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It is, as I have observed in the past, often difficult to ensure a new movie gets enough publicity to guarantee its success, even if you are a successful director and you have the resources of a major studio backing you up. It helps to have some kind of unique angle that jaded movie critics and other journalist can latch onto and discuss in their initial reviews of the film. Well, the good news for the makers of Outlaw King (presented on screen as Outlaw/King, which I’m not sure is necessarily a better title), an aspiring historical epic currently appearing at both a cinema and on a major streaming service near you, is that the forces of the media do seem to have found something in this film to get their teeth into. The bad news is that the item in question is star Chris Pine’s winky, which makes an appearance when the actor goes skinny-dipping at one point. The winky is ‘dazzling’, in the words of one usually reputable website, and ‘the belle of the ball’ according to Vanity Fair (a curious choice of metaphor to say the least).

I would imagine that all these winky-focused reviews are not what the makers of Outlaw King anticipated when they released their film into the world, for this shows every sign of being a seriously-intentioned costume drama, directed by David Mackenzie (who in the past has made films as diverse as the laboriously weird Perfect Sense and the rather good neo-western Hell or High Water). Things get underway and we find ourselves in Scotland in the early 14th century, where bad King Edward of England (Stephen Dillane) has seized control of the country after a lengthy struggle with the rebel leader William Wallace. Now all the local nobility are being forced to swear loyalty to Edward, amongst them dour, brooding, well-endowed claimant to the throne Robert the Bruce (Pine). Just to show there are no hard feelings, the King marries his god-daughter Elizabeth (the fabulous Florence Pugh) off to the Bruce.

An uneasy peace persists for a bit, but when Wallace is finally apprehended and bits of him are posted all over Scotland to deter other insurrectionists, the country is in uproar. Robert the Bruce decides that it is time for him, as an honourable Scotsman, to stand up and do the right thing. In this case the right thing is for him to break his promise to Edward, murder his rival claimant to the throne, and have himself declared King of Scots by the local church dignitaries. King Edward is as cross as two sticks at this act of treachery and dispatches an army under the command of his son (Billy Howle) to sort the situation out. Soon enough Robert the Bruce and his band of followers are forced into hiding, desperately trying to rally support for their dream of Scottish independence (hey, the more things change…), while the new king’s wife and daughter find themselves caught in the path of the advancing English army.

This, you would have thought, would be a good place for the scene where Robert the Bruce learns the value of persistence and determination from watching a spider trying to spin its web under difficult circumstances. I would hazard a guess that this is the one and only thing most people outside Scotland know about Robert the Bruce, and yet while the story is alluded to (very obliquely) it doesn’t make it into the film. This is not the only interesting omission from Outlaw King: filmed, but not included in the final version, was an encounter between Robert and William Wallace.

I find this rather significant, because Outlaw King is clearly pitching itself very much as a film in the vein of Braveheart (Bravewinky, perhaps), with some of the same historical figures appearing in it. I might even go so far to say that this is the work of people who liked Braveheart so much they decided to make their own version (which is what this is). Obviously comparisons are going to be made, and actually having Wallace show up in the movie would only add to this.

Nevertheless, Outlaw King‘s mixture of gritty mediaeval detail and gory battlefield violence (the ‘arterial splatter’ CGI function gets a lot of use) can’t help feeling a bit familiar, and there are a lot of faces in the supporting cast who are exactly the kind of actor you would expect to find in this kind of film – James Cosmo, Tony Curran, and Clive Russell. That said, some younger faces are more prominent – as well as Pugh and Howle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is second-billed as one of Robert the Bruce’s more homicidally zealous followers. Most of the performances are pretty solid, although the actors are somewhat hindered by the fact that they are essentially playing stock types – the ambitious young man chafing for recognition from his father, the young woman forced into an arranged marriage who slowly finds her feelings for her husband deepening, and so on.

It must be said that Florence Pugh is customarily excellent in this film: she is one major role away from global stardom, I would suggest. That said, she is excellent in a rather underwritten and unrewarding part. Her character’s role in the film feels rather like an afterthought – she’s there not because it’s particularly important to the plot (she isn’t), but because it seems to be received dogma that you can’t do a big movie like this one without at least one significant female character.

If we’re going to talk about the acting in this film, however, we should probably spend some time considering Chris Pine’s contribution. Now, regular readers may know that I am far from an unconditional fan of this particular actor – I believe in the past I may have said that on those occasions when I enjoyed a Pine movie, it’s been despite rather than because of his presence. So I may be a little biased. However, the problem here is that Robert the Bruce is a dour, internal sort of character, who spends a lot of the film brooding (he’s also arguably an ambiguous and compromised figure, although the script works hard to finesse the murder of John Comyn into an act of self-defence). Chris Pine is not a natural brooder. He is a smirker, a swaggerer, a schmoozer, and a wise-cracker. Rough-hewn Scottish monarchy is well outside his comfort zone and his performance is really only functional, which means there is an absence at the heart of the film.

