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There’s a sort of running gag in Tom Harper’s Wild Rose where the lead character gets increasingly hacked off with people confusing country music with country-and-western music. I have to say that I wasn’t even aware they were substantively different things, but there you go, this isn’t usually my kind of culture. I suspect this is one of those things that you either get or you don’t – I remember Billy Connolly’s joke that, as country songs are usually concerned with family, religion, tragedy, crime, disability and death, the perfect title for one would be ‘My Granny Drowned in the Grotto at Lourdes (Because a Hunchback Pushed Her In)’; also a moment in Every Which Way But Loose where a snotty student tells Clint Eastwood that the country-and-western mentality runs the gamut from ‘dull normal to borderline moron’ (needless to say, Clint doesn’t stand for much of this kind of talk) – but I also know many people love this genre, not just for the songs but for its supposed rawness and honesty. Maybe there is a sense of wallowing in weltschmerz in some aspects of country, what the writer and singer Rich Hall has described as the ‘whiskey on the cornflakes’ element of it.

Harper’s film certainly tries hard to feel gritty and authentic. It opens with main character Rose-Lynn (Jessie Buckley) getting over a case of the HM Prison blues, as she concludes a stint in the big house for what we eventually learn is a drug-related offence. The country roads take her home to Glasgow, where in her absence her two young children have been standing by their gran (Julie Walters) – obviously, I could keep this up all day if I wanted to, but let’s press on with the synopsis. Rose-Lynn just wants to get back to singing on the Glasgow country music scene; she dreams of going to Nashville one day, but small details like her lack of money and the fact she’s obliged to wear an electronic tag as part of the terms of her parole cannot help but get in the way of this. Eventually she lands a job as a cleaning lady for an affluent older woman (Sophie Okonedo), who learns of her ambition and, in her own way, tries to help her. But there are hard truths to be faced and choices to be made: just how much is she prepared to sacrifice in pursuit of her dream?

This is a bit of a change of pace for Tom Harper, certainly after his last film, the slightly underwhelming Nu-Hammer sequel The Woman in Black: Angel of Death. That was a perhaps-too-glossy modern spin on Gothic horror, this is a decidedly more gritty and down-to-earth undertaking. Everyone’s critical yardstick for Wild Rose seems to be last year’s update of A Star is Born, and I can sort of see where they’re coming from – they’re both musical dramas about aspiration and the demands it makes of a person, both films feature eye-catching central performances, and they both feature big musical numbers amongst their most memorable moments, although they’re really more like dramas with music than actual proper musicals.

This is certainly the case with Wild Rose, which features Buckley extensively on the soundtrack but only includes a handful of scenes where she sings on-camera. There’s a slightly disingenuous moment where Buckley is given a line where she dismisses Saturday night TV talent shows as being no good as launchpad for a career – disingenuous, because this is exactly how Buckley herself first rose to fame. Needless to say, she can really do the business vocally, while the fact that she can also really act was established last year in Beast. The lead role of this film demands someone who can do both, and Buckley carries it off with aplomb.

However, it takes more than one great performance to make a great movie and I was initially not completely impressed by some aspects of Wild Rose, as it seemed to me to be doing the Breakfast at Tiffany’s thing of assuming I was going to be hopelessly charmed by the lead character despite the fact they have major personality and behavioural issues. The film is carefully coy to begin with about just exactly why Rose-Lynn has been in prison, but still makes very clear that – initially at least – she is irresponsible, a neglectful parent, with anger management issues and one finger never far from her self-destruct button. It’s relatively easy for me to feel sorry for someone like that, but I’m not going to root for them unless you give me a better reason than that they’re a bit of a character and can carry a tune.

The surprising thing about Wild Rose, and the one that elevates the film, is that it works tremendously hard to make you genuinely care for Rose-Lynn, despite all the reasons why you possibly shouldn’t. I know some people have criticised this film for lacking comedy or romantic elements, but I think this misses the point: this is a more serious drama than some of the advertising suggests, dealing with moments of genuine emotional pain. It doesn’t feature anyone losing control of their bladder on stage or making very bad decisions in a garage, but it is about failing as a person in very serious ways, taking responsibility for that failure, and then trying to make amends. Every uplifting moment of musical beauty or success is earned through heartbreak and disillusionment, generally depicted in a refreshingly unsentimental way. The film also seems to be challenging that usual glib dictum that to succeed, you have to follow your dreams, no matter what the cost – Wild Rose isn’t afraid to suggest that doing so may or may not lead to success, but it has a very good chance of turning you into a horrible person to be around.

The film also impresses in its refusal, for the most part, to indulge in fairy tale contrivances and easy answers. There’s a curious plot tangent where Rose-Lynn gets a free trip down to London to visit Whispering Bob Harris at the BBC (Whispering Bob’s performance is not entirely convincing, which is weird considering he’s playing himself), but it doesn’t really advance the story, while the film isn’t afraid to defy expectations elsewhere, either. There are unexpected touches of subtlety, too, especially in the relationship between Rose-Lynn and her employer/sponsor – just who exactly is exploiting who, here? Only at the very end does the film cheat a bit, concluding with a moment of unqualified joy that we’re left to imagine our own context for (a trick which at least borders on sentimentality, if you ask me).

