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Posts Tagged ‘2015’

In terms of premises for apocalyptic fiction, nuclear holocausts seem to have gone out of fashion in recent years, replaced (perhaps understandably) by climate change, pandemic, and zombie uprisings (now more than ever, an interestingly flexible metaphor). Given there are still the best part of 4,000 active nuclear weapons in the world, we could argue about whether the fact we seem less worried about all going up a mushroom cloud is sensible or not, but one way or another the idea just doesn’t seem to interest creative people any more. Unless they’re working on something which had its origins in the age of atomic angst, such as Craig Zobel’s 2015 film Z for Zachariah. (Zobel isn’t a particularly well-known director; his most recent film, The Hunt, was one of those that had its release clobbered when lockdown closed all the cinemas.)

The film is based on Robert C O’Brien’s posthumous and, it seems to me, quite well-known novel. Margot Robbie plays Anne, a young woman living alone in an isolated valley somewhere in the midwest of America (although the film is an international co-production and was filmed in New Zealand). There has been some kind of nuclear war and the world outside the valley is now irradiated and uninhabitable (quite a few books from years gone by have curious ideas about the spread and effects of nuclear fall-out: see, for instance, Nevil Shute’s On the Beach and its film adaptation). Her family have one-by-one all departed the family farm to go in search of help or other survivors, and – unsurprisingly – not returned.

There are a few scenes of Anne’s solitary and perhaps lonely life in the valley; she is a devout young woman and this seems to be something of a consolation to her. Soon enough, though – perhaps too soon for the success of the film – she finds a stranger has made his way into her world: a man in a radiation suit, named Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor). However, Loomis makes the mistake of swimming in a contaminated pool and falls gravely ill with radiation poisoning. Being a kindly sort, Anne takes him in and nurses him back to health.

Loomis recovers and confirms that the world outside the valley is essentially dead, and that their only hope for the future is to stay where they are and make the best of what resources they have. Things are a little awkward between them, however: Anne is young and not especially well-educated, while the more mature Loomis is a scientist and engineer with a different perspective on the world. When he proposes tearing down the chapel built by Anne’s father to provide raw materials for a building project, this is a source of tension between them. But there are other realities of the two of them living together long-term which he seems, perhaps, a little quicker to grasp than she is…

So far the film has stayed relatively close to O’Brien’s story, although the whole issue of why it’s called Z for Zachariah is skipped over somewhat (Anne’s reading of the Bible has led her to conclude that as the first man in the world was named Adam, so the last man must be called Zachariah): the book revolves around the disintegration of the relationship between Anne and Loomis as his true nature becomes apparent. The pace of the movie has been a little stately and the feel of it slightly theatrical (the actors are given plenty of space and time for their performances, especially Robbie), but this isn’t really a problem.

What is a problem is what comes next… or at least, it seems like a problem to me, for (as long-term readers will know) I am of that breed of weird eccentric who turns up for an adaptation of a book expecting it to have essentially the same story as that book. I know, stupid and unreasonable, but there you go. What happens next in the film of Z for Zachariah is that a third character turns up: Caleb, played by Chris Pine (I’m not going to have another go at Chris Pine at this point; his performance here is perfectly acceptable). Caleb is a former coal-miner and comes from a background much more like Anne’s than Loomis does. The two of them have a chemistry perhaps missing between Anne and the older man. Can the three of them find a way of living together amicably…?

Well, look, not to put too fine a point on it, but this is such a fundamental change to the story that it sends the whole thing off into the realms of being an adaptation in name only (adding a third character to a story the sine qua non of which is that it only features two characters will have that effect). You can’t really do a story about a young woman’s relationship with the last man on Earth if there are two last men in it (I was wondering what a better and more accurate name for this might be, which has led me to realise how very few traditional western first names start with a Y). Whatever the merits of this story – and it does hang together as a story solidly enough – it’s not O’Brien’s story. This bears as much resemblance (if not more) to other stories of tricky post-apocalyptic relationships, such as The Quiet Earth and The World, the Flesh and the Devil, as it does to the novel of Z for Zachariah.

(I was so annoyed by this that I tried to track down a copy of a genuine adaptation of the novel, the BBC version from 1984. This relocates the story to Wales but retains the actual narrative. Obviously a product of the same era of nuclear anxiety as films like Threads, what I saw of it seemed bleak and dour, with an equally slow start – although Anne’s family do appear in flashbacks. However, this was a two-hour film and I could only find the first hour online, so I can’t really comment on it any further.)

As a tale of obsession and controlling relationships in a post-apocalyptic setting, the movie is pretty reasonably done, although I did find the studied ambiguity of the conclusion to be a little bit irritating. What keeps it watchable despite the stately pace and the vague sense that you’ve seen similar stories told in fairly similar ways many times before are the performances: Ejiofor is always good, but here he’s in very much a secondary role. The movie is essentially a vehicle for Margot Robbie to show her range and perhaps be a bit less obviously blonde than usual (by which I mean this is a role where she de-glams herself, does a regional accent, and so on).

This isn’t a terrible movie if you like your slow-burning post-apocalyptic melodramas, especially if you like one or more of the actors involved. However, I do think the title is badly misleading and maybe even just there to lure in people familiar with the book. Z for Zachariah is not in any meaningful sense an adaptation of Z for Zachariah, and the fact it’s trying to pass itself off as one just makes me less inclined to recommend it.

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There was a time when I prided myself on seeing pretty much every interesting-looking film that came out. Nima Nourizadeh’s American Ultra, released in 2015, didn’t make the cut: I wish I could remember why. Certainly, as a slightly batty-looking genre movie, it’s the sort of thing I would usually take an interest in. But there you go.  Finally seeing it now, do I regret not catching it on the big screen? (Bear in mind I have often knowingly turned up to see the most outrageous tripe at the cinema.)

