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Posts Tagged ‘2017’

Film companies, being the savvy and cost-conscious entities that they are, know the best ways to spend their money when it comes to things like marketing. They know that there’s not much value in advertising a reserved and thoughtful costume drama in front of a Vin Diesel movie, or showing the trailer for a gut-churning survival horror ahead of the latest Pixar offering. This is why you routinely get trailers for films of the same genre as the one you’ve actually paid to see (and the ‘These trailers have been specially chosen for this film’ message in some cinemas). When this isn’t this case, it’s a sign that either the advertising people have dropped the ball somewhat, or a film has come along that they really have no idea how to cope with. For the same movie to be accompanied by trailers for Wonder Woman, Baby Driver, My Cousin Rachel, and War for the Planet of the Apes is a clear sign of a system on the verge of meltdown, and a pretty good indicator of just how weird Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal really is.

This is one of those films that feels like it started out as part of a bet – or at least a conversation running something along the lines of ‘I don’t think you could possibly write a script which combines elements of any two random old movies’/’I bet I could’/’Go on then, pick two names out of this bag’/’All right… oh’/’Which ones did you get?’/‘Manchester by the Sea and Terror of Mechagodzilla’/‘Ha hah! I win!’/’No hang on, give me a chance…’ For this is pretty much what Colossal is, only much, much odder than it sounds.

Anne Hathaway plays Gloria, a young unemployed writer struggling with a bit of a drink problem. The sympathy of her boyfriend (Dan Stevens) is finally exhausted and he kicks her out, forcing her to return to her home in small-town America. Here she encounters her old school friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) and his buddies, and manages to land a job waitressing in Oscar’s bar (this is probably not the best idea for someone contending with incipient alcoholism, but she is pretty much out of options).

Gloria’s personal issues soon become less of a priority as the world is shocked by the appearance in Seoul, South Korea, of a skyscraper-sized reptilian monster, which proceeds to meander about leaving a trail of devastation and panic in its wake, before disappearing into thin air. The authorities rush to respond, people struggle to take in the news that the world is so much stranger than they had thought… and Gloria slowly begins to get a suspicion that she may have some involvement with all of this.

Yes, it eventually transpires that if Gloria is in a certain spot in town at a particular time of day, an enormous monster will materialise in Korea and mirror her every action. This is enough to give a girl pause, as you might imagine. But what should she do with this remarkable new power? Should she do anything at all with it? And where does the ability come from?

If you think all that sounds like an intensely weird premise for a movie, I should inform you that Colossal is another of those movies that bucks the current trend and doesn’t put the entire plot of the movie in the trailer. More than this, there are great swathes of story and character development that aren’t even hinted at – the film is much, much odder than even the brief synopsis I’ve given might suggest.

For a movie genre to be deconstructed and played with is normally a sign it is in robustly good health, and so you might conclude that the existence of Colossal suggests that all is well with the giant monster or kaiju movie. Well, maybe (the recent King Kong movie was pretty good, after all), but I think it may just be that this is a genre everyone knows, or thinks they know. There are no particularly clever allusions or references here for fans of the form to spot – I suspect the reason the giant monster shows up in Korea rather than Japan is just to avoid a lawsuit from Toho (the film-makers drew the ire of the legendary Japanese studio for using images of Godzilla without permission in very early production materials), although the appearance of the kaiju (specifically the horns) seems to me to recall the titular monster in Pulgasari, the notorious North Korean communist kaiju film.  There isn’t even a proper monster battle, really.

Instead, the monster movie angle seems to be there mainly because of the sheer ‘You what?!?’ value of mashing it up with an offbeat indie-ish comedy-drama, which is what the rest of the film initially appears to be. It is an intriguingly bizarre premise for a film, if nothing else.

That Colossal in the end doesn’t really hang together is therefore a shame: I like bonkers movies, and this one certainly qualifies, but in the end it just doesn’t work, despite being well-directed and performed. The sheer unevenness of tone is certainly an issue, for one thing: when the film attempts to mix more serious moments into what started off as a very offbeat comedy, you’re left genuinely unsure as to how you’re supposed to react – are these beats intended sincerely, or as just another piece of deadpan black humour? At any given moment, is it actually meant to be funny or not?

Some of the trouble is more basic, though, and derives from the most basic elements of the storytelling. In order to achieve that lurching mid-movie shift in tone and emphasis, and make it a genuine surprise for the audience, the story requires several main characters to either engage in behaviour which seems strikingly incongruous, given how they’ve previously been presented, or suddenly undergo radical changes in personality, both of which feel rather implausible.

I know, I know: we’re discussing a film in which a young woman magically acquires an enormous reptilian doppelganger in Korea, and somehow I’m complaining that it’s the character development which is the most implausible thing in the movie. But there you go – it only goes to prove that you should never neglect the carpentry.

