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Posts Tagged ‘2018’

…anyway, while the distaff members of the family and our patriarch were off enjoying Mary Poppins Returns, in the screen next door Young Nephew, his dad, and your regular correspondent were settling down in front of perhaps the most-directed film of the year, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, from Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsay and Rodney Rothman.

This has been an exceptional year at the movies even by Marvel’s standards, and it feels entirely appropriate that it should end with a movie showcasing the company’s most iconic and popular character – all the more so, given that the year has also seen the passing of both Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, the creators not just of Spider-Man but also of much of the wider Marvel world, the sheer extent of which is perhaps the raison d’etre of the new film.

It opens conventionally enough, with a brisk recap of the career of Spider-Man, aka Peter Parker (Chris Pine), super-heroic protector of New York City. But then things switch to the perspective of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who is basically just an ordinary kid struggling with fairly typical problems: mainly that he doesn’t get on with his dad (Brian Tyree Henry), who is insisting that he starts a new school, curtails his hobby of making graffiti, and spends less time with his beloved but slightly shady uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali). Miles is out with his uncle one night doing something mildly illegal when he is bitten by a rather peculiar spider, and finds his life becoming even more complicated and stressful.

While coming to terms with his new-found wall-adhering powers, Miles finds himself caught up in a battle between Spider-Man and the forces of the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), who has constructed an ominously big and complicated gadget with the power to blow holes in the fabric of the universe. Spider-Man charges Miles with helping him to destroy the Kingpin’s machine before – and this is probably quite a shocking moment if you haven’t read the publicity for the movie – he is killed in action battling the supervillain and his henchmen.

The city mourns, naturally – and so does Miles, of course, not least because he’s accidentally broken the gadget Spider-Man gave him to save the day. And then things take another left-field turn, with the appearance of another Spider-Man (Jake Johnson) at the grave of the one Miles originally encountered. It turns out that this new Peter Parker is a slightly gone-to-seed middle-aged Spider-Man from a parallel universe, who has been dragged here by the Kingpin’s machine.

The older Spider-Man basically just wants to leave, before being out of his home universe causes his cells to disintegrate, and initially turns a deaf ear to Miles’ plea that he train him or help in the destruction of the machine before even more damage is done to the fabric of the cosmos. But soon enough that old heroic spirit is rekindled and the duo set out to thwart the villain and save the day. But it seems that the damage to the multiverse is more extensive than anyone has realised, with a bevy of other Spider-People also in the mix…

Now, I like to think of myself as a fairly open-minded sort of person, not carrying around too much in the way of prejudice or bias – but I have to say that while it would take hospitalisation or worse to make me miss a live-action Marvel adaptation, I suspect there are a large number of parallel universes where I didn’t see Into the Spider-Verse on the big screen, simply because it’s an animated film. I suppose I can take some comfort from the fact that I’m not alone in this, because this movie is doing appreciably less business than the live-action Aquaman movie, despite being at least as good.

Then again, I say this as a fairly dedicated follower of all things comic-booky, which really puts me into the target audience bracket for this film. I’m pretty sure this is not the greatest Spider-Man movie ever made – that title is still surely held by Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, and it will take something very special indeed to dislodge it – but in one very specific way at least, it certainly challenges for the title of greatest comic-book movie.

Up until fairly recently, most comic-book films were rather conservative beasts, largely determined not to appear silly or childish and keep the mainstream audience on board. The stories inevitably lost some of their colour, energy, and inventiveness in translation because of this, and it’s only in the more recent of the Marvel Studios films that the film-makers have become confident enough to let some of the sheer exuberant goofiness and innovation of the comics creep back in. Into the Spider-Verse isn’t a Marvel Studios film, but in the same way it isn’t afraid to trust the audience’s ability to get its head around some new ideas – most obviously, that the whole movie is set in an alternative continuity (or parallel universe, whichever you prefer). This allows the introduction of not just the Miles Morales Spider-Man (a comics presence, initially in Marvel’s Ultimate imprint, since 2011), but also a striking new version of Dr Octopus (voiced by Kathryn Hahn).

