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Archive for the ‘Film Reviews’ Category

Never let it be said that you can’t do a family-friendly, acclaimed, popular movie about Nazism: the bloomin’ Sound of Music was on again the other night, sending the usual dubious message that the best way of dealing with a fascist takeover of your government is to start singing at it. But the danger of doing funny stuff about the Nazis is that the joke will end up being on you. To paraphrase the late Clive James, if Nazism was a joke, then it was a cruel joke played by history on the world, and one that we should be careful of laughing at too freely.

Quite reasonably, this sentiment seems to be fairly widespread in civilised society, which may be why the publicity material for Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit has been stressing the fact that this isn’t just a black comedy about life in Nazi Germany, but a film with important things to say about understanding, tolerance, etc, etc. That doesn’t change the fact that the trailer seems designed to provoke that old Kipling line about the sheer audacity of the thing. (I should mention that this is a rare example of one of those films enjoying a staggered international release: which is to say it has only just come out in the UK, a couple of months after many other countries.)

Roman Griffin Davis plays Johannes Betzler, a ten-year-old boy living somewhere in Germany towards the end of the Second World War. His father and sister are both gone, due to the war, and he is living alone with his mother – or so he thinks, anyway. (Johannes’ mother is played by Scarlett Johansson: it feels like there should be some sort of joke in there, but I just can’t find it.) Like many young lads, he has an imaginary friend, but what is slightly unusual in this case is that his pal is Adolf Hitler (Waititi), or at least his own slightly warped idea of what Hitler is like. As the film starts, Jojo (for so is he known) leads a fairly happy, carefree life, heedless of the advancing Allies: he and his friends go off on Hitler Youth activity weekends, have fun burning books, learn to recognise Jews, and so on.

However, things get a bit more complicated when Jojo discovers an interloper in the family home: a teenage girl who is living in the wainscotting. Her name is Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), and she is a Jewish refugee given refuge by Jojo’s mother. What is a dedicated young Nazi supposed to do in a situation like this one? Things are not made any easier when it turns out that Elsa is not the vile, horned cannibal he has been led to expect, but actually seems to be quite a pleasant young woman…

Now, of course, the idea of using Nazism as the source of jokes in a bad-taste comedy is hardly a new one: Mel Brooks won an Oscar for The Producers over fifty years ago, and there’s a lot of the same provocative spirit here too – ‘It’s time to burn some books!’ cries Rebel Wilson as one of the Hitler Youth instructors (her charges cheer with delight), while Sam Rockwell initially appears to be turning in one of his more uninhibited performances as the wounded army veteran put in charge of the group. But, on the other hand, there is that storyline about Elsa hiding in Jojo’s house and their developing friendship. So which is this to be? A wild comedy of excess, made acceptable by a more thoughtful, human-interest subplot? Or an attempt at a film with genuine heart and emotion, perked up now and then by some jokes about Swastikas and comedy Gestapo agents?

I think, in the end, that Jojo Rabbit is a bit less bold and outrageous than its publicity suggests it to be – or perhaps I should say that it is not consistently provocative. There are lengthy semi-serious segments, mostly concerning Jojo’s relationships with his mother and with Elsa, which do function on a more naturalistic level and are obviously attempting to engage with the audience’s emotions – not without success, I should add. Only occasionally do Rockwell, Wilson, and the others turn up for another sketch-like interlude.

In the end I suppose we should be grateful for this, but on the other hand there is the awkward problem that the comic scenes are much more successful than the more serious ones – by which I mean they mostly get the laughs they’re aiming for, mainly due to a decent script and full-blooded performances from a cast who know what they’re doing. The more measured scenes are not actually bad, with Johansson in particular clearly working hard, but the more serious the film tries to be, the more awkward it feels – as if it’s playing a role out of obligation, rather than any real conviction. At one point there’s a sequence where stirring music plays as Jojo watches the civilian population of his home town squandering their lives in a futile attempt to hold off the advancing Allies – but it’s hard to think of any message this is supposed to be putting across that isn’t trite or facile.

Perhaps it would work better if there was more of a sense of the film being grounded in an actual historical setting, but the film is vague at best about the actual period in which it takes place. You could argue that all films set in recent history look identical, and this is an attempt to avoid that cliche (the cinematography and art directon are much brighter and less textured than you might expect) – but something about that kind of look does give a sense of verisimilitude, which is lacking here. I’m not saying the costumes or sets are wrong, but it just doesn’t feel like the 1940s, and odd details like Jojo’s home town being invaded by both Americans and Russians on the same day just add to the sense of this essentially being a cartoon even when it’s attempting to be serious.

This is by no means a terrible film with which to start the year – there are some good performances, it is frequently very funny, and its heart is certainly in the right place. But it seems to me that the comedic elements of the film just work to make it feel superficial, detracting from the more serious story which is really at its heart. Not the worst film a bunch of comedians have made about the Nazis – that honour still probably goes to The Day the Clown Cried, or at least it would if anyone was allowed to watch it – but it is rather uneven, even in its better moments.