I suppose the film’s lack of a strong central metaphor is also an issue – if it is indeed that alcohol can unwittingly turn people into monsters, it’s not really followed through with quite enough thoroughness, and the result is a movie which just feels like a collision of various strange ideas, many of them interesting and amusing, but not quite working together as a coherent whole. The simple fact that films as bizarre as Colossal are still being made is surely a hopeful one, though.

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One of the various innovative ticketing initiatives/scams that my magic cinema entry card allows me to avoid is so-called ‘Blockbuster Pricing’, whereby the powers that be routinely stick a couple of quid on top of the regular cost of a ticket, if they think it’s a film that a lot of people are going to want to see. Quite who decides on this sort of thing I don’t know, I imagine some sort of panel meets in a darkened room somewhere and makes a ruling on a quarterly basis. Not that they always seem to get it right: currently enjoying an extra quid on top of the regular price is Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, which strictly speaking looks like being a blockbuster only in its aspirations – early projections are apparently that this is going to turn out to be a historic bomb.

There have of course been lots of Arthurian movies down the years, many of them rather undistinguished of course, perhaps the best-known being John Boorman’s Excalibur, and the most recent high-profile offering Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur from 2004. Excalibur did okay at the box office, by the standards of its day, but King Arthur didn’t, and it has been suggested that this is just one example of a curious trend where historically popular stories and genres are not capturing the imaginations of modern audiences – last year’s Tarzan movie, for instance, was only modestly successful at the box office. Perhaps it’s simply the case that the kids just want to go and see the latest superhero or computer game adaptation.

In any case, Legend of the Sword seems to be trying fairly hard to lure in a younger audience, for it opens with a virtual reprise of various bits of Lord of the Rings, with the fortress of Camelot under attack by an evil wizard and his minions (including some rather surprising elephants which are about the size of oil-rigs). Noble King Uther (Eric Bana) springs into action and sees the baddies off, fairly easily, but this turns out just to be a prelude to a grab for power by his wicked brother Vortigern (Jude Law). Vortigern seizes the throne but the king’s infant son Arthur floats off down the river to safety, his identity unknown.

He winds up in the city of Londinium (hmmm), where he is adopted by a gang of prostitutes and raised in a brothel. Years whizz past, courtesy of the first of several funky montage sequences, and soon enough Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is a grown man, a face on the local underworld scene, and a dab hand at kung fu following regular training sessions down the neighbourhood martial arts school.

No, wait, it gets better (for a given value of better, anyway). In the meantime Vortigern has grown rather concerned about his nephew coming back to take revenge, but fortunately has an infallible method of finding out who he is – there’s a big stone outside the castle with a sword sticking out of it, and (stop me if you’ve heard this one) only the rightful heir can draw Excalibur forth. Young men from all over the country are being rounded up and forced to give it a try, under the watchful eye of David Beckham (formerly a noted football player, m’lud).

Yes, it really is him, and he provides one of the biggest ‘You what?’ moments in a film not exactly short on them. Truth be told, Goldenballs is not in the movie for very long, but the very brevity of his participation just makes the scale of his achievement all the more impressive: it takes a very rare individual to be quite as arrestingly awful in a really very tiny part as Beckham is here. He makes Vinnie Jones in X-Men 3 look like Sir John Gielgud.

Well, anyway, having pulled Excalibur out, Arthur is clocked as the rightful heir and things look bleak for him. However, various members of the old regime who are resisting Vortigern’s rule rescue Arthur, with an eye to grooming him as a possible replacement. But our man decides he’s nobody’s puppet and sets about assembling his own gangland crew to take down his wicked uncle, Londinium-massive style! (One thing you can say about that King Arthur, no grannies got mugged when he was around, he never hurt one of his own, and you could leave yer front door unlocked, etc.)

Whatever else you want to say about Guy Ritchie as a film-maker, he is at least consistent. After two Sherlock Holmes movies that weren’t exactly purist in their approach to Conan Doyle, and a Man from UNCLE adaptation that frankly bore no resemblance whatsoever to the TV show, he has now rocked up with an Arthurian film which is virtually unrecognisable as anything of the sort. They keep the sword in the stone bit, but there’s no Lancelot, no Guinevere, no Morgan le Fay, and virtually no Merlin or Mordred (mystical duties are palmed off to a somewhat ethereally gamine character played by Astrid Berges-Frisbey).

I must confess I was all set to have some fun with the fact that, in this film, King Arthur has the kind of beard and hairstyle you would normally expect to find on the barman of a hipster cafe in Shoreditch, but this seems like a very small matter when you consider that the film also contains magic elephants, half-woman half-squid life coaches, rodents of unusual size, kung fu fights, and many other elements that Tennyson, Mallory, White and the rest just plumb forgot to mention. (There’s a moment where King Vortigern tells his lieutenant to ‘Do your ****ing job’ which I suspect may not be drawn from the Venerable Bede.) These are mostly incidental, though: the film essentially feels like the result of a three-way collision between one of Ritchie’s lairy lad gangster movies, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings (or, to be less charitable, Warcraft), and a Marvel superhero film – Arthur’s claim to the throne is backed up not by his nobility or wisdom, but by the fact that wielding Excalibur gives him bad-ass superpowers and the ability to slaughter vast numbers of bad guys in the twinkling of an eye.