Dedicated Pine watchers may feel there is an absence in other ways as well. Yes, I think the time has come when we must address the issue of Chris Pine’s winky (and those are words I never thought I’d type). Well, the first thing I must say is that the prominence of Pine’s masculine appendage seems to have been rather overstated by excitable hacks. The appearance of the winky definitely falls into the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it category, to say nothing of the fact it only appears in long shot. I would also suggest that this whole winky-related fuss only serves to highlight a rather quaint double standard in how we treat screen nudity. Florence Pugh’s exposed knockers get much more screen time than the Pine winky, but no-one’s talking about them at all – and, in the age of the Unique Moment, I imagine I would get flayed alive if I made the fact that they look superb a serious point in my review. Yet someone can go on about the ‘dazzling’ winky and the response only seems to be a mixture of amusement and bemusement.

With the Bruce himself not a particularly compelling character, and the plot being a fairly uninspired mixture of action sequences and political wrangling, the result is that Outlaw King is just not that gripping as a piece of drama. It looks great, with all the usual Scottish scenery, armies of extras, and some deft special effects. Mackenzie does a slightly showy-offy very long take at the start of the film, but on the whole he marshals the film very competently, and the climax – a recreation of the battle of Loudon Hill – is genuinely very good, really giving you something of the sense of what it was like to be a peasant infantryman facing a cavalry charge by armoured knights.

There are many good things about Outlaw King, and it passes the time fairly agreeably (I imagine many people may have issues with the violence and gore that punctuate the movie, however). I am also fully aware that many people like Chris Pine and this kind of mud-and-chainmail movie rather more than I do, so I expect the film will probably be quite successful. Nevertheless, I think it wears its influences a bit too openly, and is much more impressive in terms of its production values than its actual storytelling.

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I spent a brief interlude a few years ago travelling around the world, frequently to places slightly off the beaten track. This was in pre-Kindle days and I found myself becoming quite reliant on the local bookcases of anywhere I ended up for reading matter. I ended up reading all sorts of weird things – a book about Israeli nuclear weapons entitled The Samson Option, for instance – as well as a lot of what I would previously have described as ‘improving literature’. I read Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Don Quixote, Middlemarch, The Grapes of Wrath, and Mansfield Park, amongst others, and what I discovered is that these books have endured not just because they will help you pass your exams, but because they are actually really good books.

Is there a movie equivalent to the ‘improving book’? If there is, then I would say that most of the Mike Leigh films I have seen would qualify. I am aware that Leigh makes his serious films and his not-quite-so-serious films, but I must confess that I find all the ones that I’ve seen to be pretty hard work, despite the fact that they are clearly made with conviction and with many of the most impressive actors currently working in the UK. Maybe it’s the Mike Leigh Renowned Near-Mystical Semi-Improvisatory Method that I just can’t get on with. And yet I persevere, because everyone else agrees that he is a major British director whose films deserve to be looked at.

Leigh has recently turned up with his second costume-drama film in a row, the latest one being Peterloo. Now, for a long time I thought that Peterloo was the name of a medium-sized railway station somewhere in the midlands, but of course it is not: it is the name given to a defining moment in British political history, the bicentennial of which will be on us next summer (I would have thought releasing Peterloo for the actual anniversary would have been the smart move, but then again this is hardly what you’d call a summer movie).

The film itself opens in 1815, with a cleverly economical depiction of the battle of Waterloo, followed by various tableaux of the red-coated survivors, damaged but victorious, limping back to Britain. This is intercut with scenes of Parliament acting very self-congratulatory, giving huge amounts of cash to the Duke of Wellington but totally ignoring his troops, and one of Wellington’s generals being put in charge of the army in the north of England, where an insidious ideology threatening insurrection and sedition has apparently established itself…

What’s all that about, then? Well, the film settles down to focus on a group of reformers, hoping to do something about the (to modern eyes) incredibly unfair and corrupt political system of the period. (A huge new industrial city like Manchester had no representation in parliament, while the vote itself was limited only to landowners. This basically allowed the toiling workers in the mills to be royally screwed over and worked halfway to death without their having much in the way of recourse.) The reformers are working to introduce a greater degree of democracy and to reduce the level of inequality between rich and poor. One of their ideas is to hold a huge public meeting at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester, to be addressed by the gentleman and radical orator Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear).

The leading magistrates of the region (who are introduced in scenes where they are shown having old women flogged for having a sneaky drink from her employer’s stash, and men hanged for stealing coats) are less than delighted by this idea, seeing it as the potential beginning of a republican uprising and the overthrow of British society (this was less than thirty years after the French revolution, after all). Tension grows when someone throws a potato at the Prince Regent (Tim McInnerny). Leaders of the movement are arrested and the militia is placed on standby…

Caught up in all of this, and in many ways the chief point of audience identification, is a typical family of workers from Manchester, one of whose members returns from France at the start of the film. Led by matriarch Nellie (Maxine Peake), they go along with the reformist movement and decide to attend the huge meeting that takes place at the climax of the film. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, girls and boys, it’s the bit you’ve been waiting for: the Peterloo massacre!

Hmmm, I don’t often say this, but this is a really odd one. As ever with Mike Leigh, every frame of the film seems to sweat conviction and authenticity, and it almost goes without saying that the costume drama is one type of film that the British film industry does exceedingly well almost without trying particularly hard. And yet this is, inevitably, more than just another simple bonnet opera: the film isn’t quite the undiluted agitprop it could have been if, say, Ken Loach had been in charge of it, but it is certainly not uncoloured by political ideas about democracy and the representation of the will of the people. At times it almost resembles what Barry Lyndon would have been like, if that film had been written by Jeremy Corbyn.

