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Posts Tagged ‘2017’

There’s a conversation that comes around every few years, concerning the long-term prospects of the big studio blockbuster and whether in fact it is a viable form of entertainment. (As most major studios base their business plans on the assumption they will have at least one blockbuster hit every year – this is why they are sometimes called ‘tentpole’ releases – this is far from an idle discussion.) The last time I recall it properly doing the rounds was in 2005, when Stealth (it is perfectly acceptable to have forgotten or never heard of this movie) lost $60 million, A Sound of Thunder (ditto) lost $70 million, and Sahara (ditto again) lost at least $100 million.

Astute readers may have noticed that all of the above movies were not very good, but the big studios seem to have trouble grasping the fact that the failure of a bad movie may simply be down to its badness; they are so frequently successful in pushing dross on audiences that these occasional moments of rebellion from cinemagoers must be quite confusing for them. Nevertheless, here we are again, with the latest Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers movies (relatively) underperforming and the latest version of The Mummy not exactly setting the box office on fire either. Deja vu beckons, as the people responsible cheerfully ignore the fact that some films have done exceedingly well this year (Wonder Woman for one; Fast and Furious 8 for another) and suggest the whole system is flawed, not their dud product.

Having said that, some films seem to be struggling for no apparent reason – for example, well-reviewed, mid-budget genre films like David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde, which you might expect to be well-positioned to do okay. Perhaps it’s just not quite big or accessible enough to be a real summer movie nowadays. Comparisons have been made with Keanu Reeves’ ultra-stylish, ultra-ridiculous John Wick movies, not least because Leitch worked on those, too.

The movie is set in November 1989, around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, although the movie takes great pains to point out this film has only the noddingest acquaintance with actual historical fact. As the communist grip on the city begins to falter, chaos begins to envelop the intelligence community there, and an MI6 plan to retrieve a highly important McGuffin goes bad, with the lead agent being killed by a Soviet assassin and the McGuffin being lost.

Not content to leave it at that, the top brass at British Intelligence send in Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), quite possibly the most preposterous MI6 agent in cinema history, and that includes Roger Moore in A View to a Kill. Broughton is packed off to Berlin to liaise with semi-rogue agent Perceval (James McAvoy) and recover the lost information – but quite apart from the competition from other agencies (the CIA, KGB, and French Intelligence are all on the scene), the situation is complicated by the suspicion that a double-agent may be involved and trying to prevent their identity from being revealed…

Or, to put it another way, Charlize Theron swanks her way around Berlin in a succession of chic thigh-flashing outfits for the best part of two hours, pausing only to beat the living daylights out of the local cops, occasionally drawl a profanity, disrupt a revival of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, and engage in some eye-catchingly hot girl-on-girl action. Hrrmm.

Theron does kind of have form as an action movie heroine, especially following her recent successes in the last Mad Max and Fast and Furious 8, but I have to say the movie that leapt to mind was Karyn Kusama’s Aeon Flux, the main virtue of which was its sheer oddness. Atomic Blonde is a slightly more conventional proposition, in that it doesn’t feature killer topiary or people with an extra pair of hands in an unexpected place, but it’s still very much a vehicle for Theron (not surprisingly, given she produced it). Not that there isn’t a strong supporting cast – John Goodman plays a senior CIA dude, Eddie Marsan a Stasi officer looking to defect, and Sofia Boutella is Theron’s love interest (appearing without prosthetic makeup or limbs, for once).

As a thriller it is only marginally successful, I would say, as the plot becomes quite startlingly and bafflingly convoluted in fairly short order, the fact that most of it is told in flashback not really helping much. But you could certainly argue that the plot is the most dispensable part of Atomic Blonde, which trades heavily on its ass-kicking supermodel aesthetic, stylish direction, and retro vibe.

(To be honest, for a film supposedly set in 1989, most of the well-known songs on the soundtrack hail from rather earlier, and the film has a touch of punk rock attitude which is arguably more 1970s than 80s. You could also argue that the movie overdoes it when it comes to establishing its historical credentials: at one point a breakdancer is savagely beaten with a skateboard, while in the background ’99 Red Balloons’ is played on a ghetto blaster. All right, all right! It’s the 1980s! We get the idea!)

On the other hand, it does work rather well as a ridiculous, very stylish action movie, provided you’re happy to buy the conceit of a leggy supermodel repeatedly beating up gangs of big strong men without her hair getting overly mussed by her exertions. The movie is crunchingly violent, I should say, and even though Theron generally emerges victorious, I found some of the male-on-female violence a bit uncomfortable to watch. On the other hand, there are some highly impressive sequences, the highlight being one which incorporates two separate fist fights, a gun battle, and a car chase, all in (apparently) a single travelling shot. I’m practically certain they cheated, but it’s still a bravura piece of film-making.