And no doubt you are expecting me to tear into the movie for all of this. I find that I can’t quite do this, not because it really works as an experience – it doesn’t, although the sheer incongruity of the different elements does make it bizarrely watchable, simply because you never know what’s coming next – but because it’s pretty clear that this isn’t just some ham-fisted, clueless muddle – Ritchie has been largely successful in making exactly the film he wanted to make. It’s just that he had zero interest in wanting to make a traditional (some might say ‘sane’) Arthurian movie. Sequences that could’ve been quite authentic are simply rushed through, while others which bizarrely resemble chunks of contemporary gangland drama have been spliced in instead.

In some ways it resembles Brian Helgeland’s A Knight’s Tale from 2001, another movie which cheerfully took an axe to historical accuracy in the name of crowd-pleasing entertainment, and a film which I rather enjoyed. The difference is that Legend of the Sword doesn’t seem to have quite the same cheerful sense of its own absurdity – it takes itself relatively seriously – and that A Knight’s Tale wasn’t wreaking havoc upon one of the foundational myths of Britain.

I suspect we may be spared the rest of the proposed six-film series which Legend of the Sword was supposed to inaugurate, and I must confess to feeling a little saddened by that – I would’ve been rather curious to see just how far out there the other films could get, and it would at least have kept Ritchie from getting up to mischief with other properties for a decade or so. There may well be an audience for this film – always assuming there are people out there who want to see a bog-standard fantasy film made in the style of a lad’s mag gangster dramedy – but not a big enough one to make this a commercial success. It’s not so much a bad film as much as a very, very weird one – but there are still many more bad bits than great ones. And yes, Beckham, I’m looking at you.

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I’m aware that these little pieces which aspire to inform and educate about films can be a little on the long-winded side. It’s unusual for one of them to come in at less than eight hundred words, and most of them are over a thousand. Is all this verbiage strictly necessary to get my views across? Frankly, I’m not sure: I was at the pictures just today, and as the closing credits started to roll, my companion turned to look at me, and expressed his opinion eloquently and passionately using just one single monosyllabic word of Germanic derivation. Perhaps there is a happy medium to be struck; but on the other hand there’s also the fact that I have many empty hours to contend with and writing single-word film reviews wouldn’t do much to fill the time.

Anyway, the film which moved my friend to such a model of forthright concision was Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant, which I think you’ll agree sounds jolly portentous. What dark deal has been struck, and how does it relate to H.R. Giger’s famous acid-blooded extraterrestrial killing machine? Well, um, er. The film has the portentous subtitle Covenant because it’s about a spaceship called the Covenant. Why is the spaceship called Covenant? Because the film needs a portentous subtitle and Alien: Saucy Sue or Alien: Spaceshippy McSpaceshipface just wouldn’t cut it. If this at all gives you the impression that the Alien franchise is showing signs of vanishing up one of its own glistening, biomechanical orifices, well, I commend you for your perspicacity, readers.

Scott’s last visit to this series, 2012’s Prometheus, enjoyed one of the most inescapable advertising campaigns I can remember and was generally hated by people expecting an Alien movie which had, you know, the actual alien in it. Things have been marginally more restrained publicity-wise this time around and it seems to me that a definite effort has been made to keep the fanbase on-side. Certainly the opening movements of the plot mimic those of the original 1979 film very closely: partway through a long-haul deep-space mission, the crew of the spaceship Covenant find themselves unexpectedly awakened, and detect a mysterious signal coming from a nearby planet. The captain (Billy Crudup) decides that they will go and take a look, much to the unease of his second in command (Katherine Waterston). The ship’s android (Michael Fassbender) doesn’t seem to have much of an opinion either way.

On arrival on the planet’s surface, the crew are presented with various mysteries, the primary one being a huge, horseshoe-shaped alien spacecraft. Unfortunately, one of the expedition is exposed to an alien life-form which uses his own flesh to gestate a vicious, lethal creature which puts everyone’s lives in danger…

Well, it’s not quite the play-by-play knock-off that I’m probably making it sound like – the relationships between the crew are different, not to mention their characters – Captain Oram is plagued by self-doubt and takes himself just a bit too seriously, for instance. But we are in rather familiar territory, and if you’ve seen the earlier movies you will certainly know the tune even if some of the words have been tweaked.

However, things go off in a new and slightly unexpected direction as the crew of the Covenant encounter David (Fassbender again), another android and apparently the sole survivor of the Prometheus mission, ten years earlier (in case you’re wondering, his body seems to have grown back since the last movie: this is handwaved away rather). The newcomers accept his offer of shelter against the perils of the planet’s ecosystem, but are startled when he takes them to an ancient ruined city built by alien humanoids. What happened to the planet’s original inhabitants? And exactly how has David been passing his time for the last ten years…?

