the Mandarin back in Iron Man 3. This is done deftly enough that it shouldn’t feel too weird or fussy to normal people in the audience, but I have to say that some of the links and cameos connecting this movie to the wider Marvel enterprise feel rather gratuitous and contrived this time around.

Nevertheless, it eventually becomes very clear that a Marvel movie is what this is – if I were to be reductionist myself, I would say that it’s clearly trying to emulate the success of Black Panther, although using Chinese culture rather than Afro-futurism as its starting point. I thought this was rather a shame – the first act or so of the film, which actually resembles a genuine kung fu movie, is superbly entertaining, with good jokes and inventive action choreography. However, it slowly transforms into what’s basically just another CGI-based fantasy spectacle, becoming slightly bland and heftless along the way. The issue with traditional Chinese culture is that it’s a real thing, and everyone involved seems to have been very wary of doing anything that might cause offence (they likely had one eye on the potentially vast Asian box office returns too), and the film loses a lot of its wit and pop as a result.

Still, a great deal of goodwill has been built up by this point, and Michelle Yeoh pops up to do some exposition as Shang-Chi’s auntie, so the film remains very watchable till the end. But you can see why the film’s not called Master of Kung Fu – there’s not much sign of that in the closing stages of the film, which I was a bit disappointed by. Master of the CGI Special Effects Budget is a less engaging proposition.

This is a fun film and unlikely to disappoint the legions of devotees Marvel have gathered to their banner over the last decade-and-a-bit; the action and humour are all present and correct, and Tony Leung in particular manages to give the film a bit of gravitas and depth (on one level this is another saga of a dysfunctional Asian family) But on the other hand, one of the main alleged weaknesses of the Marvel films, the fact that they are all ultimately a bit samey, is also arguably on display: no matter how quirkily and originally they start out, everything always concludes with a slightly bloated climax slathered in visual effects. But as long as these films continue to make such immense piles of money, this is unlikely to change. Shang-Chi isn’t as distinctive as it promised to be, but it’s still an engaging piece of entertainment.

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The day before my sister turned 21 I travelled down to visit her and, as we had a bit of free time, decided to rent a video before going out for the evening (this sort of indicates how old my sister is, but I’m sure she’ll be fine with that). After the usual wrangling and discussions over what to see (what used to happen in video rental stores now happens while looking at the front end of Netflix or Mouse+, that’s progress for you) we ended up watching The Meaning of Life, which – of course – also included the supporting feature, The Crimson Permanent Assurance. I remember enjoying this enormously and commenting to my sibling on how very Terry Gilliamish it was.

She is less versed in the ways of film (and, indeed, Python) than me, and admitted that she didn’t actually know what that meant. I, on the other hand, will happily turn up to see anything made by Gilliam, always assuming it gets a proper cinema release wherever I’m living at the time. (This is quite a big qualification as I don’t recall Tideland or Zero Theorem showing up at all, while The Man Who Killed Don Quixote only scraped a small release in an independent cinema.) And generally I have a pretty good time, and occasionally a great one.

The only Gilliam film I didn’t get the first time I saw it was The Fisher King, his 1991 film. This is arguably a bit of an outlier in the Gilliam canon anyway, as it was a film he made as a deliberate change of pace after some stressful experiences in the 1980s – he is even on record as having said he didn’t want to make another ‘Terry Gilliam film’ while shooting it. He was much more of a directorial gun for hire on this movie, as opposed to the auteurial role he usually plays.

The movie takes place in New York City in the present day (which is to say, in the late 80s and early 90s) and the protagonist is one Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges), a radio ‘shock jock’ and provocateur. In true late 80s style Jack is callous, materialistic and self-obsessed, and believes his career is about to really start going places. He is correct – but not the places he is hoping for. An unstable listener takes one of Jack’s rants rather too seriously and is spurred to commit a spree killing in which several people die.

Several years on Jack is at a low ebb: his broadcasting career is over and he is working as a clerk in the video store of his girlfriend Anne (Mercedes Ruehl) – it is perhaps not entirely surprising that posters advertising Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen are prominently displayed around the place. Anne clearly adores him, but he is too drunk to notice this most of the time.

While contemplating suicide one night, he is set upon by thugs who believe he is homeless, but rescued by Parry (Robin Williams), an actual homeless person who believes himself to be a knight of the Round Table on a quest to retrieve the Holy Grail. (The Holy Grail is in the library of a wealthy architect on the Upper East Side, naturally.)

Jack’s initial gratitude and bemusement become something more significant when he learns that Parry used to be a successful and happily-married historian until he was widowed in the spree killing Jack was partially responsible for. He feels a sudden responsibility towards Parry, and perhaps the need to redeem himself. Maybe getting Parry together with the woman he is infatuated with (Amanda Plummer) could be a start…?

So, yes, this is the third sort-of Arthurian movie we’ve talked about in the last couple of months. Why should this be? Well, I’m still a bit peeved about The Green Knight having its release postponed, and these other films are filling the gap until (we may hope) it eventually appears. Also, my friends and I are playing King Arthur Pendragon at the moment, so anything with a whiff of Camelot about it is grist to my mill.