Yet I have to say that for all the film’s supposed aspirations towards feminine empowerment, I couldn’t help but detect a slightly leery whiff about it, because Theron is depicted in a way that almost certainly wouldn’t be the case if she were, you know, a male action hero. There is copious nudity from the lead of a kind you will look for in vain in your typical Jason Statham or Tom Cruise (or even Roger Moore) film, and there’s also the girl-on-girl stuff, which feels just a bit salacious. Can you imagine a Hollywood studio releasing a mainstream action movie with a gay protagonist? Me neither, but a bit of lipstick lesbianism is a different prospect, of course.

In the end I had a pretty good time watching Atomic Blonde. I couldn’t really find it in me to take it seriously at all, but then that’s hardly the point, is it? The plot may be a blithering tangle, but it’s plenty stylish and the fisticuffs, gunfights, and car chases all pass muster with the greatest of ease. I’m not sure this is the stuff of which successful franchises are spun, but as a one-off piece of slightly disposable entertainment, it does the trick rather nicely.

 

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Further extracts from The Lacklustre Film Blogger’s Guide to Behaving Badly at the Cinema:

June 10th, in the Earth Year 1997 – your correspondent and a bloke called Pete are leaving Huddersfield’s premier fleapit cinema, having just watched Luc Besson’s new sci-fi spectacular, The Fifth Element.

‘I really don’t know what to make of that,’ I said. ‘That was either one of the greatest, most imaginative films I’ve ever seen, or a massive load of poo.’

Pete considered this for about a quarter of a second. ‘Poo,’ he said.

I gave his answer equally careful appraisal. ‘Yeah, you’re probably right,’ I said.

Earlier Today – and, despite my experience a couple of decades ago, I make it to the front of the queue for Luc Besson’s new sci-fi spectacular.

‘Hello. One for Valerian and the Unnecessarily Long Title, please.’

I have to hand it to the serving minions at the city centre multiplex, they’re getting quite used to this sort of thing, and I got my ticket with barely a raised eyebrow. I note that even the exhibitors agree with me on the name thing, for on the ticket it’s just called Valerian.

The full title is Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and it is based on the long-running French SF comic strip Valerian and Laureline. As you might therefore expect, this is a distinctly pulp-SF influenced movie, all served up with the restraint, self-awareness, and iron narrative control that are the hallmarks of a Luc Besson movie (NB: irony is present).

The movie is set in the kind of universe where you expect everyone to have ‘Space’ in front of their job titles just to make it absolutely clear what’s going on. After some prefatory goings-on, we meet Space Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Space Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne), who are space government security agents. They are initially engaged in retrieving an extremely endangered space animal from the clutches of space gangsters in a very peculiar market, surrounded by space tourists, and things become a little awkward when Valerian gets his arm stuck in another dimension.

All this resolved, the duo head off to Alpha Station, which is basically the International Space Station, shoved off into deep space when it became too big and unwieldy (look, just go with it). Now it is the titular hub of galactic diplomacy and commerce, but a mysterious force is threatening to destroy it. Space Commander Filitt (Clive Owen), Valerian and Laureline’s space boss, has summoned them (and the space animal) as he thinks it may help in resolving the crisis. But before they can get anywhere, the meeting of top space brass comes under attack from mysterious aliens…

I feel I should go on record and reiterate that I am genuinely a fan of Luc Besson and his uniquely uninhibited style of film-making – whatever else you can say about the Besson canon, the movies themselves are rarely dull. That said, my experiences watching The Fifth Element, together with the fact that Valerian (I’m not typing that whole title every time) has already been declared a box ofice bomb in the States, did lead me to lower my expectations in this particular case. Was this justified? Well…

Actually, for the first few minutes I had real hopes that the States had got it wrong, for the opening sequence of Valerian is very nearly magical: Bowie plays on the soundtrack, and Besson moves from the manned space missions of the 1970s into a lavishly imagined future depicting the human race spreading out into the galaxy and befriending alien races. It’s rare to come across something so unashamedly optimistic in modern SF, and it’s quite charming.

However, from here we go to the alien CGI planet of Mul, where androgynous aliens do peculiar alien things while conversing in an alien language. All of this eventually turns out to be relevant to the plot, but while you’re watching it, it just seems like a lot of rather smug CGI aliens prancing about endlessly, and all that goodwill rapidly drains away.

The introduction of our two heroes doesn’t help much, and here I feel we must digress momentarily to issues of casting: Valerian appears to have been written as a loveable, wisecracking rogue, someone who on the face of things is a slightly dubious character, but who’s really a reliable and principled hero when the chips are down. The part is really crying out for someone like Guy Pearce – perhaps I’m thinking of him because his performance from the 2012 Besson movie Lockout would have been note-perfect here – or another actor who can do that effortless, tough guy charisma. Instead, they have cast Dane DeHaan, a capable actor but one whose most distinctive quality is that he always gives the impression he’s in dire need of a nice hot meal and a long lie down.