One of the things we discussed while waiting for the movie to start were the similarities and differences between the Alien series and the stellar conflict franchise currently owned by the Disney corporation. Both started in the late 1970s, have dedicated fanbases, have provided many iconic screen moments, and have indulged in some dubious prequelising; you could argue that both ultimately owe an enormous debt to Jodorowsky’s unmade Dune movie. And, I would argue, both of them trade enormously on the reputation and quality of their initial couple of films: personally I didn’t find any of the stellar conflict movies completely satisfying between 1980 and last year (your mileage may differ, obviously), and while everyone seems to like Alien and Aliens, the other films in the franchise are much less loved (and a couple of them have apparently been stricken from the canon). The question in the case of the Alien series is quite simple: what new things can you find for this particular monster to do? Audiences, I suspect, just want more of the same experiences that they had during those two films.

When I eventually prevailed upon my companion to unpack his thoughts on the film a little, he complained that the new film wasn’t ever actually scary or particularly thrilling, and that all the most memorable and interesting bits should have gone into the Blade Runner sequel instead. He couldn’t understand why Ridley Scott had bothered to return to the Alien franchise if (as seemed the case) he had nothing new to bring to it, and even muttered darkly about the director going senile (note to Mr Scott’s lawyers: please don’t sue).

Well, my expectations were lower, I expect, because while I wasn’t tremendously impressed with Covenant, I found it fairly enjoyable for most of its running time. In many ways it’s much more of a direct sequel to Prometheus than I expected. One of the little commented-upon consequences of Prometheus’ release was Guillermo del Toro abandoning his long-cherished desire to film Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness, on the grounds that the plot and atmosphere would be just too similar – and the Lovecraftian overtones carry on into Covenant to some extent, with the action taking place in and around cyclopean alien citadels, with terrible secrets of a hostile, impersonal universe coming to light.

That said, they are careful to put some proper aliens into this one, including at least one interesting new variation on the classic beastie. The notion of a whole alien-influenced ecosystem is a fascinating one, but unfortunately not much gone into. The same can really be said for some of the film’s ideas about human teleology and ontology: there are scenes which set up this film as having some grand philosophical ground to cover, but in the end it just devolves into highly familiar running and screaming and shouting. It looks fabulous throughout, and Fassbender gives a brilliant double performance – through the magic of digital effects he gets to do all manner of things to and with himself, and the realisation of this is flawless.

However, this kind of leads us to the stuff about Covenant which I didn’t like, and this is a not inconsiderable matter. If the film-makers want to rewrite the ‘rules’ of the series, that’s their prerogative – the alien life cycle, which used to operate over a period of hours, if not days, is here compressed to a matter of minutes or seconds – but no amount of authorial wriggling can remove the problem that the plot of this movie is built around a reversal that simply doesn’t make sense, in terms of how it’s presented on screen at least. You can also argue that a key plot twist is extremely guessable. I liked much of Alien: Covenant enough to indulge it for most of its running time, but together these things conspired to kick me out of the movie for its final segment.

The film concludes with a relatively short concluding section which seems, again, designed to resonate and chime with fans of the first couple of movies. I suppose it works on some level, but it – along with much of the ‘traditional’ Alien-themed material – almost feels like a contractual obligation in a film which is perhaps at its best tackling the same kind of grand philosophical concepts as Prometheus.

The problem is that Prometheus arguably failed, as an Alien sequel at least. The job of this kind of sequel is essentially to remind you of what a good time you had watching the original film, by restaging it in a slightly modified form. Innovation in a sequel is always a risky proposition and one best done very sparingly. Alien: Covenant works hard to include all the key scenes, concepts, and tropes you might expect from a film in this series, and if the result is something that feels like a karaoke version of one of the original films, with a slightly odd new arrangement of the melody, then I expect that will do the producers very nicely and allow the franchise to trundle on for a good while yet. But the fact remains that, although good-looking and often well-acted, Alien: Covenant is just too incoherent and slavishly derivative a movie to give the audience the same delighted sense of intertwined novelty and familiarity provided by the last stellar conflict prequel. In space, no-one can hear you scream – but in a movie theatre, you can certainly hear the person next to you grumble, and with pretty good reason in this case.

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You would expect the coming together of a group as disparate as Ridley Scott, Steve Coogan, the BBC, and the Isle of Man film board to result in a fairly peculiar film – and sometimes things work out in an entirely predictable manner, for the fruit of their collective effort is Sean Foley’s Mindhorn, which is indeed fairly peculiar. This is a comedy, which is also as you might expect given the involvement of Coogan and co-writer and star Julian Barratt. Barratt is possibly best known for his role in the TV series The Mighty Boosh, which is another one of those things I must confess to having hardly ever seen. In some ways the new movie seems very familiar anyway, though.