The Fisher King sounds like the name of a grand fantasy movie – at least, it does if you know your Arthuriana. The thing is – and I think this may be why I didn’t really take to it on my first viewing – it’s not actually a fantasy film in the traditional sense at all. The only thing epic about it is the length (which is arguably a little bit excessive). The Fisher King legend as related here does not bear much resemblance to the one traditionally associated with the Arthur cycle, and even then it is mainly just a metaphor for the central relationship in the film (it’s not even immediately apparent who is playing the role of the Fisher King in the story).

Instead, this is almost more like a slightly hard-edged Woody Allen comedy-drama about the lives and loves of various New Yorkers (albeit of a lower social stratum than usual), with occasional contributions to the art direction by Hieronymus Bosch. Gilliam seems to have been born several centuries too late and appears to gravitate towards mediaevally-inclined projects – he was the knight with the rubber chicken in Python, co-directed Holy Grail, did Jabberwocky on his own and creates some magnificent knights in this film and his version of Don Quixote – the fire-breathing Red Knight which pursues Parry (a metaphor for the real world, with all the pain and sorrow that involves) is one of Gilliam’s finest bits of conjuring.

If you approach The Fisher King fully cognisant of the fact that it’s only tangentially about the legend in question and more a piece of magic realism than full-on fantasy, I think the film is rather winning, and very worthwhile. It is humane, thoughtful, and quite happy not just to broach the topic of homelessness in the US, but to present homeless characters as sympathetic and intelligent people. The relationships between the four main characters are convincing and, without exception, extremely well played – Robin Williams gets top billing, but Jeff Bridges is at least as good in what’s arguably the central role, while Mercedes Ruehl deserved all the awards she won for a properly layered and utterly convincing performance as his girlfriend.

It’s a little odd to watch a Terry Gilliam film which is basically people just walking around and talking to each other, but the maestro finds plenty of opportunities to bring some visual distinctiveness to the film – quite apart from the Red Knight, there’s the lovely scene in which the crowd in Grand Central Station all start waltzing as Parry stumbles after the woman he’s fallen for. Given the slightly frenetic grimness which occasionally popped up in Gilliam’s films from the 1980s, it’s rather lovely that this one is so genuinely charming and romantic; it suggests he has a range as a director which he has never really got to fully explore (it’s perhaps slightly facile to make comparisons between Terry Gilliam and Orson Welles, but I think there are certainly parallels).

As I said, the film is probably about twenty minutes too long, considering the slightness of the story, but apart from the slightly languid pacing this is a really well-made, thoughtful film for adults. Before watching it recently, it was never really one of my favourite Gilliam films, simply because it doesn’t have that obvious Gilliamishness which is so obvious in The Crimson Permanent Assurance and his earlier feature films. However, it turns out that Terry Gilliam is still a great director even when he isn’t trying that hard to be Terry Gilliam.

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Is it time for another potentially embarrassing confession? Could be. I have mentioned before that I never really had a favourite rock group or band growing up; I didn’t really get into music at until my late teens. That role was played by, amongst other things, comedy, which I was just as obsessive about as any Oasis or Take That fan. Forget all that ‘comedy is the new rock ‘n’ roll’ stuff people were spouting in the early 90s when David Baddiel and Rob Newman were selling out arenas – Monty Python were my favourite group a good six or seven years earlier. And yet – and here’s the thing – much as I loved the TV series when I finally got to see it properly, much as I fell about laughing when Monty Python and the Holy Grail finally came on TV, much as I followed the other projects of the group members – Fawlty Towers and Ripping Yarns, obviously; Michael Palin going around the world; any Terry Gilliam film you cared to mention – when I finally got to watch Monty Python’s Life of Brian, ten years or so after its 1979 release, I was distinctly underwhelmed by it.

This despite the fact that at least one member of the group considers it the pinnacle of their work together; this despite the general acclamation the film has received (as well as numerous writs for blasphemy). It’s almost enough to make one doubt one’s own opinion. But not quite, though.

The movie is of course another of those Terry Jones projects which managed to get itself banned in Ireland on its initial release. It opens with a tried and tested Python gambit – opening ‘straight’ and sustaining a note of serious authenticity for as long as possible, before something silly happens. In this case it is the Three Wise Men turning up at a stable in Bethlehem, in search of the new-born Messiah – only to be confronted by Mandy (Jones), perhaps the apotheosis of all those ratbag old women he played in the TV series, and her infant son Brian. Suffice to say the Wise Men have unwisely come to wrong stable, just around the corner from one where a more famous nativity scene is in progress.

Cue animated titles and the (rather magnificent) ‘Brian Song’, which leads us into a genuinely impressive recreation of Judea in the first century (shot in Tunisia, sometimes on sets left behind by Zeffirelli when he finished making Jesus of Nazareth – something the Italian director was apparently hopping mad about when he found out). Brian (Graham Chapman) and his mother lead fairly ordinary lives, until a shock discovery about his own origins challenges everything Brian believes in, and incites him to rebel against the Roman occupation.

Here’s one of the odd things about Life of Brian – you can summarise the plot in broad strokes and it doesn’t actually sound that funny. Brian attempts to join a local resistance group, the People’s Front of Judea, but ends up as the only survivor of a raid on the palace of Roman administrator Pontius Pilate (Michael Palin). While escaping from the Roman pursuers with the unwitting aid of some passing aliens (all right, this bit sounds quite funny), Brian finds himself mistaken for the Messiah and pursued by a large following. Can this help him deal with his various travails? One thing is certain: it’s never not a good idea to take a positive view of the world.

