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Archive for the ‘Film Reviews’ Category

We have previously touched upon the received wisdom of the ‘curse’ of the odd-numbered Star Trek films and the extent to which this colours people’s perception of them (presumably it doesn’t apply to the Abrams movies, which are – strictly speaking – 11, 12, and 13 in the series). I think the existence of the ‘curse’ is questionable at best – I completely agree that by far the best films of the lot are even-numbered ones (II and IV for me; your mileage may differ), but it doesn’t necessarily follow that all the odd numbers are flat-out bad or worse than the less-impressive even-numbered films.

For me, the film that really doesn’t deserve to be tarred with the brush of the curse (I apologise for this somewhat baroque metaphor, by the way) is Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, released in 1984 and directed (following much fun and games between the studio and the director’s representatives) by Leonard Nimoy. Does it reach the same standard as the films on either side of it? Well, no; but, as mentioned, there is space between excellent and mediocre, and it’s this space that the film confidently occupies.

We find ourselves once again in the year 2285, with the damaged starship Enterprise limping home following the climactic events of the previous film. The sense of contentment felt by Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) seems to have faded, and he is troubled by the death of his best friend Spock. His other close friend McCoy is acting erratically, too. Orders from Starfleet Command that the Enterprise is to be decommissioned and that they are not to return to the Genesis Planet, where Spock died, do not help his mood much. The situation becomes acute when he is visited by Spock’s father Sarek (Mark Lenard), and they deduce that before dying Spock effectively placed his soul into McCoy’s body (which explains his strange behaviour). Kirk finds himself compelled to go against Starfleet orders, steal his own ship, and return to Genesis in search of Spock’s body.

Of course, it isn’t even only as complicated as that – for a Klingon warlord named Kruge (Christopher Lloyd) has got wind of the Genesis Project and is heading for the new planet, too, intent on terrorising the Federation science team already on the scene, as well as a revived and rejuvenated Spock…

Star Trek III was written by series producer Harve Bennett, whose work is of course not quite up to the standards of that of Nicholas Meyer (writer of Star Trek II) , but still solid. The main problem with it, once you accept the mystical properties of the Genesis effect (raising the dead) and Vulcan, um, mysticism, is that it’s never made quite clear why Kirk goes back to Genesis, rather than just taking McCoy straight to Vulcan for some kind of psionic detox – not only is he completely unaware Spock has come back to life until after his arrival there, he presumably believes his body has been incinerated (this was the original intent, after all).

That said, the movie barrels along cheerily enough for you not to notice this on the first viewing. The movie has a confidence and swagger that the previous movie didn’t actually possess – Star Trek II was considered the absolutely final roll of the dice for the series (why else would they have killed off the most popular character?), and was produced on a minimal budget, with re-used special effects and most scenes being shot on just one set. Here you do get a sense of people realising that the old dog might have much more life left in it than anyone could have guessed, hence much more lavish special effects and sets throughout.

It also feels rather more comfortable in its identity as a piece of Star Trek, perhaps because Bennett had made an effort to steep himself in a series of which Meyer was never a particular fan. The script is happy to bring back Sarek, a recurring but fairly obscure character from the various TV series, insert a tiny cameo for Grace Lee Whitney, include some Tribbles, mention the pon farr undergone by Vulcans, and so on – although without letting any of these things get in the way of the story.

Perhaps the most obvious result of this desire to take Trek back to its roots is the presence of Klingon antagonists at the heart of the story. We should recall that this is the only major appearance by the Klingons between the end of the original TV series and the beginning of Next Generation, and it’s not surprising that the depiction of them is in something of a state of transition – though still depicted as ruthless, sadistic villains (‘I hope pain is something you enjoy,’ says Kruge, shortly before ordering the execution of a prisoner as a negotiating ploy), they are much more obviously alien (they appear to be stronger and more resilient than humans), and they show signs of the obsession with honour that would define them through the Next Gen and DS9 era. Plus, of course, this film marks the first real appearance of tlhIngan Hol (better known to us tera’nganpu’ as the Klingon language). Inevitably, there are still some oddities – everyone, even Saavik, addresses Kruge as ‘my lord’, which isn’t the case with any other Klingon character in the series, no matter how distinguished they are. That said, Christopher Lloyd’s full-on performance as Kruge certainly demands respect.

As does that of William Shatner, to be honest. Joking about Shatner’s ego, waistline, musical career, hair, and line readings has become so much de rigeur these days that we can sometimes overlook what an effective performer he can be with the right script and appropriate direction. Shatner reports feeling initially uncomfortable being directed by Nimoy, but the final product contains some of his finest moments as Kirk – the ‘Klingon bastards’ scene (usually edited out when this movie turns up on TV nowadays) had the potential to be unintentionally comic, but Shatner and Nimoy turn it into something genuinely affecting.