On the other hand, one of the notable things about Valerian is that it reveals Cara Delevingne to be a rather engaging screen presence – she shows every sign of being able to act a bit, unlike many other MTAs, and (obviously) the camera seems very fond of her, especially when she’s working with the right hair and costume people. Just goes to show you shouldn’t judge anyone on the strength of their contribution to Suicide Squad, I guess, and given she’s at least as integral to the action as DeHaan’s character, I wonder why the whole movie isn’t called Valerian and Laureline? Hey ho.

That said, DeHaan and Delevingne are not noticeably gifted with chemistry when they’re sharing the screen, which is a problem as many of their scenes revolve around Valerian’s somewhat febrile eagerness to take their relationship to the next level, and her problematic reluctance (I guess rank has lost some of its privileges in the future). Lack of chemistry, a shortage of snap in the supposedly snappy dialogue, and the fact that the two experienced space security agents seem to be characterised as snarky Millennials meant that it took me a long time to warm up to the duo.

In the end, what successes the film has are largely down to its visual imagination – this is a vast, whimsical galaxy that isn’t obviously derived from any single source, although there are obviously touches of the stellar conflict franchise, Flash Gordon, Guardians of the Galaxy and The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy sprinkled across it. It all looks very lavish and vibrant, even in 2D, but if you have an issue with endless CGI characters and backgrounds this is not the movie for you. There is lots of creative imagery and some inventively silly high-tech weaponry on display.

How much you enjoy Valerian will probably boil down to your ability to just lie back and enjoy the look and feel of the thing, while ignoring the many and serious issues with the plot and scripting. I’ve been assimilating every book on story structure I can lay my grubby little protuberances on recently, so perhaps I’m over-sensitive to this kind of thing, but given Luc Besson is credited with writing nearly fifty movies, Valerian is strikingly shoddy and haphazard in the script department. The plot is about trying to stop the destruction of an imaginary place we don’t know much about by an abstract force, the hero seems more concerned with his love life than any weightier concerns, and there are vast rambling detours away from the main plot – a major, lengthy sequence featuring Ethan Hawke as a space pimp and Rihanna as a shape-shifting space pole dancer could be totally excised without materially affecting the actual story of the film.

People have a go at the stellar conflict prequel movies for focusing on CGI and spectacle over actually having a coherent narrative, but only at their very worst are they quite as self-indulgent and lacking in focus as Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Now, I like this kind of sci-fi (I’m on record as preferring the prequel trilogy to the recent Disney-Abrams stellar conflict offering), but even so I find it quite hard to say anything especially positive about Valerian beyond vaguely praising its incidental imagination, and of course Cara Delevingne’s hair. I’m not sure any audience will be quite captivated by the film’s impressive visuals sufficiently to overlook its serious shortcomings in the storytelling department.

 

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‘I think the title of this film is very off-putting,’ said a stranger behind me in the cinema queue, speaking to her son.

I turned round and frowned at her. ‘What, you don’t like France?’ I asked. (I can be very socially inappropriate sometimes.)

She did an actual double-take at me. ‘I didn’t mean Dunkirk. I was talking about The Big Sick.’

Ohhhh,’ I said, feigning sudden comprehension. Needless to say, we did not speak again.

Yes, it’s that time of year again, when cinema screens are ram-jammed with coldly calculated kid’s film franchise extensions and noble British tommies shivering on a beach while trying to work out exactly what’s going on with the chronology. You’re really reliant on some high-quality counter-programming cutting through (if you want to have an even vaguely rewarding time at the cinema, anyway), and luckily just this has arrived in the form of Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick.

Or should that really be Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick? It’s hard to think of another recent film which is so obviously personal, for all that it is part of that most peculiar of genres, the romantic comedy.

No, seriously – what is the function of romantic comedies? I get the point of full-on comedies, for they are there to lift your spirits and make you laugh. Dramas are there to engage your intellect and emotions, action movies provide a basic adrenaline thrill, horror movies play with the darker end of the emotion spectrum, and proper science fiction stimulates the intellect.  And so on, and so on. But what’s going on with rom-coms? Who sits down to decide what film to watch and says ‘You know what, I wouldn’t mind feeling a bit more romantic tonight’? Either you’re feeling romantic or you’re not, and if you’re not feeling that way, nothing is less likely to kindle the flame of love than watching two beautiful young people play games for ninety minutes before inevitably ending up together. Part of me suspects this is all about reinforcing social and cultural norms, given that our society is largely glued together by the notion of romantic love, and that going to see a rom-com provides a sense of affirmation, that there is some objective truth to this notion. (Which, you know, there may be.)

Some of this kind of gets obliquely addressed in The Big Sick. Pakistani-American stand-up comic and actor Kumail Nanjiani plays Pakistani-American stand-up comic and actor Kumail Nanjiani (it will be interesting to see if his performance wins any acting awards), who meets therapist-in-training Emily (Zoe Kazan) at one of his gigs. Neither of them is looking for a serious commitment, and yet there is a spark between them, and a relationship develops almost without either of them willing it.