Barratt plays Richard Thorncroft, a TV actor who was briefly famous in the 1980s as the star of Mindhorn, a (seemingly dreadful) show about a bionic detective set on the Isle of Man. (Yes, there may well be an implied dig at Bergerac, as there is a running gag about John Nettles in this movie too.) Now, however, Thorncroft’s star has faded, and he is now an overweight, balding unemployed-going-on-unemployable actor reduced to advertising support hosiery.

Things change, however, when a murderer strikes on the Isle of Man. The prime suspect is a mentally unstable youth (Russell Tovey) who’s obsessed with Mindhorn and wants to speak to his hero about the crime. Somewhat reluctantly, the Manx police decide to recruit Thorncroft to recreate his most famous role in the hope of catching the killer.

Once back on the island, however, Thorncroft gets a bit distracted, seeing this more as a chance to relaunch himself than an act of civic duty. So, rather to the annoyance of his police handler (Andrea Riseborough), he sets about trying to woo back his ex-partner (Essie Davis) and hopefully bring about the launch of Mindhorn on DVD, provided he can win the support of a much more successful ex-colleague (Coogan)…

As I said, there is a sense in which Mindhorn feels very familiar – this film is certainly not outside the mainstream of British comedy cinema in recent years. Films about delusional middle-aged men becoming caught up in slightly absurd adventures have actually been pretty common – Mindhorn is especially reminiscent of the Alan Partridge movie, Alpha Papa (though this was perhaps inevitable given it was made by the same company), but it also has a strong whiff of the David Brent film, too. Perhaps as a result, the genuinely odd thing about Mindhorn is that it feels like a big-screen adaptation of a sitcom, even though it’s a wholly original story. There’s been a notable tradition of metatextuality in British comedy for a while now, and Mindhorn’s lovingly-detailed if rather OTT realisation of the show-within-the-movie is part of it – viewers who stay to the very end of the film are rewarded, if that’s the right word, with a fake music video from the fictional Thorncroft’s non-existent music career. I was particularly reminded of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, another project built around an absurd 80s genre pastiche, and not surprised to learn that Barratt was involved in that show too.

I suppose the other distinctive thing about this film is that most of it is set in the Isle of Man. Now it’s not that the Isle of Man doesn’t show up in movies occasionally, it’s just that when it does it’s usually pretending to be somewhere else (for example, Waking Ned, where it’s supposed to be Ireland). In Mindhorn, the Isle of Man is on screen as itself (various local tourist spots are worked into the plot), but the odd thing is that this is largely bathetic. The idea of a TV show about a bionic detective isn’t as necessarily funny as that of a TV show about a bionic detective set in the Isle of Man. The Isle of Man’s role in the story is to be a provincial, underwhelming backdrop (much fun is had with the supposed awfulness of the Manx Day parade), which strikes me as a rather brave move on the part of the Isle of Man film board, who were involved in making this movie, after all.

Still, none of this matters very much given that the film is genuinely funny all the way through, for all of its vague familiarity. The film is, as mentioned, lovingly detailed, with a very strong cast inhabiting its array of comic grotesques – there are a couple of celebrity cameos early on which raise a smile. As regular readers may know, I’m not a particular fan of most modern comedies – they generally don’t make me laugh, plain and simple – but there are many extremely funny bits in Mindhorn: Julian Barratt carries the film with impressive aplomb, and the script is solidly structured and cleverly plotted. On the other hand, this is clearly a film which has been made on an extremely low budget – what, the Isle of Man film board doesn’t have bottomless coffers at its disposal?! – and this does occasionally result in an unintentional sense of cheesiness.

Then again, it just adds to the charm, probably, for this is a movie which was almost certainly never intended to set the world on fire – or even the Isle of Man, probably. It’s not terribly innovative or spectacular, but it takes the business of being very knowingly stupid extremely seriously, and I did laugh a lot. And that’s ultimately what you want from a comedy film.

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I am old enough to remember when the word ‘prequel’ was new-minted and sounded vaguely exotic and exciting. The first film I heard it applied to was Raiders of the Forbidden City (as the movie in question was then known), which was a bit of a novelty at the time – these days, of course, you can’t move for prequels, parallelquels, preremaquels, preraquels (this is a term specifically applying to prequels to movies starring the beauty queen and pin-up Ms Welch, in case you were wondering), and all sorts of other things. Yet more Disney stellar conflict prequels are in the pipeline, numerous more visits to Harry Potter world are planned, and H.R. Giger’s little baby bursts back onto the screen in a matter of days (will the line stretch on to the crack of doom?).

You could therefore be forgiven for assuming that William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth is yet another egregious addition to the trend, filling us in on the early life of one of Shakespeare’s more memorable psychos. But no: this is actually a literary adaptation of another kind, a transplanting of Nikolai Leskov’s novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District to northern England in the mid-to-late 19th century.

Front and centre throughout is Florence Pugh, delivering the kind of tremendous performance that in any sensible world should see her elevated to major stardom pretty sharpish. Pugh plays Katherine, a young woman whom we first meet on her wedding day. We learn nothing about her background or history except that she has effectively been bought as the bride for Alexander (Paul Hilton), the less than impressive son of wealthy landowner Boris Leicester (the magnificently-faced veteran character actor Christopher Fairbank at his most baleful). Katherine doesn’t seem to be initially overly concerned by her lot, but is rather surprised when, on their wedding night, her new husband instructs her to take off her nightdress only to immediately turn out the light and fall asleep.