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Crikey, you feel the pressure at moments like these: the characters in Cats are all queueing up for their moment in the spotlight, and in rather the same way the great and the good of criticdom all seem to be competing to deliver the most crushing dismissal of Tom Hooper’s movie. ‘Battlefield Earth with whiskers,’ was the coup de grace of one assessment; ‘a dreadful hairball of woe’ was another; ‘it’s just not finished‘ was the despairing cry of one professional viewer – one of a number of critics who made comments to the effect that there are some sights the human eye simply should not see, and Cats may well be one of them. How am I supposed to compete with that kind of thing? Of course, it is never a good look to spend one’s time feeling sorry for oneself – the charitable thing to do is to spend one’s time feeling sorry for Cats.

Things look about as bad as bad can be for Cats, as the story has become not that there is a new big-budget movie musical, but that there is a new big-budget movie musical which is really terrible.  That said, the film hasn’t exactly helped itself – Robert Wise always used to say that no movie in history ever came as close to not being ready in time for its release than Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but I think that record has been broken. Three days into its release, a new version of the movie is replacing the one that was initially distributed, in an attempt to address issues with the special effects. Various comments including words like ‘sticking plaster’, ‘on’, and ‘a shark bite’ do creep into my mind, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The movie is set in a garish 50s version of London, from which people seem essentially absent, leaving the streets populated by bizarre human-animal hybrids (mostly cat-people, as you might expect from the title). A hideous tinny clanging presages the onset of the music, which honestly does sound out of tune in places, and we get the opening number, entitled ‘Jellicle songs for jellicle cats’. The lyrics of the song seem to largely consist of the word ‘jellicle’, which seems to me to be a bit of a cheat as TS Eliot (author of the book of light verse which has gone through various transformations before reaching the screen in this unlikely form) made it up: it doesn’t really seem to mean anything, but it seems to be a useful all-purpose lyrical filler even though there aren’t many obvious rhymes for it (‘petrochemical’, maybe, and ‘Ecumenical’; one might even suggest ‘genital’, but all of the cats in the film have had theirs digitally erased).

Well, anyway. By this point we have met the main character (or as close as the film gets), Victoria Cat (Francesca Hayward) and a bunch of other cats. Following a quick rendition of Eliot’s ‘The Naming of Cats’ (performed without music and possibly the best bit of the film), the nature of the thing heaves into view: it’s a special night for the cats, as their matriarch Old Deuteronomy Cat (Judi Dench) will be listening to them all sing songs about their lives, with the cat she names the winner being sent off to the Heaviside Layer (the E region of the ionosphere, long used to reflect MW radio transmissions) to be reincarnated. There is something very English and drolly quirky about this, which apparently was derived from Eliot’s writing, but it is still mostly gibberish.

What it basically does is facilitate a structure where a bunch of different cats come on and sing one song each about themselves, in a number of different styles (there aren’t many musical references more up to date than the late 1970s, which is when these songs were written). In technical terms, it’s all ‘I Am’ and not much ‘I Want’; what plot there is concerns a scheme by Macavity Cat (Idris Elba), an evil cat with magical powers, to rig the competition for his own benefit. So, basically, it goes: Song about a cat. Song about a cat. Song about a cat. Song about a cat. The songs don’t really refer to each other, nor do they tell a story; this is why turning collections of poetry into musicals is one of the more niche creative disciplines.

Whatever the problems are with the narrative structure the film has inherited from the musical, they are nothing compared to the consequences of the sheer visual impact of the thing. You can kind of see why they’ve got themselves into such a mess here, but the fact remains that the fatal problem with the film is that it does not appreciate the difference between presentational and representational modes of performance, particularly when it comes to cinematic and theatrical contexts. (And, yes, I did write that myself.) Or, to put it another way, in a stage show with a live audience, someone coming on dressed as a cat can be a magical and moving experience. However, Rebel Wilson with cat ears CGI’d onto her head, eating CGI cockroach people, is simply the stuff of nightmares. The characters in this film are obviously not cats. But neither are they people. So what are they? It’s just all kinds of freaky, and not a little confusing. Faced with Victoria Cat, I wasn’t sure whether to give her a piece of fish, or – well, look, I’m not a cat person, but if they all looked as Francesca Hayward does here, I could well be persuaded.

Cats is such a thoroughly weird experience that for a long time I was genuinely unsure if this is a bad movie or not. As a sort of surreal, hallucinogenic Arabesque fantasy, it has a certain kind of colour and energy, and the cast do seem to be trying hard. In the end it does largely boil down to extremely peculiar stagings of light verse put to music, though. It is telling that ‘Memory’, the big show-stopper of Cats, is only very loosely drawn from TS Eliot, and is not from the same source as most of the rest of the songs. Under optimal conditions it is a very pleasant and possibly even affecting little number – here, however, it is given to Jennifer Hudson, who gives it maximum Streep and maximum volume. The results made me want to hide under my seat, I’m afraid.