Even I would normally shy away from a film with a description like that (and I should mention that the main critic of one right-wing newspaper has declared it to be ‘unwatchable’), but I should say that Peterloo remains engaging and curiously accessible throughout – although possibly not for reasons that Leigh and the other film-makers would be delighted about. This is clearly a very earnest, completely seriously-intentioned film, with many early scenes consisting almost entirely of characters making long-winded speeches to groups of other characters (this does become slightly hard work). But at the same time, it contains a large number of performances that are comically, almost self-parodically broad. It’s the fact that the film doesn’t seem to have much sense of humour that pushes some scenes towards comedy: the dialogue amongst the working-class characters kicks off with people saying things like ‘Ey, ah’ll sithee’ to each other and proceeds to include gems such as ‘I shall take my leave now, for I intend to go home and partake of a hot potato pie’. But is this a sign something weirdly deadpan is going on here after all? Near-Mystical Semi-Improvisatory Method or not, I refuse to believe you would put that line in your film without your tongue being at least partly in your cheek.

Once you start noticing these sort of moments it’s very hard to stop: there’s a hilarious, Monty Python-like scene in which the family of barely-literate factory labourers pause to discuss the history, nature, and consequence of the Corn Laws, all for the benefit of the audience. The wicked magistrates are a set of grotesques straight from Royston Vasey. Rory Kinnear is wearing a wig which makes him look rather like Terry Scott’s character in Carry On Up the Jungle. Perhaps they should have gone the whole hog and cast Hugh Laurie as the Prince Regent, again – the choice of McInnerny just means everyone is going to be thinking of Blackadder anyway.

Oh, I suppose that I am just being silly and that Peterloo is meant to be the very serious film that it initially looks and sounds like. But someone has made some very odd creative choices along the way. The final third is difficult not to take seriously, anyway, even if subtlety has long since left the theatre – decent, progressive, generous working-class protestors turn up to the mass protest, while the forces of elitism and privilege gathered against them cackle and plot in top hats while they help themselves to claret.

The film’s big set piece is, obviously, the Peterloo massacre itself, and while Leigh is a great composer of a shot, in addition to being a talented director of actors, it initially looks like he’s fluffed the climax of the film – the camera is way up in the air away from the action as the cavalry and the soldiers advance into the panicking crowd. It’s competent but not cinematic. Later on, though, he does put the camera on the ground, in the middle of it all, and you do get a sense of the blood and panic and chaos of it all. Even so, the obvious anger of the film doesn’t necessarily translate into great cinema, and for a piece which is presumably at least partly meant to be educational, Leigh arguably fumbles the conclusion: I was expecting the traditional caption detailing the historical details of the massacre (a death toll is not provided), its consequences and political significance. None of this is given.

So in the end this is a rather odd film that sort of works, in that it does tell the story of the Peterloo massacre and provides some historical context for it – but on the other hand, it really doesn’t do quite enough in this respect, and too often the film seems to be on the verge of toppling over into some sort of gonzo comedy, just one without any actual jokes. Certainly a worthy and interesting piece of work, but largely devoid of subtlety and afflicted by a real inconsistency when it comes to its tone.

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‘Will you allow me to come to your home and, in your presence, anaesthetise your wife, so we will know once and for all whether she is real or an illusion?’

You have to love a line of dialogue like that. In fact, if I had come across it in one of those lists of great movie quotes, I like to think I would at once have started actively seeking out the movie from which it came. In this case, the line comes from the 1964 movie Unearthly Stranger, directed by John Krish. This is supposedly a highly-meritorious British B-movie, but the fact that I’d never heard of it until only a few days ago rather suggests to me it is in fact fairly obscure, as these things go. Still, now I know if it, I have seen it, and if my mind has not been blown then it has certainly been breathed upon quite energetically.

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The story gets underway with our hero, Mark Davidson (John Neville), running across London at night, clearly in a bit of a tizzy. There is a lot of running. One might even say there is an inordinate amount of running, especially when you consider this film is well shy of 90 minutes in length. I might even be moved to suggest that the script for the rest of the film had yet to be finished when they started filming, and so they just kept Neville running as a means of filling the time. Well, anyway, our man eventually arrives at his workplace, the Royal Society for Space Boffinry, where he sits down with a reel-to-reel tape recorder to narrate the rest of the movie, which happens in flashback (it’s a well-worn old device, but it has a certain charm).

Well, it seems that the space boffins are hard at work coming up with a method of interstellar travel through means of willpower alone. This depends upon coming up with a formula to unlock the hidden potential of the human brain, also known as TP-91 (not that any of the details sound remotely convincing or have any particular bearing on the plot). It transpires that Davidson’s old boss, Professor Munro (Warren Mitchell), worked out part of the solution before retiring to his office – only to be discovered dead a few moments later!

‘It was as though there was an explosion inside his brain,’ reports the project’s security officer, Clarke (Patrick Newell). Davidson, who was away on holiday in Switzerland at the time, is the new boss, and Clarke fills him in on some disquieting details – parallel projects into brain-powered space travel are underway in America and the USSR, but they too have been hampered by the mysterious deaths of key researchers, all of them with the same symptoms of exploding brains. Cripes! Could foul play be afoot?

