One of the subtle pleasures of adulthood that they don’t tell you about as a youngling is the opportunity to revisit things from your childhood many years later and see how they match up to your fond recollections. Sometimes they do; sometimes they don’t – c’est la vie, as we say in the language classroom. The modern world being what it is, you don’t even have to spend hours and months trawling through second-hand bookshops in order to track down some half-remembered volume from your youth: chances are it’s already available for Kindle download. So it proved when some half-formed impulse made me return to Douglas Hill’s The Last Legionary books, nearly 35 years after I first encountered them.

At the time I didn’t get to the library that often, so my long-suffering mother would trundle off there every couple of weeks and return with a pile of sci-fi and fantasy books selected almost at random from the municipal library’s impressive collection. Most of these were pretty unmemorable and I remember labouring through a lot of them quite joylessly; I seem to recall (though, caveat lector, this was 35 years ago) that Monica Hughes’ The Keeper of the Isis Light was a particular ordeal (in the interests of balance I should probably have another look at that, too). Douglas Hill’s books were different, however: they were snappily written and easy to read, an absolute pleasure at the time.

The story concerns the adventures of Keill Randor, the last surviving inhabitant of the planet Moros (not surprisingly, Keill’s isolation does mean he tends to be quite morose, ha ha). This being pulp SF, he is an exceptional member of a planet of superb warriors, the greatest fighters in the Inhabited Galaxy (who, needless to say, only hire out their services to the virtuous and deserving). Evil forces are at work behind the galactic scenes, however, and as the first book in the main series (Galactic Warlord) opens, Moros has been cleansed of all life by a devastating radiation weapon. By a fluke, Keill Randor was not killed along with everyone else, but left with a progressive, eventually fatal dose of radiation, and he is doing his considerable best to find whoever killed his planet before he succumbs to his condition.

Well, it doesn’t quite work out that way, as Keill is gathered up by a secret cabal of benevolent geniuses who have determined the existence of a malevolent being attempting to plunge the galaxy into conflict and bloodshed; this individual they have christened the Warlord, though they have no idea who or where he is. Their plan is for Keill Randor to act as their agent in the galaxy, and he is initially reluctant, even after they have cured his terminal condition (by replacing his irradiated bones with a synthetic alloy, naturally).

By the end of the first volume Keill has come to accept the existence of the Warlord and his role in slaughtering the Legions of Moros; he has also discovered the existence of the Warlord’s elite cadre of followers, the Deathwing, and sorted one of them out (with extreme prejudice). The next two books in the series, Deathwing over Veynaa and Day of the Starwind, move the story along in unflashy style – while investigating a planetary rebellion, Keill encounters the man directly responsible for the death of his people, and then later discovers a plan to breed legions of clone warriors in the Warlord’s service, happening on a planet with the worst weather in the galaxy.

Everything comes to an appropriately rousing conclusion in Planet of the Warlord, in which Randor discovers the true nature of his opponent, is briefly brainwashed by him into becoming one of his agents, and then recovers his identity so a final reckoning with the Warlord can take place.

The series also contains a further prequel volume, Young Legionary, which is basically a series of very loosely linked short stories concerning the teenage years of Keill Randor on Moros. I would advise reading these ahead of the main series, not least because they do flesh out the society and culture of Moros – well, a bit at least – making it seem like an actual place, rather than the vague piece of backstory from the other books.

So how does this series stand up to the harsh light of 2018? Well, you can’t really get away from the fact that these are juvenile pulp SF books, aimed at an audience of (most likely) pre-adolescent boys. Characterisation is minimal, the plots are pretty simplistic, and the emphasis is very much on non-stop action and adventure – the books have subheadings like ‘Betrayal in Space’ and ‘Asteroid Apocalypse’. They were written between 1979 and 1982, so very much qualify as being part of the post-stellar conflict boom in this sort of thing. Some people have suggested they are basically a simplified version of the same sort of story as in the Lensman series; I wouldn’t know about that (my to-read list keeps getting longer), but the books enthusiastically make use of all sorts of Golden Age SF tropes – needle guns, vibro-knives, mutant telepaths, cloning, and so on.

Keill himself is a protagonist in the classic mould, with his secret special power (his unbreakable bones usually save him at least once a book), and his alpha-male peak human strength, stamina, reflexes, and unarmed combat skills (‘a cybernetic Bruce Lee’ in the words of one not-wholly-impressed reviewer at the time). He’s a man on a mission with no time for soppy stuff like feelings or romance – just as well, because there’s only one major female character in the whole sequence, and that’s Keill’s alien sidekick Glr, a sort of psychic pterodactyl. Keill Randor doesn’t muck about: he’s an action man.

The books are regularly punctuated by sequences of Randor leaping into action against one or many opponents, and reading the whole series back-to-back one inevitably becomes a little fatigued by all the references to ‘flashing chops’, ‘crushing elbow smashes’, and so on. The level of violence is much greater than I recalled back at the time – fight scenes invariably conclude with someone having a crushed larynx or an impacted cranium, described in so many words. All good clean fun for the kiddies, I suppose.