Needless to say, the various Pythons play various parts (John Cleese gets some juicy moments, Terry Gilliam contributes a couple of the gargoyle-like grotesques he seemed to specialise in at this point in his career, and while Eric Idle doesn’t get a single really memorable character, he does get to sing the closing number (which, stripped of its context and blackly comic impact, has nevertheless gone on to become hugely popular as a sort of vaguely jolly song).

It almost goes without saying that there are many sequences in this film which are very funny indeed and which have, in some cases, embedded themselves in popular culture – the unfailingly funny stoning scene, the ‘What have the Romans done for us?’ routine, the closing number, Spike Milligan’s cameo (demonstrating, as others have previously observed, the art of upstaging John Cleese and Michael Palin simultaneously – no small feat). But the odd thing about them is they do feel like sketches grafted onto a more extended narrative with varying degrees of success.

This, I think, is the main difference between Life of Brian and the Python films and TV shows that preceded it – it has a confidence and cinematic quality to it that the previous films often lacked, but at the same time the structure and nature of the film is more conventional – it doesn’t have the fake credits or non-ending that marked Holy Grail out as being essentially a continuation of the TV series, which often featured similar gags and conceits. Life of Brian actually has a fairly coherent story, with a moral premise of sorts, and even genuine moments of sincere feeling and pathos (only very occasionally, of course).

The movie is also surprisingly on-the-nose about its message, as well. It’s essentially about ideology, particularly the absurdity of fanaticism – something shared by Brian’s followers and the various squabbling terrorist groups he encounters in the course of the film – and the Pythons are not afraid to lay it on a bit thick in this department. ‘You’re all individuals! You don’t have to follow anyone!’ yells Brian to the pursuing throng, and the editorial message is so clear you almost expect a caption poking fun at the lack of subtlety at this point.

Not that anyone was paying much attention to the film’s subtext back in 1979, of course. I suspect that much of the stature of Life of Brian owes to the kerfuffle that greeted its release, some elements of which have virtually become folklore – Strom Thurmond attempted to ban it in South Carolina on his wife’s insistence, while many other bans succeeded – it remained banned in Aberystwyth for thirty years, at which point the mayor repealed it (the mayor’s own nude scene in the film may or may not have been a factor). Cleese and Palin’s skirmish with Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark on a chat show very quickly became the stuff of satire itself.

How much the Pythons were genuinely shocked by the strength of the reaction to the film is somewhat unclear. ‘Next year we will have to live with the impact of the film… there will be something of a sensation,’ predicted Michael Palin in his diary at the end of 1978. Nowadays the team are very clear that the film does not ridicule Jesus (he is played dead straight by Kenneth Colley, in a tiny cameo) and it’s more about challenging doctrinaire belief systems and parodying biblical epics, but this does strike me as a little disingenuous – especially as they are also on record describing cut material in which Jesus has trouble booking a table for the last supper and later helps out with the carpentry of the crucifixion. The presence of a number of biblical personages, and the use of some significant imagery (most obviously in the crucifixion sequence) also makes the claim that the film has nothing to do with the origins of Christianity sound a little disingenuous.

Maybe the film is still as shockingly irreverent (even heretical) as it sets out to be; I don’t know – maybe we’re all just too familiar with it now. As I say, there are some very funny sequences, but other sections of the film don’t make me laugh as hard or as long as other things they’ve done. For me it’s lacking the essential Python willingness to tear the formal conventions apart; it has a beginning, a middle, an end, character development, and all the usual stuff. Which make it a better conventional film, I suppose – but I come to Python looking for something completely different. It’s still a cherishable movie with some very funny moments, but it’s not really amongst my favourites as far as their work is concerned.

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A bit of a landmark for me recently, as for the first time ever I found myself watching a movie which was executive-produced by someone who once wrote me a letter. Hey, it’s not much, but it’s noteworthy for me at least. The person in question is the writer and critic Kim Newman, who – in addition to being a brilliant author and critic, a snappy dresser, and (according to Neil Gaiman, at least) the inspiration for Pinhead in Hellraiser – is a man who seems to be meticulous about replying to his fan mail. (An inspiration to us all.)

Given that Newman is an authority on the horror genre and has probably watched more bargain-basement films of that type than any other person in history, it should not come as a great surprise that the first movie he’s actually been involved in is… a rom-com. No, hah, it’s a horror movie, of course: Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor.

The film is set in the early 1980s, with the UK in the grip of industrial unrest, the scourge of Thatcherism, and a moral panic about video nasties – the boom in VHS home entertainment also being underway. (There are various allusions to and recreations of notorious moments from legendary nasties like Cannibal Ferox, The Driller Killer and The Evil Dead: there is a lot here aimed at connoisseurs of classic gore.) Doing her bit to shield the public from the worst of this sort of thing is Enid (Niamh Algar), working – we are invited to assume – at the British Board of Film Classification, where her punctilious attitude and reserved demeanour has won her few friends amongst her colleagues.