Davidson lets himself get a bit paranoid and the film heads off down some curious blind alleys for a bit – Munro’s body has disappeared, and it seems there were traces in his body of a poison only otherwise found in returning space capsules – before settling on the more fruitful topic of Davidson’s relationship with his new wife Julie (Gabriella Licudi), whom he met during his recent holiday. ‘Is your wife an alien?’ puffs Clarke (meaning, not British) before embarking on the usual security checks. Normally this would count as unforgivably obvious writing, but in a film like this one it’s all par for the course. Soon enough Davidson is unsettled to discover his wife sleeps with her eyes open and has no pulse, while his colleague Professor Lancaster (Philip Stone) spots her taking the casserole out of the oven without using gloves.

Yes, there’s something about Julie, and it comes as no surprise when she fails her security check on account of not actually having existed until a few weeks ago. By this point the audience has already enjoyed a schlocky-but-eerie sequence in which she wanders down the high street, upsetting small babies with her subliminally extra-terrestrial presence, scaring off whole crowds of schoolchildren, and so on. However, she is a sensitive soul and this moves her to tears: the tears appear to burn the skin of her face, in a nicely bizarre touch. But what is her mission here on Earth? And could her burgeoning feelings for her new husband get in the way…?

As you may have gathered, with Unearthly Stranger we are in the realm of the dingbat pastiche of either Quatermass or Village of the Damned, but it’s still oddly watchable stuff. The film-makers get top marks for managing to make a proper science fiction film without the need to include any special effects at all (always a neat trick), while for a modern audience the film’s casting certainly has cult credibility: these days Neville is best remembered for playing the title role in Terry Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen as well as the Well-Manicured Man in The X Files, while Philip Stone was Jack Nicholson’s predecessor in The Shining, and Patrick Newell was Mother in the final season of The Avengers. Jean Marsh, an actress whose genre pedigree stretches from the original Twilight Zone to Mark Gatiss’ Crooked House, also appears in a small but crucial role. (Warren Mitchell manages to land fifth billing despite being in only one scene.) All of these actors, by the way, uphold the proud British tradition of doing your best even when you’re saddled with some rather dodgy material.

I am tempted to say that once you get past the deeply suspect premise of scientists seriously engaged upon research into some form of psychic teleportation, this is not too bad, as paranoid SF B-movies go. However, watching it today what strikes you again and again is the sense that this film was made exclusively by, about, and for white men in their late thirties:  even though the film appears to be about the alien infiltration of Earth society by the main female character (shades of Under the Skin), Julie almost always feels like the object of other characters’ activity and attention rather than someone with any real agency. And it is telling that she feels like not so much an alien disguised as a woman as an alien disguised as a housewife – note how she is rumbled by her peculiar behaviour when getting dinner out of the oven.

Of course, there is a degree of irony involved here – Neville’s sneering dismissal of what he sees as the superstitious nature of another character is setting up the climactic twist of the film – but in the end the gender politics of Unearthly Stranger, perhaps its most striking element beyond the weirdness of its SF plot, are just a bit too odd and uncomfortable for a modern viewer. The fact that it is hardly flattering, in the end, to its male characters doesn’t entirely make up for the fact that it seems perilously close to misogyny in its presentation of women. Then again, the film hasn’t exactly aged well in any other respect, so it’s not a tremendous surprise that this aspect is problematic too. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting little film if you like this sort of thing.

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The good thing about going to see a film called Halloween on the actual day of Halloween is that you can be pretty certain you’re at or near the peak when it comes the appropriacy of your choice of movie. The bad news, if you fill the long hours by maintaining a light-hearted film review blog, is that your thoughts on the film are likely to be of little real topical interest to anyone stumbling across them – who cares about Halloween once we hit early November, anyway? Everyone is just busy growing moustaches or writing novels.

Yet here we are: Halloween, directed by David Gordon Green, and produced by Blumhouse, a company which currently rules the roost when it comes to making ultra-lucrative low-budget horror films (they also made the really good non-genre movie Whiplash). As you are doubtless aware, this is far from the first film entitled Halloween to be unleashed upon the public. The new Halloween is the tenth sequel to the original 1978 film – this is another example of a follow-up having exactly the same title as the film it’s based on, something which only seems to happen with John Carpenter movies (see also The Thing).

The new movie takes the Godzilla-esque approach of disregarding the nine previous films in the series (which wandered off into some fairly peculiar territory and didn’t all share continuity anyway) and being a direct sequel to the 1978 one. It opens with a couple of self-regarding and pretentious online journalists (Jefferson Hall and Rhian Rees) visiting a psychiatric institution for the criminally insane in order to attempt to interview Michael Myers, who has been incarcerated there for forty years after murdering five people for no apparent reason on Halloween night.

Michael’s shrink, Dr Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), has become fascinated by his patient, but warns the journos that the killer is ‘dormant’ and has not spoken in all his time at the facility. And indeed he refuses to respond to their questions, even when one of them produces the shrivelled remains of the mask he wore while committing his crimes (this is, famously, a William Shatner mask painted white). This is, by the way, a superbly orchestrated scene: the iconic mask is brandished like some kind of unholy fetish, with the other inmates of the facility stirred into a frenzy of moans and whines and a distinct sense of some primordial evil being summoned back into existence. The smash cut to the title card and the appearance of Carpenter’s justly famous theme music puts the shine on a very strong opening which the film largely does justice to.