One inevitably finds oneself wondering if Hill is attempting to insert any particular subtext into these books. There certainly appears to be an implicit message about self-discipline, self-reliance and rugged individualism. The notion of a superior warrior elite isn’t necessarily a political one in the usual sense of the word, but the opening sequence of Young Legionary in particular inevitably recalls the start of 300, as a pre-teen Keill is left in the wilderness by his people and required to make a hazardous journey, alone and unequipped, in order to qualify to begin his training as a full legionary. The Legions of Moros do seem very similar to the Spartans of antiquity, and – again thanks to 300 – the Spartans are now almost synonymous with a certain kind of muscular right-wing ideology. The tendency for Keill’s featured opponents to be mutants of various kinds – departures from the human norm of which he is such an exemplar – also feels slightly suspect.

It comes as a bit of a surprise, therefore, to learn that Hill was the literary editor of the left-wing newspaper Tribune throughout the period he was writing the Legionary books. I suppose this may just prove that if you move far enough away from the political centre ground, you eventually find yourself approaching it again from the other side. On the other hand, Hill is always at pains to point out that the Legions were not truly acquisitive, not imperialistic, not aggressors: the people of Moros are explicitly identified as collectivists. Even so, it is curious that the final movement of this series reveals it to be a story concerning an individual locked in a death struggle with a truly collectivist entity, a being with the power to consume identity and individualism. Or maybe it isn’t: Hill was apparently a socialist, not a raving communist.

None of the above occurred to me when I was first reading the Legionary books (you may not be greatly surprised to hear), and I’m not sure any of it is really important now. The values of these stories are traditional and – it seems to me – wholly commendable ones: loyalty, honour, restraint, responsibility. You can perhaps take exception to the fact they are so obviously books for boys, and to some of the subject matter (specifically the lovingly-detailed violence), but that’s about all. Looking at them again now, they remain as pacy, diverting and entertaining as they were back in the early eighties. I suppose I should call them a guilty pleasure, but to be honest I’m really struggling to feel at all guilty.


With the Beetle

I do find myself to be somewhat inclined towards a very unbecoming smugness: it is a dreadful flaw in my character, one that I do contend with as the years go by. Is it one of those truisms that a person’s predisposition towards being smug increases in inverse proportion to their actual justification for it? I don’t know: but it is nice, sort of, to occasionally feel pleased with yourself and know you have a very good reason for this.

Or at a least a half-decent reason. Unexpected delights are pretty rare when it comes to the Academy Awards (unexpected anythings are unusual in Oscars territory), but the nomination of Greta Gerwig for best director and best screenplay certainly qualifies. Gerwig has been on my own personal one-to-watch list for years now – mainly as an actress, but given she co-wrote two of the films she has starred in, her move into – how best to put it? – full-blown auteuseship is only the next logical step.

The film in question is Lady Bird, and it is not a political biography, nor a badly punctuated tale of children’s books or obscure superheroines. Saoirse Ronan plays the title role of Christine McPherson, a seventeen-year-old girl growing up somewhat restlessly in Sacramento, back in 2002. Not caring much for her given name, she has decided she wants to be known as ‘Lady Bird’, just one of many things which her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalfe) finds rather exasperating. (Her father (Tracy Letts) is much more laid back about everything.)

The family is just about surviving, although times are tough, and Lady Bird’s determination to apply to (expensive) colleges on the east coast is another cause of friction between her and her mother – not that these are ever in short supply, it would seem: money, her behaviour around the house, her schoolwork, her general attitude…

Over the course of a year, the film follows Lady Bird as she embarks upon a brief theatrical career, launches into a number of possibly unwise romances, attempts to become one of the cool kids at school, and so on. Will she ever reach some kind of understanding with her mother? Is her life ever going to be less sucky and embarrassing?

Well, everyone goes through the same milestone moments in their life, and for some of us, another one has just arrived: this is the first film I’m aware of which treats the early years of the 21st century as the subject of genuine nostalgia. Greta Gerwig has said that Lady Bird is not specifically an autobiographical story, but it’s hard not to see how her own experiences haven’t informed this story, considering that she herself was graduating a Catholic high school in Sacramento at just about the same time this film is set. The noughties nostalgia is handled with a light touch, anyway – it’s certainly not the sine qua non of the movie.

I have seen criticism of Lady Bird suggesting this is just another by-the-numbers high school coming of age movie, with nothing new to offer an audience – well, I’m not sure how it compares to a lot of high school coming of age movies, as this is not a genre of which I regularly partake, but surely the point of this kind of movie is that it deals with universal rites of passage, those elements of growing up which are common to nearly everyone. Part of the charm of this genre is recognising things from one’s own experience, and I have to say I did find Lady Bird to be an extremely endearing film, regardless of how far divorced it is from my own experiences.

The film captures the essence of life as a teenager with great accuracy and skill – the soaring ups, the crushing downs, the unexpected pleasures and disappointments, the little moments of transition – and, particularly, the unintentional self-centred cruelty of which young people are particularly capable, along with their generosity and other virtues. You completely understand why Marion finds her daughter to be such a pain in the neck, yet at the same time Lady Bird never becomes actually unsympathetic.

For a film like this to focus primarily on the mother-daughter relationship is obviously kind of unusual, and this is another thing to make the film distinctive and (in its own subtle way) very much a film of our time. To this we can add a further innovation – if the film has an analogue from previous generations, it might well be Howard Deutsch’s 1986 movie Pretty in Pink, which likewise dealt with themes of popularity, class, and coming of each. However, the key difference here is that that Lady Bird’s realisation of herself as a person does not primarily revolve around getting a great boyfriend, which is the focus of Deutsch’s film. Instead, relationships with family and friends are presented as being of equal significance and value, especially that with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein). It’s probably overstating things to say that this alone marks the film out as one about the female experience which has actually been written and directed by a woman, but it still seems to me to be significant.