Not all is ideal in Enid’s private life, however: she seems isolated and withdrawn, with no close friends or acquaintances. A clue comes when she has an awkward dinner with her parents – it transpires that, decades earlier, Enid’s sister disappeared in mysterious circumstances, and Enid’s own role in events is far from entirely clear. Her parents want to move on, but Enid is insistent her sister is still alive, somewhere, and refuses to countenance any other possibility.

The pressure on her builds as a video nasty she cleared for release is implicated in a grisly murder, and she is asked to view an older movie called Don’t Go in the Church!. But the events of the film are strangely resonant for Enid, almost seeming to be a recreation of her own memories of her sister’s disappearance. Could there be a connection? She sets out to investigate the film and its director, regardless of where this takes her…

American horror cinema currently feels like it’s going through one of its phases of retrenchment and consolidation, which is probably just another way of saying it’s sequel-a-go-go time at the moment (with the odd remake thrown in as well) – the trailers before Censor included one for a remake of Candyman and another for the latest Halloween episode, while follow-ups to The Purge, Don’t Breathe and A Quiet Place have also been out this year, along with yet another Conjuring movie.

Over here we don’t seem to be making nearly so many films of any kind, but at least our horror films seem to be a bit more original and interesting. One of the highlights of last year (not a vintage twelve months, of course, but still a hell of a movie) was Rose Glass’ Saint Maud, a film with which Censor has a few things in common with – apart from being low-budget British horror films starring and directed by women, they are both about protagonists undergoing a kind of psychological disintegration, which is reflected in the fabric of the film as the story unfolds.

The first thing to say about Censor is that this is not one of those films which will have the average person rocketing out of their seat in sudden fright every ten minutes (though there is certainly the occasional shocking moment) – the film achieves its effects slowly and carefully, through aggregation of detail and the creation of an unsettling atmosphere of uncertainty and unease. A convincingly grim and grotty 1980s is evoked, alongside the look and feel of many films from the era (archive footage, some featuring key players from the censorship debates of the time, is also included).

This is not to say it isn’t a very effectively creepy and unsettling film, built around a strong performance from Niamh Algar, who very effectively loses it in the course of the film – the movie occasionally makes quite big asks of the audience, and Algar does good work in keeping them on board. It’s almost wholly her movie, although Michael Smiley gets a ripe cameo and there’s an interesting turn from Adrian Schiller as an enigmatic horror director (this part feels like it was crying out for a more heavyweight piece of casting, but it seems that was not to be).

The film’s effectiveness as a piece of horror is closely tied up with its also being a rather tongue-in-cheek comment on the whole notion of censorship. The film apparently had its genesis when Bailey-Bond reflected on one of the chief principles of the censors: that certain images would be likely to provoke morally depraved behaviour from people viewing them, thus making it desirable to have them cut. But what about the censors who look at this depravity-inducing material more than anyone else? How come they are immune?

Of course, this is itself one of the main objections raised by the anti-censorship lobby, namely that one person shouldn’t have the right to decide what another is allowed to see or hear (assuming they are both adults and of sound mind) – it’s patronising, to say the least, and smacks of an implicit elitism (the idea that some people are better equipped to make this kind of judgement than others).

Censor’s stance on all of this is initially difficult to unpack, as the film’s protagonist – and Algar makes her more than sufficiently sympathetic – explicitly says that she sees her job as protecting the general public. The film seems to be suggesting that watching too much gory horror is indeed bad for you – but there’s also something very ironic about this, as well as the repeated dialogue that ‘evil is contagious!’. The film is partly about what the source of true horror is, and the film-makers clearly don’t think that the wellspring is VHS cassettes (or any other recording medium you care to mention).

Still, the film has playful fun recreating the atmosphere of dodgy old horror films, and there’s a lot of enjoyable knowingness in the film – early on, Enid comments critically on the poor quality of a special-effects dismemberment in a film she’s considering, only for an identical moment of on-screen splatter much later on to be (deliberately) equally unconvincing. The film deconstructs itself quite wittily towards the end, and it may be that its own intelligence and subtlety won’t necessarily help it find an audience amongst those looking for closure and certainty. But I enjoyed it very much; it doesn’t have the simplicity and startling power of a film like Saint Maud, but it’s a clever, vibrant, and very effective meditation on the nature of horror and horror films, as well as being a highly engaging (and rather gory) psychodrama. A very strong debut.

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Dominic Cooke’s The Courier doesn’t have a fridge title, just an uninspired one (it played at the  Sundance Festival under its original title of Ironbark, which is at least a little more distinctive). This is a movie which came out in the Land of Uncle US of Stateside nearly six months ago but is only just getting a domestic British release. Quite what the reason for the big lag is, I’m not sure; possibly the makers think this movie has a better chance of succeeding theatrically in the UK, given its subject matter and star – they may even have a point.

This starts off looking like a very traditional, drab and naturalistic espionage thriller, although an opening caption establishes that we are in that even more tenuous and shadowy world of movies theoretically based on true events. It is 1960 and tensions between the superpowers are mounting, reaching the point where senior military intelligence officer Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) decides that the only way to save his country is to betray it, by sharing classified information with the western powers.