In the end I am going to stick with my gut instinct and agree with the consensus: Cats is a very bad movie, not because it is poorly made, but because it is fundamentally flawed. I can imagine that a fully animated version of the show might have done reasonably well, and almost certainly wouldn’t have attracted such eviscerating notices. You can certainly admire the skill, talent and nerve that has clearly gone into making such a bold and unusual film. But the film itself is a freakish mutant, and only really worth seeing because things so remarkably misconceived so rarely make it into cinemas.

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Lauren Greenfield’s The Kingmaker is another one of those documentaries taking advantage of the lull in mainstream releases which regularly happens around this time of year. Greenfield herself is not one of those directors who is constantly popping up in the corner of the frame or butting in on the soundtrack, on this occasion at least. She is quite content to let her subject dominate the film. Her subject is also quite content to dominate the film, for she is Imelda Trinidad Romualdez Marcos, former First Lady of the Philippines and poster girl for obscene corruption and bad-taste excess.

The film first finds Mrs Marcos cruising around Manila in her usual stately fashion. When the car stops at a junction, a breathless cry of ‘It’s Imelda!’ goes up amongst the street children hanging around there, for they know they have had a stroke of luck. A forest of small open hands fills the window of Mrs Marcos’ car, and she serenely scatters money in their direction. ‘For the children! For the children!’ declares Mrs Marcos, as a number of short adults attempt to muscle in on her beneficience. ‘Those who have received money, move along!’ barks a stern voice out of frame. It is an edifying spectacle.

Mrs Marcos continues her progress, reflecting on the fact that, actually, being First Lady of the Philippines wasn’t all that much fun at the time. ‘The presidential palace, it was a very uncomfortable place to live,’ she recalls, sadly. She does not appear to notice that, even as she is speaking, the car is passing compatriots of hers who are living in bins and under bits of cardboard, which are possibly even less comfortable residences than the presidential palace (as well as presenting far fewer opportunities for lucrative graft).

She eventually arrives at a clinic for children suffering from cancer. Prior to this point, Mrs Marcos’ eyes have resembled two chips of coal shot into a side of ham, but now she wells up with emotion and responds in the empathetic and humble way that only someone with her common touch can. ‘Quick,’ she whispers to an aide, ‘give me some money to hand out.’ All across the city, poor families scrimp and save to get their youngest started on full-strength cigarettes just so they can be in the cancer ward the next time Mrs Marcos makes a visit.

The film is only a few minutes old but already questions are piling up like diamante slingbacks in Mrs Marcos’ famous shoe collection. Is all this just being staged for the camera? Has Imelda Marcos really got no idea of just how she is coming across? Is it possible for anyone to have such little grasp of reality? The director is smart enough to recognise this, but also to realise that the best response is to just let Mrs Marcos speak. All duly becomes clear.

A former beauty queen who became the wife of the Filipino president and sometime dictator Ferdinand Marcos, it is clear that Mrs Marcos took to politics like a particularly resplendent duck to water. One of her roles was to travel the world as a sort of proxy president (a slide-show of horrors ensues, showing her meetings with Chairman Mao, Fidel Castro, Colonel Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Prince Charles and a pre-politics Donald Trump), although the exact reason for this is disputed. One school of thought has it that Marcos himself was afraid that if he left the country he would instantly be overthrown, so he sent the wife instead. Another suggests that her foreign missions were basically a pretext for Ferdy to get her out of the way so he could sleep around with other women.

Nevertheless, Mrs Marcos still regards herself as mother of her nation (possibly the world), bringer of world peace, ender of the cold war, and so on. Brain-meltingly tasteless artworks scattered around the Marcos home commemorate her various achievements, although not her role in embezzling hundreds of billions of dollars from the Filipino people. In a way she is an ideal subject for this kind of film: she is perfectly happy to talk at length about her life, and seemingly almost completely oblivious to her own public image or the impression she is making. All Lauren Greenfield needs to do is occasionally intercut a contribution from another interviewee with more of a grip on reality (which is to say, any kind of grip on reality). One of the topics the film keeps returning to is Mrs Marcos’ typically unhinged scheme to start a safari park in the Philippines, complete with imported zebras and giraffes. ‘We found a place with no people and put the animals there,’ she informs the audience, solemnly. On comes a villager to relate how she and her family were forcibly uprooted to make way for this particular folie de grandeur. ‘I hate giraffes,’ adds the woman, sadly.

Initially it all seems like a black comedy mixed up with a reminder of the perverse politics of the cold war period – a time when many US policy makers subscribed to the palpably foolish idea that the only way to preserve democracy was by propping up dictators. Inevitably, though, it all came crashing down, although Mrs Marcos seems assured of her innocence: ‘I was too kind to him,’ she says of Benigno Aquino, an opposition leader who was assassinated, while later, we finally get a reference to that famous shoe collection – ‘When they searched my closet, they did not find skeletons, only beautiful shoes,’ she smirks.