Saoirse Ronan has been building a formidable reputation as a young actor of considerable ability for many years now – in a further sign of sensible career management, she appears to have gotten all the dodgy fantasy blockbusters out of the way already – and Lady Bird should do nothing but add to this, as she is effortlessly convincing when playing someone still in their teens. She is well supported by the rest of the cast, especially Metcalfe and Letts – Gerwig shows every sign of having cast the film with enormous shrewdness, considering it features two young actors (Lucas Hedges and Timothee Chalamet) who have appeared in other highly-acclaimed films recently.

As I say, Lady Bird feels very much like a film of the current moment, for all that it has a recent-past setting. For all that, it does not feel like an especially angry or openly political one, as throughout it is warm, charming, and often extremely funny. It would be great for such a positive and tender film to do really well at the Academy Awards this year; we can only hope the voters there are as won over as everyone else has been.

Fairly Young Frankenstein

I was commenting to a colleague just the other day that, when it comes to the great Gothic horror novels of the 19th century, the ones which came to dominate large swathes of popular culture, we are talking about books which are largely unread (and, in the opinion of some people, largely unreadable). And yet we still know the stories, or think we do. To be fair, film-makers have been diligently trying to smuggle elements of the original novels back into films, in defiance of audience expectations, with honestly quite variable results. It’s getting to the point where you have to think quite hard about which elements of (for example) Frankenstein are original to Mary Shelley, and which were inserted into the story by James Whale, Terence Fisher, Kenneth Branagh, Jack Smight, et al.

So how do you approach a new version of Frankenstein these days? Do you go for the ultra purist approach and try to stay completely faithful to the novel, risking audience ennui and having to contend with the fact that it’s hardly structured like a modern screenplay? Or do you decide to be a bit more adventurous, running the risk of losing any trace of what makes this story distinctive in the first place?

On reflection, I would say the former is a much safer bet, but then I did watch Paul McGuigan’s Victor Frankenstein quite recently and it may have had an effect on me. Responsible for the script was Max Landis, who rose to prominence with the rather good Chronicle but has only really had his name on dud films ever since. (Am I giving away the end of this review too early? Hey ho.)

First indications that this is a slightly different take on Frankenstein come right at the start, when the film decides to eschew the traditional setting of central Europe in favour of a circus in Victorian London. Here we meet a nameless hunchback (Daniel Radcliffe), employed as a clown by the circus proprietor. Despite having no formal education or proper materials, the hunchback grows to become an awesomely talented self-taught doctor, anatomist and surgeon. No, honestly he does. The whole film is kind of predicated on this. (I did warn you.)

Well, anyway, the hunchback is in love with the circus trapeze artist (Jessica Brown Findlay), and as a result is quite upset when she falls off one night and nearly dies. However, the hunchback is able to save her with the help of a brilliant medical student who happens to be in the crowd, who goes by the name of Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy).

Frankenstein instantly spots his new friend’s potential and recruits him as an assistant, freeing him from the circus, fixing his hunch, and employing him to do various fiddly bits of stitching to help his private medical research. To make life a bit easier, Frankenstein gives him the name of his suspiciously elusive flatmate, Igor, and the duo embark on a quest to uncover the deeper mysteries of life and death…

It’s a bit difficult to know where to start with Victor Frankenstein, except to say that you have to be somewhat amused by a film which opens with the voiceover line ‘You know this story’ before going on to depart almost entirely from Mary Shelley’s actual plot. Or, to put it another way, any Frankenstein movie in which the actual animation of the creature doesn’t take place until ten minutes before the end has obviously got serious issues.

What on Earth is it about for the first hour and a half, then? Well, this being a modern movie, it doesn’t really want to saddle itself with a lot of baggage about sin and hubris and the arrogance of man trying to supplant God in the cosmos, even though this is to a large extent what Frankenstein is actually about. Instead, we get a never-knowingly-underwrought tale of the friendship between Frankenstein and Igor. It’s true that this is an aspect of the Frankenstein story which has never before been explored in detail. On the other hand, this may just be because doing a Frankenstein movie where Igor is the hero is a bafflingly stupid idea.

If nothing else it does suggest a certain familiarity with the James Whale version of Frankenstein from 1931 – although, if we’re going to be strictly accurate about this, the first time a character called Igor appears as Frankenstein’s hunchbacked assistant is in Mel Brooks’ spoof version of the story from 1974. The script seems to treat the whole Frankenstein canon as fair game, anyway, stealing bits from many different versions: Frankenstein needing someone to do the fiddly work for him comes from a couple of the Hammer movies, for example, while the fact that Victor had a brother named Henry Frankenstein is another nod to the 1931 film (in which Frankenstein’s name was changed).

When it starts trying to be its own thing, though, the film generally becomes exasperatingly odd very quickly. Landis seems to be under the impression that the key difference between Victorian London – the exact period is obscure – and the present day is that people wore big hats and cravats and long frocks. Uneducated circus folk are able to pass in high society with no difficulty at all, for instance. There’s also frequent tonal uncertainty – Frankenstein’s initial project is a homuncular beast largely made from bits of chimpanzee, and to be fair it’s an unsettling creation – until you’re reminded that Frankenstein has christened it ‘Gordon’ for no very obvious reason.