Nevertheless, Wild Rose is a highly engaging, solidly made film, built around three extremely good performances – we’re at the point now where you kind of assume Julie Walters is always going to be excellent (needless to say, she is), and it’s always nice to be reminded of Sophie Okonedo’s ability as an actress – she has the least flashy role of the leads, but finds a lot to do with it. But this is Jessie Buckley’s film from beginning to end: she takes you on a journey from chaos into a kind of peace, from thoughtless selfishness to new-found responsibility, and makes you believe every step of the way. The supporting performances, direction, script and songs are all worth seeing (one of them was written by Mary Steenbergen, who has apparently reinvented herself as a country music singer-songwriter), but Buckley is the thing you will remember.

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I enjoyed a dinner the other day with a few friends, where the wine flowed freely, the vegetable lasagne was for the ages, and our conversation ranged most agreeably over a wide range of topics: the directorial career of Neil Marshall, whether or not The Crawling Chaos would be a good name for an H.P. Lovecraft-inspired cookbook, and everything that’s wrong with the movie Passengers and its advertising material. I was fairly unstinting in my criticism of this film, which may explain the looks of mild surprise I drew when I casually mentioned I was going straight from the meal to a showing of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1975 film The Passenger, enjoying a one-off revival as part of the local indie cinema’s one-take-wonder season of films.

There is, to be absolutely clear, little to connect The Passenger with Passengers, beyond their closeness in any A-Z list of noteworthy films (and Passengers would really be on that list for negative reasons). This is one of those international co-productions (in this case, between companies from Spain, France and Italy) which has been made in English simply to make it more commercial, relatively speaking. I say ‘relatively speaking’ because, despite the canny choice of language and the presence of a leading Hollywood star in the central role, this is still hardly what you’d call mainstream cinema. The question becomes one of – what exactly is this film?

Jack Nicholson plays Locke, a (supposedly) Anglo-American journalist on assignment in a remote part of Saharan Africa. It soon becomes clear that Locke is pretty hacked off with life in general, and the fact that his mission to find rebels to interview is obviously going nowhere just adds to his frustration. This culminates in him having a spectacular meltdown when his land rover breaks down, producing the image of Nicholson on his knees in the desert which is the still photo most often used to represent this movie.

However, an unexpected opportunity comes Locke’s way – he has made the acquaintance of another man at the same dingy hotel, a businessman named Robertson, who happens to be a reasonably close lookalike for him. When Locke finds Robertson dead of a heart attack in his room, he decides to switch places with the dead man, swapping their passport photos and informing the hotel staff that it is he (Locke) who has died, not Robertson. Adopting Robertson’s identity, he flies back to Europe, only noting in passing the obituaries he has himself received.

Those close to Locke – mainly his wife (Jenny Runacre) and a colleague (Ian Hendry) – are understandably upset to learn of his apparent death, but naturally they want to to talk to ‘Robertson’ about exactly what went on out in Africa. Not wishing to speak to them for obvious reasons, ‘Robertson’ ends up going to quite extreme lengths to avoid the people looking for him. He also learns that there was a bit more to the real Robertson than he first anticipated – rather than simply being a businessman, Robertson was an arms dealer and gunrunner working with the same rebel faction Locke was attempting to contact. ‘Robertson’ takes a large cash down-payment from the rebels and then continues with his journey, doing his best to meet the appointments listed in the dead man’s diary and hooking up with a young architecture student (Maria Schneider) along the way. But he seems to be inextricably caught between the complications of the life he left behind and the one he has just entered…

This is another one of those movies which looks like a thriller when you write the plot out in synopsis, but feels like quite a different experience when you actually sit down and watch it. There is, I suppose, the faintest resemblance to The Bourne Identity or something of that ilk about The Passenger, in that it is about a man struggling to resolve who he is while making a not entirely stress-free journey across photogenic parts of Europe, but if so it is The Bourne Identity as written by Jean-Paul Sartre. There are no thrills, no action sequences, the main time that something violent occurs the camera is studiously looking away, and so on. I have seen a few different notifications on BBFC certificates in my time – strong sex, bloody scenes, injury detail, bleeped bad language amongst them – but The Passenger presumably scores its UK 15-rating mainly for including footage of an actual execution, as duly noted by the BBFC. Apart from a very coy nude scene for the two leads, the rest of it is fairly innocuous, at least to look at.

On the other hand, there is something unsettling and strange about Antonioni’s film, not least in the way it makes a point of not explaining exactly why the main characters make the choices that they do – particularly Nicholson. We’re never completely allowed into his head, which you would think would be required given some of the extreme and apparently inexplicable choices his character makes throughout the movie. On one level this film is about the temporary escape from oneself which travel makes possible, a chance to leave your normal life behind – but just what has made Locke so alienated as to want to exist in a state of permanent vacation, abandoning his old existence entirely, is never really made completely clear. His wife has been having an affair, but that can’t be it: we are left to ponder the question. There seems to be some deep sense of existential dislocation at work. Or, of course, it could just be that Locke is having a particularly spectacular and possibly somewhat premature mid-life crisis (Nicholson was 37 when he made this movie), abandoning all responsibility and acquiring a much younger girlfriend.