The protagonist of the movie is Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg), a twitchy stoner and general loser who at the start of the film is being questioned for his part in a series of spectacularly violent events in a small West Virginia town: most of the film is thus a flashback. It transpires that Mike has been living a quiet and unambitious life here with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart – and yes, you might be forgiven for thinking that Eisenberg is once again punching above his weight a bit) for as long as he can remember, although this is not entirely of his own choosing. Every time he tries to leave the area he suffers a crippling panic attack, which is a real deal-breaker when it comes to his desire to fly Phoebe to Hawaii so he can propose to her.

Unfortunately, Mike’s failed attempt to leave town still attracts the attention of elements within the CIA led by a man named Adrian Yates (Topher Grace), who decrees that he is in danger of breaching their security and orders that he be liquidated immediately. This goes against the grain as far as senior agent Lasseter (Connie Britton, in a role which feels like it was written for a bigger-name actor) is concerned: she gets to Mike first and gives him a code-phrase which just seems to him to be gibberish. Until two of Yates’ assassins appear and try to kill him, at which point his conditioning kicks in and he rapidly and spectacularly executes them both.

Yes, it transpires that Howell is a former subject of one of the government’s mind-control and conditioning programmes (the title of the movie alludes to MKUltra, a project along vaguely similar lines which ran for a couple of decades from the early 1950s): he has been trained as a covert operative and assassin, but has no memory of how or why this happened. Will he figure out who he is and how he got this way? And, more importantly, will he be able to manage this before Yates’ men kill Phoebe and him?

American Ultra didn’t make much of an impression on its release, and only barely recouped its budget – the dark arts of Hollywood accounting mean that as a result it actually lost the studio money – despite headlining two bright young things like Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart. This occasioned another notable person involved with the production, screenwriter Max Landis, to take to social media and publicly wonder whether it was possible for a movie which wasn’t a sequel, remake, spin-off, or adaptation to succeed in the summer marketplace – and given that some of the duffers outperforming American Ultra at the box office that year were films like The Man from UNCLE, Fifty Shades of Grey, and Terminator Genisys, one might concede he had a point.

It is a good question: only a tiny number of directors have sufficient clout to get original scripts made for a mainstream summer audience these days. What’s more debatable is whether Landis is the right person to be making this point, and American Ultra the right film to be making it on behalf of. Now, leaving the murky issue of Landis’ personal life to one side (google, if you really must), it’s not as if he’s been turning out great, underappreciated gems in the course of his career: he wrote Chronicle, which was very good, and was apparently involved with Power Rangers at some point (not enough to get a credit, though) – but since then, the movies with his name on them have been Bright (significantly flawed, at best), Victor Frankenstein (terrible), and this one. Which is…

Well, as you may have noticed, I don’t normally go in for the lazy ‘this film is like X meets Y’ formulation, but American Ultra almost demands it – the basic premise is The Bourne Identity meets Clerks, the central gag the image of a slacker played by Jesse Eisenberg gorily disposing of large numbers of big tough enemies. It also almost feels like an Edgar Wright pastiche – it seems to be aspiring towards the same kind of twitchy energy and breezy cool, underpinned by genuine heart.

The problem is that however you slice it, at its heart it’s a comedy, and that as a comedy it just isn’t funny enough. The premise is sort of vaguely amusing, but it needs to be shored up with better gags than we get here. Instead of genuine wit and snappy dialogue we end up with a sort of splatstick, by I mean very graphic violence apparently played for laughs, some of it extremely cartoony (at one point Eisenberg throws a frying pan in the air and ricochets a bullet off it to dispose of a bad guy). For the most part, though, the action is just not expansive or inventive enough to make the film distinctive or enjoyable as a piece of kinetic art, and the characters aren’t well-drawn enough for even charismatic performers like Eisenberg or Stewart to do much with (and Eisenberg doesn’t quite have Stewart’s gift of coming across well even in a bad movie).

In the end it passes the time reasonably pleasantly, provided you can deal with the fact the story mainly progresses through outbursts of rather bloody violence. It’s not completely without laughs, nor is it without ideas, and there are touches of cleverness here and there in the script. Not enough, though: it doesn’t come close to the level of the films which appear to have inspired it. Given the actors involved, at least, one would have been forgiven for hoping for something a bit better.

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Still no cinemas open in these parts and so what can one do but catch up on things one has been meaning to do: beard-sculpture, perhaps, or some other form of self-mortification. Or one could do something genuinely joyous (quiet at the back) and finally catch up with one of the Jason Statham films still missing from the list: such as Simon West’s Wild Card.

This one was released in 2015, at the point when Mr Statham was in the process of upshifting from being the star of a string of mid-budget hard-core action thrillers to someone who participated in genuinely big blockbusters – various films in the Fast & Furious franchise, but also things like The Meg. A lot of these later films saw Mr S trying his hand at something a little different, and Wild Card is no exception.

The movie opens with a long sequence set in a Las Vegas bar, where a young woman (Sophia Vergara) is repeatedly hit on by Statham himself, who is playing an obnoxious and slightly threatening drunk. This is a bit more of a modulation on the standard Jason Statham Character than usual, and as the sequence goes on (and on) one does begin to realise that Statham really is trying hard to sell this performance. Could it be that this is a film where he is genuinely going to try and act?

Well, the situation resolves itself with Mr Statham being soundly trounced by Vergara’s boyfriend (Max Casella), much to her delight (suffice to say there is a reveal later on which feels like it owes something to P. G. Wodehouse), and we’re off into the rest of the movie, which is a little bit lighter on its feet but often much darker and more intense in its tone.

In this movie J-Stat plays Nick Wild, a freelance ‘security consultant’ based in Vegas: basically a bodyguard with a somewhat chequered background (is he supposed to be British or American? The other characters seem unsure and, as usual, Statham’s accent is all over the place). He dreams of getting enough money together to leave the States and live on a boat in Corsica, but so far these are just dreams and he has other things to worry about.