The thing about a Halloween movie is that it’s easy to get carried away and over-plot it: these films are basically about the bogeyman, an apparently unstoppable force of pure evil who kills for no rational reason. Previous sequels introduced notions of occult curses and Michael being fixated on killing members of his own family, this latter idea being introduced to rationalise his extended pursuit of Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), as increasingly laborious methods of putting new spins on the basic idea. The new film makes reference to the idea of Michael and Laurie being siblings, but dismisses it as an urban legend.

Instead, it seems that Laurie was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and has paid the price for it ever since: forty years on from the first movie, she is a damaged, paranoid woman whose relationships with her daughter (Judy Greer) and granddaughter (Andi Matichak) – she has basically turned into Sarah Connor from Terminator 2, obsessed with preparations for the time when Michael inevitably returns.

And, of course, he does, although you have to cut the film some slack and accept that the authorities would decide to transfer Michael Myers to a new facility on October 30th, just in time for him to attain his freedom (in one of many call-backs to the original film, exactly how this happens is left somewhat enigmatic), suit up in his mask and overalls, and begin to carve a swathe through the good people of the town of Haddonfield…

Now, I’m no more a fan of the occult curse or long-lost sister plotlines than most people, but they do give Michael (credited, as is usual, as ‘the Shape’) something to do beyond just carving up random people (to be fair, he broadens his palette to include garrotting, strangulation, and blunt-force trauma this time around). Carving people up at random just about works for a film where the protagonists are unsuspecting everypersons being menaced, but here there is a much stronger element of role-reversal: both Laurie and the local sheriff (Will Patton) are tooled up and actively hunting Michael, giving an odd double tension to the film.

The film is really at its best in the extended sequences leading up to Michael’s actual attacks (which are, you will not be surprised to learn, frequent). At these points the film basically becomes a battle of wits between the viewer and the director as the latter attempts to mislead and surprise the former – is Michael going to turn out to be in the closet? Is he outside in the garden? Lurking on the stairs? Green is rather good at this, and restores a good deal of presence and menace to one of the great horror icons of the 70s and 80s – less annoying than Freddy Krueger, less of a fantastical cartoon than Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers is practically shy and retiring as far as homicidal forces of pure evil go, and the film carefully walks the line between depicting Michael as an exceptional but still human threat, and suggesting he is the vessel for some supernatural power.

Also getting good material is Jamie Lee Curtis, and the clash between these two old enemies at the climax of the film is tense and engrossing. One of the themes of the film is the baleful effect Michael has on those who come into contact with him and survive, and Curtis has a lot of meaty scenes as someone almost pathologically obsessed with refusing to even contemplate being a victim again. There is perhaps a whiff of the Unique Moment about the film, with three generations of Strode women coming together to combat perhaps the ultimate predatory male, but then I suppose the whole trope of the Final Girl represents this in some way.

For the most part, though, this is a film which feels quite self-consciously retro in its approach to the story – an act of reverence towards one of the foundational texts of American horror cinema. It revisits the old beats rather than doing anything especially innovative, but does so very well – the only issue being that Haluk Bilginer, to some extent filling the Donald Pleasence role in the plot, ain’t no Donald Pleasence. Nevertheless, it’s an engaging and scary film and one that discharges its obligations with some style. I can imagine the Halloween franchise advancing into the future for many years to come, propelled by remakes and sequels and reimaginings, assuming that those responsible for it treat it with the same kind of care and respect shown here.

 

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(Yes, I know, I know: you wait years and years for reviews of NASA-themed films and then three come along in a row. Ridiculous, isn’t it?)

Ron Howard’s 1995 film Apollo 13 is not the usual stuff of the Sunday afternoon revivals which I am so often to be found enjoying at the Phoenix in Jericho. The Vintage Sundays strand normally limits itself to either classic or cult movies, with recent seasons focusing on films by Kubrick, Hitchcock, and Studio Ghibli. All solid stuff and more-or-less guaranteed to attract a crowd. They’ve chosen to follow this up, however, with a season of ‘Space’ films, possibly to connect with the release of First Man – and so the revival schedule has been filled with a fairly eclectic mix of titles including The Right Stuff, Moon, Alien, and the original Solaris, concluding with the year’s second showing of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Apollo 13 fits in rather nicely with the rest of that bunch, despite the fact it is rather more mainstream and modern than the typical Sunday classic. That said, it is one of those movies which is perhaps older than you think – 23 years, at the time of writing – and one which perhaps did not get quite the critical plaudits it deserved.

The film opens with a swift recap of the main beats of the Apollo programme prior to the Apollo 13 mission: specifically, what later became known as the Apollo 1 fire, in which three astronauts were killed, and the triumph of the successful Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. As the story gets going, Pete Conrad’s Apollo 12 has successfully completed its mission, and the onus is now on Apollo 13, to be commanded by Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks). Lovell and his team have been bumped up the schedule by an unforeseen medical problem, and he and fellow astronauts Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Ken Mattingley (Gary Sinise) are working against the clock to be ready.

Lovell is determined that the mission will go ahead, despite some inauspicious omens – the thirteenth Apollo, due to launch at thirteen minutes past the thirteenth hour, and enter lunar orbit on the thirteenth day of the month. But the bad luck just keep coming – Mattingley is exposed to measles only days before the mission is due to launch, and Lovell is forced to replace him with the back-up pilot, Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon).