Whatever is actually going on here, and it certainly seems to me that there may in fact be less than meets the eye, the film stays watchable mainly due to a magnetic performance from Jack Nicholson and an engaging one from Maria Schneider. 1975 was something of an annus mirabilis for Nicholson – in the same year he also made One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – and this is one of his more striking turns: for my generation and anyone younger, we know Nicholson from movies like Batman, A Few Good Men, Anger Management and so on, where he does not exactly underplay his scenes. Here, he is unexpectedly restrained, almost a man vanishing into himself – perhaps even he is not sure of why he is doing what he’s doing – but at the same time his performance is strangely compelling. His odd non-romance with Schneider’s nameless student is also oddly fascinating to watch.

This is probably just as well, for The Passenger is in one sense a film a considerable proportion of which is solely made up of people driving around and going in and out of hotels. The photography is accomplished, however, and the film does contain a couple of brilliant moments of technical innovation – an early scene, establishing back-story, in which the setting shifts from the present day to the recent past within the same extended shot, and the extraordinary climactic scene, which lasts about seven minutes: the camera moves through Locke’s latest hotel room, glides out through the window (seemingly passing through a solid metal grille to do so), roams around the square outside, and then returns to settle on Locke’s room as seen from outside, revealing his ultimate fate. As to what his destiny is – well, once again it may be less significant than Antonioni and his writers would perhaps like to think. But the journey to get there is an attractive and fascinating one.

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As someone who had to wait to see the original Godzilla until Channel 4 showed it in the wee small hours of Christmas Morning 1999, it was a source of some irritation to me that my father would occasionally make casual reference to having seen the film when he was younger. This lasted until I took the trouble to actually enquire as to what he’d thought of the film. ‘Oh… well…’ he said, vaguely. ‘I think they caught a monster and put it on display, but they didn’t realise it was really a baby… and then Godzilla came to get it back… it was all right.’ The mystery was solved: he hadn’t actually seen Godzilla at all, but the 1961 British film Gorgo. I’m not sure this quite qualifies as an instance of the Mandela effect, but it’s a fairly understandable mistake for someone to make: it’s very tempting, and far from inaccurate to refer to Gorgo as the British Godzilla.

After a properly stirring set of titles, the film gets under way off the coast of Ireland, where a small freighter is going about its business. Captaining the vessel is Joe Ryan (William Travers), along with his business partner Sam Slade (William Sylvester). The duo are a pair of opportunistic salvagers, but their efforts are disrupted by an underwater volcanic eruption which causes a severe storm, damaging their ship. Needing repairs and supplies, they call in at nearby Nara Island, noting as they do some grotesque fish floating dead in the water.

The reception at Nara is not especially warm, except perhaps that of Sean (Vincent Winter), a young orphan who basically just follows Joe and Sam round for the rest of the movie (Social Services are not to be seen anywhere). It turns out the local harbour master is doing some illicit treasure hunting of his own and is keen to see the back of them, but since the storm there have been problems – one of his divers was fished out of the bay in a doornail-like condition, apparently scared to death, while another has disappeared entirely. The mystery is solved when the sea froths and the head of a sixty-foot-tall reptilian monster emerges!

Sean recognises it from local legends of immense sea beasts, but no-one listens to him much; instead, Joe and Sam bully the harbour master into paying them to get rid of the monster. A resourceful duo, they manage to ensnare it in a suitably large net and lash it to the deck of their boat – but now what? The University of Dublin is very interested in taking this unique scientific specimen from them, and a deal is struck for it to be delivered to the mainland. However, Joe is far from impressed with the money on offer and promptly reneges on this arrangement in order to sell the monster to a circus in central London. (One of the many unexpectedly satisfying things about Gorgo is the way in which it gradually reveals that its main human characters are actually quite unpleasant individuals.)

Having thus pulled a fast one on the Irish in the time-honoured English style, Joe and Sam deliver the monster, now christened Gorgo, to London where it is installed behind an electric fence. Astonished crowds are soon swirling around it (not much sign of Health and Safety, either). Some concerned boffins are soon on the scene, and eventually impart some worrying news to Joe and Sam (it’s not really clear why, given they’ve sold the monster by this point, but it certainly helps with the flow of the story) – their examinations have revealed that Gorgo is only a little baby monster, and the adult version will be vastly bigger and more powerful. Could this explain why all contact has been lost with everyone on Nara Island…?

Calling Gorgo ‘the British Godzilla‘ does have a degree of accuracy to it, as already noted, but things are actually a little more complicated than that. Gorgo‘s director was Eugene Lourie, who eight years earlier had been in charge of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, an American monster movie in which a dinosaur, resuscitated by an atom bomb, ends up running wild through New York. As is now quite well-known, this film was enthusiastically seized upon by a well-known Japanese film studio who did their own uncredited remake of it, which was of course Godzilla itself. So accusing Lourie of doing any sort of version of Godzilla seems to me to be very probably putting the cart before the horse. We should also consider the similarities between Gorgo and any main-sequence version of King Kong you care to mention – in both films, the monster is dragged unwillingly off to civilisation, and is basically sympathetic.