Wild’s latest client is a tech millionaire in his early twenties (Michael Angarano) who just wants to be shown the sights and kept safe while doing so: this is less than a source of undiluted joy to our man, especially as the lad may have an ulterior motive. A more personal matter has also arisen, as a young woman of his acquaintance (Dominik Garcia-Lorido) has been sadistically misused and badly beaten up by a minor underworld figure (Milo Ventimiglia). She wants Nick’s help in finding him; what will ensue once she know where he is is left unsaid, but it seems unlikely to be pretty nor to involve a call to the police department. (This is another movie where Statham has charged relationships with women from his past but there’s no real sense of romance: this is the kind of thing which leads to all that unlikely ‘gay icon’ talk.)

As you can perhaps tell, the opening sequence is a touch misleading, as Wild Card eventually settles down to Jason Statham playing the same character as usual: the cynical, slightly world-weary veteran fighter, living by a code of honour but still very, very dangerous when the situation demands it. However, what’s not misleading is the fact that this is primarily a film about Jason Statham acting.

Perhaps it’s a bit unkind to put it quite that way: let’s say instead that Wild Card is a bit of an outlier in the Statham canon in that it is a character piece rather than a straightforward action stomper. Do not panic, fellow aficionados: there are still several sequences of Mr S in full flow, including one where he bashes his way through half a dozen people in a casino bar which is as good as anything else in his back catalogue. But the emphasis is much more on who Nick Wild is and what’s on his mind.

Is he just a bruiser with a sentimental streak where his friends are concerned, as the film initially seems to be suggesting? Or is this just a cover for something else? Midway through the film he finds himself riding a string of lucky breaks, a winning streak that gives him the opportunity to realise all his dreams – if he has the guts to follow it through. Or could it be that Wild is basically just a dreamer whose natural yellow streak will cause him to sabotage himself and keep him from ever getting anywhere in his life?

Thankfully, the script (William Goldman adapts his own novel – although apparently this is one of those scripts which floated around for decades until Statham acquired it) isn’t too heavy handed about any of this and Statham isn’t required to do anything especially removed from his usual line of country. The result is essentially a fairly solid crime drama, which, while it does contain a couple of outstanding fight sequences, isn’t defined by them. The presence of a strong cast helps too (Stanley Tucci appears briefly as a senior underworld figure), especially as many of them are permitted to carry scenes and shine. (One sequence involving Garcia-Lorido, Ventimiglia, and some garden shears is particularly tense and rather uncomfortable to watch.)

And, in the end, Jason Statham doesn’t disgrace himself in this movie. It’s not the fastest or lightest or most spectacular of his own films, just as it isn’t the most distinguished or impressive crime drama ever made. But as a coming together of the two, it is quite satisfying and an interesting change of pace. Whether we see anything else of this ilk from the great man in future is an open question; but it suggests he does have potential to transition to a slightly slower and more thoughtful kind of movie at some point.

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A lot of people involved in the film business are wont to get a bit precious about it, going on about artistic integrity, following their creative instincts,, stretching themselves and their talent, and so on. And this is often a laudable approach to take. The question is whether it excuses the rather disdainful approach sometimes taken to people who are quite happy to treat the business as a business and simply concentrate on maximising returns, more high-falutin’ concerns be damned.

Now, I’m not suggesting that Vin Diesel has no artistic integrity – anyone who’s seen the videos revealing the method approach he takes to playing Groot in the Marvel movies will know this is not the case – but he does seem to be an actor and producer who has figured out that his films are going to do better if he just sticks to making sequels and franchise movies. Of the twenty or so films where he’s played the lead since making Pitch Black, there are eight Fast & Furious movies, three as Riddick, and two xXx films, the balance consisting of before-he-was-famous obscurities like Knockaround Guys and A Man Apart, his mid-2000s dabble with full-on comedy (The Pacifier and Find Me Guilty), and stabs at other kinds of genre movie such as Babylon AD and the recent Bloodshot. What is perhaps telling is that Babylon AD came out in 2008 and Bloodshot earlier this year: in between these two, almost every single movie led by Diesel was from one of his franchises. It’s not that people don’t go to see Diesel in other films: he just doesn’t make other films.

The sole exception, and thus potentially quite an interesting entry in the Diesel filmography, is Breck Eisner’s 2015 movie The Last Witch Hunter. I say it is potentially quite interesting as a bit of an outlier where Vin is concerned, not because of any particular merits of the film itself, because these are marginal as we shall see.

The movie opens in the twelfth century, with a group of warriors venturing into the fabled Tree of Evil to kill the Witch Queen whose plague has devastated their land (there is a lot of Implicit Capitalisation in this movie). I was mildly diverted by the realisation that this sort of magic pagan villainess has almost become a stock character in (usually bad) fantasy movies – I was reminded of the Milla Jovovich character in the last Hellboy, and also Rebecca Ferguson in The Kid Who Would Be King – but much more distracted by the beard and hairpiece they have glued onto Diesel to make him look like a man from the dark ages.

You know, I honestly can’t decide if this is a good look for Vin or not. Initially it just seems quite funny in the same way that seeing him with dreadlocks at the start of Chronicles of Riddick draws a smile, but this may just be because Diesel is such a famous baldy. If he kept the hair for the whole movie perhaps we would get used to it, but it is just a bit of set dressing for the prologue: soon he is waving a flaming sword around and shouting things like ‘Fire and steel!’ The Witch Queen is briskly dealt with, but has the last laugh, as she curses Vin with eternal youth and immortality (not, you might think, the most onerous things to be cursed with).

Well, we skip forward to the present day where Vin has adopted his usual shiny-scalped mien and is working for an organisation named the Axe and the Cross (which looks very much like the Catholic Church, to be honest). It turns out there is a population of witches with magical powers living unseen alongside regular folks, and it’s Vin’s job as – all together now – the Last Witch Hunter to make sure they behave themselves. Already the astute viewer will be having thoughts along the lines of ‘Hang on, this is Highlander meets Hellboy meets Harry Potter meets Blade meets Men in Black.’