Apollo 13 launches as planned, although there is a technical issue with one of the booster engines. ‘Looks like we’ve had our glitch for this mission,’ says someone in Ground Control. To say they are mistaken is an understatement: a routine procedure to stir the contents of one of the Command Module’s fuel tanks results in a significant explosion and the loss of electrical power in the spacecraft.

The mission almost immediately becomes one not of landing on the Moon, but somehow managing to get the astronauts back to Earth alive. Efforts on the ground are overseen by no-nonsense flight director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris), who is insistent that failure is not an option. But the list of challenges faced by NASA is immense…

(I would do the usual ‘Spoiler Alert: they get home safely’ gag here, but for one thing I used it with First Man just the other day, and for another Ron Howard recalls one member of a test audience being very unimpressed with the movie, complaining about the predictable Hollywood ending and saying it was unrealistic that the crew survived.)

I suppose you could look at the relative failure of Apollo 13 at the Oscars and argue that it’s just more evidence that the Academy simply doesn’t like space films (I wouldn’t really call Apollo 13 science fiction, despite the fact it was treated as such by some elements of the media at the time). The 1996 Oscars were a good year for costume dramas and gritty realism – Braveheart and Leaving Las Vegas were two of the higher-profile winners – and I suppose there was also the issue that Tom Hanks had won Best Actor twice on the trot just recently, and nobody could face the prospect of another of his rather idiosyncratic acceptance speeches.

Yet this is a notably good film, an example of the Hollywood machine working at its best. This is a film which is polished without being too glib or slick, and one which knows how to tell a story without becoming melodramatic. (I believe numerous small changes were made to the real course of events, but nothing too outrageous.)

Walking to the bus after watching the revival of Apollo 13, I asked the intern who had accompanied me why they thought it only took 25 years for a movie about the mission to be made, while Apollo 11 ended up waiting nearly half a century. They admitted it was a good question (well, naturally), and after some thought suggested it’s just a more interesting story.

Well, I would agree with that, of course. ‘The mission goes almost exactly as planned’ is not a thrilling hook for a movie, which may go some way to explaining a few of Damien Chazelle’s more unexpected creative decisions in his Armstrong movie. The Apollo 13 story, on the other hand, offers a gripping ‘brave men struggling to get home alive’ theme, plus many opportunities for showcasing the ingenuity and resourcefulness of NASA in overcoming the numerous problems faced by the crew (the sequence in which a gang of junior NASA staffers are given the job of working out how to build a functioning oxygen filtration system out of, basically, a pile of junk, apparently inspired the long-running TV game show Scrapheap Challenge).

And the tone is pretty much what you would expect, too – respectful, patriotic, carefully very mainstream. The film opens with voice-over from Walter Cronkite, for many years the most trusted man in America, and the subtext is clear: this is what really happened in this story, the definitive historical version. In this respect it’s quite different from the more artful approach taken by Chazelle, even though the subject matter is obviously similar – some characters appear in both movies, most notably Armstrong, Aldrin, and Lovell himself.

It was actually slightly startling to watch this movie again and see Tom Hanks looking so young (relatively speaking). This movie was made at the time he was cementing his image as the great everyman of American cinema, not to mention one of the great screen actors of his generation, and he leads a very good cast with considerable aplomb. While most of the film is focused on the fact that this was, in the end, a successful rescue effort, Hanks never quite lets you forget that this is, on one level at least, a rather bittersweet story – Lovell never got to go to the Moon in the way so many of his peers did.

In the end Apollo 13 is simply a very technically proficient film, driven along by excellent production values and performances, with a solid script at the heart of it all. It is certainly one of Ron Howard’s best films, but then my issue with Howard has always been that he is one of those safe-pair-of-hands guys, rather than someone with a distinctive artistic sensibility of his own. I was glad to see Apollo 13 again and happy to watch it on the big screen, but I would still say this is a very good piece of commercial film-making rather than a truly great movie.

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Now that First Man has provided us with an exemplary movie account of the Apollo programme and the Moon landings, all we are waiting for, surely, is for someone to do the same and make the definitive movie about the faking of the same events. (That’s how impartiality works these days, isn’t it? No matter how unsupported or ridiculous an idea is, no-one in the media is actually allowed to say so as long as there is someone who genuinely believes in it.)

I joke, sort of. The weird thing is that people have been making films referencing the idea that the Moon landings were faked in a film studio since… well, since the time of the Moon landings themselves, perhaps. It’s curious that the first major book proposing this theory, We Never Went to the Moon, came out in 1976, while (arguably) an oblique suggestion of the same thing turns up in Diamonds Are Forever in 1971 – attempting to sneak out of a SPECTRE installation midway through the movie, James Bond finds himself on a soundstage mocked up to resemble the lunar surface, where a moon walk is apparently being filmed. The film offers no explanation for what’s supposed to be happening here and just carries on with the chase sequence in progress.

The list also includes Room 237, which features an extended disquisition on Kubrick’s role in the hoax and the way that The Shining is really a lengthy attempt by the director to come clean about it, and Moonwalkers, a French comedy film again focusing on Stanley Kubrick’s alleged involvement in faking the footage supposedly sent back from the Moon. Even Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar cleverly subverts the idea by suggesting that in the future the US government will start to claim the landings were indeed faked.