My point is that Gorgo isn’t as lazily derivative as it looks, for all that it concludes with a performer in a rubber monster suit lumbering through a model city – indeed, there are a couple of ways in which it anticipates the way this genre would end up going – firstly, it is one of the first colour English-language monster movies in this tradition, beating the first colour Godzilla film to the screen by a year. Secondly, and more importantly, it is the first notable movie where the monster wins, delivering an admonitory smack to human civilisation before returning from whence it came. It may not have the extraordinary bleak intensity of the original Godzilla, but this is still a film with a thought-through and serious message about the relationship between humans and the environment, and one which is still timely today – thoughtless exploitation is bound to end in disaster.

The fact that Gorgo’s script is so good – apart from the slow reveal of Joe and Sam’s real characters, it also manages the killer twist at the heart of the story with great aplomb – may explain why it was able to attract an equally good cast – William Travers was a bona fide film star at the time, being relatively fresh from the sentimental hammer-throwing melodrama Geordie. One suspects the American William Sylvester is mainly there to help sell the film in the States, though he is also an actor assured of a tiny piece of cinematic immortality, thanks to his role as Dr Floyd in 2001. Most of the rest of the cast are made up of the kind of distinguished British character actors who bring extra heft to whatever they appear in, including an uncredited Nigel Green – I have to say that this is a film very much of its time, with only one credited female performer (a stuntwoman) – there is, of course, one very crucial female character in the story, but she is three hundred feet tall and has no dialogue beyond roaring a lot.

If there is a department in which Gorgo falls down somewhat, it is of course the special effects: we are in the realm of suitamation and dodgy compositing, and this is before we even get onto the film’s voluminous use of stock footage (the US Marine Corps play a surprisingly large role in attempting to defend London from the looming threat of Ogra, Gorgo’s mum). But the film has picked up sufficient interest and charm for this not really to detract from the entertainment value of the climax, which is very impressively mounted, the population of London fleeing in panic and terror as Ogra tours various landmarks, demolishing each one in turn (the moment where Ogra tears down Big Ben is as iconic as any in the history of pulp British movies), the London underground collapsing and flooding, and so on. I would say this is as good as sequence as anything comparable in the genre.

‘Like nothing you’ve ever seen before!’ is the proud claim of the poster for Gorgo – well, even at the time that almost certainly wasn’t true. But Gorgo hits the sweet spot of genre film-making just about perfectly, balancing respect for the conventions of its genre with the need for intelligent innovation and a few genuine surprises. When this kind of film is made nowadays, it usually has impressive special effects and a script which is often only marginally coherent – Gorgo, on the other hand, may not have the greatest production values, but it does have a strong story with heart and something to say for itself – and I will choose that any day. A minor classic, as monster movies go, and a personal favourite of mine.

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Film-making is not an exact science, and the exact length of the Minimal Acceptable Period Before Remake is one of those subjective things: it used to be at least twenty years, but recent developments have seen this being cut down quite considerably – Dino de Laurentiis took considerable stick for making two versions of Red Dragon only fifteen years apart, but the response to Sony doing Spider-Man’s origin twice in barely more than a decade received much more muted grumbling. Equally open to debate is that other cinematic figure, Optimum Period Before Sequel, although here there seems to be more of a consensus – two or three years is generally considered to be the ideal, although Disney have taken up something of an outlying position here, what with the 54 year wait between films about their supernatural dominatrix.

All of which brings us, more or less, to Neil Marshall’s Hellboy, which began its development as a sequel to the two films about Mike Mignola’s hell-spawned superhero made by Guillermo del Toro in the mid 2000s. The producers eventually decided not to ask del Toro back to complete his planned trilogy (good move, guys, I mean – it’s not like he’s done anything worth mentioning in the last couple of years, is it?), at which point the film was switched to being a remake, or relaunch, or reimagining, or whatever the buzzy word for doing a new version of something well-known is these days.

It almost instantly becomes obvious that del Toro’s studiously subtle and quirkily atmospheric sensibility has not survived into the new film, as we are plunged into a flashback to the Dark Ages – known as such for a ‘****ing good reason’, according to the narration – where King Arthur is battling an army of demons and monsters, led by the sorceress Nimue (Milla Jovovich – ignore that sound you think you can hear, it’s just alarm bells starting to ring). The film’s extravagant fondness for lavish CGI gore becomes apparent as King Arthur dismembers his opponent and has the various bits entombed in secret locations across the British isles – ‘this isn’t over!’ cries Jovovich’s severed head as it is thrust into a box, and as we haven’t even reached the opening credits yet, it’s hard to argue with that. (Suggestions that the new Hellboy shares a fair chunk of its plot with The Kid Who Would Be King seem to me to have some truth to them.)