The one thing about this movie that everyone seems to like is James Horner’s music (he did the previous film as well, of course). Horner’s predilection for, um, paying homage to other people’s tunes in his work has been much commented upon, but he’s far from alone in that, and he makes a huge contribution to the movie – Horner’s music manages to make a spaceship reversing out of a garage feel like a moment of epic high adventure.

As I mentioned, Star Trek II was made with the real expectation that it might be the end of the line for the series. Perhaps as a result of the creative licence that gave them, it turned out, rather unexpectedly, to be the start of a whole new lease of life for the series. The Search for Spock is the first piece of Trek to be made in this new atmosphere of confidence and possibility, and it marks the beginning of a roll which continued for the next two decades. Not to mention being a very entertaining movie in its own right.

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Where there is a big loud blockbuster, occupying the sides of every bus for miles around, intent on owning the nation’s cinemas for a weekend, there’s always the chance for counter-programming, too, and one could surely expect the new Transformers (described by Bradshaw in The Guardian the other day as ‘a machine for turning your brain into soup’) to be countered by something a little more mellow, thoughtful, and humane. What has actually emerged to hoover up the money of cinemagoers not keen to spend two hours recreating the experience of sitting in a tumble drier being pushed down a hill by an angry mob is Joel Hopkins’ Hampstead, a golden-years romantic-comedy-drama starring Diane Keaton and Brendan Gleeson. I get the impression expectations for this film are quite high, for it has won the coveted main screen at Oxford city centre’s nicer cinema, which I don’t feel I get to sit in nearly often enough.

In this movie, which (needless to say, I hope) is set in the London borough of Hampstead, Diane Keaton plays Emily, a woman whose husband has died fairly recently, leaving her with some financial concerns. (She still lives in an enormous apartment block with its own concierge, of course, like most people in London.) Her friends and family are all urging her to move on with her life, and her accountant keeps macking on her in a way which I’m guessing is meant to be pathetic-funny but actually just comes across as rather repulsive. Anyway, Emily’s life changes when she bumps into Donald (Gleason), a sort of human womble living rough in a secluded part of Hampstead Heath, in a shack he built himself many years earlier. The area is due to be redeveloped and Donald is about to be evicted, and as Emily finds herself increasingly drawn to him, she resolves to help him fight to keep his home. But can people from two such different worlds truly find happiness together? Especially when it turns out that Emily’s closest friends are deeply involved in the redevelopment project which looks set to evict Donald from the home he loves…

Look, Diane Keaton was in Annie Hall and Sleeper and The Godfather, there’s no excuse for not liking her as an actress. Brendan Gleeson was in In Bruges and Calvary and The Guard, in addition to all those supporting parts in blockbusters, so the same applies to him. I think I would give any film starring Brendan Gleeson a chance, in fact. Or so I kept reminding myself while I was watching Hampstead and trying to stop myself jumping from the cinema balcony in an attempt to escape from the movie.

What is it about this film which makes it quite so exceptionable? Is it the soft-focus depiction of homelessness in modern London? The disparity between the living standards and housing of the wealthy and the poor in the city’s more prosperous parts has become a bit of an issue in the last couple of weeks, as you may have noticed on the news. Perhaps it is partly to blame. Is it the crushing obviousness of pretty much every line of the script and the direction-of-travel of the movie? I think we are getting a bit closer, there, to be honest. Emily needs to learn the life lesson that She Has Potential As A Human Being (and also that all her so-called friends are grotesque shallow comic harpies). Donald has to learn the life lesson that Being A Reclusive Curmudgeonly Hermit is not good and you must Connect With People And Find Love. The manner in which these two character arcs unfold and interact contains fewer surprises than a dot-to-dot book assembled by someone unable to count above three. Overall, such is the sense of dramatic tension and potential for excitement in this movie that you can cut the atmosphere with a rolling pin.

You can see what the makers of this film had in mind when they were putting it together – one of those romcoms set in an absurdly photogenic London with an imported American star and a local leading man, with the formula modulated somewhat to appeal to older audiences in the same way that (for example) Man Up was tweaked to seem slightly more edgy. However, what they’ve ended up with in this case feels rather like a lobotomised mash-up of The Lady in the Van and an early draft of Notting Hill before Richard Curtis had put any of the jokes in. It is of course physically impossible for performers of the stature of Diane Keaton and Brendan Gleeson to be completely bad for 104 minutes, and each of them manages to bring moments of power and life to the very thin characters they are obliged to play here. Employing Brendan Gleeson, in particular, in a film quite as lightweight and disposable as this one is a bit like buying an armoured car to do the school run in. But there are some talented people in the supporting cast as well, and they make virtually no impression (at least, not in a good way).

Is it even worth mentioning that this movie is supposedly based on a true story? ‘Inspired by the life of Harry Hallowes,’ squeak the closing credits – useful words, ‘inspired by’, for they give you so much latitude to invent new characters, change the ending, insert whatever Moral Premise you believe will play best with your target demographic – the film really does feel exactly that calculated, and as a result whatever emotions it manages to generate feel cold and glutinous – it’s a bit like being swamped by a wave of chilled treacle.