Top of the pile, though, is surely Peter Hyams’ 1978 film Capricorn One, which appeared just as the moon hoax theory was beginning to gain traction, and may have played a significant role in cementing the notion in the public imagination. The subject matter and cast could not be more all-American, but this is another film owing its existence to Lew Grade’s ITC Entertainment – and, I must say, one of the better ones.

The film opens with Capricorn One, the first manned mission to Mars, on the launchpad. NASA director James Kelloway (Hal Holbrook) is overseeing the countdown; the astronauts (James Brolin, Sam Waterston and O. J. Simpson) are in the capsule. An audience of politicians, other dignitaries, and members of the public has gathered to watch the take-off. But then, with minutes to go, the crew are quietly extracted from the vehicle, placed on a plane, and flown to a clandestine government installation. The spacecraft launches without them. What is going on?

Kelloway explains. Cut-backs in NASA’s budget resulted in the Capricorn programme inadvertently buying a cheap-ass life support system for the spacecraft, one which would have killed the crew in a matter of weeks (the film suggests the round-trip to Mars will take about eight months, which strikes me as rather optimistic, but I digress). Not wanting to give Congress an excuse to shut the manned space programme down, Kelloway and his backers (there seem to be shadowy, deep-state forces in play) have decided to cover this up. The mission will take place as planned – it’s just that it will really be unmanned. All the TV footage of the crew in the capsule and on the surface of Mars will be filmed in studios on Earth and inserted into the broadcasts without anyone being any the wiser.

Mission commander Brubaker (Brolin) isn’t sure about this at all, but when it is made clear that the backers of the cover-up are quite prepared to threaten his family and those of the other astronauts, he allows himself to be blackmailed into playing along. And so the mission proceeds, and also the hoax. There are problems – a young NASA tech notices irregularities between the mission telemetry and the TV footage, and is promptly disappeared by the conspirators. However, he has already passed on his discovery to cynical journalist Robert Caulfield (Elliott Gould), who launches his own investigation, placing his life in peril as a result.

But the biggest problem is yet to come. With the actual Martian landings successfully faked, the ship returns to Earth – only for the heat shield to disengage too early and the craft to disintegrate on re-entry. The crew of Capricorn One have died as heroes – except that they are still sitting around in the secret government installation, wondering why their flight to the splashdown site has been cancelled. Quickly figuring out that there has been a problem, and that their very existence now poses a threat to the hoax, they decide to make a break for it and tell the world the truth. Always assuming the conspirators don’t catch up with them first…

The first thing to say about Capricorn One is that this is a pretty good thriller, with an engaging premise, nice performances and dialogue which is rather sharper and smarter than you might expect. It’s not especially deep or lavish, but it’s fun to watch, especially in the first half, which is more concerned with the establishment and running of the hoax. It addresses the issue of just what the value of the manned space programme is, and whether it warrants all the funding it receives. Would NASA in fact be justified in mounting this kind of deception, if the alternative was the dissolution of the agency and the end of space exploration?

The second half is not as strong, as these ideas and themes get dropped in favour of the stuff of a more conventional thriller – the astronauts are pursued through the deserts of the American southwest by black helicopters (Hyams develops this into a very effective image, again perhaps fuelling conspiracy theories), while Caulfield picks up on tiny clues and slowly begins to unravel what’s been going on. In the end there is a rather effective chase between the helicopters and a biplane piloted by Telly Savalas, before a slightly abrupt ending is reached (we don’t get to see the political consequences of the film’s conclusion).

Capricorn One is entirely up-front about its subtext – the film’s poster directly asks ‘Would you be shocked to find out that the greatest moment of our recent history may not have happened at all?’, next to a picture of what looks very much like an Apollo lunar module; the Capricorn mission profile appears to closely resemble that of Apollo, more than is actually credible. Hyams appears to have come to the idea of an Apollo hoax independently, speaking in interviews of how it occurred to him that this was an event witnessed only by TV cameras, and thus more than usually susceptible to fakery.

Ironically, though, if anything the film debunks the idea of a Moon hoax rather than promoting it, simply because the conspiracy as presented here is just so implausible and inept. The suggestion is that most of NASA isn’t even in on the plot, which makes one wonder just exactly how it’s functioning – there’s a glib mention of ‘recordings from practice sessions’ being used, but who’s actually landing the spacecraft on Mars? How is this even possible? The ‘dark forces cover-up’ is also rather preposterous – after trying to kill Gould in a sabotaged car, the conspirators apparently lose interest in him entirely for weeks, before starting to take pot-shots at him and then finally having him framed for possession of drugs.

So in the end this is a film which is entertaining and briefly interesting in terms of its premise, but in the end it doesn’t quite hang together and it never really convinces. I am tempted to add that all this is true of the Apollo hoax theories, as well, but for the fact that many people still genuinely seem to believe that there is some truth to them. Maybe they also believe that there is some truth to Capricorn One. It is, as they say, a funny old world,

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As I write, a human being has not walked on the Moon in my lifetime – which already constitutes rather more years than I am entirely comfortable with – and it seems to me that the longer that elapses, the greater the incomprehension of our descendants will be. As I’ve said before, I think the most remarkable achievement of our existence on this planet has been the fact that we have left it; I’ve also been known to wonder just why it is that decades have elapsed without the first Apollo landing being the subject of a movie. There have been movies about failed Apollo missions; there has even been a movie about an entirely fictitious Apollo mission. But nothing about the one that everyone knows and perhaps remembers.