Penkovsky’s initial contact is with the CIA, but they are having difficulties in mounting operations in Moscow and request help from MI6 in handling the Penkovsky case (his codename is Ironbark). To allay suspicions they decide to use a civilian as a go-between, and settle upon middle-aged businessman Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch). Wynne is an unexceptional chap, mainly notable for his great emollience and clubbability, and when he eventually figures out he’s being recruited by a couple of spooks his response is one of alarm more than anything else. Somehow they manage to talk him into it nevertheless.

Initially unsure of himself, Wynne nevertheless warms to his work, not least because of the growing warmth developing between him and Penkovsky. This is despite the lack of enthusiasm of his wife (Jessie Buckley), who is unaware of what’s really going on and starts to suspect Wynne has personal (and rather ignoble) reasons for all these foreign trips. But the KGB soon begin to suspect that there may be a leak somewhere in Moscow, and the question becomes one of whether the agencies can extract Penkovsky before he is rumbled…

As I say, theoretically based on true events – although even while you’re watching The Courier you find yourself noticing just how slickly the story told by the film hits the well-established beats of classic story structure: inciting incident, character arc moments, midpoint turn, stakes-raising, and so on. Normally I would suggest this is just another case of creative caution blanding out a movie, but perhaps not on this occasion – for the film departs quite radically from the traditional structure in its closing section (spoilers concerning the Wynne-Penkovsky affair are widely available, not least in history books). Maybe the conventionality of most of the movie is an attempt to wrong-foot the audience, but I’m not entirely convinced about this – it doesn’t feel as if the makers of The Courier are interested in operating on such a sophisticated, self-conscious level.

Instead, the film is much more of a meat-and-potatoes hats-and-fags period drama for most of its duration, the kind of film which the British film industry is simply very good at (they get a lot of practice, after all). All the costuming, set design, and direction is competent and familiar-feeling, and the performances are, in general, decent or better (some of them are very good indeed). The only thing that really distinguishes it is the strikingly bleak and powerful final act. Cumberbatch is good throughout, but here he really gets to shine, while Buckley – saddled with the less than plum stock part of The Wife for most of the movie – also gets to show more of what she’s actually capable of. (Angus Wright plays the stuffy old chief MI6 handler and Rachel Brosnahan his younger and more human American opposite number – needless to say the script favours the Americans.)

The climax is by far the most memorable part of the film, and probably the most accomplished too, but it’s understandable that it and the material leading up to it makes up only a relatively small part of the film – powerful it may be, but it’s also probably downbeat to the point of being profoundly uncommercial.

I’m assuming that the makers of The Courier think the movie has a reasonable chance of commercial success – with someone like Cumberbatch on board, on this kind of form, this would normally be a fair assumption. (They would hardly have made the film otherwise.) And yet I wonder about its chances of cutting through and making an impression – the publicity for it doesn’t do a great job of making it distinctive from many other hats-and-fags period thrillers of the last decade or so, and it’s not as if the story of Wynne and Penkovsky is likely to be all that familiar to anyone under the age of seventy. It’s not a bad movie at all, but nor is it really a big one or one which is likely to make a huge impression.

I suppose this is a shame, because if nothing else the film is a decent reminder of events of the past. But is this enough? What I mean is that the objective of the film (beyond making its budget back) is somewhat obscure: maybe it is just a tribute to Wynne and Penkovsky, if only because its implicit criticisms of the authoritarian Soviet system, though clearly sincere, hardly relate to a live issue (making parallels between the current Russian regime, compromised and brutal though it is, and the horrors of the USSR seems to me to be rather facile). I expect one could argue that the film is really a reminder of the forgotten human cost of historical events. There’s a shot in the film which rather put me in mind of one from Hitchcock’s Frenzy – an ordinary door closes, and the camera quietly retreats from it as everyday life quietly encroaches from both sides of the screen. What’s going on behind the door is left unrevealed and unelaborated upon – but it is the long tail of history, the people involved trying to come to terms with what they have been mixed up in, not the stuff of newspapers or history books but unrecorded life. It’s a striking moment, but most of the film is less contemplative. The Courier tells an important story and just about does it justice, but doesn’t find a way of operating on a high enough level to do more than be a competent and not especially memorable movie.

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Some kind of threshold in the delexicalisation of the word irony was surely passed when the Original Film Company announced it was going to release… well, take your pick, really: Sonic the Hedgehog, the Total Recall remake, any of the Fast and Furious movies… not that all of these films are necessarily bad, of course. It’s just part of a larger trend, anyway, and one which we have discussed before: such is the expense and exposure involved in making a major tentpole summer blockbuster these days, that the big studios invariably hedge their bets by backing properties with a history of success – which translates as doing sequels, remakes, and adaptations of properties from other media (TV shows, comic books, video games, theme park rides).

It’s a slightly dismal state of affairs even when, as noted, some of the sequels, remakes, adaptations, etc, stand up pretty well on their own terms. The arrival of a big popcorn movie which is none of these things is always therefore a noteworthy occasion (especially if it’s not been directed by Christopher Nolan).

That said, I wasn’t particularly grabbed by the early publicity for Shawn Levy’s Free Guy, partly because it didn’t honestly look all that much like an actually original film (a grab-bag of ideas and visuals from elsewhere, really) and also because it’s a star vehicle for Ryan Reynolds, who has undeniable ability as a light comedian and leading man, but also often comes across as a bit smarmy. Still, you know, sometimes you just want to see something colourful and lively and not too demanding on the higher brain functions.