It’s a half-decent line, and Mrs Marcos seems quite happy to trade on her shoe-loving reputation, but it neglects the fact that there are genuine skeletons in the closet where her family is concerned. The way in which the film shifts gear and tone to incorporate testimonies from some of those who were incarcerated, tortured and abused during the eight-year period of martial law instituted by Marcos is impressively done, but is part of a more general change as the film continues.

You might consider Imelda Marcos to be a grotesque joke from history, her family irretrievably disgraced. You would be wrong. This movie is called The Kingmaker for a reason, for it increasingly concerns Mrs Marcos’ attempts to get her son Bongbong into power, not least so he can restore the family reputation. Bongbong is running for vice-president of the Philippines, but the family history seems to be causing him a few issues. If I were the president of the Philippines, this would probably be a source of relief, for I would really not want my heartbeat to be the one keeping a Marcos from genuine power. However, the actual president is a man called Duterte, another of those populist strongmen the world is currently plagued by, and it transpires some of those Marcos billions played a part in getting him elected. By the end of the film, it is clear there are forces in play who are not about to let a simple thing like democracy stand between Bongbong and his rightful place.

It is a sombre, ominous conclusion, and turns what at one point felt like a somewhat gonzo piece of historical biography, with inconvenient facts pinging off Imelda Marcos’ gargantuan self-regard like pea-shooter pellets off a zeppelin, into a genuinely disturbing cautionary tale. God knows that we in the west have no right to criticise citizens of other countries for being conned by grotesque egotists whose sense of entitlement is matched only by their flexible attitude to the truth, but if a mob like the Marcos family can make a comeback then we really are in trouble as a species. However, that’s hardly Lauren Greenfield’s fault: she has made an outstanding documentary, funny, powerful, moving, infuriating and disturbing. This is possibly a very important film: it is a shame most people will be barely aware of it.

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Richard Fleischer’s Fantastic Voyage (1966) starts off looking like a conventional thriller of its era: a plane makes a night-time landing, someone in a hat that screams ‘spy’ observes a distinguished-looking older gentleman getting off, pausing to shake the hand of Stephen Boyd as he does so, a motorcade zooms away, enemy agents attack it, and so on, and so on. Only with the onset of the opening credits does one get a sense that this movie is going to be a little further out there: the camera zooms in on the egg-like dome of the older gentleman, now receiving medical attention, teletype rattles across the screen, there are radiophonic pinging and boinging noises. It’s still very sixties, but in a rather different mode.

Soon enough we are back in the plot, with Boyd being picked up by some spooks and delivered to a secret underground base. Keeping the underground base a secret is no small feat (literally) as it is a whopper, as secret bases go. Most people working there travel around on little buggies rather than walking about: that’s how big it is. This is particularly ironic as it turns out it is the secret base of the Department for Shrinking Things (they have another name in the script, but it basically means the same thing). Too bad the Department for Shrinking Things couldn’t shrink their own HQ a bit.

Well, it turns out the chief problem with the Department for Shrinking Things’ shrink-ray is that it only works for an hour before things revert, potentially messily, to their original size: one of those conveniently precise drawbacks one so often finds in pulp SF. The secret of extending the miniaturisation period has been discovered by the older gentleman, but a blood clot in his brain threatens to kill him before he can share his breakthrough with the west.

All this proves to essentially be maguffinery, designed to get us to the high concept for this particular movie:  to remove the clot and save the patient’s life, a small submarine is going to be made considerably smaller and injected into the man’s bloodstream, this allowing a brilliant brain surgeon to carry out an operation as an inside job, so to speak. The brain surgeon is Arthur Kennedy, his winsome young assistant is Raquel Welch (in her movie debut), commanding the mission is Donald Pleasence, and Stephen Boyd will also be going along to keep an eye on things (there are some suspicions that there could be a traitor on the team).

And off they all go: the shrink ray even works on Raquel Welch’s hair, although it remains proportionately about three times bigger than one would expect for a woman her height and build. This is one of those SF movies aimed at a general audience for whom, it seems to be assumed, the simple fact of something science-fictional going on will be endlessly fascinating. So the actual shrinking sequence lasts about ten minutes, for no very obvious reason.

Then, before you can say ‘whoosh’, they are underway, cruising through the bloodstream. Needless to say, things do not go according to plan: one so rarely comes across Hollywood movies where a fistula is crucial to the plot, but this is one of them. Given the batty nature of the story, it hardly seems fair to single any particular moments out as being especially contrived, even though they seem it: they have to travel through the heart, which has to be briefly stopped while they do so; there’s a stop-off in the lungs to refill the air tanks; a detour through the lymphatic system results in the sub being covered in loft insulation. Raquel Welch is attacked by antibodies which cover her in plasticky crystals – she is nearly trampled in the rush as the rest of the crew surges forward to peel the stuff from her wet-suited person. And so on, and so on. In the end the traitor is revealed; his identity should come as no great surprise, given the presence of Pleasence, who sometimes seems to have a genuine problem not being icily sinister in any of his roles.