However, in Kumail’s case, the aversion to commitment is basically because his family are still deeply attached to the tradition of arranged marriages, with a seemingly-endless string of unattached Pakistani women happening to drop by at family meals. Kumail doesn’t want to get kicked out of the family for admitting to a relationship with a white non-Muslim girl, and this inevitably causes tension between Emily and him.

And then something happens. Does this constitute a spoiler or not? I can’t remember if it’s in the trailer or not, but it’s in all the promotional material that I’ve seen, and the film is called The Big Sick, after all. Emily is admitted to hospital after what seems to be a bout of flu causes her to faint, and ends up in a coma. Despite their relationship being in limbo, Kumail finds himself hanging around the hospital and bonding with Emily’s parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano).

This is a rom-com, so you probably don’t need me to tell you that this crisis forces Kumail to think hard about what is really important to him – is it keeping his parents happy, even if that means living a lie, or spending his life with Emily? The charm and the achievement of the film, which is the same as that of any watchable romantic comedy, is that you are engaged and entertained even as the story proceeds towards a throroughly predictable conclusion (Nanjiani and the real-life Emily have been married for nearly a decade and co-wrote the script together).

As I get older and become more aware of my neuro-atypicality, trips to watch rom-coms increasingly feel like anthropological expeditions to observe the peculiar behaviour of remote tribespeople, and yet I found The Big Sick to be rather delightful and almost completely winning. Much of the credit for this must go to Nanjiani himself, who gives a brilliant deadpan comedy performance. It probably helped my connection to him that Nanjiani is no stranger to the less-mainstream areas of culture himself, being a noted X Files fan (which resulted in him actually appearing in the good episode of season 10). That said, at various points in the film, Kumail breaks off from watching Night of the Living Dead and The Abominable Dr Phibes to engage in intimate relations, which I can’t imagine ever doing myself, so this is obviously a relative thing. (What kind of person takes a girl home and then suggests they watch an old Vincent Price horror movie together, anyway? Ahem.)

Then again, this is a film with a strong ensemble performance, from the various members of Kumail and Emily’s extended families (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff play Kumail’s parents), and also the various other up-and-coming comedians Kumail hangs around with. The film never puts a foot wrong when it comes to its frequent shifts in tone, and never feels self-consciously heavy when dealing with ostensibly serious topics like ‘the Pakistani-American experience’ or ‘coping with a loved one in a coma’ (the movie resists making the obvious Smiths reference).

In fact, although on paper the movie looks like an inventive mash-up of the Cross-Cultural Romance (with Various Attendant Issues) and Medical Crisis Romance story-forms, it doesn’t really feel like either of them – it feels heartfelt and genuine rather than forced and formulaic. None of the major characters is wholly flawless or an irredeemably bad person – they’re just recognisable people, with rather messy lives they are doing their best to cope with.

I laughed a lot all the way through The Big Sick (there was also, admittedly, a sharp intake of breath at the point where someone tells Kumail that ‘The X Files is not a good show’) – but it also snuck in some genuinely moving moments, which took me entirely by surprise. Normally I would be inclined to speculate as to extent to which real life has been rewritten to suit the demands of a standard three-act dramatic structure, but the film is so funny, so warm, and so sincerely truthful that I’m inclined to give it a pass on this. This is a charming and immensely likeable film, however you feel about rom-coms in general; highly recommended.

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There is something odd in the English mentality that sometimes makes us more enthusiastic about celebrating our narrow squeaks and mitigated disasters than commemorating our genuine national triumphs. (I’m almost tempted to suggest this because genuine English national triumphs have been thin on the ground for some time now, but I feel besieged enough right now, thanks.) Perhaps it’s just our famous national sense of fair play that makes us want to stick up for the underdog. Especially when the underdog is us. At the moment there may be very particular reasons for this sort of thing – but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The latest example of someone getting nostalgic about a pretty bad day is the new movie from Christopher Nolan. Having already treated us to Insomnia, Inception, and Interstellar, Nolan’s new movie is entitled InDunkirk (in some territories – specifically the interior of my head, but I digress). Oh, all right, it may actually be called Dunkirk, but it’s set in and around the town of that name, at the back end of May 1940.

The story of Dunkirk has genuinely become a part of the British national myth, but I’m genuinely uncertain as to how well-known it is around the world. Nolan wisely takes no chances and opens the film with a set of captions filling in the story so far – with the Nazi war machine sweeping west across Europe, the British army and its allies find themselves surrounded in the French port of Dunkirk. With the enemy closing in, the need to get the men off the beaches and over the channel to England is becoming desperate. But how is the miracle to be accomplished?