Then we’re back in the present day, where Hellboy (David Harbour) is taking part in a Mexican wrestling match with a luchador who’s actually a vampire, which sets up various plot and character points. Any thought that this might actually be a continuation of the del Toro films is finally put to rest, as Hellboy’s adopted father is alive again, and this time played by Ian McShane. For no particularly credible reason, McShane decides to fill Hellboy in on his origins, as he has apparently not bothered to do so in the previous 75 years and Hellboy has seemingly never thought to ask. With this flagrant slab of exposition out of the way, Hellboy is packed off to the UK to assist an aristocratic bunch of British occultists deal with an infestation of man-eating giants. But there is more afoot than the giant feet of the giants! Someone is gathering together the various bits of Milla Jovovich, and if they can complete the set, she will rise again and unleash a terrible plague upon the world, possibly even worse than the Resident Evil movie series…

Apparently the main idea that Neil Marshall brought to this project was the idea that it would straddle the horror and superhero boundaries. (This may explain the weird mish-mash of superhero, fantasy and horror trailers running before Hellboy, which included the same trailer for The Curse of La Llorona twice.) Well, hmmm. I have to say that I have always felt rather indulgent towards Neil Marshall, as his films tend to have a great sense of fun and energy, even if they are often wildly OTT gorefests. And he has made one genuinely great horror film, 2005’s The Descent, a wrenchingly tense and scary movie. Generally speaking, though, he just doesn’t seem to have the patience involved in creating the right kind of atmosphere to properly frighten an audience, and settles for just grossing them out with blood and guts spraying across the screen. This is certainly the route that his version of Hellboy takes, and I’m not really sure how it helps the project much: it doesn’t exactly broaden the appeal of the movie, just reinforces the impression that it is primarily aimed at heavy metal fans.

Of course, this was the movie that drew controversy before production even began because of some of its casting choices were considered to be ethnically inappropriate – the actor initially cast as Hellboy was not actually a demon, thus depriving representation to performers who were genuinely from the abyssal realm. Then everybody sat down and had a good think and realised that a) you’re never going to please everyone when it comes to this sort of thing and b) once someone’s in the Hellboy make-up, you can’t really tell who they are anyway, so it’s best not to get stressed out about it. So they went with David Harbour anyway. Harbour is okay at playing the sulky teenager elements of the role, but struggles to do much more with it; his great good fortune is to be acting opposite Milla Jovovich, who makes most people look good in comparison. Jovovich’s contribution sets the tone for most of the acting in this film, by which I mean it is by and large quite lousy; McShane phones in a decent performance, though, and there is some amusing voice work from Stephen Graham as a fairy with the head of a pig.

Then again, I suppose you could argue that the actors can only work with what they’re given, which in this case is a fairly ropy script seemingly more concerned with lurching from one gory CGI set-piece to the next, with clunky exposition and iffy dialogue filling in the gaps. The saving grace of the new Hellboy is not that it brings us an important message or makes a great deal of sense, or even a small amount of sense, or even any sense whatsoever; it is that Marshall is clearly having a whale of a time smashing all these very disparate ideas together, doing so with great energy and even the occasional shaft of genuine wit (to pass the time before she is constituted, Nimue’s henchman piles her various body parts on a sofa, where she passes the time watching reality TV – it certainly provides motivation for her desiring the apocalypse).

The new Hellboy is not in the same league as either of the del Toro films, lacking their charm, subtlety or attention to detail; as mentioned, the actors are not well-served by the script, either. But I would be lying if I said it does not provide a certain kind of entertainment value. You really do have to indulge it a bit, though, and it may be that many people just won’t be prepared to do that. Which is fair enough. I don’t think any sane observer would claim that Hellboy is a great movie, but it’s a reasonably fun bad movie.

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Where do I begin with Carol Morley’s Out of Blue? Let’s get that title out of way, to begin with. That is not one of typos to which all flesh is occasionally prey, as a quick glance at poster below will confirm: movie really is called Out of Blue. But why? It is based on a novel by Martin Amis, which was titled Night Train; just why Morley has decided on retitling of it is by no means clear (one of many things about this film which is fuzzy, to say least). What does Out of Blue even mean? I don’t know. Omission of the definite article must be significant on some level: I wouldn’t mind having a bit of significance about the blog, which is why this particular piece will be an experiment in not including definite articles too (hopefully we won’t be required to discuss Matt Johnson’s well-known post-punk band, as that could get a bit tricky).

Basic plot of Out of Blue proceeds something like this: Patricia Clarkson is arguably cast somewhat against type as veteran New Orleans PD homicide detective Mike Hoolihan. Early in film she is assigned to a new case: body of a young female astronomer is found, dead from a gunshot wound. Her enquiries initially focus on dead woman’s colleagues, mainly Toby Jones and Aaron Tveit, but eventually move on to her family, a secretive and wealthy bunch led by patriarch James Caan and his wife Jacki Weaver. However, as investigation proceeds, Hoolihan discovers similarities with a series of unsolved killings committed by a serial killer decades earlier. Hoolihan finds herself becoming obsessed with discovering truth of case, even if it means having to grapple with her own personal demons.

When you distill it down like that, plot of Out of Blue sounds like that of fairly straightforward police procedural movie, and I suppose that on some level it operates as such. However, this is a very deep and well-concealed level, because no-one (I would imagine) is coming out of a screening of this film saying ‘Hmmm, that was a fairly straightforward police procedural movie’: critics are using words like incoherent and silly, and likening film to a clown car, while general audiences… I don’t know, but there were only three people at screening I attended, and I had to battle quite hard to stay focused on it; film is that unengaging.