There was a popular misconception floating around, for a number of years at least, that Isaac Asimov was somehow involved in scripting Fantastic Voyage. Apparently the limit of his involvement was writing the tie-in novelisation, in which he duly did his best to fix some of the problems with scientific accuracy and various other plot holes. There are, as you can probably imagine, many of these, the main one being that come the end of the film, no-one has bothered to extract the submarine from within the patient – which means it should revert to normal size somewhere inside his head, with presumably messy results. Apparently there was a line supposedly explaining this which didn’t make it into the final edit – the operation turns out to be successful, in that the defector survives, but he suffers minor brain damage from having a wrecked submarine in his skull and forgets the bit of information everyone was after to begin with.

The finished movie isn’t big on this kind of irony, or indeed humour of any sort. It takes itself very seriously, and I imagine the makers would say that this is the only approach to be taken with this kind of outlandish story – you can’t run the risk of appearing to send yourself up. Well, there is something to be said for dour naturalism, but it is not the easiest of bedfellows when put next to the visual component of this film: naturalistic is hardly the word for this.

There’s a difference between presentational and representational storytelling: the representational kind apparently ignores the audience and strives for absolute realistic naturalism. Presentational storytelling acknowledges the presence of the audience (and, implicitly, its own existence as a piece of fiction), either explicitly or implicitly. Musical theatre and pantomime are usually presentational; so, arguably, is a lot of genre fiction, simply because it adheres to genre conventions. The script and performance style of Fantastic Voyage are both working hard to be representational and naturalistic (or as close as they can manage in a genre movie). The visuals and special effects, however, are something else again – the garish, surreal visions of the interior of the human body may have won an Oscar fifty years ago, but they just seem trippy today. The consequence is that the film feels camp more than anything else – not intentionally camp, but nevertheless camp.

In the end, it’s a watchable kind of camp, and it does help you overlook all the various plot holes in the story. Most of the performances are not especially memorable (Pleasence is the predictable exception), and Raquel Welch is about as ornamental as you would expect, although she does seem to be working hard to find places to act. Fantastic Voyage passes the time agreeably enough, but whatever reputation it has derives more from its memorable visuals and the strength of its concept than any real distinction in the rest of the film.

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One thing I have noticed in recent years is that early to mid December has quietly become a very good time to find a decent documentary at the local cinema, often enjoying a wider release than you might expect. When you think about it, the reason for this is obvious: hardly anybody wants their movie to only be on release for a single week (this does happen, but only when a movie tanks fairly spectacularly), but at the same time everyone in the industry is fully cognisant of the fact that come the end of the month, the Mouse House will have exerted its usual leverage and the latest stellar conflict movie will be playing seventeen times a day, filling up nearly every screen in town. So nobody wants to release their movies the week before such a major release, opening up a gap in the schedule which documentary makers happily fill.

Of course, it isn’t always a terribly big gap, which is why Max Lewkowicz’s Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles is only showing once a day, usually at lunchtimes, in Oxford’s leading purveyor of snack foods and occasional screener of the odd film. Normally I am slightly relieved to find myself the sole punter at the showing of a movie – it means the standard of behaviour in the auditorium has a better chance of being acceptable, if nothing else – but on this occasion I was just a little saddened to find myself the only person present, if only because it indicated that not enough people near where I live love Fiddler on the Roof.

I mean, it seems very straightforward to me – if you have a functional soul and set of emotions, and you don’t love Fiddler on the Roof, then it basically means you must not be familiar with it yet. It’s that sort of show. As the title might suggest, the makers of Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles are on more or less the same page as me (the fact that one of the contributors to the film has previously produced a book called Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof further suggests that people’s minds tend to run along the same sorts of lines when it comes to thinking up names for these things). They are here to first and foremost celebrate the show, not critique it.

I wrote about the 1971 movie version of Fiddler on the Roof a few years ago. The show is one of the great musicals, massively and enduringly popular – one of the many fascinating factoids the documentary serves up is that, since it originally opened in 1964, there has been at least one performance of the show somewhere in the world every single day.  It concerns the various travails of Tevye, a Jewish milkman blessed with more daughters than he really knows what to do with, living in a shtetl in Russia at some point near the start of the 20th century. There’s a bit more to it than just being a musical about anti-Semitic prejudice, but this is still a fundamental element of this beautiful, bittersweet show.

The documentary, naturally, assumes the audience will already be familiar with this, and focuses on the story behind the story. It initially looks like there’s been some kind of miscommunication, as the film opens with a series of aerial shots of Manhattan, which inevitably put one in mind of how the movie of West Side Story begins. Before things get too confusing, the camera closes in on the roof of one apartment building, upon which sits – you guessed it – a man with a violin. Soon enough he is picking out the opening phrases of the show’s score. Whether you think opening a film about Fiddler on the Roof with a sequence with an actual fiddler on an actual roof is witty or cheesy is probably a question of personal taste, but it’s a reasonable opening for a film which ends up digressing down some unexpected byways over the course of its 97 minutes.