At the centre of the film is an origin story for the Miles Morales version of Spidey, which is handled with immaculate deftness and storytelling skill. But going on around it, and really making the film sing, is a very different kind of story, basically just celebrating the boundless imaginative palette of comic-book storytelling in general, and super-hero stories in particular. Miles Morales and the initial pair of Peter Parkers are eventually joined by a parallel-universe Spider-Woman who turns out to be Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), and also a manga-influenced version of the character who’s a teenage Japanese girl from the future, not to mention the anthropomorphic pig Spider-Ham (secret identity Peter Porker). Perhaps most joyously entertaining of all is the appearance of a hard-boiled black-and-white version of Spider-Man from a pulp-inspired universe, who is voiced by Nicolas Cage in his own inimitable style.

The film’s defining visual conceit is to animate each of these extra-dimensional visitors in a different style, even when they’re all in the same scene – Spider-Ham always looks like a Looney Toons character, the Japanese character is presented in an anime style, and the Cage Spider-Man comes from a noir universe where the only colours are black and white (there’s a lovely running gag about him trying to make sense of a Rubik’s cube). The result is a dazzling visual treat, before we even reach the bravura climax where the different dimensions collide with and collapse into one another.

The script manages to do full justice to the potential of the concept, and – unsurprisingly, because this is a project in which Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have had a hand – is also immensely clever and funny. I was still a bit unsure about whether my decision to come and see this film had been the right one as it actually started in front of me, but one of the very first things that happens is a gleeful gag at the expense of Raimi’s somewhat less-than-wholly-beloved Spider-Man 3, which completely disarmed and delighted me.

Into the Spider-Verse is filled with good things and inspired bits of invention; the moment at which Lee and Ditko are given due credit is especially moving, of course. Despite its relatively modest box-office take so far, apparently the film has done well enough for a slate of spin-offs and sequels to already be in development. We have been here before, of course, with Sony’s arguably over-ambitious plans to diversify its Spider-Man series following The Amazing Spider-Man 2. In the end that just led to Spider-Man being leased back to Marvel Studios on a sort of time-share basis, and also the distinctly so-so Venom movie (which doesn’t explicitly mention its links to the parent franchise). Hopefully this time things will be different, for Into the Spider-Verse shows that there is potential for a really interesting series of films just focused on Spider-Man himself.  This is the best non-MCU Marvel movie in ages.

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Christmas! It’s a time for family, for sharing, for massive over-indulgence, for lying around in stupefied torpor. What it’s never been before, in my family at least, is a time for enjoying the latest cinematic offerings, mainly due to all the over-indulgence and stupefied torpidity I just mentioned. Still, one thing about family (mine, at least) is their capacity to change and surprise you, and so it proved this year. It turned out that there were not one but two films on release that my small young relatives were quite keen to see, and it was really just a question of who got roped into going to see what and when.

Now, it transpired that Young Niece was particularly interested in seeing Rob Marshall’s Mary Poppins Returns. As I believe I may have mentioned before, catching this particular movie was right there on my list of things to do this Christmas season: very near the bottom, somewhere between transcribing the Queen’s speech and then translating it into Basque and volunteering to have an elective laparotomy, so I ducked out of this one. My Significant Other was very happy to accompany her, along with various other senior members of the tribe. Significant Other drew my attention to the fact that, back in the dim and distant echoes of history, I did occasionally indulge in the odd guest post about films I hadn’t personally seen myself, and dropped some loaded hints that it might be a nice idea to revive this tradition for the Poppins movie. She and Young Niece seemed quite keen on this idea and I found I couldn’t in all good conscience turn them down. So here we go, for the first time in ages I will attempt to post a review of a film which I haven’t actually seen.