Reynolds plays Guy, who is a bank clerk in Free City. Guy thinks Free City is a utopia, the greatest place to live in the world, even though it objectively seems to be a dismal, insanely violent, crime-ridden hellhole, where the streets are filled with outlandishly-dressed violent psychopaths all wearing sunglasses and intent on non-stop mayhem and slaughter. But Guy still likes it there. But is there something missing from his life of cheery routine? (Wake up – grab coffee – go to work – be robbed six or seven times a day – go home etc.) Perhaps there is.

He gets an inkling of what it may be when he encounters a mysterious woman (Jodie Comer), one of the sunglasses-wearing faction. This provokes him to break with the old routine, stop doing all the usual things, and even – his best friend is appalled by the thought – get a pair of sunglasses for himself. To say the world takes on a whole new hue when he pops them on is an understatement.

The audience is a step ahead of Guy by this point, anyway, as the movie doesn’t hang around in elaborating on its central conceit: Free City is the setting for a computer game (something like a MMORPG version of Grand Theft Auto) and Guy is one of the background, non-player characters (NPCs) whose main function is to be brutalised by the players (the psychopaths in sunglasses). But something has happened to Guy, allowing him to evolve beyond his designed function and take control of his actions…

This concerns and baffles the people maintaining the game systems, but is also of great interest to two programmers in particular (Comer again and Joe Keery). Comer’s character believes the Free City game includes code illegally swiped from one of their own productions, and is seeking evidence for a lawsuit against the tycoon responsible (the increasingly ubiquitous Taika Waititi). Can Guy have something to do with all this?

I will concede that for a theoretically original film, there is a lot about Free Guy which feels suspiciously derivative: you could make a very long list of all the films which it feels like it owes a debt to, one way or another, starting with Westworld and going on to take in movies as diverse as They Live, The Truman Show, The Matrix, Gamer and Ready Player One. (This is before we even consider some of the crowd-pleasing pop-culture references Reynolds has managed to sneak in courtesy of his relationship with Marvel and Disney.) But it manages the very neat trick of taking all its influences and combining them to produce something which doesn’t feel like it’s obviously ripping off any of them in particular.

The result is a very clever and visually dense film – the corners of the screen are filled with little gags and throwaway details – as well as one which is solidly structured and written (managing to handle some of the issues with this type of scenario with notably more grace than some of its donors). It’s not just clever as a piece of entertainment, either – it manages to take big and potentially unwieldy ideas and smuggle them in front of the camera, usually disguised as jokes or incidental detail. There’s a lot of satire of computer game norms and gamer culture in general, but also more thoughtful and even philosophical ideas about free will and the nature of reality. That the world around us is not what it initially seems is a foundational premise of much great science fiction; which means that Free Guy easily qualifies as one of the best SF films in ages.

Smart summer blockbusters are rare enough, but the other thing which really makes this film stand out is that it has a genuine sweetness and positivity about it which is, to be perfectly honest, incredibly rare in a major studio movie these days. What makes Guy stand out and get noticed as he begins his quest to improve himself is that he is attempting to be a hero in a world where the default assumption is that everyone will behave like a sociopath. He is cheery and upbeat and often apologises to people after finding himself required to do violence upon them. Reynolds finds a way to do this without coming off as bland or saccharine or preachy; I can’t think of a better performance from the actor. But then the whole film is notably well-cast as well as being well-written; the closest thing to a stereotype is Waititi’s grasping businessman, but then he is largely there to symbolise the evils the film is setting out to challenge (he even gets a line about how originality isn’t profitable and that sequels and IP are where the money is).

A film flying the flag for creativity and new ideas, and doing so while suggesting there is indeed value in doing the right thing, would get my support no matter what (well, maybe not if it seemed to be acted by drones, edited by chimps and directed by a committee) – but for a film to do these things while being consistently engaging, clever and funny is virtually miraculous these days. Free Guy, rather unexpectedly, turns out to be a real treat and almost certainly the best popcorn film of the summer.

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It is curious to reflect that, as he settled comfortably into a prosperous middle age, Sean Connery seemed quite happy to spend most of his professional life in the middle ages, too. Think of a noteworthy Connery film from the mid-seventies to the mid-nineties and there’s a good chance it will feature our man swinging a sword and possibly wearing chain-mail, too: Robin and Marion, Highlander, The Name of the Rose (all right, he’s a monk in that one), Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves, Dragonheart… in retrospect it’s something of an achievement that he managed to wrench himself back to the present day for so many of his final films.

We can only ponder as to what quality Connery possessed that made him such a good fit for this sort of film – Terry Gilliam once spoke of Connery’s essentially telluric nature (in the context of why he would have been a poor choice to play Quixote), and he does have that unreconstructed alpha-male aura going on for him, which may indeed go quite well with tales of an earlier and simpler time. Whatever the reason, the result is a CV featuring such plum roles as Robin Hood, Richard the Lionheart, William of Baskerville and (potentially the biggest of the lot) King Arthur.