In the end I suspect the main problem with Hampstead is that it’s a smug film that still manages to feel hollow and manipulative, as well as being a drama without any surprises, a comedy with barely any decent jokes, and a romance with no sense of passion or even much emotion to it. I am sorely tempted to recommend you go to see Transformers 5 instead. This film will eat your soul.

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‘When a doctor does go wrong he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge.’ Arthur Conan Doyle, The Speckled Band

I write on what is apparently the hottest June day experienced by the UK and its unfortunate residents in forty years. Now, I don’t know about you, but given the choice between being out in the middle of an overwhelmingly hot and sunny day, and watching an overpoweringly hot and sunny day on a cinema screen in a comfortably cool and quiet room, I’ll choose the latter every single time. And so it was that I ended up taking refuge from the heat in front of Argyris Papadimitropoulos’ Suntan, which is the kind of film to very nearly put you off the idea of summer for life.

(‘Some bronze. Others burn.’ In case you were wondering.)

In accordance with my occasional ‘stroke a bandicoot’ policy (i.e., give films from other countries and cultures a chance), this is a film from Greece, a country currently producing many interesting movies (apparently), although the only one I’ve actually seen was Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster. Suntan is less outlandishly strange than The Lobster, but it still has a very distinct and not entirely comfortable flavour of its own.

Makis Papadimitriou plays Kostis, a middle-aged doctor who, as the film starts arrives on Antiparos, a small resort island. But it is the depths of winter and the place is grey and desolate. Kostis himself is clearly still in the shade of some great, if nebulous, disappointment in his recent past. From the start he is a withdrawn figure, rather melancholic – the nature of his work means he gets dragged out of Christmas parties to attend to the recently deceased, which is hardly the sort of experience to leave one cheery.

Eight months later, the island has been transformed by the arrival of legions of holiday-makers – it is, as the Mayor (Pavlos Orkopoulos) reminds Kostis, the one month that pays for the rest of the year. Kostis’ life seems as unremarkable as ever, until the arrival in his surgery of Anna (Elli Tringou), a twenty-ish young woman who’s come to the island for a month of utter hedonism and debauchery. Anna has done herself an injury falling off her bike, but Kostis fixes her up and she seems genuinely grateful, inviting him to hang out with her and her friends.

Youth is wasted on the young, of course, but older people can get pretty wasted on the idea of youth, too, and Kostis finds spending time with his new young friends to be quite intoxicating. He goes to the beach with them, buys them all drinks, is taken to nightclubs – and finds himself growing particularly drawn to Anna. His work begins to suffer as partying becomes his top priority. And then the fleeting possibility of a more serious connection with Anna presents itself…

There’s nothing particularly original about the theme of Suntan, which is that of the devastating effects a midlife crisis can have on a vulnerable man. It’s also about how people who appear relatively close in age can turn out to have totally different values and attitudes and fundamentally misunderstand each other, and it touches briefly on a very toxic type of masculinity.

No-one seems quite sure whether Suntan is in fact a comedy, a drama, or even a very specific type of horror movie. Certainly it looks somewhat comic as it starts – there are many scenes of the pudgy, balding, pallid Kostis shambling around in baggy shorts and a monstrously uncool sunhat, surrounded by the bronzed naked bodies of his young companions (there is pretty much wall-to-wall nudity for much of this movie, a lot of it somewhat desexualised), and the effect is indeed somewhat humorous. But there is a detached, vaguely threatening quality to Papadimitriou’s performance that gives the film an ominous, unsettling tone even in these early stages.

That said, he’s also vaguely touching, in a pathetic sort of way, when his fantasies about Anna look like coming to fruition. The film explicitly makes reference to Lolita, although the relationship here is ambiguous in a different manner – is Anna toying with Makis’ affections for her own amusement, or is she simply unaware of the significance of what’s transpiring between them? It is never quite clear. The casual cruelty and thoughtlessness of young and beautiful people is made quite clear, of course.

In the end, of course, something very nasty bubbles to the surface in Makis’ personality, resulting in some extremely disquieting and unpleasant scenes. This isn’t quite a case of a central character gradually losing the sympathy of the audience – but that’s not just because he’s such a dismal individual that he always remains somewhat sympathetic. It’s also because the very withdrawnness of the character, his inability to demonstrate feeling, means he’s never a completely comfortable or likeable person.

There are many good things about Suntan, which is an atmospheric, well-structured and engaging film, but there is a sense in which the main characters, at least, are more archetypes than fully rounded individuals. We don’t actually learn a great deal about either of them, so they never quite come to life as vivid characters in their own right. On the other hand, the movie obviously wants to deal with a universal story.