Nolan’s movie focuses on a handful of different storylines, set on land, sea, and in the air. A young soldier (Fionn Whitehead) makes his way to the allied enclave, and desperately attempts to get onto one of the ships taking soldiers off the beach, as discipline begins to falter amongst the trapped men. The owner of one of the ‘little ships’ (Mark Rylance) sets off across the channel, determined to do his bit and save as many of his countrymen as he can. And a Spitfire pilot (Tom Hardy) attempts to protect the ships taking off the army from the depredations of Luftwaffe dive-bombers.

As you can perhaps discern, this is not quite a traditionally epic war movie, built around a specific narrative. Instead it seems to be trying to offer up an almost impressionistic experience of what it felt like to go through the ordeal of the Dunkirk evacuation. The storyline of the movie is quite straightforward, and there is correspondingly little exposition, just a succession of set-pieces. Nolan is, characteristically, attempting to do something clever and tricksy with the film’s handling of space and time, but it takes quite a while for this to become completely clear.

It comes as no great surprise to find regular Nolan collaborators like Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy in the movie (apparently Michael Caine also contributes a vocal cameo), nor, really, distinguished thespians like Ken Branagh or Mark Rylance. It has to be said that these gentlemen are occupying the somewhat-coveted ‘With’ and ‘And’ section of the cast list, with many of the main roles played by younger, less famous actors such as Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, and Barry Keoghan. Also making a fairly substantial appearance is the quadro-mammaried popstrel Harry Styles, who apparently used to be in some boy band or other. Styles is actually perfectly acceptable in this movie, which I fear is only going to encourage him to keep acting. You can’t have everything, I suppose. It is notable, I think, that Christopher Nolan has managed to make a major film with a cast almost exclusively composed of white men, without anyone kicking off about it – maybe he really does have magic powers. (It’s enough to gladden the heart of a thundering misogynist.)

While doing my research for this piece (quiet at the back – of course I do research), I discovered that Dunkirk is based on a script which Nolan wrote donkey’s years ago, long before his rise to prominence as a director. Apparently he put it on ice while he gathered enough experience making large-scale Hollywood blockbusters (can’t argue with a confident man, I guess), and in some ways it feels like something written in a different mode – it has some of the audacity of Nolan’s most celebrated work, but not really the narrative density or thematic strength which you associate with those films. He appears to be trying to make the film work more on a visceral level, but it is a qualified success at best in this regard.

And I have to say that, while it still feels unlikely that Nolan will ever make a film which is less than accomplished and engaging, I left this one without the same joyous sense of having had the possibilities of cinema confirmed for me that I felt after all the other Nolan films I’ve seen. Naturally, I seem to be in a tiny minority on this one (just for a change), as many professional film-watchers are announcing this is Christopher Nolan’s best film yet, and a sign of him finally realising his promise as a film-maker. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but I do think it’s a bit suspicious that it’s Nolan’s first film in fifteen years that isn’t on some level a fantasy or an SF movie that has been hailed as marking his admission to the grown-up’s club. It seems you just can’t get respect making certain kinds of genre movie, even if they’re as exceptional as Inception or The Dark Knight.

Then again it may just be that this is one of those films which it is just unacceptable to give a negative review to, not just because of the director and cast, but because of the subject matter itself – slightly absurd though it sounds, giving the thumbs down to Dunkirk could be interpreted as disparaging one of the defining moments in the modern British narrative, along with everyone involved in those events. We are in the middle of a bunch of movies about the Second World War at the moment – recently we’ve had Churchill and Their Finest Hour, with yet another Churchill bio-pic (Darkest Hour) being trailed before Dunkirk itself. Is it just a coincidence that all these films about Britain heroically going it alone should be making an appearance at the moment? I’m sure Nolan is not setting out to make particular political points with Dunkirk, but I note that the film’s parting shot – a reminder that this muddled withdrawal of Britain from Europe was not a triumph, and should not be treated as one – is not one of the elements being lionised by its supporters in the media.

As I say, Christopher Nolan seems incapable of making a bad film, and watching Dunkirk should prove a memorable experience for virtually anyone: it is full of striking images, heart-felt performances, moments that stay with you. By almost anyone’s standards it is a good, if somewhat unconventional war movie and historical drama. But I have to say that of all the Nolan movies that I’ve seen, it’s the one I can least imagine myself sitting down to watch again and again, even if that says more about his exceptional track-record than anything else.

 

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Overheard in a cinema in the Earth Year 1994, prior to a revival of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver:

‘Did you see that Clint Eastwood film on telly the other night?’

‘Oh yeah – he goes into that girls’ school and has them all wrapped right round his little finger, right up until the moment when they [spoiler redacted]. Top movie.’

Overheard in a cinema in the Earth Year 2017, after a screening of Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled:

‘So, what did you think?’

‘Well, I thought he was perhaps suited a bit more to the part than Clint Eastwood was…’

‘Well, Clint Eastwood’s not a very good actor, is he?’

(I had to absent myself from the vicinity of the conversation at this point, lest an eruption occur.)