One of the things that does become apparent is that Fiddler on the Roof and West Side Story have a good deal in common – obviously, both are products of the New York musical theatre culture of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and both were originally directed by Jerome Robbins. Any documentary about his work basically says the same thing about Robbins: he was a difficult, conflicted man, and yes, he was brilliant, but yes, he could also be horrible to everyone around him. This film doesn’t really have much time to dig deeper than that, mainly because it has so many other things it wants to cover.

To be honest, Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles has so much on its to-do list it ends up feeling a bit rushed and disjointed. There’s the story of how the original production reached the stage, then a little bit on the making of the movie, and it touches on a few other distinguished revivals and productions too. Actors reflect on what the show means to them. There is some insight into the life of Sholem Aleichem, writer of the original stories, and the historical setting of the piece. The film’s credentials as a piece of emancipatory feminist theatre are discussed. And so on, and so on.

It doesn’t feel like there’s any real structure, just a grab-bag of material – if they had to raid the show’s lyrics for a title, ‘a little bit of this, a little bit of that’ would have been equally appropriate – but the film stays very watchable simply because the interviewees are engaging, the stories they tell are enlightening and funny, and the film-makers have found some fascinating clips to include: in addition to bits of performances from various productions (from Broadway, the Chichester Festival Theatre, Tokyo – in Japanese – and a university show in Thailand, amongst others), they find the Temptations doing a very funky cover of ‘If I Were A Rich Man’, a hardcore punk version of the same song by the band Yidcore, Topol and Danny Kaye singing together in Hebrew on US TV in the 1960s, and home video of Lin-Manuel Miranda leading a production number from the show at his own wedding reception. (This has done more to make me understand why he has become such a big star than any of his other movies or performances, but it does leave one with the impression that Lin-Manuel Miranda is one of those people who believes they are always on stage, even when they are not actually on stage.)

You do get a very strong sense of just how universal the appeal of this show is, along with its capacity to grab and move an audience. (Personally I think that, in terms of the movies at least, West Side Story has a tiny edge when it comes to the brilliance of the songs and staging, but Fiddler on the Roof is the one that will really break your heart.) What’s also notable is that it’s impossible to change the setting and context of the story in more than the most superficial of ways – it may look very weird to see a Japanese actor in a fake beard and a prayer shawl biddy-biddy-bumming away on stage, but this most widely-loved of shows is also intensely specific. The film does not address this apparent contradiction, but this is probably quite a wise thing to do – the paradox of how the personal becomes the universal is one of the mysteries of great art, and isn’t something you can quickly or easily explore.

Any second-order film of this kind is basically setting itself a challenge: a documentary about Fiddler on the Roof is never going to be as satisfying to watch as Fiddler on the Roof itself, so if you’re interested in Fiddler on the Roof, why not just go direct to the source? You should certainly watch Fiddler on the Roof before you see this movie. Then again, you should watch Fiddler on the Roof even if you have no plans to see this movie. (I think a theme develops.) The documentary is very engaging, though, and warm, and offers enough information and insight to be more than worthwhile viewing. I did come out of it wanting to watch the movie again, though. And the full Japanese stage show. And the Chichester production. And if Lin-Manuel Miranda ever gets married again, I would quite like an invitation to the reception. One of the things the show suggests is that a man can always dream (daidle deedle daidle daidle dum).

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Off to the cinema, just for a change – it gets me out of the house when I’m not working, if nothing else.

‘One for Ordinary… erm… Life?’ I requested, finding myself struggling to recall the exact wording of the title.

Ordinary People,’ chimed in the cinema manager, with (as it turned out) a wholly unwarranted aura of cheerful confidence.

Ordinary Love,’ said the minion actually operating the ticket apparatus.

Well, if we could agree about one thing, it was that the film was certainly ordinary. I do wonder if the people who name films often think ahead to the possible consequences of some of their choices. There’s a good reason why no-one, to my knowledge, has released a movie called Complete Trash. Would Ordinary Love prove to be quite as unremarkable as its title suggested?

One way to find out: off up to the theatre (probably the smallest in Oxford) which remained almost entirely unoccupied and annoyingly over-illuminated for the next couple of hours (but then it was a midweek lunchtime showing). Then it was time for my theory that you can get a pretty good sense of what a movie is going to be like from the trailers running in front of it to take a bit of a kicking, as we were treated to yet another promo for the new Jumanji film (currently the recipient of the saturation publicity treatment, in the hope of prying a few viewers away from the looming stellar conflict juggernaut), a potentially-gimmicky looking film about the First World War, and no fewer than three trailers for social justice movies about the black experience in contemporary America.

None of which really had much in common with Lisa Sarros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn’s film, which concerns a married couple living (it would seem, not that it particularly matters) somewhere in Ulster. This is a bit of a case of big stars carrying a modest movie, as they are played by Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson. They are retired (although I found myself imagining that Neeson would still occasionally pop out to deliver the odd vengeful beating to a deserving target) and live a comfortable life in every sense of the word: they are not especially demonstrative, but then there is no reason for them to be. Manville and Neeson evoke this atmosphere of relaxed, easy intimacy superbly.