As I say, film is based on Martin Amis’ novel Night Train, which I am not familiar with. Given that we have already discussed hereabouts dismal nature of certain elements of Amis’ career as originator of genre movies, my natural inclination would be to blame him – but on this occasion it seems that master of absurd grotesqueness is off hook, as his novel has been very freely adapted for silver screen. There seem to be some vague similarities of plot and theme, but also some very significant differences on many levels, particularly when it comes to serial killer storyline (wholly new, as far as my very limited research can discern).

So Carol Morley is clearly up to something beyond simply adapting Amis, problem is trying to figure out what this is. Obviously on one level film is trying to work as a piece of genre cinema, adopting familiar form of a very slightly noir-ish police procedural detective story – there are various suspects, and odd twists, and revelations, and  so on. Then again, there are also signs of it attempting to function as a kind of character piece: Clarkson is giving a very intense central performance and she’s in virtually every scene. Finally, there is way film appears to be grasping for some kind of profundity or resonance by exploring deep metaphysical and philosophical themes. There are various allusions to astronomy and astrophysics, and scenes where characters sit around having po-faced discussions about Schroedinger’s cat (at one point they even put a cat in a box as a kind of visual aid for the hard-of-thinking, just in case any of the audience couldn’t quite grasp concept).

Now, there’s nothing wrong with any of this in principle – when this sort of idea is executed correctedly, it can give heft to an otherwise lightweight genre film and provide big ideas with a way of reaching a mainstream audience. The problem is that Out of Blue fluffs the police procedural aspect so badly that deep thoughts about nature of universe just feel incongruous – and, to be honest, hopelessly pretentious. Or, to put it another way, thriller angle is handled in such a clumsily mannered way that it provides no comforting context for more outre aspects of the movie to embed themselves in. You do almost wonder if there is an element of send-up going on here, so hackneyed is background given to Clarkson’s character – she’s a dedicated, brilliant cop with a history of psychological troubles and a drink problem, and so on, but film is almost totally lacking in humour or warmth. Patricia Clarkson is a fine actress, but she seems all at sea here, the script requiring her to do some fairly ridiculous things before story concludes.

In a way I am almost reminded of Paul Anderson’s Inherent Vice, another peculiar crime thriller with a notably impossible-to-follow storyline. There is a school of thought that actual plot of Inherent Vice is secondary to it giving you experience of what it feels like to be high on drugs: you just sort of drift mellowly from moment to moment as things occur in front of you. In a similar way, I suppose that Out of Blue would make much more sense if it was actually intended to make share experiences of someone undergoing a psychological breakdown – nothing seems to make sense, things seem to occur for no particular motivation, and so on. Alas, I have seen nothing to suggest this is actually case, but film certainly seemed to be giving me sense that I was drifting in and out of consciousness (of course, there is always the possibility that I genuinely was drifting in and out of consciousness – one should never rule this out at a matinee in the middle of a heavy week).

Very seldom does an English-language movie, especially a genre movie, fail to connect with me quite as completely as Out of Blue did, but I do note that Mark Kermode has seen it three times and found something new to enjoy on each occasion, while film’s publicists have managed to find people apparently willing to describe the film as ‘dazzling’, ‘thrilling’, and ‘mesmerising’ – although I note they are picking single words and using them out of context. Only one of those I would even come close to agreeing with is last one, and this is one trance I was very happy to wake up from.

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‘It’s pronounced Pet Seh-MET-a-ree,’ I said.

Olinka tutted and rolled her eyes. ‘No it’s not. It’s Pet Seh-met-AH-ree,’ she said.

I thought about this for a moment. ‘Are you sure it’s not Pet Seh-met-AIR-ee?’

‘Whatever. I think we should just get on and buy the tickets,’ she said.

We both turned and looked at the Odeon staff member responsible for seeing to our requirements. Her eyes seemed to have widened appreciably while we were having our discussion and there appeared to be signs of alarm in them. ‘I think you just pronounce it the usual way,’ she said, in a slightly quavery voice. Oh well: you live and learn, I suppose.

Stephen King has been a famous and successful writer for about forty-five years now, so perhaps it’s not surprising that some of his books are coming to the screen for the second time. The original movie of Pet Sematary came out in 1989, and all I remember about it is one UK reviewer complaining he couldn’t take it seriously because the spooky old man character was played by Fred Gwynne from The Munsters. It’s actually something of a rare pleasure for me to turn up to a movie never having seen the trailer and not knowing much about the plot, so from that point of view I was looking forward to Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmeyer’s take on the novel (I do like King, but this is one book I’ve never read). Of course, there is also the fabled Curse of King to consider – the fact that no matter how good his books are, they don’t have the greatest track record on the big screen.

Kolsch and Widmeyer’s movie gets underway in time-honoured fashion, with a wholesome young family moving from the ugly stresses of big-city life to an idyllic new home deep in the countryside. Of course, it is an iron law of cinema that whenever anyone does this, it proves to be an extraordinarily bad idea and they are shortly afterwards besieged by killer spiders, misogynistic android replicas, pagan cultists, or what-have-you. Naturally, neither husband and father Louis (Jason Clarke) nor wife and mother Rachel (Amy Seimetz) appears to have ever seen a horror movie, and are just looking forward to de-stressing a bit. Their young daughter Ellie (Jete Laurence) isn’t stressed at all, to begin with, and is looking forward to playing with her beloved cat in the great outdoors.