I have, of course, seen the original 1964 Mary Poppins, a film which used to be just a fondly-remembered family favourite and near-fixture of the festive TV schedules, but which Disney – particularly since the release of Saving Mr Banks in 2013, perhaps – have worked hard to reposition as some kind of iconic, epochal classic of popular cinema. Disney, whose consolidation of their already iron grip on popular box office has started to cause some consternation even amongst those who like much of their output, have also hit upon a lucrative thing in the shape of retooling and reimagining many of their classic old films – a couple of years ago we had the new CGI version of The Jungle Book, due to be followed in 2019 by freshly computerised remakes of Dumbo and The Lion King. All this considered, the appearance of a Poppins sequel only 54 years after the original – the gap is a bit on the long side, I think you’ll agree – is really not as surprising as it first appears.

The details of the plot, at least, are fairly easy to glean from the trailers and a quick visit to Wikipedia: the Banks children from the first film have grown up and  turned into Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw. Whishaw now has children of his own, although his wife has died (a fairly ruthless swipe of the scriptwriter’s pen); in time-honoured fashion, the now-grown children have become rather stressed and joyless drones, in grave peril of forgetting about The Important Things In Life. The fact that the bank is threatening to foreclose on their home and throw them all out into the street probably isn’t helping much. What better time for someone to dust off an old kite which has been lying about the place and summon, not entirely unlike the Woman in Black, the supernatural dominatrix Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), to sort everything out?

Well, in my case I suspect it would have taken a snootful of pethidine to make this particular load of sugar go down, but Young Niece did seem quite impressed when they came out, as did Significant Other. I asked them to provide a few further details, firstly about what they thought of the film in general. (I should probably mention that Young Niece is a talkative ten years of age while English is not Significant Other’s first language.)

‘It was really good, imaginative and creative – it made a real picture in your mind of reality and it introduced the magic. I think it had sort of the same story as the first one with modern and exciting elements – though I think the first one was more exciting, set in the olden times.

‘It was really clever with the director, how he took the old story and turned it into a new story… the actors played it like they were in the moment. Emily Blunt played Mary Poppins really well – she stepped into Julie Andrew’s shoes. She was really sharp but also a lot of fun.’

Anything else to add about Emily Blunt? (Personally, I’m hoping this film doesn’t mark the point at which we lose Blunt to the clutches of bland global megastardom.) ‘When Mary Poppins arrived she was a little bit bossy, but after the fabulous bath everybody loved her.’ (I believe the ‘fabulous bath’ may be a reference to a big special effects set-piece sequence.)

‘Emily Blunt put a lot of character in… she changed the accent in her voice during some of the songs. It’s a little difficult to be the nanny and also the big showgirl.’ (The only other performers to be singled out for a mention were Angela Lansbury – who seems to mainly be present to encourage my father in his tendency to get the original film mixed up with Bedknobs and Broomsticks – and Meryl Streep, whose appearance as Cousin Topsy drew praise – ‘she looked different, which was good.’)

Thoughts on production values? ‘The costumes were very colourful and looked the part – the lamp-lighters were wearing clothes like they would wear… not so colourful.’ (As an aside, nice to see my niece is so aware of the class divide at such a tender age.) ‘The animation was absolutely fabulous, especially the way they did the lamp-lighters and Mary Poppins on the kite. It was just amazing and it looked really real and joyful.’

Any favourite moments? ‘The best bit was when they were working together to turn time back to get the share certificate.’ (I should probably explain the concept of a plot spoiler to her in a bit more detail, now I think on it.) They also enjoyed ‘the stunt with bikes and the gymnastics, how they got up Big Ben… there were some amazing stunts and acrobatics.’

My suspicion was that this would be another film about getting in touch with your inner child and reconnecting with joy and all the usual waffle like that, so I asked them what they thought the message of the film really was. ‘Nothing is impossible,’ was the answer both of them gave, quite independently, which must mean something I expect. In an attempt to include all the generations of the family, I asked our venerable patriarch the same question and he came back with ‘Money isn’t everything’, which is an interesting moral for a film with a budget of $130 million.