Such thoughts are dispelled with the appearance of Michael Caine (yes, really) as Vin’s best friend and confidante, Dolan the 36th. It is almost instantly apparent that Caine has been hired to reprise his performance as Alfred the Butler from the Christopher Nolan Batman films, but Caine does his best with the role despite the fact he is required to deliver dialogue like ‘I trust you were able to retrieve the weather runes without complications?’ It seems like Caine is just here for a cameo, anyway, as he is on the verge of retirement and due to be replaced by the youthful Dolan the 37th (Elijah Wood). However, the elder Dolan is fatally clobbered by black magic and it is up to Vin and the new guy to avenge their friend! But could there be a deeper conspiracy at work…?

It strikes me there would be potential in a horror-comedy buddy-movie starring Vin Diesel and Elijah Wood as mismatched occult cops, but sadly The Last Witch Hunter is a Vin Diesel vehicle through and through, and Wood is stuck in a very subordinate role. The Vin Dieseliness of this film is so complete that it is apparently based on one of the characters the big man used to play in his Dungeons & Dragons games. (I feel if we could get transcripts of Vin’s old RPG sessions we might gain many insights into his creative identity.) Then again, one inevitably finds oneself wondering about the quality of Vin’s role-playing, as this is not a film which suggests he has a great range as an actor which he is keeping quiet about. As a reluctant supernatural warrior and man out of time, he gives exactly the same smirking, swaggering, smug performance that seems to be his default setting when not playing Dominic Toretto. He actually makes Christopher Lambert’s turn in a vaguely similar role in Highlander look nuanced and thoughtful, and Lambert was acting in a language not his own.

That said, nobody but Caine (and, just possibly, Wood) emerges from this film with any credit when it comes to acting, nor is the rest of it any more distinguished than I have suggested: this is a hugely derivative film, pinching indiscriminately from other action-fantasy films, and not doing anything to distinguish itself. It kind of functions at the most basic level, but just trundles along without ever becoming interesting or developing a life of its own: copious use of CGI does not in and of itself make a film interesting, although it does contain a moment where Vin delivers his trademark flying headbutt to a giant wooden insect (the film sorely needs more of this kind of thing).

Only the mystifying elements of the film make it distinctive: for instance, Rose Leslie turns up as a friendly witch who ends up helping Vin out, and you think, aha, here is the love interest. It certainly seems to be written that way, but for some reason the relationship remains very understated for no obvious reason. I know it is still the received wisdom that inter-racial relationships are probably best avoided in commercial movies (cf Will Smith’s non-romance with Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Gemini Man as another example), but is that really the reason for it? I suppose it is an example of what they call creative ambiguity.

I suppose it is an example of Vin Diesel’s star power that despite all of this, and some unfriendly reviews when it was released, The Last Witch Hunter was not actually a bomb, just about making enough money for a sequel to seem like a viable option. Before the world shut down, Diesel announced they were going through with it, but I suppose we shall just have to wait and see what the cinematic landscape looks like when the current situation eventually resolves itself. Personally, my fondness for Diesel remains undiminished, but I’m not in any hurry to see more outings for these characters.

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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.

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New Arnold Schwarzenegger movie? Yes please! New Arnold Schwarzenegger movie about a zombipocalypse? You betcha! New Arnold Schwarzenegger movie about a zombipocalypse in which Arnie plays a guilt-consumed father struggling to come to terms with the imminent death of his beloved daughter? Um, well, hang on a minute…

For once, I don’t think my thought processes are too divergent from those of the average person, or at least the average person who is still prepared to entertain the notion of watching a new Schwarzenegger movie. Let’s face it, there are not as many of us around as there used to be, for Arnie’s career has been in a state of – let’s be kind – managed decline ever since his political interlude, and arguably for some time before that. I think I may have said this before, but the old quote about the star still being the same size, but the films having got a lot smaller, was never more apropos than when discussing the world’s most famous former Austrian.

So Arnie presumably finds himself in a bit of a bind when it comes to choosing projects. Pushing 70, does he keep plugging away in the kind of testosterone-drizzled all-action fare that was his forte back in the 1980s and early 90s? This stuff was never less than mildly risible even when he was in his prime, and all the more preposterous now he’s of pensionable age. Or does he take a crack at more experimental, unexpected types of movie, even if they’re not necessarily going to draw in his target audience?

This is the conundrum of Henry Hobson’s Maggie (released in 2015), which appears to be aimed at people who like touching, slightly sentimental family dramas, but feel they just don’t include enough visceral zombie horror. (And die-hard Arnie fans.) I suspect this is not the largest target audience in the history of cinema.

Hey ho. The big man plays Wade Vogel, a farmer somewhere in the Midwest, who like everyone else is struggling with the outbreak of a virus that turns people into cannibalistic zombies. (This is referred to as the necro-ambulism virus, and I honestly can’t decide whether this is sufficiently clever or just the film not trying hard enough.) How did this start and get so widespread? As usual, it is deftly skipped over: this movie is all about Arnold, not r-Nought (a little joke there for people with a background in mathematical virus-modelling; you’re welcome). The world is not quite in Dawn of the Dead territory yet, but things are looking bleak.

This may have something to do with the response of the authorities, which if you ask me lacks a certain something when it comes to rigour. Once you get bitten by a zombie, it takes a number of weeks for the virus to fully take hold, during which time people are allowed to take their loved ones home and spend time with them. Eventually they are expected to drop them off at a government Quarantine centre (which is basically a euphemistically-named extermination camp for zombies). Not surprisingly, people are forever leaving it too late or refusing to give up their sort-of dead, which is why there are always zombies wandering out of the woods or appearing unexpectedly in public bathrooms.