This was a late-middle-ages role for Connery, coming in Jerry Zucker’s 1995 film First Knight. (Connery had previously played another of the great Arthurian roles, the Green Knight, in 1984’s Sword of the Valiant.) Zucker had scored a big hit with his previous film, the extravagant weepie Ghost, and this has the feel of a ‘classic’ Hollywood period movie, the spiritual successor to things like The Black Knight and Knights of the Round Table.  From the opening moments it goes full-bloodedly in search of the closest thing to Merrie Olde England camp you will ever find in a Hollywood movie of the 1990s.

King Arthur’s realm is finally at peace (it’s taken longer than usual, as he’s clearly in his sixties) and the monarch is intent on marrying, despite the lurking threat of a renegade knight (Ben Cross is playing the role of Malagant, who is essentially playing the role of Mordred in this version of the tale). Also wandering the realm is Lancelot (Richard Gere), who on this occasion is a charmingly roguish trickster leading an aimless life.

Prince Malagant is intent on taking over the land of Leonesse, which appears to be a titchy little realm between Malagant’s domain and that of Camelot, and this involves his men terrorising the local peasants (keen-eyed viewers may spot a young Rob Brydon hamming it up ferociously in the crowd scenes – Brydon was offered a bigger part but had to go and be at the birth of his child, or something). Playing Malagant’s chief lieutenant is Ralph Ineson, who – at the time of writing – is appearing (or not, depending on where you live) in the title role of David Lowery’s The Green Knight, and you have to wonder if the two facts are in any way connected.

Off the peasants stagger to tell the ruler of Leonesse, Guinevere (Julia Ormond). Her one-of-the-people credentials are established by the fact we initially find her playing football with another bunch of peasants. Lending the film some twinkly gravitas but making no substantial contribution to the plot is John Gielgud as her wise old mentor. It turns out that in addition to facing the threat of annexation, Guinevere has to decide whether or not to marry King Arthur. Needless to say she agrees.

However, on the way to Camelot, Malagant’s men have a go at kidnapping Guinevere, and she is only rescued by the timely arrival of Lancelot, whose charmingly roguish ways we have already been introduced to in the pre-credits sequence. Guinevere is soon roguishly charmed up to her eyeballs, but her sense of duty and self-respect require her to carry on to Camelot where she (and the audience) meet King Arthur (finally).

The film has been going for a bit by this point and it’s frankly a relief to finally meet Sean Connery, who is, after all, top-billed. To be honest, I find I can often take or leave these mid-to-late period Connery performances, as the actor often seems just a bit too ready to trade on his natural charisma and established screen persona rather than actually do any work. Here, though, he is rather good as the aged version of the King, a decent and just man, veteran of too many wars, who wears his vast authority very lightly. You can see why Guinevere loves him, but is it in truth a love with any fizz and wow to it? How does it, in fact, compare to the sizzling chemistry she clearly shares with Lancelot? Hopefully the threat of Malagant will somehow enable everyone to work through all their personal issues…

So: a story credit for Lorne Cameron, one for David Hoselton, and one for William Nicholson (who’s credited with the actual script). No story credit for either Chretien de Troyes or Thomas Malory, presumably because they just don’t have good enough lawyers (being dead for centuries can really affect your ability to get good legal help). Still, this is fairly recognisable as the classic story of the love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot, very much chopped down, speeded up and rendered digestible for the perceived requirements of a modern audience.

As you might expect, the various changes to the story inevitably impact on how it plays out – Lancelot meeting and falling for Guinevere before he even meets Arthur or becomes a knight really shifts the dynamic of the story – but none quite as much as the decision to dispense with virtually all of the mythic and mystical aspects of the story. So this is (spoiler incoming) a tale of the twilight and fall of King Arthur with no Mordred, no Morgan le Fay, no Merlin (not that you’d strictly speaking expect him to be around at this point), no Excalibur, no Avalon, and so on.

A non-mythological King Arthur movie is a curious choice but not necessarily a risible one; the 2004 film with Clive Owen made a similar choice, going all in on historicity and period detail and gritty realism. First Knight ditches all the mythology, but (as this is a family-friendly romantic adventure) can’t find anything to replace it. As a result the film fails to convince, either as fantasy or anything else. Even the romance feels rather turgid: Lancelot and Guinevere talk a lot about their feelings but they never come across to the audience; there is no actual sense of passion at any point, despite the fact that Ormond at least is working hard to convince. (Gere seems rather out of his comfort zone, to be honest.)

The result is one of those slick but bland movies that they seemed to make a lot of back in the 1990s. I suppose people with a taste for soft-focus romance in a cod-mediaeval setting may find it passes the time quite agreeable; the rest of it is not entirely bereft of interest – there are some interesting faces in the supporting cast, Ben Cross is not bad as the panto villain the film requires, and much of the fight choreography is likewise well up to standard – but it’s essentially unsatisfying as either an adventure film, a drama, or a screen version of one of Britain’s greatest myths.

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They say that America doesn’t have a class system; maybe not, but that great nation is certainly not a monoculture, as we are reminded in Tom McCarthy’s film Stillwater (this comes within a hair’s breadth of being a fridge title). Here Matt Damon seems to be making a conscious effort to show his range by playing a character who is a world away from one of the metropolitan or coastal types he is perhaps best known for (even Jason Bourne was obviously a well-travelled and highly-educated guy, albeit in a rather specialised field).