Perhaps I should make clear that the people I was earwigging in 1994 were both youngish men, while my companions for the new version of The Beguiled were somewhat older ladies. Does this tell us anything about the differences between the 1971 version of the movie, directed by Don Siegel, and the remake? Well, perhaps.

Like the original, Sofia Coppola’s movie is set during the latter stages of the American Civil War, in and around a finishing school for girls in Virginia. Due to the turmoil of the conflict, only a tiny group of pupils remain, along with a couple of staff members – headmistress Martha (Nicole Kidman) and teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst).

One day, one of the girls is out picking mushrooms in the woods near the school when she comes across John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a wounded enemy soldier. She helps him back to the grand old house in which the establishment is located, at which point the question becomes one of what they should do with him. Obviously, the sensible thing to do would be to call in the authorities of their own side straight away, but somehow it doesn’t seem quite so simple – McBurney would probably die on the way to a prison camp, so the charitable thing is surely to keep him around until he feels better, isn’t it?

There is, not to put too fine a point on it, a little unrelieved tension in the air, as the presence of McBurney has an alarming effect on a group of women and girls who have apparently been living without masculine company for far too long. McBurney’s own natural charm and manipulative nature don’t help matters much. The women are soon all under his spell, and he seems to be on to a very good thing at the school. But has he underestimated the strength of the emotions his arrival has unleashed?

Being a hate-filled fanatically misogynistic crypto-fascist (apparently), I am constantly surprised by the fact that I frequently admire and enjoy films directed by and starring women, but there you go. I did not catch Sofia Coppola’s last couple of films, but I did see Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette, and had a pretty good time watching them both (even if my review of the latter does contain the suggestion ‘would have been much improved by the addition of a story and some decent dialogue’). The Beguiled is likewise not a film which anyone is likely to decry as an offence against cinema, but at the same time I can’t see it becoming as big a critical darling as some of this director’s films.

I mean, the actual carpentry of the story holds together pretty well, though it would possibly have been better if we’d got more of a sense of what life in the school was like prior to McBurney’s arrival. Creating atmosphere is one of Coppola’s strengths as a director and she duly creates a strong sense of unspoken tension between the various women as they slowly begin to compete for McBurney’s favours. The performances are universally strong, although everyone seems to be operating very much within their comfort zone as a performer. I’m sure I’ve seen Nicole Kidman do that mannered southern lady schtick before, and the same is true of Kirsten Dunst’s repressed schoolteacher. Elle Fanning perhaps does something slightly new as a somewhat out-of-control young girl. On the whole this is the kind of film you would expect it to be – atmospheric, fairly intense, and not especially light on its feet.

Then again, perhaps I’m biased, for I have seen the original Don Siegel movie on which the new one is based (although admittedly not recently). The 1971 Beguiled always seemed to me to be very much framed and marketed as a Western, although that may just be down to the presence of Eastwood and Siegel. The new movie is much more open about its identity as a drama (perhaps even a melodrama) in the Southern Gothic tradition, though perhaps this is also the result of the story being seen from a more openly feminine perspective.

Even so, this is hardly a radical new interpretation of the story – all the key plot beats survive very much intact (at one point someone is sent to fetch a book on anatomy and a saw), but I suppose the characters are drawn a little differently – McBurney is less of a sexual predator, perhaps, and the incestuous elements of the original story have been removed. The movie has also drawn flak for, would you believe it, a lack of diversity, because the character of a slave who featured in the Siegel version has likewise gone. (In her defence, Coppola has said that she felt that it would not do justice to the importance of the issue of slavery to just touch on it in passing, as would most likely have been the case had she included a single minor character in this way. Sounds reasonable to me, but, hey, I’m apparently not the best person to judge this kind of issue.)

I would imagine you are more likely to enjoy watching the new version of The Beguiled if you are not familiar with the one starring Eastwood, simply because the plot will contain a few surprises for you. This is a well-mounted, well-played, capably-directed movie, but it doesn’t really add that much to an original which was a memorably unsettling and quietly powerful psycho-drama in its own right. A moderately engaging piece of entertainment, I think: not much more than that.

 

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I was sitting at my desk the other other day, trying to look busy, as usual, when one of the very senior fellows from where I work sidled up. This in itself is fairly unusual, and at this point in my career I’ll grasp at any straw that floats past, so I sat up straight and braced myself for whatever was coming.

‘Have you seen the new Planet of the Apes film yet?’ To say this came totally out of left field would be a bit of an understatement.

‘Er, not yet. What they’ve done is – stop me if you find your eyes starting to close – you know how they say that nothing succeeds like success? Well, apparently the best way to have a successful film is to have a successful film; I mean, if you have a really good opening weekend, then you can put that in the publicity and it will make people go and see it on the second weekend. So what they’ve done is release it on a Tuesday, because that means they have Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday -‘ I believe I may have been counting on my fingers ‘- a six day opening weekend, to guarantee a good total.’

‘That’s just fraud.’ (Amused incredulity.)