Well, everyone settles in and Louis starts his job as a local doctor. Back at home, however, Rachel is a little put out to discover that their new property incorporates the town’s traditional resting place for deceased domestic animals, which is apparently run by members of the remedial spelling class. Ellie bumps into their neighbour, Jud (John Lithgow), who is the area’s Creepy Exposition Yokel, although this early in the story he is only permitted to make vague general statements about not going too deeply into the forest. Well, anyway, the discovery of the animal graveyard occasions an opportunity for Louis and Rachel to have serious conversation with Ellie about life and death and what happens to people (or indeed animals) after they die; on the surface it is all innocuous enough, but your ears don’t have to be that keen in order to detect the sounds of heavy-duty foreshadowing equipment hard at work.

And so it proves; following a tragic accident, Louis is assailed by visions of a reasonably benign spectre who warns him that the boundary between the living and the dead must be respected, which seems quite sensible until Ellie’s cat is run over. It is at this point that Jud reveals that on the other side of the forest is a site of ancient supernatural power (suffice to say that Louis and Rachel have unwittingly entered into a time-share with Ithaqua) with the ability to resurrect the dead bodies of anyone interred there. They don’t come back quite the same as they left, of course, but that’s what you get for mucking about with fundamental cosmic principles. Louis resolves to make use of this unexpected amenity, but only this once, to restore the cat. Yes, definitely just the one time, there’s absolutely nothing that could ever impel him to go there again… is there?

Well, I may not have been familiar with either the book or the 1989 film version of this particular story, but the way this film turned out was in no way a surprise to me: one of the things I quite enjoyed about Pet Sematary was that once the story had properly got going, I was never in any doubt as to how it was going to turn out – in a way, the film is the best kind of predictable, because the characters are introduced, their flaws established, and then they move towards their inevitable dooms, as circumstances compel them into making very bad choices. It also helps that the story itself is also rather familiar – it now seems to me that the Nu-Hammer movie Wake Wood is very substantially derived from Pet Sematary, which itself owes a large debt to W.W. Jacobs’ much-adapted tale The Monkey’s Paw.

Given the character-based nature of this story, the film does well in casting Jason Clarke, a very able and versatile actor, in the lead role. This is a character who goes on a bit of a journey in the course of the story, to put it mildly, and Clarke is never less than totally convincing as he moves from mild-mannered rationalism to unhinged mania. It feels like the script favours Clarke and John Lithgow (also very good in what could have been a deeply hammy part) over Amy Seimetz, but she also gives a fine performance – as, come to that, does Jete Laurence, although given there have been a number of memorable child performances in horror films recently, I’m not sure she does quite enough to stand out.

One of those other recent horror films was Hereditary, which many people still rate quite highly (my opinion hasn’t changed, although Olinka now believes it is less rubbish than she initially did), which also strikes some similar notes to Pet Sematary – both are on some level films about the effect that grief can have on people (and perhaps also the corrosive effects of guilt). Pet Sematary doesn’t have the freakily unsettling atmosphere of the first half of Hereditary, but then it doesn’t turn into absurd cobblers in the second, either, and on the whole I found it a more satisfying and entertaining movie. I should say, though, that while I thought this movie was borderline-nasty good fun, Olinka found parts of it genuinely upsetting to watch, simply because of the subject matter. I expect this is a personal thing, though, and it is interesting that while the film contains both distressing ideas and genuine grisliness, they seldom appear at the same time.

Apparently this adaptation has come in for some stick for being less than entirely faithful to King’s novel (the 1989 version was written by King himself). I have to say the film in its existing form is entirely satisfactory – although, having since checked out the synopsis of the novel, there is at least one moment where the film appears to be playing games with anyone familiar with previous versions of the story, suggesting it’s going to stay faithful to the novel before heading off on a new course. I’m not normally a fan of films getting all meta in this way, but on this occasion it works, feeling justified in terms of the story beats that it allows rather than simply being done as a cheap trick. One thing I would say, though, is that the film very properly takes its time establishing characters and atmosphere, but then seems to feel compelled to rush things to their conclusion within 105 minutes – it’s a very busy, slightly frantic home stretch. Nevertheless, the ending does work, with some very memorable closing images.

This is a mid-budget mainstream horror movie, so it was never going to contain anything too extreme or innovative, but it has style and polish and is very respect towards Stephen King’s style, if not every detail of his story. I didn’t find it particularly scary or unsettling, but I still enjoyed the ride the film gave me, mainly due to the craft of the script and the performances. Ultimately, this is schlock, but quality schlock.

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From a British perspective you can’t fault John C Reilly’s approach to the year so far: having befouled cinemas with Holmes and Watson right at the beginning of January, he has apparently been doing his very best to make amends, giving an excellent performance in the very good Stan & Ollie, and now doing much the same in The Sisters Brothers, which he also produced. On the other hand, this is sort of a trick of the light, given that The Sisters Brothers was actually released in the States well over six months ago and is only now reaching screens in the UK (and not many of them at that).