And then, of course, something changes: Manville’s character, Joan, discovers a lump in one of her breasts. Quite sensibly she and Tom (Neeson’s character) decide to get it checked out. Initial tests are inconclusive, but the definitive news, when it comes, is bad (as one might expect, given that ‘woman turns out not to have cancer’ isn’t much of a premise for a movie). She is prescribed surgery, then a gruelling course of chemotherapy, and then further preventative surgery at the end of it all. It is a hard road, and one which inevitably puts a strain on what initially seems like the unshakeable bond which they share.

So, obviously, this is not exactly escapist entertainment (or, if it is, I shudder to imagine what your personal situation must be like). No matter how well made it is, one has to wonder what the point of yet another cancer movie is: God knows there have been enough of them in the past, after all. Is it just a case of this being a calculated pact between performers and film-makers? This is the kind of film where the performances attract awards attention, while such a determinedly low-key movie would probably struggle to even get noticed without stars of the calibre of Neeson and Manville raising its profile.

And there is a further point to be made, probably. One has to be fairly lucky these days, I think, not to feel the baleful touch of King Crab upon one’s own life: my own tally includes two aunts, one uncle and a cousin. But it is one of those experiences which is both near-universal and deeply personal at the same time – it is different for everyone, simply because so much depends on the personalities and relationships involved. Furthermore, many films about cancer are not cancer films, they are films about Movie Cancer – a usefully vaguely-defined disease, which usually leaves the afflicted party looking very photogenic right up until their passing becomes imminent, or they reach the hump of their treatment and then make a fairly brisk recovery. Perhaps melodrama is just the default setting for this kind of movie – making any other kind of statement is very difficult, as the more general the message you try to put across, the greater the danger of just saying something glib or facile.

Most of the time, Ordinary Love manages to dodge this particular problem, by being effectively understated and low-key and concentrating on presenting a believable relationship between the two main characters. Most of the movie is essentially a two-hander, one long conversation between Manville and Neeson: and they don’t spend the whole time talking about terminal diseases, either. They talk about brussel sprouts, and feeding their goldfish, and how much beer he’s drinking; they argue about how a Fitbit works. The fact that they don’t discuss the cancer says as much as any protracted dialogue scene could achieve. And when the strain takes its toll and they do argue with each other, you feel it all the more: it has that horrid sense of how people who love each other know the best way to hurt each other, too.

And yet the film blows it, just a little bit, by inserting a subplot about their past: it transpires they had a daughter, who died young, some years earlier. The details are left intentionally vague, but it just feels like something that’s been added to give the characters one more thing to emote about. The film ends up presenting a rather eggy scene with Liam Neeson delivering a monologue to a gravestone that feels slightly corny and rather out-of-character for the man he is playing here. It does risk tipping the film over into melodrama: living with cancer is something many people can relate to, but being hit by cancer after losing a child pushes things slightly towards Book of Job territory.

It’s a shame, because this is the only real blip in an otherwise strong movie. Its success is mostly down to the leads. You almost feel a bit sorry for Lesley Manville, for she has spent most of her career being quietly excellent in films not entirely unlike this one, and praise for her performance may well include words like ‘naturally’ and ‘characteristically’. Liam Neeson, on the other hand, has spent so much time appearing in head-banging action movies over the last decade or so that one is wont to forget just what an effective and understated serious actor he can be. (Maybe he should give Lesley Manville the phone number for Luc Besson.) Perhaps he gets a slightly showier part, but this is still solid work in an impressive movie. Ordinary Love is more than good enough to justify its own existence, and manages to make its theme simple enough to be easily communicated, but not so simple as to be worthless. A fine piece of work.

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Over forty years on, all the movies that Kevin Connor and Doug McClure made together have coalesced in the cultural collective memory into one disreputable, slightly garish lump: probably with a rubber monster of some kind sitting on top if it. They flow together in the mind as well: which is the one with the bi-plane? Which is the one with the giant octopus fight? Which is the one with the iron mole?

The first of the set, The Land That Time Forgot, isn’t any of those. Made in 1975, it is the one boasting a screenplay co-written by legendary author Michael Moorcock (based, of course, on the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs). As a long-time admirer of Moorcock and his work, I am perhaps biased when I say that his contribution gives the film an element of class and intelligence not present in the various follow-ups – the way the film opens and closes with the same sequence gives it a pleasing symmetry and indicates some thought has gone into it.

This material relates to a vestigial frame story which is not much gone into – it is mainly present to recreate the structure of Burroughs’ novel. The tale itself begins in 1916, with a German U-boat sinking a British cargo vessel. This is portrayed entirely from the point of view of the German crew, mainly because the submarine set is essential to the film and the cargo ship is just in this one scene: one of the hallmarks of the film is the way it manages to be thrifty without it being obvious too much of the time. Amongst the survivors are beefy American engineer Bowen Tyler (McClure) and comely English biologist Lisa Clayton (Susan Penhaligon).