‘That’s showbusiness. But all the early showings are in 3D, which I don’t like, so I’m seeing it on Friday.’

‘Really? I like 3D. A Planet of the Apes film in 3D is one of my guilty pleasures.’

I tell you what, you get a better class of afficionado around the Planet of the Apes films, that’s for sure. (All the more dismaying that 20th Century Fox should find it necessary to indulge in such sharp practice when it comes to the release strategy.) Yes, here we are with Matt Reeves’ War for the Planet of the Apes, the kind of title to make a cinema give up and list it on the ticket as simply WFTPOTA (with an extra 2D in my case).

The new film continues the story begun in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and continued in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. For a couple of years, elements of the surviving human military forces have been attempting to hunt down and destroy Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his tribe of genetically-uplifted apes. Caesar has been attempting to make peace overtures, but the human commander, known as the Colonel (last name not Taylor, sadly), is implacable in his hostility and a raid on the ape settlement kills several of Caesar’s loved ones. (The Colonel is played by Woody Harrelson, who is on top form.)

Consumed by rage and the desire for revenge, Caesar sets out in search of his enemy, accompanied only by a few of his closest lieutenants. In the wilderness they find evidence of a transformed world – a young girl who has lost the ability to speak (Amiah Miller), and a zoo ape who has risen to intelligence and acquired the power of speech independently of Caesar’s group (Steve Zahn). There are also strange signs that the humans are starting to fight amongst themselves. But all Caesar is interested in is the Colonel, who he learns has made his base in an abandoned military facility. The looming conflict will settle the destiny of the planet forever…

I do wonder sometimes why I’m not more enthusiastic about the new Planet of the Apes series, because these are by any metric highly intelligent, well-made genre movies, that certainly honour the classic Apes series from the 1960s and 70s (those who know their Planet of the Apes will certainly find little touches to reward them here and there in the new film). I’m not sure – maybe it’s just that the new series doesn’t have quite the same epic scope or loopy imagination as the originals, or indeed their willingness, at their best, to tackle big issues – animal and civil rights, the inherent self-destructiveness of man, the morality of self-protection, and so on. The new films may be technically more proficient and possibly more credible, but they are essentially just superior action-adventure movies, strongly characterised, but rarely very innovative.

The new movie continues this trend, albeit in an even bleaker and more intense vein: this is a dark, brooding film, full of characters driven to do the most terrible things in the name of that which they believe. There’s a very Heart of Darkness-y vibe going on – the Colonel has clearly been inspired by Brando’s performance as Kurtz, and I would have entitled this review Ape-Ocalypse Now had the gag not already been used in the movie itself. It adds up to a pretty full-on experience, with most of the leavening moments of lightness coming from Zahn’s character (who is interesting, but the notion behind his origins doesn’t really go anywhere).

And, once again, there’s nothing actually wrong with it, but at the same time it is never irresistibly surprising or thrilling, nor does it fully engage the brain. It is being suggested that this is the concluding entry in this particular incarnation of Planet of the Apes, which is fair enough. However, ever since Rise I’ve kind of felt this series was promising to build up to the big moment of revelation, when we got to see something akin to the actual planet of apes from the original 1968 movie – a dominant, technologically-advanced ape civilisation, feral, speechless humans, and so on. Key plot points in this movie just added to that impression while I was watching it, and got me quite excited about what seemed to be on the way. In the end, though, we’re told about all this but never shown it. I was expecting something along the lines of a fade to black, the caption ‘1950 YEARS LATER’, and then a shot of a spacecraft re-entering the atmosphere. But no, nothing like that, not even post-credits. So in the end I have to say I feel slightly cheated – this series of films still hasn’t made good on its promises.

Then again, while the end of this movie does have a definite finality about it, apparently plans for at least one further episode are apparently afoot, so we may yet get our shot of a famous landmark, half-buried on a beach somewhere. This is a quality movie, intelligently made and very well performed, and fans of both SF in general and Planet of the Apes in particular should find much here to enjoy. Perhaps my problem is that my own personal expectations are just too high, because by any reasonably standard this is a distinctly superior blockbuster.

 

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As soon as the theatre doors opened in the dark I felt my heart sink. Sometimes it feels like I get premonitions when it comes to this sort of thing. It had all been going so well – all the way through the adverts and then the trailers there had been only two or three of us in there, sitting far apart, obviously there to watch the film. And then they came in: four of them, young, male, juggling popcorn and drinks, muttering to each other. They had made two terrible mistakes, not that they realised it at the time: this was not their kind of film. And they had chosen to sit immediately behind me.

I went to see Hugo in 2012 and was forced to prevail upon someone at the back of the cinema to stop singing along to his smartphone in the middle of the movie. I went to Now You See Me in 2013 and found myself obliged to be quite astringent with some children who were throwing food and drink at each other a few rows behind me. I am quite prepared to put myself out there in this kind of situation. For all that I respect the quality of his thought, I would even have taken Peter Hitchens to task for not switching off his smartphone during Ex Machina, had it gone off one more time.