Still, questionable though the system is, it’s this that enables the plot of the film to take place. The movie opens with Wade collecting his teenage daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin) from a hospital in the big city – she has been bitten and will soon be on the turn. Nevertheless, Arnie resolves to take her home and care for her for as long as he possibly can. Arnie’s wife, who is Maggie’s stepmother (played by Joely Richardson), has a few misgivings about this, as there are other kids about the farm, but they are packed off to stay with relatives.

Tough times are in prospect for Wade (fairly tough for Maggie, too, now I think about it) – gruesome reminders of people who hung on to their infected loved ones for a little too long are everywhere, the local sheriff is sympathetic but makes it very clear his priority is the safety of the town, and the town doctor seems to base his career around giving spectacularly suspect advice. But, you know, suffering is the basis of drama, or something like that anyway.

Well, if nothing else, Maggie is yet more evidence of the near-infinite flexibility of the classic Romero zombipocalypse set-up: Maggie is a horror movie, but only by default, due to its zombie content (in the same way that any film about aliens is technically on some level science fiction). It really plays much more like some kind of brooding, morbid, atmospheric drama about people struggling to come to terms with the fact of impending mortality. Sure, Arnie takes out a few zombies with an axe, but it’s not like he or anyone else enjoys it – this is absolutely not an action movie.

It’s arguably the precise opposite, as Arnie basically does nothing at all for most of the film. He sits. He broods. He looks mournfully about him. It’s Arnie, Jim, but not as we know him. He may be the top name on the marquee, but this is essentially a character role for Schwarzenegger, a notion which would prompt many people to – oh, I see you’ve already fastened your seatbelt. Well, to be completely fair to the big man, the ride is not too bumpy, for he is required to be withdrawn and introspective rather than too emotional. Hobson directs him sensitively and the end result is really not as bad as you might expect.

Most of the heavy lifting, character-wise, comes from Abigail Breslin, a talented young actress who finds the subtlety and the humanity in a part where it would have been very easy to go rather over the top. Also, she does get to go and do things, like talk to people, hang out with her friends and other incipient-zombies, and so on. On the other hand, this arguably creates a structural problem in the movie, for the focus slowly but definitely shifts from Wade to Maggie as the story progresses. The ground kind of shifts under your feet as you try to work out who your point of identification is supposed to be. I wouldn’t be surprised if the original script had started out being entirely about Maggie, with Wade’s role and character being beefed up when Arnie signed on.

Certainly, for a film which is being marketed on the strength of Schwarzenegger’s involvement, he is not the dominant force of old, and his involvement in the closing stages of the film is almost entirely passive. Still, by this point it has become abundantly clear that this is not your typical Arnie movie.

But is it any good? Well, the average Arnie fan would probably say no, and it has to be said that the film’s effectiveness as a drama is necessarily affected by the presence of a leading actor of such, um, restricted technical ability. But as zombie movies go, this is (literally) a change of pace, the central metaphor and subtext is sound, and the supporting performances are never less than adequate and in some cases rather fine. The reliance on atmosphere and the rather glacial pacing are likely to annoy fans of more kinetic zombie films, though.

I would struggle to say I genuinely liked or enjoyed Maggie, but I can still admire its ambition and various achievements. It sets out to do something different, and it certainly succeeds in that (that said, the general bleak tone, washed-out cinematography, and focus on parental care do rather put one in mind of The Road). My advice would be to treat this as a rather arty horror-drama which happens to have made one extremely odd casting choice, rather than an Arnold Schwarzenegger zombie film.

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Well, with December almost half gone and the major releases of the year all but done and dusted, some might think it was time to start looking back and ruminating upon what kind of year 2015 has been, cinematically speaking. Time enough for that, though, when the festive interlude is upon us: for now, we have a look at a film which seems to spent most of the year being heavily trailed, presumably on the strength of its star. I speak of Nicholas Hytner’s adaptation of Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van.

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This is one of those films which started off as a play, which started off as an idea of Bennett’s, which started off as some things which happened to the actor and playwright in real life. If you’re at all familiar with the writing of Alan Bennett you will probably be aware that the famously diffident gentleman in question spent fifteen years with a woman living on his front drive; the woman in question not being technically homeless, but only because she was ensconced in a series of delapidated vans on his property.

Alex Jennings plays Bennett himself, while Maggie Smith plays the title character. Events unfold over a period of nearly twenty years – things open in 1970, with Bennett moving into a fairly nice house in Camden and getting acquainted with his neighbours, one of whom – sort of – includes the enigmatic, and fairly foul-smelling, Miss Shepherd, whose van meanders up and down the street in accordance with divine guidance (if she is to be believed).

I say ‘events unfold’, but not a great deal actually happens in terms of, um, things actually happening. Miss Shepherd actually moves onto the drive. Vague clues as to her past emerge (not least as a result of repeated visits by a mysterious man played by Jim Broadbent). Bennett puts the odd play on. His neighbours are half-admiring, half-dismissive of what they see as his excessive generosity. His complex relationship with his mother continues.

It is an unashamedly theatrical piece, most obviously in the device where numerous scenes actually feature two Alan Bennetts – representing the one who writes about life, and the one who lives it respectively – both of whom are played by Jennings. There’s a touch of metatextuality going on as well – not only does the ‘real’ Alan Bennett show up to watch the film being made at one point, but there’s some amusing byplay where one Bennett carps at the other.

Bennett is such a distinctive individual that one would have forgiven Jennings for being a bit intimidated by the prospect of taking him on, but he does a sterling job – he produces a very recognisable Bennett without doing an obvious impersonation. This is a key strength of the movie, for – despite the title – the movie is really much more about Bennett than anything else. His distinctively wry and understated voice fills and flavours the entire movie, taking the details of everyday life and somehow making them profound and very amusing at the same time, while the story – such as it is – is about the nature of a writer’s engagement with the world, and Bennett’s own feelings towards his mother. Is he being so charitable towards Miss Shepherd simply out of a sense of guilt? Is she a sop to his conscience in the same way she permits his neighbours to expunge their upper-middle-class guilt by taking care of her, up to a point?