One of the main influences on this film is nothing to do with Frankenstein, anyway: Paul McGuigan was the initial director on Sherlock and this is really reminiscent of that show at its most self-consciously stylish. McAvoy’s performance is very much like Cumberbatch at his most shoutily eccentric, while possibly the best thing in the film is Andrew Scott’s performance as a police detective in pursuit of Frankenstein for his own reasons. Even Mark Gatiss turns up, although he only gets one line (you can’t help thinking that Gatiss must have a great Frankenstein adaptation in him somewhere).

I suppose I shouldn’t be too unpleasant about McAvoy, as he’s only playing the character as it was written. You can tell that, in a ‘straight’ adaptation of Frankenstein, he would probably be brilliant. The thing is that I suspect the makers of this film would argue that it is really is a ‘straight’ Frankenstein, and sincerely mean it. But it isn’t. It’s the kind of film where there’s an outbreak of slo-mo or CGI every five minutes, just to stop the audience getting bored, where all of the original ideas have been purged in favour of ‘character-based personal drama’ (i.e. soapy nonsense). The movie’s big idea is that Frankenstein created Igor every bit as much as the more famous creature – well, in this film he does, but then (as we’ve discussed) Igor is hardly a core element of the Frankenstein story, especially not as he’s presented here. So what is the point of this film? What is it actually about? Apart from a few scenes here and there, what has it honestly got to do with Mary Shelley’s story? I can see very little connection, and it’s not even imaginative or competent enough to be as much fun as some of the wackier Hammer Frankenstein sequels. A waste of talent, potential, and time.

Skate Angry

One of the more ignoble moments of my teaching career came a few years ago when an interesting young woman attempted to strangle me in the middle of a spoken skills lesson. (Relax, I survived.) The casus belli for this particular outbreak of classroom strife was my decision to share with the students my belief that ice dancing is not, when you come down to it, really a proper sport, primarily because it is not objectively scored. (It turned out she had been a fairly serious competitor in this particular discipline in her younger years.) What can I say – never afraid to court controversies on the big issues of the day, that’s me.

I seem to find myself having the same discussion every four years during the world’s premier festival of gravity-dependent sport, a.k.a. the Winter Olympics. Now, it’s not like I’m a particular fan of even the aestival outbreak of this particular event – while the rest of the population of the UK was entranced by the opening ceremony of the London Games, I was locked away in a room by myself watching Gamera the Invincible over the internet – but I generally find myself particularly unmoved by the snowy version, partly due to the arbitrary oddness of many of the events, but also because so much of it is, let’s face it, subjectively scored.

Perhaps it is the very realisation of the dubious nature of their activities that has left so many winter sports athletes prone to outbreaks of sudden, savage violence. Or maybe not. Certainly concerning itself with an act of violence, not to mention figure skating, is Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya, which is almost certainly the best Winter Olympics-related movie ever made.

Like many people I was vaguely aware of the scandal at the 1994 Winter Olympics concerning the rivalry between the skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan and startling way in which it developed: in the USA, however, Harding became hugely infamous, one of the most recognisable and widely-hated figures in the country. Gillespie’s film does not so much attempt to rehabilitate her reputation as tell her story with a minimum of bias.

Of course, this is quite difficult as relations between all the key players in the story are adversarial, to say the least, and their various accounts of what happens differ when it comes to some of the essential facts. The film cheerfully embraces this – this is a pretty cheerful film all round, when you consider it – and ploughs into the morass of trying to establish just who knew what and when, regardless.

Harding is mostly played by the Australian actress (and now, I note, film producer) Margot Robbie (Kerrigan, played by Caitlin Carver, is a fairly minor character). Robbie seems to have figured out that your best chance of winning an Oscar (and thus progressing to a properly lucrative role in a superhero franchise) is to take on a role which requires you to de-prettify yourself. This is certainly one of those – Harding is a girl from, as they say, the wrong side of the tracks, a self-described redneck, described by others as white trash. Her situation is only compounded by the less than maternal influence of her mother (a performance of hag-like monstrosity from Allison Janney), and later an allegedly abusive relationship with her boyfriend-then-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan).

Despite all this, Harding’s genuine ability as a skater, particularly her unique mastery of the apparently-quite-tricky triple-Axel, whatever one of those is, gets her near to the top of the tree in the world of US skating. This is despite the general contempt she received from the skating establishment because of her deportment, styling and background. The decision to bring the Winter Olympics forward to 1994 provides her with an unexpected second chance at a medal, which she embraces.

And here we come to what the film refers to as ‘the incident’ – an assault on Harding’s chief rival Kerrigan, when she was bashed on the kneecap during a training session by a goon in the employ of… well herein lies the tale. Who was responsible? Was this a premeditated attack ordered by members of the Harding camp (effectively Tonya and Jeff)? Or a bit of private initiative on the part of an enterprising associate?

The film ducks out of attempting a definitive answer, quite properly suggesting that we’ll never be completely certain on this one, until someone owns up anyway. Through a neat bit of cinematic ju-jitsu the film exploits the fact it has multiple, equally unreliable narrators to comic effect – ‘This never happened,’ Harding informs the camera during one scene, while we are told that ‘this next part is completely untrue’ by Gillooly shortly afterwards.