Finding herself confined to the house and not receiving the attentions she was expecting, Katherine rapidly becomes deeply dissatisfied and actually rather frustrated by her lonely existence in the large and spartan country home of her new family. However, events conspire to see both her husband and father-in-law away on business for an extended period of time, leaving her as the lady of the house. This taste of freedom rather goes to her head, and she promptly starts drinking the wine cellar dry and launches herself into a liaison with one of the hired hands (Cosmo Jarvis) – though initially tentative, this rapidly becomes full-bloodedly enthusiastic.

Eventually, of course, her father-in-law returns and is far from delighted by what he discovers. But it transpires he has severely underestimated the girl he purchased solely to provide the family with an heir – rather than being just a decorative, mousy little thing, Katherine has hidden depths. And it seems there are none she won’t sink to in order to get what she wants…

As you might have gathered, this is obviously a costume drama based on a piece of period literature, but it has none of the cosiness or the delight in its historical trappings that routinely afflicts this type of movie. Lady Macbeth is from the bleaker and darker end of the genre (and that’s possibly putting it a touch gently). At showing I attended the BBFC certification was omitted (an unusual oversight), leading me to wonder exactly what I was in for – having seen it, I now suspect this film is either a very strong 15 or a low 18, and the accompanying disclaimer when it eventually turns up on BBC2 will run along the lines of ‘This film contains scenes of sex, violence, very strong language, and moments which viewers may find upsetting’. Mainstream it probably isn’t – or, to put it another way, it only goes to prove you can get away with no end of blood, horror, frequent nudity, and frantic rumpo provided you’re making something properly cultural.

The film starts off looking like a cross between Wuthering Heights and a fairly typical story about the oppression and repression of desire, and Florence Pugh is appropriately vulnerable, determined, and (dare one say it) sexy in the part. Her warmth and humanity puts you on her side almost at once, and of course she’s instantly sympathetic given the way she is used and abused by her in-laws virtually from the moment of her wedding. The question, of course, is to what extent she deserves to retain that sympathy, as what starts off as a completely understandable search for happiness spirals out of control and Katherine starts to display more sociopathic, and even homicidal qualities. One of the distinguishing things about Pugh’s performance is that she never completely loses your sympathy, even after committing the most appalling crimes. This is ultimately a bleak and very uncomfortable film to watch, given how the story develops – it’s a fair chunk of the way to being a psychological horror movie, and you can easily imagine Pugh leading a Nu-Hammer movie on the evidence here – and not one which offers easy certainties or conclusions to the audience.

Pretty much the only issue I can raise against a film of almost immaculate focus and precision is that… oh, dear, I feel like I’m stepping into a minefield here… well, I know we are obliged to discuss the whitewashing of history these days, but it is surely possible to overcompensate in this department, and the decision to make virtually every working class character non-white or of mixed race is actually rather intrusive and a bit distracting. Maybe the film-makers are just trying to make a point about the universality of the story and that race shouldn’t be an issue at all, but given the studied naturalism of most of the film this kind of abstraction doesn’t really work. (Mobs of outraged diversity campaigners with blazing torches please assemble at the usual address.)

I am happy to report that Lady Macbeth, though primarily released as counter-programming to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 a couple of weeks ago, is apparently doing really well for itself – by art house movie standards anyway. Nice to see that a very impressive movie can do the business financially, especially one as challenging as this. One to watch out for, I would say, and the same is definitely true for Florence Pugh, too.

 

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It’s easy to forget that, about three years ago, predicting the imminent failure and embarrassment of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy was a popular pastime amongst a wide range of respected and sensible industry commentators: Marvel couldn’t keep on making huge hits, after all, and this was a step into the unknown for the studio – a comedy SF adventure featuring quite possibly the most obscure group of Z-list superheroes ever committed to the big screen? With Vin Diesel playing a tree? Come on.

Of course, following critical acclaim and a box office take of nearly $775 million (not to mention a bunch of other substantial hits in the interim), no-one is saying the same kind of thing about Gunn’s sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: quite the opposite. Expectations have risen to a level that might give some folk pause. But not, it seems, Marvel Studios – the new movie has received the plum late-spring release date, even ahead of the new Spider-Man film, a considerable vote of confidence. But is this justified? Are people going to stroll out whistling the soundtrack, or not even stay for the first couple of post-credits sequences (there are a lot of these)?

James Gunn has never really been one to avoid unusual creative decisions, and the first of many in Vol. 2 is to explicitly set the film in 2014, even though the story has only the most marginal connection with anything happening on Earth. (All this achieved, really, was to make me wonder what the timeframe and chronology is as far as all the other Marvel films is concerned – do they take place in real time? On-screen evidence suggests otherwise. Drawing attention to this topic may be a mistake.) Anyway, that the new film is going to really be more of the same is indicated almost at once, as the opening credits showcase a dance routine to ELO, occurring in front of a backdrop the likes of which Jeff Lynne can surely never have dreamed.