So there you go, a little lighter on the piercing insight than usual, and indeed the pithy one-liners, but you can’t have everything, especially considering I was in the theatre next door enjoying an entirely different film while they were taking all this in. They all seemed to come out smiling, anyway, and I expect that if you enjoyed the original film you’ll probably enjoy this one too. Personally I think I would still much rather feed the birds, fly a kite, or chim-chiminee my chim-chim-cherees than go anywhere near it, but everyone is different, aren’t they? Anyway…

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It’s fairly unusual for a film to show up on my radar and its UK release to then slip by me almost entirely, but this is what happened this year with Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale. I definitely recall seeing a trailer at some point, but then (and this may be partly due to one or other of my trips to the Kyrgyz Republic this autumn) it was suddenly showing as a catch-up movie in one of the out-of-the-centre cinemas in Oxford, apparently barely having troubled the main multiplexes at all. A somewhat plaintive cry of ‘Are you going to see this one?’ from a reader in the US forced me to confront the hard truth that sometimes you just can’t see every film that gets released.

On the other hand, sometimes you find yourself with a spare evening in Berlin with a decent cinema showing movies in die ursprungliche Version only a brisk walk away, and it was a choice between Bad Times at the El Royale and BlacKkKlansman (another film I missed due to my sojourn in Bishkek), and my inner grammar obsessive clearly couldn’t face the prospect of typing that second title too many times. So off we went to the Goddard movie.

Things get underway with a prologue set in the late 1950s, as a mystery man checks into a hotel room and proceeds to take up the floorboards and hide a bag in the cavity thus created. Before he can do much else, he is murdered, a development which is both shocking and disappointing (mainly because it means Nick Offerman, who plays him, is obviously going to be in the movie much less than one would hope).

Ten years later, a group of strangers encounter each other at the El Royale, a fading motel with a curious geographical quirk – it’s built squarely on the state line between California and Nevada, meaning (for instance) that you can only buy a drink on the west side of the bar room. Amongst the people checking in are a slightly confused elderly priest (Jeff Bridges), a garrulous vacuum cleaner salesman (Jon Hamm), an African-American woman with some unusual luggage (Cynthia Erivo), and a young woman (Dakota Johnson) who looks like a hippy but doesn’t seem that interested in peace and love. The boyish desk-clerk (Lewis Pullman) does his best to keep them all satisfied, of course.

Well, and wouldn’t you just know it, it turns out that most of these people are not at all what they initially seem to be, and several of them are dragging around a different sort of baggage entirely. As the night wears on, a peculiar chain of events develops, involving FBI wiretapping, blackmail, dementia and a psychopathic cult leader. Not everyone is going to be checking out alive…

I have to say that my first thought on properly looking at the poster for Bad Times at the El Royale was that this is a movie filled with people currently stuck in an odd twilight zone in terms of their movie career: by which I mean, there are some people who have the ability to open a movie (meaning their presence alone will guarantee the film does healthy business), and there are others who are by any standard appreciably famous, but aren’t able to translate this into consistent box office success under their own steam. Bad Times at the El Royale has Jeff Bridges in it, who is a veteran movie star and a fine actor, and Cynthia Erivo, who is a definite up-and-comer, but also a bunch of people who seem to be in the latter category – Jon Hamm (still best known for TV’s Mad Men), Dakota Johnson (whose high profile is mainly down to appearing in all those big-budget soft porn films), and – perhaps the best current example of the kind of thing I’m talking about – Chris Hemsworth (whose films make literally billions of dollars, but only when he’s playing one particular role).

I am aware that Bad Times is felt to have underperformed somewhat at the US box office, and this may be part of the reason why: it’s certainly a star-studded movie, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into ticket sales. It’s hard to think of another reason, apart from possibly the film’s length (it’s 140 minutes long, and by the end you’re starting to feel every one of them), for this is an engaging example of a type of film which was all the rage a few years ago but not much seen these days – by which I mean that Bad Times belongs to that very odd sub-genre, the Quentin Tarantino pastiche.