This isn’t really that sort of a film, but en passant it does make some sharp and occasionally witty points about charity in modern society and how privileged metropolitan types relate to the homeless. There’s a funny, if slightly predictable scene, in which two of Bennett’s wealthy neighbours, off to the opera, chortle with amusement as they speculate as to which house Miss Shepherd’s van will end up in front of next – only to respond with horror when she settles in front of their own home. Similarly, social services turn up once every three months to give Bennett a hard time over the way he cares for the woman he has to cope with every day.

All that said, Maggie Smith is terribly prominent in this movie, and it’s a part which really lets her have some fun – I’m by no means saying she in any way goes over the top, but it’s still a very big and very rich performance, though always shaded with pathos and a strange kind of dignity. I suppose, given Smith’s international stardom and general clout, it’s not really surprising that the film should be tweaked a little to favour her – because the final act of the piece undergoes a subtle but definite change in emphasis, moving the focus from Bennett to his ‘tenant’.

I’m not sure this necessarily helps the film, though whatever ground it loses it definitely recovers by the end, with a couple of cheeky touches including a somewhat Gilliam-esque piece of CGI animation. I turned up to this movie expecting something dour and slightly miserable and worthy, but the film is actually much more than that – witty, playful, and intelligent, though not without more serious moments. I suppose some of the pleasure of it would be reduced if you didn’t actually know who Alan Bennett was, and it’s not exactly got a supercharged plot, but I still think there is more than enough going on here to provide an enjoyable couple of hours for anyone interested in a film of ideas.

 

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Some people mark the turn of the year by observing the flight of birds, the passage of the seasons, and the signs to be drawn from the sky. I, on the other hand, prefer to keep track of what’s on at the local cinema and take it from there. Currently we are receiving a range of seasonal movies, plus what I can only describe as quality blockbusters. Christmas may be here soon, but – I am certain – film industry types are more concerned by the fact that awards season isn’t that far behind it.

It occurs to me that the kind of film which aspires to win Oscars isn’t anything like as certain a commercial bet as the typical big dumb derivative summer blockbuster. It’s a measure of how important critical respect is to the major studios that every year they sink millions of dollars into films like Foxcatcher – a true-life crime story about Olympic wrestling, not traditionally a commercially popular subgenre – and various other worthy and high-minded projects, when they could be doing more superhero movies and remakes with a more guaranteed profit margin. These films do constitute a gamble – the ones that win major awards will receive a push at the box office as a result, but the ones that don’t may struggle.

Then again, sensible studios invest wisely: which brings us to one of the first quality blockbusters off the blocks this year, Bridge of Spies. You can’t always judge a film based on the names of the key personnel, but any film starring Tom Hanks, directed by Steven Spielberg, and co-written by the Coen brothers must have something going for it, surely?

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The story opens in late 50s America, with the Cold War at its height and espionage enthusiastically pursued by both parties. One such Soviet agent, Rudolf Abel (played by Mark Rylance), is captured by the FBI in New York, and put on trial for his activities. It is politically important that Abel is seen to be given a fair trial, and given the awkward and unpopular job of defending him is Jim Donovan (Hanks), an insurance lawyer.

Donovan does his best but it quickly becomes clear that he has been retained simply for the purpose of keeping up appearances – and no matter how token a figure he is, it doesn’t stop his family from being on the receiving end of hostility from other American citizens who see him as a Communist sympathiser.

Going on in parallel with this is the story of the training of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a US air force pilot being prepared to take a U2 spy plane on a reconnaissance mission over the USSR. When the mission takes place and Powers is shot down, an awkward international situation threatens – but with the US and the USSR each holding one of the other’s agents prisoner, there is the chance of engineering an unofficial exchange. An unofficial exchange requires an unofficial negotiator to broker it, of course, and Donovan finds himself flying off to a newly-partitioned Berlin, responsible for bringing about Powers’ safe retrieval…

There’s a magical experience which happens too rarely at the cinema – that moment when you suddenly become totally assured that you are watching a film made by people who completely understand what they’re doing, and that as a result you can just relax and sit back, safe in the knowledge that you’re in for a piece of superb entertainment. I am happy to say that I had one of those moments very early on in Bridge of Spies.

This is possibly even more noteworthy given that this is – in theory at least – a thriller, but one where many of the scenes concern middle-aged men having complicated discussions with each other in various offices. There are virtually no action sequences worthy of the name, and to anyone with a reasonable grasp of modern history the conclusion of the movie should hold few surprises. And yet Spielberg has managed to make a film which is both gripping and genuinely entertaining.

Early on in his career, Tom Hanks was whisked off to have his photo taken with an elderly James Stewart, which if nothing else displayed remarkable prescience on the part of the publicist involved: Hanks is the closest thing modern American cinema has to Stewart, no-one else can project that kind of everyman quality while still remaining a star, no-one else can do quiet decency in quite the same understated way. Hanks is on top form here – he is basically playing the conscience of America for most of the film, but he does it without once seeming hokey.

What’s also very special is the relationship between Donovan and Abel and the bond that develops between them. Rylance takes an incredibly introverted and phlegmatic man and turns him into a memorable character, and the scenes between him and Hanks are captivating: it’s deeply thrilling to see the great American movie star and the brilliant British stage actor bringing their different styles to the film, and watching them combine so flawlessly.

Then again, there’s barely a single dud performance in the entire film – the minor characters Hanks encounters on his mission are all wonderful little miniatures of writing and performance, each one memorable in their own way. Turn of the 60s America and Germany are both painstakingly recreated, and Spielberg eschews flashy look-at-me directing in favour of simply telling the story.

There is, I suppose, a sort of God-bless-America-aren’t-we-wonderfulness to some of the scenes in this film, which some viewers may find a bit difficult to stomach – in a less-accomplished film, it might not sit easily in a story which to some extent is concerned with the way in which American realities do not live up to American idealism. And, given the nature of the story, this is primarily a fairly talky film about middle-aged men discussing the politics of five and a half decades ago. Nevertheless, as far as this sort of film goes, Bridge of Spies does it superbly – it’s hard to imagine how it could be any better, to be honest. It’s a film that deserves to do very well at the box office, regardless of how many rewards it picks up, and I hope it gets the success it deserves.