Part of this emerges from the very predictability of the unfolding narrative – you’re never in any doubt as to what’s going to transpire in the movie, generally speaking. Perhaps we should simply say that Suntan is a classical tragedy for the modern age (maybe even a Greek tragedy) – the story a basically good (or at least not obviously bad) man who comes horribly undone as a result of a flaw in his character. Whether this is loneliness, lustfulness, or a simple lack of a grasp on reality is for the viewer to decide, I think. But come horribly undone he does, and while the end of the film is extreme, it is still humane and tells a recognisably human story. Definitely not a film for everybody, and an occasionally challenging one, but made with great intelligence and skill.

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It was late in the Earth Year 1979 (or possibly early 1980) and my father announced that he was taking me to the cinema. This was unusual enough to be noteworthy, but to my father’s credit, most of the films I remember him taking me to without my having to ask were generally pretty good – the first couple of Christopher Reeve Superman movies, for instance. On this occasion, I remember hanging around outside a Blackpool seafront cinema for a bit on a rainy day (there may have been a queue), and then taking our seats to enjoy the latest movie by Robert Wise, a man who I have since come to regard as one of Hollywood’s greatest directors. The good news was that Wise was helming a lavish and ambitious epic SF movie. The bad news was that it eventually turned out to be Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

I found the movie somewhat baffling, but my father’s dissatisfaction was both palpable and loud. Ever since that day, TMP has had a toxic reputation in our house for being long, slow, boring, and dry, and it’s a view I suppose I automatically stuck with myself for many years. Not that we were alone, of course: I suspect the received wisdom that ‘odd numbered Trek films are no good’ is largely the result of TMP‘s perceived flaws.

Of course, the movie has picked up its defenders in the meanwhile – ‘much to enjoy,’ says the Encyclopedia of SF, noting that the subsequent movies are a ‘sentimental mishmash’ whose popularity is ‘mystifying’. Well, I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I think that if you look more closely at TMP you can see most of its problems arise from a clash between very different agendas and creative sensibilities. Is to understand really to forgive? I’ve never been completely convinced, but it can’t hurt.

Two and a half years have passed since the return of the Enterprise from its original mission (or so it is strongly implied). Kirk (William Shatner) has been promoted to the Admiralty, Spock (Leonard Nimoy) has gone into retreat and is attempting to join the Vulcan Logic Club, McCoy (DeForest Kelley) has retired from Starfleet, Scotty (Jimmy Doohan) has been busy rebuilding the ship, and so on. Then an alien object of incredible power appears, on a direct course for Earth – despite the Federation becoming aware of it while it’s still on the other side of the Klingon border, the only ship that can be scrambled to intercept it is the Enterprise, which suggests to me that Starfleet need to start building a lot more vessels.

Well, Kirk decides to lead the mission himself, royally ticking off the Enterprise‘s new captain, Decker (Stephen Collins), and gets the old gang back together for this crucially important mission. Can they rediscover that old chemistry before the whole planet is toast?

The first thing to be said about TMP is that it was, after all, directed by Robert Wise, he of The Day the Earth Stood Still and West Side Story fame, and he really does seem to have been trying to make a proper SF movie. The movie has a scope and a willingness to visually innovate that you don’t really find in the rest of the series, and there are some wonderful sequences – the opening battle between the alien probe and the Klingons being one of them, although I do recall being thrown by this at the time – while this sequence played a huge role in reimagining the Klingons for the 1980s and beyond, it’s only in retrospect that we are aware of this.

Of course, Wise’s own ambition, coupled to the unorthodox way in which this film was made, trips him up just as often. The special effects sequences for this movie were completed heart-stoppingly late and could not be re-edited or modified in any way before being inserted into the final print, and the result is sequences like Kirk’s trip to the Enterprise in spacedock via a cargo pod: this takes nearly five minutes, with no dialogue, just long, slow shots of the Enterprise, Kirk looking lovingly at it, the pod slowly flying past the Enterprise a bit more, Scotty looking with indulgent fondness at Kirk, more long, slow, shots of the Enterprise… the music is not too bad, but you inevitably start huffing and looking at your watch. Elsewhere, like many other ‘serious’ 70s films, the yardstick is obviously 2001: A Space Odyssey, with journeys into the heart of the alien probe obviously designed to recall the star gate sequence from Kubrick’s film.

On the other hand, you wonder how much of the pseudo-mysticism and laborious philosophy in this movie has been put there by its producer and co-writer, Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry by this point was keen to be viewed as some kind of visionary thinker as well as a TV and movie writer-producer, and this is perhaps why, every time he got his hands on Star Trek after the cancellation of the original TV show, he was very keen to impose his vision of the future on it, in an unadulterated form. So much of the life and lightness and wit of the TV series came from the work of writers like DC Fontana and Gene L Coon; you can draw a fairly solid line from The Cage (Roddenberry’s original pilot for the show) to TMP and then on to early episodes of Next Generation – none of these are light and zippy entertainment, all of them feature main characters who (initially at least) are best described as ‘stolid’, and the first two take place largely in shades of grey and brown – one wonders if the maroon command uniforms in Next Generation are only there to suggest continuity with the similar hues on display in the movies around that time.