Weirdly, the fact that at least some of it must not actually have happened as presented here does not make the narrative of the film at all confused, and the way it manages to keep its feet on the ground as a drama as well as simply a grotesque, absurd black comedy is also quite impressive. It doesn’t shy away from the fact that Harding spent much of her early life in circumstances where domestic violence was a given, and these scenes are (mercifully) not played for laughs. There is even some implied criticism of the skating establishment for its snobbery towards Harding (although given the whole basis of the sport is subjective, it’s not a massive surprise, if you ask me).

Having said all that, events surrounding the attack on Kerrigan is the meat of the film – ‘the part you’ve been waiting for’, in Harding’s words – and this is very much presented as an absurd black comedy, particularly the role of Gillooly and his fantasist buddy Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser). In the end, though, the film remains compassionate towards Harding, and the scenes depicting the fall-out of the incident and its impact on her life are unexpectedly moving.

There is, of course, a degree of technical trickery involved in turning Margot Robbie into an Olympic ice skater – that software which digitally pastes one person’s face onto another person’s body may be banned in some contexts, but not movie theatres – but her performance is very strong throughout. Opposite her is Sebastian Stan, an actor who has appeared in many highly successful movies (principally the Marvel series), but not a genuine star in his own right yet – his performance here should do something to rectify that. Neither of them quite match the astonishing awfulness of Janney’s character, but this really is one of those stranger-than-fiction scenarios. Let’s just say the strength of the performances matches the outlandishness of the characters.

I, Tonya studiously avoids sports movie cliches, but then this is not quite your typical sports movie. It’s about sports, certainly, but the story concerns itself more with other things – it’s a character piece about Harding, but also a film which touches upon issues such as the modern media, American attitudes to class and background, and even – fleetingly – the nature of truth itself. It’s also thoroughly engaging and often very funny. I’m not sure it’s quite politically correct enough to really do well at the Oscars this year, but I enjoyed it a lot – always assuming my subjective opinion is worth anything, of course.

Sleeping with the Fishes

It increasingly seems to me that the process by which major movie awards are decided resembles that by which the Catholic Church creates new saints: every aspect of a prospective candidate’s past and character is meticulously examined for doctrinal and moral purity and correctness. Old skeletons are wont to get dragged out of cupboards like nobody’s business. There was much grumbling last year when Casey Affleck eventually won the Best Actor Oscar for Manchester by the Sea, given some controversies in his past; the same thing seems likely to impact Gary Oldman’s chances in the same category this year. It’s almost as though the gong is handed out not for the work in question, but their personal conduct throughout their lifetime.

This applies to whole films as much as individuals, although in this case the vetting process can get a bit more abstract: one of the key obstacles which can rise up in a movie’s way is that of plagiarism, however you dress it up. Drawing particular flak in this department at the moment is Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. There have been allegations from the family of the writer responsible that this film draws unacceptably heavily from the plot of a TV play entitled Let Me Hear You Whisper. The acclaimed French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet has also weighed in, complaining that del Toro refuses to admit that the movie reuses elements of his own 1991 film Delicatessen.

This is really par for the course for many films these days. What I do find rather surprising is the fact that no-one is really saying much about the fact that The Shape of Water is essentially, if not a remake of Jack Arnold’s classic monster movie Creature from the Black Lagoon, then so heavily indebted to it as to have no significant independent identity of its own. Or perhaps it’s just the case that the homage is so very obvious that it’s not even worth mentioning: del Toro was in the frame to direct a remake of Black Lagoon at one point, and his new ideas for the plot were apparently where the idea of The Shape of Water originated. On the other hand, perhaps it is simply inconceivable for many people that an acclaimed critical darling with thirteen Oscar nominations could have been spawned by what’s still perceived as a trashy monster movie.

Del Toro’s movie is set, we are invited to infer, in the early 60s, and primarily concerns the doings of a lonely, mute woman named Elisa (she is played by Sally Hawkins). Her closest friends are the unfulfilled artist in the next apartment (Richard Jenkins) and her work colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer). She seems very ordinary, and only her startling behaviour in the bathtub while waiting for her boiled egg suggests she is a woman of deep passions. (I have to say that even as the opening scenes of the film were sketching in the details of her life, my companion – who was unaware of the whole plagiarism kerfuffle – was saying, ‘Ooh, this is like Amelie‘ – a well-received film directed by, you guessed it, Jean-Pierre Jeunet.)

Elisa is a cleaner at a government science facility, and one which shortly embarks on an unusual new research project: a new specimen arrives, captured in the Amazon by relentless intelligence officer Strickland (Michael Shannon) – an aquatic humanoid creature, basically a kind of gill-man (the creature is played by Doug Jones). The gill-man is brutally treated by Strickland and his team, who believe its unique properties can give the US an edge in the space race, but Elisa manages to make a more personal connection with him. When she learns that the gill-man’s life will shortly be put in danger by the demands of the project, Elisa finds she has to take steps to protect him…

Guillermo del Toro is one of those people whose career has shown sporadic flashes of utter brilliance ever since his first film, Cronos, appeared in the middle of the 1990s. Cronos was an iconoclastic vampire movie; he has gone on to make several brilliant superhero-horror movie fusions, the historical fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth, and the aspiring Japanese-culture blockbuster Pacific Rim. Even the films he hasn’t made sound unusually enticing: for a long time he was slated to direct the Hobbit trilogy, while his efforts to realise a big-budget adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness were ultimately scuppered by the appearance of the similarly-themed Prometheus. Could this be the moment where it all comes together and he produces the classic fantasy movie he has long been threatening to, and receives the accolades he surely deserves?