 

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I know they say that youth is wasted on the young, but you know what? Sometimes, old age is wasted on the elderly. There was I with a free afternoon, so I decided to go and see a movie (just for a change). Not wanting to see SPECTRE or HG3B again, I took the plunge and went along to the Thursday afternoon Silver Screen promotion, hoping under-60s were allowed in unaccompanied. And what did I find? Only that the bloomin’ ticket was only £3, and included as many free biscuits as I cared to stuff in my mouth (having just had a traditional Chinese beefburger I partook only moderately).

£3 a ticket for a relatively new movie? Friends, I haven’t seen the like in twenty years. And yet, in the theatre itself, only four of us settled down to enjoy the movie itself – your correspondent, a slightly doddery old gent and two foreign students. See what I mean? Some of these old folk don’t know a good thing when they’re onto it.

Then again, maybe that week’s choice of movie had something to do with it – said picture was John Erick Dowdle’s No Escape (NB: title may not be literally true), a suspense-filled excursion into family jeopardy, bloody slaughter, and occasionally iffy acting. It opens with one of my least favourite narrative devices – a brief sequence of something shocking and arresting happening, followed by a caption saying ‘X Hours Earlier’. This seems to me to denote a film primarily aimed at a TV or in-flight audience.

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Well, anyway. The… prologue? Recap? Let’s call it a precap… the precap introduces us a to a country which strongly resembles but is definitely not Thailand, where the Prime Minister is entertaining an important foreigner and important doings are afoot. ‘Here’s to your new waterworks!’ cries the foreigner, thus indicating to the audience that either modern utilities are being put in, or the Prime Minister has just had some sort of surgical procedure. We do not learn which at this point, for on returning from seeing his visitor off, the PM’s aide finds his boss has been shot by sinister, heavily armed attackers. The aide takes no chances and has a good go at cutting his own head off in order to escape them.

From this charming scene we join the Dwyer family, nice Americans from Texas with nice kids and a nice plan to relocate to not-Thailand following some economic troubles. Dad Jack (Owen Wilson) is nice, mum Annie (Lake Bell) is nice, and I suppose the kids are nice too if you like that kind of thing. They are presented as so nice that you are instantly aware horrible things are going to happen to them.

The first of these is not meeting Pierce Brosnan, though he is on the same flight to not-Thailand as them. Brosnan is playing Hammond, a slightly suspect and boozy expat, but you know he will turn out to be more significant than he appears (mainly because he’s being played by Pierce Brosnan). To begin with, all he does is be amusing and boozy, and even gets a scene where he sings karaoke in a hotel bar. As any fule kno, Pierce Brosnan singing is not something to be missed, although on this occasion the great man restrains his vocal stylings so the movie doesn’t peak too soon.

Email and TV in the family hotel are not working, and so the next day Jack pops out into not-downtown Bangkok to buy a paper, only to encounter what’s basically a full-scale native uprising coming the other way (we are informed they don’t like the late Prime Minister’s new waterworks). With hordes of vicious rebels on the warpath, he beats a hasty retreat back to the hotel, only to find it offers little sanctuary from the heavily armed belligerents outside. Can he get his family to safety before their niceness quotient drops to an unacceptably low level?

The first thing I must say about No Escape is that, for what’s very much a low-budget movie by modern standards (only about $5m), it does a very good job of not looking like a low-budget movie. (No doubt filming much of it in Bangkok helped the money go a bit further.) The next is that, in many ways, this is an undeniably effective movie, if what you’re looking for is a fairly gruelling piece of survival-horror with a slightly dubious ‘realistic’ premise: the Dwyers’ initial disbelief and growing panic as the situation rapidly deteriorates are well put across, and to begin with at least, the film exerts a solid grip.

Long before the end, though, everything has gone a little bit cartoony, as it’s become clear that the family are simply going to stumble from one potentially-disastrous situation to another, with occasional lulls for slightly mawkish family-based interactions. And with this realisation I found myself wondering exactly what this film was about – is it making some genuine political point about the modern world? Or is it just a scaremongering piece of schlock about what happens to nice American families in horrid foreign countries? (It’s entirely understandable that this film has been banned in some parts of south-east Asia.)

I’m really not sure. It may in fact be both. Certainly the images of masked, club- and machete-wielding fighters swarming through offices and hotels intent on slaughtering any westerner they can find taps very effectively into all manner of contemporary fears, but I’m not sure depicting insurgents as the equivalent of the undead from World War Z makes a helpful contribution to the debate on modern world problems. Even here, the movie backs off from the obvious rationale, by not making its murderous antagonists radical Wahabists or whatever we’re calling them at the moment, but instead locals who are grumpy about the waterworks and the globalisation they represent. I’m not sure they’re fooling anyone with that.

This little nugget of plot gold comes courtesy of Pierce Brosnan’s character, who turns out to be an operative for (wait for it) ‘the British CIA’, according to Wilson’s character. Perhaps due to his noted past association with a different, rather better known spy character, Brosnan takes Hammond off in a very odd direction – this is one of those performances where it’s quite hard to tell what accent Brosnan is trying to so. Is he meant to be Cockney? Australian? It’s honestly a bit hard to tell. Hammond is much rougher around the edges than you-know-who, but Brosnan’s star power remains undiminished and the whole film honestly perks up a bit and becomes rather more fun whenever he’s on the screen – but again, you have to ask yourself, is unadulterated popcorn fun really appropriate for a film so uncomfortably near the knuckle in its depiction of terrorist violence?