How can you possibly pastiche the style of someone who has basically built a career around pastiching other people? Mostly it is a stylistic thing: there are various self-conscious formal quirks here, and a chopped-up non-linear approach to some of the storytelling – one key moment in particular plays out multiple times, viewed from different perspectives. The film isn’t afraid to include some fairly grisly violence, too, and there’s where one sequence in particular where the threat of it hangs in the air and you almost get the sense the director is relishing the prospect. The retro setting also reinforces the idea that this is a film looking to the past rather than the future.

That said, while the movie includes a number of plot elements which are very specific to its setting – there’s a cult of murderous hippies, and a morally-compromised FBI surveillance operation, amongst others – it doesn’t feel like the film has anything particular to say about the sixties or America at that point in time. It’s just a convenient, colourful backdrop – a dressing-up outfit for a film which always seems just a bit more interested in style than in substance.

Nevertheless, this is a very capably assembled piece of entertainment. I must confess that the name Drew Goddard didn’t register with me at all, but it turns out I’ve been watching his work as a writer and director for about fifteen years, on and off, and this film is as polished and effective as his resume (which includes things like The Cabin in the Woods and The Defenders) might lead you to suspect. His script exploits the potential of this kind of set-up (the nature of the film is such that it’s impossible to tell which characters are going to survive to the closing credits) and he’s helped by consistently strong performances from the ensemble cast – I should probably make a special mention of Chris Hemsworth, cast most against type as a cross between Jim Morrison and Charles Manson.

As I say, there is perhaps a bit of a problem with a film that feels like it should be brisk, knockabout entertainment having a running time round about that of the theatrical cut of 2001, and the film’s performance may also have been affected by the lack of a bankable star and the nature of the narrative. However, I had a good time watching it and I’m glad I got the chance to do so on a big screen. I would say Bad Times at the El Royale has a decent chance of a respectable career as either a cult movie or an underappreciated gem.

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I know there’s a sense in which this is comparing apples and oranges, but it is interesting to compare the audience size at the screening I attended of Mortal Engines (when the auditorium was mostly empty on the Friday night of its opening weekend) with that of the lunchtime screening of Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s Free Solo I went to, which practically sold out a rather bigger venue.

Free Solo is a documentary, made under the auspices of National Geographic, and would therefore usually qualify as counter-programming, showing as it is in a small semi-independent cinema. Yet it manages to be funny, thrilling, thought-provoking and chilling in a way which few films of any stripe manage; no wonder the word of mouth on it is so good.

The subject of the film is Alex Honnold, a reasonably personable young man who has risen (literally) to a sort of celebrity status in the world of climbing. Alex’s speciality, as the title of the film suggests, is a style of ascent known as a free solo, where the climber is alone and unencumbered by all those tedious ropes, harnesses, and other pieces of safety equipment – it’s just hands, feet, and a bag of chalk against the mountain. The major hook of the documentary is that it promises to depict Alex’s attempt to become the first person to free solo a cliff face in Yosemite National Park known as El Capitan – a feat only previously attempted on film by William Shatner at the start of Star Trek V.

What makes this so exceptional is that El Capitan is basically 3200 feet of sheer, almost completely vertical rock. The idea of going up it without a safety rope may sound alarming to you or I, but hardened professional climbers, who fully understand the nature of the challenge, are left pale and shaken by the prospect. The film doesn’t attempt to minimise the dangers involved, observing that most of the world’s great free solo climbers are no longer with us, having met with abrupt vertical demises. Free soloing El Capitan, someone suggests, is an athletic feat of the sort which would normally win someone an Olympic gold medal – with the important addendum that in this case, if you take part in the event but don’t perform perfectly, the result is certain death.

Cracking stuff for a documentary, I think you will agree, and yet what makes Free Solo so utterly engrossing isn’t just the climb itself as its portrait of Alex Honnold and its attempt to discover just what in the world makes someone like him tick. For Alex it seems relatively simple: climbing high objects is what gives his life its greatest moments of pleasure. But it seems like more than that, and wondering if there might be something genuinely different about him, the film-makers send him off for a brain scan. It turns out the amygdala of his brain (basically, the fear centre) is less-than-normally responsive to external stimuli, meaning he just doesn’t get scared in the same way a normal person does.