Well, maybe. There are certainly elements of The Shape of Water that recall earlier films del Toro has worked on: Doug Jones played a broadly similar gill-man character in the two Hellboy films, for instance, while anyone familiar with the wider canon of Lovecraftian horror-fantasy may find certain elements of the new film’s plot are telegraphed just a little too obviously. And if anything other than the homage/plagiarism fuss impacts on The Shape of Water‘s chances of Oscar success, then it’s that this is still very recognisably a genre picture of sorts, unashamedly featuring tropes from horror, fantasy, and monster movies.

Nevertheless, this is still a breathtakingly accomplished film, beautiful to look at, involving in its storytelling, and uniformly superbly acted. Del Toro’s ability to blend different flavours is notable: the general thrust of the advertising for The Shape of Water suggests this is essentially a lushly imagined romantic fantasy, and it certainly functions as such. But on the other hand, I would be very careful about who I took to see this film – the nudity and explicit sexual content is somewhat stronger than you might expect, while the horror element has a much harder, gorier edge than any of the publicity suggests. There are some properly grisly, uncomfortable-to-watch moments as the story progresses.

This is partly a result of the film’s ambitions to be more than just an escapist fantasy film, of course. We are back in Unique Cultural Moment territory here, and it is notable that the film’s main villain is Shannon’s straight-arrow by-the-book career army man, who would probably be the hero of a 50s B-movie. Here, of course, the focus is on the way he insists on dominating anyone around him who is less of a WASP-ish alpha male, and his casual brutality is set in opposition to the general sensitivity and decency of the characters who end up opposing him. The role is written and performed with just enough subtlety for Strickland not to come across as an absolute one-dimensional cut-out, but it remains the case that for me The Shape of Water‘s disparaged-minorities-unite-to-stick-it-to-The-Man subtext is just a little too on the nose. (I’m not sure the musical number in the third act entirely works, either.)

Nevertheless, this is still a tremendously accomplished and highly distinctive film. To tell the truth, I suspect this film may just be a little too far out there, and not overtly political enough, to really succeed with awards jurors in the current atmosphere, but I think it will be very well remembered in years to come. And, given the terrible troubles that Universal have been having, trying to get their monster-based franchise started, I suspect that people there will be seriously regretting not giving del Toro more freedom when he was working on movie ideas for them: it’s certainly difficult to imagine anyone daring to attempt another remake of Creature from the Black Lagoon for many years to come, let alone being so successful.


The 2001 Toho movie Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (sensibly abbreviated to GMK by sane commentators) is kind of the movie equivalent of a fairly obscure artist releasing a record on a minor label, scoring a considerable critical success, and then being signed up by one of the big boys as a result to see if they can work the same kind of magic with considerably greater resources behind them. The director of GMK, Shusuke Kaneko, first came to the attention of Japanese monster movie connoisseurs with his trilogy of Gamera movies, made for Daiei between 1995 and 1999 – during a pause in Toho’s own production of Godzilla films, as it happened. Now, most of the Toho Godzilla films of the early and mid 1990s are not bad at all, but Kaneko’s Gamera films have a freshness, style, and depth which means they are inarguably better.

You can make out signs of Toho trying to assimilate all of Kaneko’s innovations in the films they made when Godzilla production resumed between 1999 and 2004, but the fact is that the 1999 and 2000 films, Godzilla 2000 and Godzilla Vs Megaguirus, are both sub-standard entries to the series. You can see why the studio decided to go direct to source and retained Shusuke Kaneko himself to co-write and direct the next movie, GMK.

GMK follows the usual convention of Godzilla movies from this period, ignoring all the previous films except the very first one – though they can’t resist doing a gag at the expense of the 1998 American Godzilla, revealing that a giant monster recently attacked the east coast of the USA – the Americans are sure it was Godzilla, but Japanese experts are much less convinced.

The story gets going with the loss of a nuclear submarine in the Pacific, and a Japanese submarine named the Satsuma is sent in to investigate (‘satsuma’ is an odd name for a sub, but I suspect this is a homage to veteran Godzilla suit-artiste Ken Satsuma). Sure enough, there are claw marks on the sunken wreck and a familiar set of dorsal plates are spotted lurking in the vicinity. Property values in the Kanto region instantly take a hit.

We then meet Yuri (Chiharu Niiyama), our human point-of-identification character for the movie. She is a reporter for what seems to be a fairly trashy cable TV show, doing a film about legends of monster sightings in various parts of Japan. She sees a mysterious old man in an equestrian safety helmet, shortly before there is a rather unusual earthquake: a road tunnel collapses, crushing an annoying biker gang, and a survivor in the area reports seeing a giant monster.

The weird events continue, with some irritating teens being dragged beneath the waters of a lake, their bodies later being discovered wrapped in cocoons (yes, it’s Mothra’s work, but probably best not to ask what he/she is doing at the bottom of a lake). Yuri and her friends learn of the legend of three Guardian Monsters who will awake to defend the islands of Japan should they be threatened. It turns out the old guy in the riding hat is convinced of the truth of this and is using special stones as some kind of spiritual battery, to wake up the Guardians. Meanwhile Japanese defence command is preoccupied by a series of distraught (and somewhat self-referential) committee meetings – ‘Why is Godzilla coming here again? Why can’t he pick on some other country for a change?’ appears to be the main item on the agenda.