Mind you, it’s not as though a lot of the rest of it isn’t in slightly dodgy territory too, for there’s a good deal of Hollywood nonsense before everything is resolved – a sequence in which Wilson and Bell earnestly hurl their children from rooftop to rooftop in slow-motion is particularly absurd. For all that the film is effective in summoning up a few primal fears, it never succeeds in incorporating these into a plausible or satisfying narrative.

I don’t think anyone will ever be in serious danger of mistaking No Escape for anything close to a great movie, although I should say that Lake Bell’s performance has very little wrong with it at all. That’s pretty much the only element of the film I can praise without qualification – as a suspense thriller, or an odd ‘realistic’ horror film, it works well enough, but it doesn’t really have the guts or intelligence to engage with the issues it raises on any but the most simplistic and sentimental level. It’s a decent piece of entertainment, but I doubt it adds anything at all to the sum total of human wisdom and insight.

 

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Well, it’s a cold and rainy afternoon in November, and the threat of references to Battle Royale and The Year of the Sex Olympics hangs heavy in the air, so I suppose it must be time for this year’s Hunger Games movie. I must confess to having gone along to the latest instalment, Mockingjay Part Two (directed, like the last couple, by Francis Lawrence), more out of habit than any sense of genuine excitement or anticipation. This should be something of an anomaly, given I have usually been impressed by the previous offerings in the series.

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I must also confess to a certain relief that this is the last movie in the series. Standard operation procedure for any series of book adaptations, these days – especially a genre or YA series – is to chop the final volume in half in order to maximise revenue. The result is often rather choppily paced films with arbitrary-feeling start and finish points. The fact that they’re largely aimed at a pre-existing, fanatically-dedicated audience also often means that the film-makers skip on things like recaps and other things to refresh one’s memory of the previous episode.

Mockingjay Part Two is a bit like that, opening with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) recovering from the attempt on her life by her long-term is-he-or-isn’t-he-love-interest Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who has been conditioned to want to kill her by nasty President Snow (Donald Sutherland). In case you are wondering, we are in the midst of a full-blown civil war, but to be perfectly honest, if you haven’t seen the previous episodes, you probably shouldn’t bother with this one at all.

Anyway, the conflict seems to be tipping the rebels’ way, and as the assault on the Capitol gets underway, Katniss embarks on a personal mission to assassinate the author of all her woes (I’m talking about Snow, by the way, not Suzanne Collins), along with – but of course! – a squad of equally photogenic cohorts, along with a few adults who are mainly there to frown a lot. Some people are looking ahead to whatever will follow the conclusion of the war, and realising that the inspirational qualities that have made Katniss such a useful media asset during the conflict could make her an equally dangerous enemy once it is over – so perhaps putting her in harm’s way isn’t such a bad idea…

‘Harm’s way’ is a bit of an understatement, for the path to Snow, as well as being blocked by vast legions of Stig lookalikes, has also been extravagantly booby-trapped by the twisted minds of the Capitol’s light entertainment division. Will anyone survive the mission to take out the President? And even if they survive the war, surviving the peace is another question…

Regular viewers may recall that I was generally impressed by the first film, somewhat disappointed by the second one, and rather surprised by the sheer sophistication and astuteness of number three – not to mention a little concerned that this concluding exploit was going to cop out in some manner. Well, I am pleased and not a little startled to say, it does not; it absolutely does not.

I suppose I am so impressed by the Hunger Games films simply because on paper they resemble a bunch of other movies based on popular YA series (Twilight, Maze Runner, Divergent, that sort of thing) and I automatically manage my expectations sharply downwards as a result. That said, if all YA film adaptations are anywhere close to these ones in quality, then this subgenre comprises the best-kept secret in modern cinema, for the Hunger Games films are genuinely impressive on so many levels.

It’s not just in their technical proficiency, which is of course commendable, but in the way they manage to be so consistently sharp and cynical. This one is no exception: it doesn’t romanticise or glamourise combat in any way, and while it’s theoretically an SF movie, it doesn’t shy away from the brutality of war (or politics) in the slightest. Glib heroics and easy solutions are utterly rejected at every turn. I think I said once that this is the most thoroughly horrible dystopian vision ever to make it into a blockbuster, and I stand by that: the film is relentless in the way it deconstructs the mechanisms of power and politics, and finds the people at the top of both sides to be virtually indistinguishable.

This is one of the things that makes the Hunger Games films distinctive: for all that they are set in a futuristic otherworld, and occasionally feature genetic mutations and the like, they are always firmly grounded in reality, almost painfully so (for all the absurdly OTT death traps involved, there are also some shockingly bleak moments in this film). For all their huge SFX budgets, they also shy away from the big action set-pieces you expect from this kind of movie – they are almost always character-driven, when it comes down to it. Perhaps this is at the root of my inability to completely engage with them, despite their quality: they may look and get advertised like huge action blockbusters, but they’re not. (That said, half-way through this film is a stunningly effective Aliens and Blade 2-influenced action sequence which seems to have wandered in from a different film entirely – and like a lot of the movie, it stretches the limits of the 12A certificate to breaking point and beyond. This is not a film for anyone yet to reach their teens.)

And this is why the films have been so lucky to get an actress like Jennifer Lawrence to lead them – such a character-driven series needs a performer of her quality, even if she perhaps isn’t required to use all of her range. She receives customarily good support from all the usual suspects this time, with Sutherland on especially good form. (Julianne Moore looks rather like Theresa May this time around.) I feel compelled to mention that this is the last film to feature Philip Seymour Hoffman, although his contribution this time is sadly limited.

It’s really a small miracle that Mockingjay Part Two sticks to its guns and stays so downbeat and dourly realistic almost to the end, although I suppose one shouldn’t be surprised that a degree of idyllic rustification pops up before all is said and done – the underlying politics of these films has always been fairly traditional, perhaps even reactionary, when you really think about it. Nevertheless, this is a worthy and impressive conclusion to a series which maintained a startlingly high level of consistency throughout. In years to come I suspect these four films will come to be regarded as classics, of a sort – and there’ll be no injustice to that.

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