Having been successful in their latest mercenary exploit, Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and the currently pot-plant-sized Groot (Vin Diesel, apparently, not that you can actually tell) head off, intent on turning Gamora’s insane sister Nebula (Karen Gillen) in for a substantial bounty. However, the kleptomaniac tendencies of one of their number land the Guardians in serious trouble, and result in their former associate Yondu (Michael Rooker) being hired to hunt them down.

Help of a sort arrives in the unexpected form of mysterious space entity Ego (Kurt Russell) and his assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff). Ego reveals he is actually Star-Lord’s long-estranged father, and whisks him off to his domain to explain his true heritage and tutor him in the use of his cosmic powers. However, Yondu and his band of ne’er-do-wells are closing in… but is all quite as it seems?

It does not take too much effort to interpret much of Vol. 2 as a resounding ‘Ha-HAH!’ from Gunn, directed at all those people smugly predicting the first film would be a disaster and that he was just not suited to directing mainstream movies. All the things that made the first film tonally distinctive, not to mention odd – the garish production designs, the 70s and 80 pop cultural references, the oddball, tongue-in-cheek humour – are here again, and more prominently than before.

However, one change which has not been much commented upon is the fact that Gunn has written and directed this film single-handed, whereas the script of the first volume was partly the work of Nicole Perlman. One of the reasons the first film worked so well was that all the weird stuff was built around a story with an absolutely rock-solid structure, and I am compelled to assume that most of this came from Perlman’s initial work, not least because (having seen Slither and Super) narrative discipline is not something I would necessarily associate with Gunn, and it’s certainly absent from long stretches of Vol. 2.

The film opens strongly, but relatively soon feels like it’s losing direction – there’s no sense of what the story is actually about, or where it’s heading. This is partly necessitated by the nature of the plot, I suspect, but perhaps that just suggests the plot itself is inherently flawed. Instead of a sense of progression in the narrative, the film proceeds through a succession of eye-catching directorial set-pieces, somewhat earnest character scenes, and outrageous comedy sketches.

Now, let’s not get confused about this: the film looks great, is filled with fine actors doing their stuff, and when it’s functioning as a pure comedy it is often very, very funny (though certainly not a film to take small children to see) – Vol. 2 doesn’t fail to entertain, distract, and amuse. However – and here’s the ironic thing – it feels more like a compilation tape than a movie in its own right. All the stuff you really enjoyed from the first one is here, and turned up to the max; but many of the less-noticeable elements that helped to make it function so well as a satisfying movie have been a bit skimped on.

In short, it’s a mightily self-indulgent beast, though forgiveably so for the most part – though new viewers (and even some casual ones) are likely to find it slightly baffling. Some of the characters seem to be here more because Gunn likes them than out of any necessity to the plot: here I’m looking particularly at Nebula, to be honest. Speaking of self-indulgence, as is not unusual in this sort of film, the final battle/climax seems to go on forever, and is followed by a lengthy and somewhat sentimental coda that I’m not sure the film works hard enough to justify. Then we’re off to all five of the post-credits sequences, if you can believe that.

There’s something not-unimpressive about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2‘s adamantium certainty that the audience is going to be utterly beguiled and swept along by it, but at the same time it does almost feel a little bit smug, especially given the lack of narrative impetus in that long middle section. This movie is by no means a failure, because it does function as a spectacle and a comedy (Dave Bautista is, by the way, consistently the funniest thing in it), and it’s by no means the weakest of the sequels that Marvel Studios have released. But it’s not in the front rank of the movies that they’ve released, by any means. Cut it a degree of slack and you’ll have a good time watching it – and rest assured that no matter how much slack you cut it, that’s still almost certainly less than the amount of slack it cuts itself. In the end, this is only a moderately awesome mix.

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When I was considerably younger I was lucky enough to live in Hull, which was blessed with a range of cinema-going options: there were a couple of multiplexes, plus a sort-of art house cinema, and also a rather nice old three-screener which specialised in showing films that had finished their initial release but weren’t out on VHS yet (yes, it was that long ago). I remember going along the day I finished my final university exams and seeing Leon, Interview with the Vampire, and Stargate back-to-back, all for under £5. Bliss it was in that dawn, and so on.

These days a broadly comparable service is provided by the Silver Screen strand at the sweetshop, which likewise shows films from a couple of months ago that people may have missed. The prices have gone up a bit, but at least there are free biscuits available now. The films on offer are generally only ones which are judged to be of interest to your senior citizen (just another chance to patronise older people, if you ask me), but it’s better than nothing, and this week’s offering was Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures.

This is another one of those fairly timely films dealing with the thorny subject of race relations in the USA, but with this being the divisive issue that it is, the film-makers have decided to take a more historical perspective. The angle adopted on this occasion is the role of African-American women in the space programme in the early 1960s.