These days it is well-known that TMP was, for part of its tortuous development process, intended to be the introductory episode of a TV series to be entitled Star Trek: Phase II, in which Kirk and a mixture of old and new characters (not including Spock) would set off on a series of new adventures. If you ask me, many of the problems with TMP become much more comprehensible if you consider that this was originally intended to be a TV pilot rather than a feature film.

For one thing, the key characters of the movie are not really recognisable – Kirk starts off driven and chilly, and only very gradually starts to warm up and become a sympathetic hero as Spock and McCoy slot into place around him. Spock himself is distant and conflicted for most of the movie. Only at the end of the story, in the concluding tag scene on the bridge, do the trio seem to have rediscovered the chemistry which made them so magical in the TV show. This would make perfect sense in the pilot for a new weekly TV show – the story shows them getting back together and remembering who they are, preparatory to further adventures in the rest of the series – but in a one-off movie, not having characters more identifiable from the original show is a serious misjudgement. Needless to say, Decker and new navigator Ilia (Persis Khambatta) were also intended to be regulars in Phase II; Roddenberry appears to have been very attached to these characters and their relationship, seeing as he gave them the lightest of reworkings and stuck them in Next Generation under the new names of Riker and Troi.

Much of the creative DNA of The Motion Picture comes from its origins as a TV pilot, while the cinematic ambition of Robert Wise is a competing, rival influence. (I suppose we must also mention the way in which the movie recycles plots and ideas from TV series episodes, too, particularly The Changeling, though this is probably more an issue for your hard-core Trekkies than the average viewer.) No wonder it is a bit of a mess in may ways. Parts of it feel like the lavish, thoughtful movie it was clearly intended to be; other parts of it feel like a bad TV show. The main difficulty is that very little of it actually feels like original Star Trek, and that’s an immense problem for this kind of movie.

 

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There is surely something slightly ironic about the fact that the main film released as counter-programming to the new version of The Mummy, in the UK at least, was Roger Michell’s My Cousin Rachel, with Rachel Weisz in the title role – because for some of us it doesn’t seem like all that many years since Weisz herself was starring as the female lead in The Mummy, and launching her career in the process. It’s turned out to be a pretty good career, too, all things considered, and she’s continuing to churn out the movies, although this may be because her significant other always seems to be on the verge of retiring, if I understand the newspapers correctly.

Anyway, My Cousin Rachel is based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier, a romantic mystery set in Cornwall (not that you’d particularly notice from anyone’s accent). Sam Claflin plays Philip, an orphaned young man taken in by his elder cousin Ambrose, a country gentleman of sorts. Ambrose leads a rough and ready lifestyle and has little time for women, and so Philip is a little surprised when Ambrose, while on a trip to Italy on doctor’s orders, reports that he is very much enjoying the company of his cousin Rachel (Weisz), who is of course Philip’s cousin too. Word reaches them that Ambrose and Rachel have married, quickly followed by some rather disturbing but vaguely-worded messages from Ambrose indicating Rachel may have sinister designs upon him. Eventually, they learn that Ambrose has died.

Philip naturally places the blame for this entirely on Rachel, despite the doctor’s report that Ambrose died of a brain tumour. He is the sole heir to Ambrose’s estate, the will not having been updated, although he will not inherit until his twenty-fifth birthday, still a short while away. Then he learns that Rachel has returned to England and will be coming to visit the estate. His plans to be thoroughly brusque and unpleasant to her do not survive his realisation that she seems to be a thoroughly pleasant, thoughtful, and appealing woman, and he finds himself increasingly thinking of her in a manner not normally associated with a cousin (well, except in some remote parts of Norfolk and Alabama, anyway). But others in the community have heard ominous rumours about Rachel’s Italian past – could Philip have been right in the first place, and now be on the verge of making a potentially lethal mistake…?

Yeah, so, another Daphne du Maurier adaptation – and therefore a film with some expectations upon it, when you consider that we’re talking about a lineage containing the likes of Rebecca, The Birds, and Don’t Look Now. Based on those, you’d expect taut suspense, simmering passion, an involving mystery – the makings of a superior movie in most departments, really.

Unfortunately what you get in My Cousin Rachel is really none of those things, as it feels like a pretty bog-standard costume drama somewhat lifted by a very engaging performance from Rachel Weisz. I can’t fault the production values or the cinematography of the film, for these are very impressive – many lovely shots of the countryside of Cornwall and Italy – but in other respects, this doesn’t feel much different to your average Sunday night costume show, and you wouldn’t lose much by waiting to watch it on TV.

Watching it, I couldn’t help but compare it to Lady Macbeth, another costume drama I caught recently. The two films have quite a bit in common, being set in remote and windy spots, and being concerned with dangerous, out of control infatuations, and the place of a woman in 19th century society. For one thing, My Cousin Rachel is always a bit too demure to let its infatuation spring to life – there’s a spot of alfresco nookie but you never really feel the fire, with the result that Philip seems foolish, instead of a man letting his feelings run away with him. Less concentration on good manners and a little more oomph would have made things a bit less BBC1 and potentially rather more engaging and cinematic.