Having his ship torpedoed out from under him isn’t much of a problem for a guy like Doug McClure, though: together with the captain of the ship (Keith Barron) and a few other crew members, they board the U-boat when it surfaces to refresh its air supply and take it over, rather to the annoyance of the German captain (John McEnery) and his second in command (Anthony Ainley). (The captain is one of those decent, noble German officers one so often finds in this kind of story, while Ainley is honing the performance as a fanatically malevolent psychopath that would stand him in good stead throughout the 1980s.)

So far the film has been solid, gripping stuff, but now we encounter a significant wobble, as the British seizing control of the ship from the Germans is followed in fairly short order by the Germans seizing control of the ship from the British. And this in turn is followed by the British seizing control of the ship from the Germans, again. This inelegant plotting is all to get the film to where it needs to be: the U-boat ends up lost in the southern Atlantic, low on fuel and supplies.

However, there are glimmers of hope when they come across a mysterious new landmass, surrounded by towering, icy cliffs. The German captain suspects it to be Caprona, discovered centuries earlier by an Italian explorer who was unable to make landfall due to the cliff barrier. The existence of an underwater passageway means the U-boat could penetrate the interior of Caprona, thus possibly giving them access to the supplies they so desperately need.

Well, after a tense passage and a few dings to the sub, the voyagers find themselves in a lush, tropical paradise. Finally we get the first of the rubber dinosaurs we have been impatiently awaiting, and rather superior they are too. This is no consolation to the crew of the U-boat, who find themselves on the lunch menu of the plesiosaurs and mosasaurs infesting the river they are on.

Still, at least the skirmish provides the hungry sailors with some fresh provisions. ‘Should one drink red or white wine with plesiosaur?’ wonders Keith Barron. More pressing concerns supplant correct etiquette, however: there are places in Caprona where crude oil springs from the ground, raising the possibility of refueling the sub. However, in addition to the dinosaurs, there are ape men here too – and the natives may not be friendly…

Well, regular visitors may recall my recent cri de coeur about the BBC non-adaptation of The War of the Worlds, which effectively threw away all but the most fundamental details of the original novel and ended up being almost wholly unsatisfactory as a result. Here, perhaps, we have an example of the opposite situation – an adaptation which on the whole stays remarkably faithful to the source text, to the point where it impacts on the film’s success as such.

The issue is that this is a pulp adventure – superior pulp, to be sure, but still pulp. Burrough’s plot is episodic, consisting of a series of exploits and adventures undertaken by a group of thinly-characterised individuals. There’s no sense of it building to anything, or a central issue heading towards resolution – just a series of set-piece action and special effects sequences. These are often well-mounted, but the film still feels more like a theme park ride than an actual narrative.

The closest thing to a big idea the film contains is the revelation of how life functions on Caprona. To say that this is non-Darwinian is to rather understate the matter: populations don’t evolve in the usual manner here, but individual creatures progress through the different stages of evolution in the course of their lifetime as they travel across the landscape (they apparently feel compelled to constantly travel northward towards the sea). It’s a curious idea, but the film doesn’t really do anything with it – we never see it happening and it doesn’t inform the plot in any meaningful way. Full marks to Moorcock and co-writer James Cawthorn for retaining it, but you almost wish they’d found a way to do something more interesting with the notion.

However, while the film’s weaknesses may have been inherited from the source novel, its strengths are all its own. This is a classy looking movie, not nearly as garish or silly as some of its successors (At the Earth’s Core, I’m looking at you) – the period detail is well done, with a nicely grimy feel to it. The presence of many solid British actors (there are many familiar TV faces scattered through the cast list) gives the movie a further touch of class.

Even the dinosaurs, usually the weak link in this kind of movie, are a cut above what you might expect. They are the work of Roger Dicken, a man with a relatively brief but nevertheless hugely interesting CV as a special effects technician – we can overlook the rubber bats he provided for Scars of Dracula, given that a decade later he created the facehugger for Alien. Doubtless for cost reasons, Dicken doesn’t go with the traditional stop-motion dinosaurs, or even men in suits, but opts for glove-puppet dinosaurs instead. I fear I may be damning Dicken and the movie with faint praise if I say that these are some of the best glove-puppet dinosaurs in the history of cinema. The only time the special effects really aren’t up to scratch comes in a sequence where McClure is menaced by some implausibly rigid and stately pterodactyls, but even Ray Harryhausen struggled to make this sort of thing work.

It’s a sign of the general quality of the movie that the dinosaurs only feel like one element of a bigger adventure, rather than the sine qua non of the whole thing. It’s true that the acting is not great, but then it doesn’t really need to be: the movie sets out to be a pulp adventure, and on those terms it’s a successful one: you can see why it was such a commercial success. You still have to wonder if there was some way of preserving the essentially Burroughs-iness of the story while coming up with a more dynamic and satisfying plot, but I still think a film like this is far preferable to an in-name-only updating of the book.

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