Anyway, Godzilla eventually comes ashore and starts wreaking havoc, just about the same time that the first of the Guardian Monsters breaks cover: it’s Baragon, a relatively minor Toho monster from the 1960s who is not famous enough to get his name in the title of the movie. It soon becomes fairly obvious that Baragon is not capable of being much more than an hors d’oeuvre for Godzilla, and the heavy lifting come the climax of the film wil fall to the other two Guardian Monsters – giant mystic lepidoptera Mothra, and multi-headed golden dragon King Ghidorah…

Now, I know you, you are wise in the ways of the world. Right now you are saying ‘Wait a minute, Ghidorah’s the good guy? Since when does that ever happen? Ghidorah is the embodiment of monster evil in the Toho universe.’ And I would normally agree with you. It seems that Kaneko’s original idea was for the Guardian Monsters to be Baragon, Varan, and Anguillas (all second-division Toho kaiju), but the studio nixed this on the grounds that the series at this point needed the marquee value of appearances by Mothra and King Ghidorah. Thus we end up with the unprecedented spectacle of Mothra and Ghidorah actually teaming up to fight Godzilla.

I mean, it doesn’t quite kill the movie outright, but it does feel very odd: that said, there are lots of elements of GMK which just feel odd, and one wonders about the extent to which Kaneko’s vision for the film was compromised by Toho’s requirements for it. I watched the English dub of GMK, obviously, and I’m aware that the tone of the English dialogue can sometimes give a misleading impression. As a result I’m not sure if this really is as knowingly cheesy a movie as it actually seems, or whether the cheesiness is just an accident.

There’s nothing wrong with a certain level of knowing cheesiness (or even unconscious cheesiness), but it does sit very strangely in a film which occasionally attempts to tackle some quite serious and even dark subject matter. Kaneko has said he was attempting to make more of a fantasy take on Godzilla, which probably explains the film’s most striking innovation – the revelation that Godzilla is possessed by the angry spirits of all those who died as a result of Japan’s actions in the Second World War, which is why he’s always homing in on Tokyo in a bad mood. It’s a curious and provocative idea, and not the only time the film skirts sensitive topics – the first moment when Godzilla unleashes his nuclear breath is followed by a scene where a school teacher looks out of the window and sees the resulting mushroom cloud rising over her town. ‘Atom bombs!’ she gasps. (No, it’s not all that subtle, but this is a Godzilla movie, after all.)

But then we go from this to the comedy caricatures of Yuri’s workmates, or a scene where a couple of tourists spot Baragon yomping towards them. ‘He’s enormous, but kind of cute!’ says one of them. ‘Let’s take a photo, then run!’ says the other. Seconds later they are both crushed to death as Godzilla smashes through the hillside they are standing on. In yet another tonally very weird moment, we see a man apparently contemplating suicide, fashioning a crude noose from his tie so he can hang himself from a tree. But he falls off the rock he’s standing on and does a comedy pratfall down into the cave where Ghidorah is hibernating.

How much of this is down to Kaneko’s attempt to make a more edgy Godzilla I don’t know. For me, the best moments of the film are the more subtle and restrained ones – there’s an impressive scene where a group of people in a small building are terrorised by Godzilla’s passing. You never see the monster, but the whole set is rigged to shake and sway and collapse at the sound of his footprints. The reactions of individual characters to Godzilla give the film what resonance it achieves.

Most of the time, though, this just feels like an old-school monster bash, like something from 35 years earlier. As such it’s not too bad, but really nothing very special – the CGI is impressive, and the monster suits are not too bad – although there’s something about the Godzilla suit here which makes him look more like a fat dinosaur than is usually the case. The way the movie concludes with a succession of deeply weird moments  and plot developments is also arguably a bit of a problem.

Well, the least you can say about GMK is that it’s better than the two movies that preceded it. But the fact is that not only does it not come close to the standard of Kaneko’s Gamera movies, but it’s also not quite as good as the films in a similar vein which Toho themselves had been making ten years earlier. How much of this is down to Toho insisting on the inclusion of certain elements, and how much to Kaneko missing the presence of Gamera co-writer Kazunori Ito, it’s difficult to say. But this film is inevitably a bit of a disappointment.


The Head that Wears the Crown

Slightly further down this very page I will be sharing my opinion of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. You may agree with me about this film, partly or fully. You may well not. Now, I would normally say that there was nothing very exceptional about this fact: people have different opinions all the time, after all, it’s a fact of life.

But it isn’t, apparently: advance publicity on Black Panther went off on a bit of a tangent last week, with the exposure of an organised campaign to trash this film’s ratings on the review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, courtesy of a bunch of people who hadn’t even seen it yet (some of them associated with extremist right-wing groups). The reason for this rather eccentric behaviour? They claim to be sick of movies based on DC Comics getting lousy reviews from professional critics, while ones from Marvel Studios are generally much better received. They make accusations of systematic bias and corruption amongst the critics.

Putting entirely to one side the issue of Wonder Woman, a DC movie which received some of the most glowing notices of last year, one wonders if it has occurred to these people that the reason DC’s movie output generally gets lukewarm reviews is because DC movies, of late, have usually been somewhat lousy. Apparently not: the concept of an honest difference of opinion does not seem to have occurred to them. The only reason someone could not share their point of view must be because they are part of a conspiracy to hide the truth – whether that’s because they’re in the pockets of Marvel, or because they’re pushing a particular politically-correct agenda. Levelling this particular accusation in the vicinity of Black Panther is especially provocative, given the film is largely distinguished by the fact it is very much a non-Caucasian take on the superhero genre of which Marvel are currently the masters.