It’s also inevitably the case that central to My Cousin Rachel is the idea that the main female character is mysterious, ambivalent, potentially untrustworthy, possibly a murderous predator on the male protagonist. She is always seen through the eyes of others (mainly Philip’s) rather than as a character in her own right. Our perception of her is partly shaped by rumours of her ‘uncontrollable appetites’ (of which there is no on-screen corroboration, by the way). Needless to say none of the men in the film are subject to the same kind of treatment, and it’s not actually made clear why Rachel is followed around by this swirl of faint scandal, other than simply to stir the pot and keep the story interesting: there’s more than a faint whiff of melodrama about My Cousin Rachel as it progresses.

I’m not saying that all of this makes My Cousin Rachel a necessarily bad film, but it is one which functions in quite traditional terms in some of its gender politics. This is true of the book, too, for all that it was written by a woman, so it’s not like it’s all down to Michell. And it may be the case that a lot of the target audience for this film won’t have a problem with any of this – but I couldn’t help thinking that there might be different ways of telling this kind of story now.

In any case, for all the decent performances and strong supporting cast (Iain Glen is Philip’s legal guardian, Holliday Grainger the girl he initially has an understanding with, Simon Russell Beale the family lawyer), the story never quite convinces – Philip is just bit too earnest and dim, and the conclusion is somewhat abrupt and underpowered, not quite striking the note of resonant ambiguity which it is clearly aiming for. The result is a film which constantly feels like it’s playing things very safe in every department, and is, as a result, just a tiny bit boring.

 

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So there I was, just watching the closing credits of Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy, waiting for the bafflement and confused disbelief to lift from my mind (hmm, kind of given the general tenor of the review away there – hey ho), when the guy across the aisle from me shouted ‘Is there anything to stay for?’ – meaning, would there be a post-credit sequence trailing a coming attraction? ‘I don’t think they’ve planned that far ahead,’ I said. Having established some sort of relationship, my new acquaintance asked me how familiar I was with the series. I made noncomittal noises and he said, ‘I’ve seen the old one, with… what’s his name…’

Hmm, I thought, could he mean the 1932 version with Boris Karloff? Or perhaps the 1959 one with Christopher Lee? Maybe even the 1971 take with Valerie Leon? (All of which I have inevitably seen.) It seemed pretty unlikely. ‘You mean the 1999 one with Brendan Fraser,’ I said, somewhat resignedly. Yes it was; it turned out he preferred it.

Given it’s not unknown these days for a remake (or, sigh, reboot) to follow only five years after the thing it’s remaking (or rebooting), the nine year gap between the last of the Fraser-starring movies and Kurtzman’s film is actually fairly respectable. The ‘is there a post-credits sequence?’ question is significant, though, for it cuts to the heart of what this new movie is really about: because that’s what movie mega-franchises do these days. (Except this one, apparently.)

Things kick off with a somewhat involved prologue involving crusader knights, the expansion of the London underground, and much other unexpected material. What it all boils down to is the story of Princess Ahmanet, heiress of one of the Egyptian pharaohs (she is played by Sofia Boutella, a game young actress making a bit of a career out of big genre roles in which she becomes almost unrecognisable one way or another). When she is unexpectedly replaced as first in line to the throne, she enters into a pact with the evil god Set and sets about pressing her claim, rather violently. This goes down poorly with the palace staff and she is, according to the voice-over, ‘mummified alive’ (not according to what we see on screen, she’s not, but I digress), stuck in a sarcophagus, and buried ‘far from Egypt’.

Roll on the title card and we find ourselves in modern Iraq, in the company of dodgy treasure hunter and mercenary Nick Morton (Tom Cruise). A careless airstrike from Nick’s associates in the US military reveals the entrance to an ancient tomb complex, into which he ventures with plucky archaeologist Jenny (Annabelle Wallis). But is it really a tomb, or actually a prison for an ancient evil? (Clue: it’s not really a tomb.)

Well, having extracted Ahmanet’s sarcophagus, our heroes are flying off somewhere when their plane becomes besieged by crows and Nick’s buddy Chris (Jake Johnson) turns into a murderous zombie (it feels like there’s a lot more zombies than mummies in this movie). No sooner has Nick handed Jenny a parachute and thrown her off the plane than it crashes in England. Of course Nick does not end up splashed across the landscape, but wakes up unscathed in an Oxford morgue (by the way, I feel it incumbent upon me to point out that The Mummy‘s depiction of the traffic system in Oxford city centre leaves a lot to be desired). It transpires that Ahmanet has taken a shine to Nick (that’s nice), and quite fancies using him as the vessel to bring about the embodiment of her patron, the god of evil (maybe not so nice). Can he escape the mummy’s curse, or is he doomed to a fate that’s approximately about as bad as death?