Damon plays Bill Baker, a construction worker and oil rig roughneck from the town of Stillwater in Oklahoma: a stolid, stocky kind of guy, who calls everyone sir or ma’am, has a tattoo of the Eagle of American Freedom, enjoys country music and only takes his baseball cap off when he’s in bed or saying grace. He is having a rough time financially at the start of the film, looking for work without much success, and living what seems like quite a lonely existence.

And yet here he is flying off to France for some reason. It seems like an unlikely destination for a man of Bill’s stripe. Slowly it becomes obvious that he is a frequent flyer on this particular route, a regular at a certain hotel in Marseilles, and a well-known fixture on the visitor’s list at the local prison. This is because his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) is five years into serving time for the murder of her flatmate and Bill is the only one who comes to see her, even though it is clear their relationship is at best somewhat strained.

But maybe this time is different. Allison believes she has a lead that could possibly clear her name – she’s heard from someone who met somebody at a party who claimed they’d literally gotten away with murder – and wants him to take it to the French lawyers. But they are unimpressed by the information; Bill is advised that he needs to get Allison to accept that she has no chance of release. But Bill will have none of this Gallic pusillanimity, and – despite not being temperamentally or linguistically suited to the task – sets out to get justice for his daughter, even if it means venturing down some of Marseilles’ meaner streets…

From that description it sounds rather like the kind of film Liam Neeson might turn up in, maybe even a Luc Besson project: the indefatigable American busting heads and taking names in the name of paternal duty. The thing about Stillwater is that it’s really not like that at all; there’s something very wrong-footing about this film, like a piece of music being played at very slightly the wrong tempo. I came out of it and I honestly wasn’t sure if I’d just seen a rather good film or a distinctly poor one. (Maybe as I write a definite opinion will come to me.)

Well, having said that, Stillwater does have one very obvious and serious strike against it, in that the whole film is built on foundations which are surely unjustifiable from a moral point of view. The murder case at the centre of the story bears such a striking resemblance to the real-life killing of Meredith Kercher, for which Amanda Knox was wrongfully imprisoned for several years, that the whole thing would be in dubious taste even had the scriptwriters not introduced several entirely fictional twists just to serve their story. People may possibly watch Stillwater and assume it’s a fictionalised version of the Knox case, which it isn’t. As I say, surely unjustifiable.

What’s actually slightly annoying is that the film itself has stretches of real class in it. The crime-thriller-vigilante element never really comes to life, to be honest, always feeling a bit flat and laborious, but there’s a whole other angle to it which works rather well: this is partly a character study of Damon’s character, but also about his burgeoning relationship with a local actress (Camille Cottin) and her daughter (Lilou Siauvaud). This is mostly the kind of low-key but entirely plausible character stuff which McCarthy did so well in his debut, The Station Agent. As a drama about these people – some may find the developments between the very conservative Bill and the liberal and cultured Virginie highly implausible, but surely that’s the essence of romance? – the film is rather engaging; I found myself caring about what happened to them and found myself sagging in dismay as…

Well, suffice to say the thriller element lumbers back onto the scene for a climax which is as low-key and understated as the rest of it. Perhaps that’s the thing that makes Stillwater so odd: it’s scripted and structured so it’s essentially a thriller with dramatic elements, but it’s paced and pitched like a much more naturalistic, low-key drama. The style and the substance don’t quite gel for long stretches of the film.

I suppose we should also talk a bit about Matt Damon. It’s a decent character turn and certainly a bit of a departure for the actor; possibly quite a demanding role for him. (He’s in virtually every scene, for one thing.) It’s a complex part, too – a representative of a certain, rather insular American subculture, devoted to his family and seemingly devout, but also capable of making startlingly bad decisions under pressure. Here the sheer undemonstrativeness of the character perhaps becomes a problem, as Damon struggles to find ways to show his inner life and make all these disparate traits come together into a credible, vivid whole. By the end of the film I was in the odd position of caring somewhat about a character who I didn’t entirely find plausible.

Always the film isn’t simply intended as a breath-takingly misjudged comment on the Amanda Knox case, you have to wonder what the wider moral premise of it is – why make the central character a representative of that particular stratum of American society? Bill specifically states he didn’t vote for Trump, but it’s implied this is only because he’s been disqualified from voting for anyone. Apart from this, he owns two guns, doesn’t seem to share Virginie’s liberal attitudes at all, and so on. Is the film trying to say something about a certain kind of blundering American attitude to dealing with the rest of the world? (At the start of the film, Bill still hasn’t bothered to learn any French, despite being a regular visitor.) Or perhaps the message is that paternal love can be as irrational and self-destructive as any other kind.

The deeper thesis of Stillwater never quite becomes clear, but the film has more obvious problems, anyway. It never quite works as a thriller, and the fact that it doesn’t inevitably impacts on its success as a character-based drama. This is a shame, as this is certainly the most affecting and effective part of the film. It’s certainly quite different, and by no means a total failure, but it does have serious flaws that make me hesitate before recommending it. A rather odd and in some respects deeply suspect film which never seems to feel entirely comfortable in its own skin.

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