We may return to the possible reasons for this later, but for the moment we can at least relax in the knowledge that someone has finally done an Apollo 11 movie – well, sort of. The director is Damien Chazelle, who after the success of La La Land could probably have written his own ticket and done anything he had a mind to. He has chosen to make First Man, reuniting with Ryan Gosling, who plays Neil Armstrong.

The film opens in 1961, with Armstrong working as a civilian test pilot for NASA, although his attempts to cope with a family tragedy cause others to doubt his capacity to do the job. When the space programme advertises for astronauts, both Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) see it as a chance for a new start. Armstrong makes it onto the programme, his engineering background standing him in good stead, but the risks of both the Gemini and Apollo programmes prove greater than imagined and place an increasing strain on their relationship. (Various figures who will be familiar to space geeks appear – most prominently Jason Clarke as Ed White.) Eventually, however – and I’m pretty sure this doesn’t constitute a spoiler – the preparations have been made and Armstrong is selected to command the mission that will put a man on the moon – accompanying him will be fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin (Cory Stoll).

I make the joke about spoilers almost as a matter of course, but it is the case that everybody knows how this particular story turns out – for all the film’s inclusion of scenes in which Janet Armstrong insists her husband explain to his children that he may not return from the lunar surface, and NASA higher-ups sign off on the text that will be released should something unfortunate happen and Armstrong and Aldrin not make it back, there’s never any real doubt in the viewer’s mind that Apollo 11 is going to be a success. Of course, First Man isn’t alone in having this particular problem, as it exists for many true-life dramas based on famous historical events. One way to approach this issue is to play the hell out of the story as a conventional narrative and hope that the audience is swept along sufficiently to forget their existing knowledge – I did once hear about someone so caught up in the romance between Kate and Leo that they were genuinely shocked when the Titanic started sinking. Or, you can just treat the movie as an opportunity to do a grand retelling of famous events and hopefully inform the audience of a few interesting facts that they weren’t previously aware of.

Chazelle, coming off the back of the breezily crowd-pleasing La La Land, could easily have gone for either of those approaches, but instead he has chosen a different path – one that seems almost calculated to be at odds with audience expectations, both of him and this particular story. It’s not a grand, glossy drama, but more of an introspective character piece. This may have cost the film some business – not least because of the decision not to indulge in (literal) flag-waving jingoism, which drew a predictably petty response from the occupant of the White House – but it does seem to me to be justified. Every profile of Neil Armstrong that I’ve ever read emphasised that this was a man who wore his position at the heart of a truly epochal event extremely lightly – he was not a flamboyant or demonstrative man in any way. A film as resolutely ‘quiet’ and unglamourised as First Man is, for much of its duration at least, seems therefore to be entirely fitting.

There are scenes which do a fine job of capturing the essentially dry and pragmatic nature of the man, helped by an excellent performance from Gosling – the previously-mentioned one where he talks to his sons, but does so in a manner more suggestive of a man addressing a press conference than talking to his children. And another, at a genuine press conference, where Armstrong is asked what, if anything, he would like to take to the Moon with him. ‘More fuel,’ comes the response.

That said, however, my only real issue with the film is connected to this – and, what d’you know, it turns out it is possible to spoil First Man after all, so I must be careful. It seems that Chazelle can’t resist inserting some kind of emotional arc into his film, and he does so here. It put me rather in mind of Gravity, appropriately enough – just as that film worked so well because Sandra Bullock’s isolation in space was a metaphor for her emotional state, so First Man suggests that Armstrong’s whole demeanour, and indeed his career as an astronaut, was on some level  a coping mechanism for dealing with an emotional trauma he suffered some years earlier. Is there any basis to this, or is it just a convenient conceit about which to build the story? I’m not sure, but I suspect the latter.

In any case, this is still an evocative and extremely well-made film, very strong on the claustrophobic hazards of the early days of space flight. For the most part it eschews conventional ‘pretty’ special effects in favour of a more impressionistic approach, the astronauts’ view of what is happening around them – clanks and rattles and roars and judders. Chazelle’s main way of persuading the audience this is the 1960s is to film many of the scenes so they resemble – in picture quality at least – home movie footage from the period. He also evokes the world of the astronauts using many of the images and ideas we have seen in other films set in this milieu – barbecues on Floridian lawns, the men with crew-cuts in buttoned-down shirts, the wives constituting their own exclusive sorority (Claire Foy is very good, but still doesn’t get a huge amount to do). It is wholly convincing in its strange ordinariness, and then when the final mission is in progress, the sudden explosion of the image into pristine 75mm IMAX is breath-taking. The actual Moon landing sequence is exceptionally good (even if I have to report my concerns that I suspect the whole thing was faked in a studio – maybe Chazelle got his hands on Kubrick’s original notes, who knows).

The Apollo landings have become the stuff of popular culture, maybe even folklore, so it is a commendably unexpected choice for Chazelle to make a movie which isn’t just a by-the-numbers retelling of the story, but something with its own style and feel to it, something which perhaps does demand the audience work a little harder than they might expect to. It’s still a beautiful, impressive film, even if it doesn’t have the brilliant accessibility or energy to it which both his previous films possessed.  I suspect First Man is one of those movies which will look better and better as time goes by, even if it isn’t quite a hit on its initial release.

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