It’s not widely known or talked about these days, but for quite a long while in the early 2000s Tom Cruise was in talks with Marvel about his taking the starring role in Iron Man. Terms could not be agreed, however, Cruise not wanting to make ‘just another superhero movie’ (it’s hard to imagine him committing to the standard Marvel multi-film contract, anyway, or indeed agreeing to be part of an ensemble cast). Since then, however, Cruise has noticed the large trucks full of money going to Robert Downey Jr’s house, and Universal Pictures have noticed the enormous trucks full of money going to the Marvel offices, and their joint desire to grab a slice of that kind of action is what has led us to the new version of The Mummy.

For, yea, this is the opening installment of what we are supposed to call the Dark Universe franchise, presumably because Legendary Pictures already have their Monsterverse (the film series with Godzilla, King Kong, and the others) and this precludes Universal from using the obvious ‘Universal Monsters’ title for their own prospective mega-franchise. At one point Dracula Untold was going to be part of this series, but they have apparently rowed back on the idea, and so it’s The Mummy kicking off the new undertaking (no pun intended).

Quite how this new series is supposed to function I’m really not sure. The thing about superheroes (as in the Marvel and DC film series) and Toho’s daikaiju (in the Monsterverse) is that they have a tradition of bumping into each other and butting heads, whereas all the best-regarded Universal horror films were basically standalones – obviously you have things like Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man and House of Dracula, but these were pretty much last-gasp efforts, one step away from Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The material feels severely stretched to meet the requirements of the studio – it looks very much like the intention is to retool the classic monsters as occult super-powered anti-heroes.

So is this really a horror film or isn’t it? I would tend to say not, for all that it is saddled with a box office-unfriendly 15 rating in the UK. Sensible studios don’t attempt to make genuine horror blockbusters, because the two forms are largely incompatible, appealing to different sensibilities. Attempting to combine the two is the source of many of The Mummy‘s numerous problems.

On one level this movie wants to be a dark tale about the stirring of ancient, primordial evil, and moral corruption, and the profound ambiguity of the human soul. On another, it wants to be a jolly wise-cracking CGI-driven popcorn movie. I’m not saying it’s absolutely impossible to make a film which manages to reconcile these two ambitions. I’m just saying that The Mummy definitely isn’t it. Every time the darker material shows signs of promise, along comes a big chase sequence or a comedy bit or Tom Cruise sweating ostentatiously and we’re back in vacuous popcorn-land. If the film was the slightest bit knowing or showed any signs of being aware of how outlandish it is, it might function, but Cruise in particular doesn’t seem capable of that kind of wit.

I suppose there are signs of hope for the future, as the linking device for the projected Dark Universe franchise is a gang of enigmatic monster-hunters called the Progenium or the Prodigium or the Perineum (I can’t actually be bothered to check Wikipedia), led by Russell Crowe as Dr Jekyll (I know, I know) – we pay a brief visit to their archives where they appear to have a vampire skull, pickled bits of the creature from the black lagoon, and so on. Crowe actually has the ability to make this stuff work, believe it or not, though he’s much better as Jekyll than Hyde.

And he quite easily blows Tom Cruise off the screen. Probably The Mummy‘s biggest problem is that Tom Cruise simply does not belong in it, at least not in the role he’s been given. Nick Morton is supposed to be a lovable rogue, a scoundrel with the potential to be something better, utterly charming even when he’s doing deeply suspect things. Cruise can’t do charming any more. He goes through the motions energetically, but he just comes across as fake, and rather than loving Nick in spite of my better judgement, I just thought he seemed like a bit of a tool. Cruise can’t really do funny consistently either; for this film to attempt to be a light-hearted adventure is arguably a bad choice, but for it to turn out to be a light-hearted adventure fronted by a leading man with all the comic sparkle of one of Donald Trump’s media consultants contemplating their career prospects is, frankly, disastrous.

This is still a fairly lavish modern blockbuster with all the necessary bits in mostly the right order (though not, as noted, many of what you’d call classic Mummy moments), and Crowe and Boutella are generally pretty good in it. And, as Wonder Woman has recently proven, all it takes is one good installment for this kind of movie series to come to life and start generating real interest and excitement. But The Mummy shows every sign of getting the Dark Universe project off to a flying stop.

 

 

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Wonder Woman! Wonder Woman!

All the world is waiting for you

And the power you possess

Fighting for your rights

In your satin tights

And the old red white and blue.

I tell you, folks, they don’t write theme songs like that any more (although I must confess to always having been slightly baffled by the lyric ‘Get us out from under Wonder Woman’). Well, time passes, and some things change, and some things don’t. Expectations seem to have been riding high for Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman movie, for a number of reasons, but – I hope this doesn’t constitute a spoiler – the film itself does not concentrate much on hosiery, satin or otherwise, the jingoistic nature of Wonder Woman’s costume has been toned down, and the references to feminine emancipation are handled with considerably more subtlety.