One of those facts that often gets reiterated is that NASA put a man on the Moon using less computing power than you could find in most digital watches (a tiny fraction of that in a modern smartphone, I expect). The film indicates that NASA didn’t acquire its first computing machine until 1962 (an engaging historical revelation is that when the van-sized unit arrived, it was too big to fit through the doors of the room allocated to it) – prior to this point, the only ‘computers’ employed by the agency were mathematicians tasked with working out any calculations required. A sizeable contingent of the human computers at NASA’s Langley, Virginia facility were women of colour, and the film tells the story of three of them.

Most prominent is the tale of Katherine Johnson (nee Goble), played by Taraji P Henson. Johnson is a widowed single mother and former mathematical prodigy (Beautiful Mind-esque geometric figures jump out of the wallpaper at her as a child) who ends up attached to the Space Task Group at NASA under the director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). Here she has to contend not just with some fairly tricky sums (converting a parabolic orbit to an elliptic one – hmm, that’d be shoes and socks off time for most people, I expect), but also with the entrenched institutional racism and sexism of the culture in which she works. Subplots deal with two of her friends – Janelle Monae plays Mary Jackson, an aspiring engineer who has to get a court order in order to be able to study at an all-white high school (Virginia was still a segregated state at this point), while Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan, forced to do a supervisor’s job without the accompanying title or salary and ceaselessly patronised by a white superior (Kirsten Dunst).

All this is going on against the backdrop of the early years of the Space Race, with the USA in danger of slipping behind their Soviet rivals. Can everybody put aside their various issues and grievances in order to make John Glenn’s groundbreaking orbital spaceflight a reality?

I have to confess to not being especially excited about the prospect of seeing Hidden Figures when it initially came out a couple of months ago: I seem to recall I had the choice of seeing either this film or The Founder, and eventually opted for the latter on the grounds that it had the same period Americana setting, untold-story theme, and well-received performances, but also promised to be surprising and challenging in a way that Hidden Figures probably wouldn’t.

And, what can I say, but ‘nice one, me’: Hidden Figures is by no means a bad movie, being well-acted and decently put together, but there is very little about it that you wouldn’t be able to predict from seeing the trailer. There are some engaging historical details, to be sure, and parts of it are certainly shocking to a right-thinking modern viewer, but surprising? Not really.

From the opening scenes it’s fairly obvious that this is going to be about the parallel, life-affirming stories of women who refuse to be ground down, and use their natural talent and determination to overcome the dreadful obstacles history and society have conspired to place in their way. And there’s nothing wrong with telling that story, of course, nothing at all. But you can’t realistically be subversive or too challenging when you’re making a mainstream film about either the civil rights movement or the US space programme,  both significant elements of the American national mythology, and so Melfi is obliged to fall back on a sort of all-purpose sentimentality to engage the audience’s attention. I am afraid that I am highly resistant to this sort of thing, which may be explain why much of the film made little impact on me.

I mean, the early space programme itself is a fascinating topic, too little known these days, and the civil rights movement is likewise an important piece of recent history. However, this is presumably a film aimed at a female audience, and so in addition to both these things there’s quite a lot of slightly soapy material about the personal lives of the principle characters (Henson gets a chocolate-box romance subplot with a character played by Mahershala Ali, who at least gets to survive past the middle of the story for once).

People who worry about these things have raised the point that, for a historical movie, Hidden Figures takes some pretty spectacular liberties with what actually happened – the movie is set in 1961 and 1962, but some of the events it features actually took place in 1940s and 1950s, always assuming they aren’t completely fictional – the bit you may have seen in the trailer with Costner’s character (himself a complete fiction) smashing the segregated bathroom signs never happened, nor did all the preceding material with someone having to run half a mile every time they want to use the bathroom. Does it matter? Not really, if you accept that the message of the film is more important than the actual facts of history – I think my problem is that this willingness to amend events just makes it more clear that the audience is essentially there to either be preached at or complimented for having properly progressive attitudes: the historical story is just a delivery mechanism.

Given that this is the case, the climax of the film is really an shift of emphasis, as it concerns the problems that befell Glenn’s Freedom Seven flight. None of these concerned maths, or indeed civil rights, and so the moments of tension thus created do feel a bit contrived and arbitrary following everything that has gone before. On the other hand, they are based on historical fact: the film really does same to take a sort of cafeteria approach to this.

You honestly can’t fault Hidden Figures for its intentions or its principles, but being beyond criticism on moral grounds doesn’t necessarily make a perfect or even particularly great movie. The performances are the best thing about it, although I must confess I was more pleased to see Costner and Dunst back on the screen than anything else. There are a plethora of great movies to be made about NASA in the 50s and 60s, I’m sure: this felt a little bit bogged down by the need to make its points slowly, carefully, and obviously. Crediting the audience with a bit more wit and intelligence would probably have resulted in a better film.

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