The whispering and rustling continued behind me, at an unreasonable level now the film was underway. I gave them Stage One, also known as a good shush. There was a brief reduction in the noise level, for a bit. But only for a bit. Subsequent shushings were followed by sniggering and ironic shushings back at me. At one point the whisperings became quite audible, along the lines of ‘this is a stupid movie, and anyone who wants to watch it is stupid, too’.

Eventually smartphone lights started flicking on and off behind me, drinks bottles were being juggled, and the noise escalated even further. It was time for Stage Two, also known as the hard word – ‘Are you going to talk all the way through this? Turn the phone off, shut up, and watch the film,’ I said, unprintably. ‘Stop swearing at us,’ said one of the confederacy of morons behind me. I was pretty sure at this point that they had not stumped up the extra couple of quid for the premium seats they were in and asked to see their tickets. ‘You don’t work here so we don’t have to.’

‘Then I’ll get someone who does,’ I said. I don’t recall ever having to go up to Stage Three before, because it really is the nuclear option, and involves missing part of the film (thus kind of defeating the point of the exercise). When I returned we had a degree of toing and froing around the cinema, but my playmates were fatally overconfident and were eventually ambushed by the manager and his minions. They were expelled into the outer brightness and the rest of us were left to enjoy the last twenty minutes or so of the film as best we could (I found myself wondering what my chances of being beaten up by the gang of them on the way to the bus stop were).

Is there a moral to this story? Not really. Except, perhaps, to say that the response of the cinema staff was pretty much exemplary, and it is a sadly necessary reminder that if you want a good cinema experience, sometimes you have to fight for it. It is also a bit regrettable that this was the only showing of the movie I could get to all week, but then I’m not entirely sure it’s a film I’d care to sit through again anyway, for all of its definite quality.

You know, in the circumstances I’m kind of wondering about my ability to give a completely objective review of Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes At Night. But hey ho, I’ll just have to do my best, I suppose. As you may know, I’m not averse to a spot of viral apocalypse, and It Comes At Night is a particularly cheery (this is not true) new entry to this particular subgenre.

The spread of a particularly nasty disease (a bit like smallpox, a bit like bubonic plague) has led to the collapse of civilisation as we know it. Paul (Joel Edgerton) and his family are leading lives of extreme seclusion in their remote home, which he has virtually fortified. He is relentless in his attempts to ensure their safety – the very first thing we see is his enforcing his cordon sanitaire in frankly hair-raising fashion when another member of the group becomes infected.

This is a hard lifestyle, to say the least, and it is taking its toll on the members of the family – especially Paul’s son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr), who is having grisly nightmares. But the pressure just gets worse and worse, when a stranger (Christopher Abbott) breaks into their house one night. When captured, he claims to be looking for food and water for his wife and child. After tying him to a tree for a few days and thinking things over, Paul decides to invest a little trust in the man, whose name is Will. The two of them will go and check out his story, and perhaps bring the new family back with them, amalgamating the two groups. But with trust in such short supply, can even a social group as simple as this survive?

No doubt about it: this is a horror movie more than anything else, with bits aplenty that viewers of a delicate disposition will find somewhat challenging. However, while it does include moments which attempt to function as jump scares – Travis’s nightmares are a slightly hokey device for this sort of thing – it is not really in the quiet-quiet-quiet-LOUD tradition which to some extent epitomises the modern mainstream horror movie. Instead, this is a brooding, rigorously paced movie, which is reliant for most of its effects on an atmosphere of almost palpable unease and disquiet.

Partly this is down to the performances – Edgerton appears to be doing most of the heavy lifting in this department, but Harrison is a good example of someone contributing much more than initially appears to be the case – but it’s also the result of the direction, as the camera drifts silently around the claustrophobic interior of the fortress-house. In the end it’s much more the case that the film is uncomfortably tense and unsettling to watch, than actually scary as such.

This is the kind of film which starts off with things in a very bad way, and the promise that they are only going to get worse and worse as the end of the film approaches. The script  does a good job of almost making you believe that things may actually improve, as the two families come together and there are moments of warmth and hope between them. The strophe (ooh, get me – I mean the moment when everything turns and starts to quickly unravel), when it comes, is perhaps not quite rigorously plotted enough, but on the other hand I was out of the screen summoning the management around this point so I can’t be 100% sure about that.

In the end, things resolve in about as bleak and horrible a way as could be, as the lurking tensions in the household hatch out, fed by the fear of infection, and… well, find out for yourself. It Comes At Night proves ultimately to be a film about death: the death of the body, the death of society, the death of trust, and in the end the death of hope. And it’s a very well-made one, though obviously this won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Definitely worth seeing if you enjoy a spot of gut-wrenching paranoid misery, but maybe take your electric stun gun if you’re going to an early evening showing and they’re going to let juveniles in.

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