It seems to me to be particularly symptomatic of our current times, anyway: recent months seem to have witnessed a terminal breakdown in the very concept of consensus, the idea that there are things that everyone can broadly agree on. Either the news media is a principled establishment telling the truth about a troubled and chaotic administration, or it’s a fake instrument of a liberal conspiracy trying to topple an elected leader – there’s not much in the way of middle ground here, and the UK has its own gaping divisions about the main political issues of the day.

Just to be clear, I am not in the pockets of Marvel (though if Kevin Feige is reading this, I would be willing to open negotiations) – or, if I am, it is only because of the consistently high standard of their film-making. Feel free to disagree with me about this or anything else.

Normally I would say it was slightly absurd to be making such a fuss about what is, after all, a comic-book superhero movie, but, you know, Unique Cultural Moment, and the supposedly radical nature of Black Panther has been front and centre in its publicity. Some mildly silly things have already been said of this movie – apparently it is the first ever superhero movie with a black lead character (no it’s not, there was Meteor Man (1993), not mention Spawn and Steel (both 1997), and Marvel’s own Blade (1998), to name only a few), while the BBC claimed it has an ‘all-black cast’, which probably came as a surprise to Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis, both of whom feature prominently in it. Can the movie itself possibly stand up to all this hype?

Well, this is the seemingly-unstoppable Marvel mega-franchise project, so you never can tell. Following on fairly closely from the events of Civil War, the movie opens with Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returning to his remote African homeland of Wakanda so he can be crowned the new king, and take up the mantle of Wakanda’s protector, the Black Panther. The wider world thinks Wakanda is a quiet little third-world country full of trees and shepherds, but this is an elaborate ruse to conceal the fact that it really possesses the most advanced technology on the planet, courtesy of being struck by a meteorite full of magic alien metal in ancient times.

The new king’s first duty is keep this secret, but he also feels bound to avenge an old wrong – namely, a raid on Wakanda many years earlier by the South African criminal Ulysses Klaue (Serkis, reprising the role from Age of Ultron). Given the CIA also has an interest in Klaue’s activities, can he do so without exposing Wakanda to the world? There is also the problem that one of Klaue’s associates is a mercenary known as Killmonger (Michael B Jordan), an embittered and angry scion of the Wakandan royal house, who is intent on seizing the throne…

It will come as no real surprise to anyone who’s been keeping up with developments in cinema over the last few years that Marvel show no sign of dropping the ball with their latest project: Black Panther is a finely-machined piece of entertainment, lavishly mounted, with a solid script and a carefully-judged tone. There are fantastically thrilling action sequences, very good jokes, charismatic performances, and plenty of little references to reward people who’ve been following along with the ongoing meta-plot for the last ten years or so. Boseman radiates nobility and cool as the Black Panther, Jordan matches him as Killmonger, and Andy Serkis is having a whale of a time as the absurdly evil Klaue (who’s not in the movie nearly enough).

Anticipation is high for every new Marvel movie, but especially so in this case: even before the current Unique Moment came about, there had been murmurings about the perceived lack of diversity and Euro-centricity of the Marvel films, and Black Panther has deliberately been pitched as restitution for this: it’s not quite an all-black movie, but the majority of the roles are filled by non-white performers.

There’s a sense in which Black Panther is essentially a piece of diversity wish-fulfilment, for at the heart of the film is its depiction of an Afrofuturistic utopia where, unravaged by the attentions of colonial European powers, African culture has developed technology decades ahead of the rest of the world. It’s probably best not to think about this too much, to be perfectly honest, nor about the way that this supposedly progressive new presentation of African characters still concludes with people riding around on rhinos waving spears. This is at heart still a piece of entertainment, after all.

Having said that, the film also contains some very interesting and genuinely subversive ideas about culture and colonialism. Coogler draws a very clear distinction between T’Challa, his purely African hero, and Killmonger, a villain who has been corrupted – it is implied – by growing up African-American, with all the injustice and prejudice one associates with this. There is a restrained but palpable sense of anger about this film at times, and one can’t help but recall that in the comics T’Challa briefly operated under the codename Black Leopard in order to distance the character from the Black Panther Party, a radical socialist group.

However, just as the first Captain America film couldn’t show a superhero ending the Second World War in 1942, so Black Panther can’t depict the magical solution of all the racial problems in the world today. It’s when the film butts up against real-world issues that it seems most in danger of losing its way – it has to walk a tricky tonal tightrope, for instance, when confronting the fact that Wakanda’s fierce isolationism makes it to some extent complicit in the woes inflicted on Africa by Europeans and Americans.

Is this to take a Marvel superhero film too seriously? Normally I would agree, but this movie is sincerely being hailed as a watershed moment in the way African culture is portrayed in Hollywood movies, and a great leap forward for blockbusters with predominantly non-white casts. Well, maybe: this is a Marvel movie, after all, and if we’ve learned anything, it’s that different rules seem to apply here. Black Panther‘s place in cultural history will become apparent with the passing of time; what we can be sure of now is that this another superbly entertaining fantasy from the studio.