In our world of day and date releasing, with films usually coming out more or less simultaneously across the anglophone world, what can we infer from this delay? Well, it’s usually a sign that a studio doesn’t have much faith in a movie and isn’t in a hurry to capitalise on the buzz it has generated, often because there isn’t any. Certainly The Sisters Brothers has been released into the world at a fairly quiet time (at least, as quiet as it gets with everyone gearing up for the first really big releases of the year in only a few weeks), without much in the way of publicity, and much of that rather odd (we shall return to this). How come? Well, here we come to the nub of the issue. Money has nothing to do with artistic achievement – well, less than you might think – but in a spirit of full disclosure I feel obliged to mention that The Sisters Brothers was a bomb on its American release, making back only about a quarter of its budget.

The film is the work of the acclaimed French director Jacques Audiard, who won the top prize at Cannes with Dheepan in 2015 and before that made the very impressive Rust and Bone. The Sisters Brothers finds him working in that most American of genres and idioms, the western, with Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix playing the title characters, who are a pair of ne’er-do-wells – basically hired killers – in the service of a wealthy but unprincipled man known as the Commodore (Rutger Hauer, in what proves to be a startling instance of stunt casting). Reilly plays Eli, the elder and more thoughtful of the pair, who is beginning to have reservations about their lifestyle; Phoenix plays Charlie, who is more of a loose cannon and thinks everything is fine just as it is.

As the film opens, the brothers are dispatched in support of a private detective, Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is also working for the Commodore. Morris is on the trail of mild-mannered chemist Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed), who has developed a new process vastly facilitating the acquisition of gold – as this is 1851, with the California gold rush still a going concern, there is potentially very big money to be made here. Morris is to find Warm and restrain him, at which point the brothers will forcibly extract the secret of the process from him and then dispose of his remains. It’s very simple, if not exactly virtuous – but then Morris finds himself warming to Warm and his idealistic notions as to what to spend the gold on, and the two men strike up a tentative partnership of their own. Meanwhile, the pursuing Sisters have issues of their own, with Eli increasingly coming to the conclusion that this is not how he wants to spend the rest of his days…

I was fairly indifferent about the prospect of seeing The Sisters Brothers when it first started popping up in the ‘coming soon’ sections of my preferred media outlets – I’ve nothing against a good western, but this is a genre which feels like it’s been on life-support for decades. Whenever they do make a western now, it’s usually an opportunity for an art-house director to do something radical and revisionist to it, or it’s a clumsy attempt by a big studio to revive the genre which normally ends up bland and annoying. This is certainly from the former camp, and my tolerance for this sort of thing really depends on exactly what the director’s take on the form is: extra grit, misery and gore is neither inspired not particularly impressive. The trailer that eventually turned up for The Sisters Brothers promised something rather different: it was fast, funny, and was soundtracked by (I am assuming) Gloria Jones singing ‘Tainted Love’, which is not the kind of tune you would associate with the American west. The idea of a western with a northern soul soundtrack struck me as an interesting and witty one, and did the job of making me interested in seeing the film.

Well, I have to report that this is practically a case of false advertising, for while this film’s soundtrack is certainly quirky, it is almost wholly orchestral. Should I feel cheated? Well, maybe: but the rest of the film is certainly interesting and generally speaking a worthwhile watch. To begin with it looks very much like a classic western tale, dealing with issues of morality and self-realisation on the open range, but kept lively and very watchable by great performances from the four leads – but especially Reilly, who brings real depth and warmth to someone who could easily have had neither. Audiard isn’t one of those people who tries to ‘fix’ the western by turning it into something else – there is all the magnificent scenery one could hope for (I should point out that this film was made in the land of the Spaghetti western, i.e. Spain), and frequent shoot-outs along the way – for all of their tendency to bicker with each other, the Sisters brothers are alarmingly proficient killers. The story builds up to the encounter between the brothers and Warm and Morris very satisfyingly.

And then something very odd happens, which may be at the root of the troubles that The Sisters Brothers has had at the box office. The film takes an odd turn, with what feels undeniably like a allegory about greed and its effects on the environment briefly appearing, and then… Well, we’re into the final act of the film by this point, so I can’t really go into detail, but the film-makers essentially rip up the rule-book as to how a story should develop and do something radically different instead. It’s the kind of thing that could happen in real life, but never happens in movies, the sort of plot twist that film critics tend to love (85% on a well-known solanaceous review aggregation website) but general audiences respond very poorly to (only $3.1 million at the US box office). I can kind of admire Audiard’s audacity in playing with expectations and dispensing with traditional ideas of closure, but I have to say that something with a bit more rootin’ tootin’ would have felt more emotionally satisfying.

Still, one gets a definite sense that Audiard has made exactly the film he wanted to make, and it is still a pretty good one: the setting is well realised, the performances strong, and there are moments both amusing and emotional in the course of the film. But at the same time I can see exactly why it has struggled commercially: the strange shifts in tone and the lack of a conventional ending feel like an attempt to deliberately wrong-foot audiences, and this happens to late to really win them back again before the film is over. It’s hard to criticise the film for this, but I think this is certainly the source of its problems. Worth seeing, but I couldn’t give this an unqualified recommendation.

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