It is a fact that here we are in 2017 and there has never been what you could honestly call a hit movie based on a superheroine – there hasn’t even been a genuinely good one that just didn’t catch on with audiences. Personally I think the fact that most previous cracks at this sort of thing were generally quite poor and often rather patronising movies is largely to blame, rather than prejudice on the part of audiences, but there does seem to be a real desire for a female-led comic book movie that’s actually good. The same could also be said as far as DC’s movie project goes – the previous three films in the current cycle have their staunch defenders (vsem privet, Evgeny), but in terms of both critical success and box office returns, they are lagging a long way behind their arch-rivals at Marvel. So Wonder Woman has the potential to either kill multiple birds with one stone, or just perpetuate multiple ongoing injustices. Lotta pressure, there.

One way in which the new movie is very much of a piece with the rest of the current DC cycle is the fact that it often takes itself rather seriously – the actual codename Wonder Woman has clearly been decreed to be too frivolous and it’s not until relatively deep into the closing credits that the actual words come anywhere near Wonder Woman the movie, which I must confess to being slightly disappointed by.

Nevertheless, there is much good stuff here, opening with Wonder Woman our heroine, Princess Diana’s childhood and education on the mystical island paradise of Themiscyra, home of a race of immortal warrior women, the Amazons. The Amazons have a historic beef with Ares, the Olympian god of war, and are constantly anticipating the day he will return to plunge the world into perpetual conflict and slaughter.

Well, when a plane breaches the mystical barriers surrounding the island, it seems like the day has come – piloting the vehicle is American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine – not too bad, for once), and pursuing him are some angry Germans. In the outside world it is 1918 and war is ravaging Europe. Diana can’t help but suspect that Ares is somehow responsible for the brutal conflict in the trenches and beyond, sponsoring the work of an unhinged chemical weapons expert known as Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya). Availing herself of a god-killing weapon left to the Amazons by Zeus, she agrees to take Trevor back to the outside world if he will help her track Ares down.

Europe in 1918 proves a bit of a shock to Diana, as do the inhumanly callous attitudes she discovers amongst the senior military figures she meets. However, she makes a connection with Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis), an advocate of peace talks, and with his help she, Trevor, and a small band of others head over to the trenches of France in search of the warmongering general Ludendorff (Danny Huston), her goal being (to coin a phrase) to stop a war with love…

Virtually the only element of Batman V Superman that everyone agreed was any good was Gal Gadot’s appearance as Wonder Woman, and it seems that this was not a one-off fluke, for I am delighted – and, I’ll confess, rather surprised – to report that Wonder Woman is pretty much everything you want from a summer blockbuster movie – it has appealing performances, action sequences that genuinely thrill, jokes that are actually funny, and a few bigger ideas for audience members who are not hard-of-thinking. Crucially, it feels like the work of people who’ve really taken the time to get to know this character and figure out what makes her distinctive, rather than just reducing her to a gloomy cipher plunged into a morass of cynical desolation.

I suppose Gal Gadot has an advantage over some of her colleagues, in that she isn’t going to get compared to numerous predecessors in the way that, say Ben Affleck or Henry Cavill are – although this isn’t to say that Lynda Carter’s iconic performance as Wonder Woman doesn’t cast a sizeable shadow – but even so, Gadot gives a winning turn here, easily carrying the movie, with just the right mixture of steely determination and charming innocence.

I suspect that the decision to move Wonder Woman’s origin back twenty-five years to the First World War was primarily the result of a desire to avoid comparisons with Captain America, another origin story about an idealistic, star-spangled hero. There is still a slight resemblence between the two movies, but on the whole the choice works, tapping into the popular conception of the First World War as an ugly, pointless slaughterhouse bereft of any moral justification. The film is quite careful to point out that Diana is not there to fight the Germans as such, but is in opposition to concept of war itself (which isn’t to say there aren’t some rousing scenes of her charging machine guns, flipping over tanks, and so on). One problem with the whole ‘superheroes at war’ concept, especially when it’s done historically, is how to explain why they don’t just win the war in two or three days flat and thus turn the whole thing into alt-history. Wonder Woman negotiates its way around this rather gracefully.

This is not to say the movie is completely immune to the flaws which superhero blockbusters are traditionally heir to – in addition to being rather obscure, Dr Poison is a somewhat underwhelming villain who doesn’t contribute much, there are signs of the narrative coming a bit unravelled in the third act in order to keep the pace going, and so on – but it does manage to contrive one very neat plot twist, and it does a commendable job of feeling like a movie in its own right rather than just a franchise extension – it’s not stuffed with cameos and plot-points there to set up half a dozen other coming attractions.

I have occasionally been accused of being biased in favour of Marvel’s movies and against those of DC, which honestly isn’t the case. If anything, I love DC’s stable of characters slightly more than their Marvel counterparts, and I really do want the new DC movies to hit the same standards as the Christopher Reeve Superman films or Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. This is the first film in five years to really come close, and the first to bear comparison with the best of Marvel’s output. If Wonder Woman is representative of what else DC have planned, Marvel finally have serious competition in the comic book movie business. Wonderful.

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