More telling insights come from the film’s portrait of Alex’s relationship with his girlfriend Sanni, a life coach by profession (according to her website she helps people ‘stop making fear-based decisions’, which doesn’t strike me as a problem for Alex), and a young woman with seemingly almost superhuman reserves of restraint and forbearance – early on Alex says quite matter-of-factly that he would always choose climbing over a relationship, and makes it quite clear that any commitment he may make to a relationship will not make him feel obliged to do fewer insanely dangerous things. This intense level of focus (is monomania too strong a word?) and Alex’s lack of social intelligence makes the relationship challenging – there’s a charming and illuminating sequence where the couple go out to buy a fridge together, while when asked what it’s like to have Sanni visiting him in his van (despite being appreciably wealthy, Alex has lived out of a van for the last decade), he seems initially nonplussed, before offering that ‘she’s cute and small and she livens up the place’. A certain set of flags was already waving for me before the moment when Alex’s mother casually suggests that his late father had Asperger’s syndrome. No-one raises the possibility that Alex may have inherited more from his father than just his complexion, but it’s impossible not to at least consider drawing certain conclusions.

Some of Free Solo is a conventional documentary film, but much of it is not – the climbing sequences are captured by a mixture of drone cameras and cameras operated by professional climbers. This is a technical achievement in and of itself, but more interesting are the film-makers’ own concerns – they have been cautious about doing a film about free soloing in the past, and Chin himself appears on camera to express his worries that it may be the presence of a camera that causes Alex’s concentration to slip, with fatal consequences.

Preparations for the climb are lengthy and do not go smoothly – Alex falls and badly sprains an ankle (the next day he is tackling the climbing wall of a local gym while wearing an orthopaedic boot), and an initial attempt at El Capitan is called off on the grounds that he’s ‘just not feeling it today’. This comes almost as a relief to one of the crew, who suggests that it’s like learning that ‘Spock has nerves after all’ (those Star Trek connections just keep coming).

In the end, though, it’s all systems go for a final assault which Alex seems to thoroughly enjoy from beginning to end, even though some of the cameramen can hardly bear to watch. (Is it a spoiler to reveal that Alex Hannold does not plummet to a gory death at the climax of his own movie? I think you could probably have guessed as much.) I can sort of empathise as there are many, many moments and images in this film to churn the stomach and weaken the knees: the camera may be focused on Alex as he makes his way up the rock face, but your eyes are irresistibly drawn to the immensity of the drop beneath him. (There are also some lighter moments, such as a bizarre encounter with someone camped out on the cliff face in a unicorn costume.) It drives home the fact that the climactic ascent is as close to a superhuman achievement as any I can think of.

Yet the film works as well as it does because it never loses sight of Alex as a human being, albeit one who is wired up a bit differently to most people. He is someone lucky enough to have found that one thing which makes him utterly and perfectly happy – it’s just that this happens to be an insanely dangerous pursuit that kills most people who take it up. Should we envy him, pity him, or just see about getting him therapy? The film stays silent on the questions it raises, content to be a fascinating portrait of Alex and his life. Alex Honnold’s ascent of El Capitan has been called one of the greatest achievements of human athleticism, and Free Solo does both him and it full justice. One of the best films of the year.

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As I believe I have said, it feels like we’re having an embarrassment of riches when it comes to big studio movies at the moment – for the past three years, the other studios have clearly been running scared of the power of Disney’s fully armed and operational stellar conflict franchise, but with them having opted to take a break this December, everyone else seems to be crashing in – there’s a DC superhero movie, a Transformers movie, a sequel to a well-loved family favourite, various animated films for tinier audiences, and so on. Joining a crowded marketplace is Mortal Engines, not directed by Peter Jackson even though his name is all over the publicity. This film has nothing to do with Stanislaw Lem, by the way, but it’s an adaptation of a well-regarded YA novel by Philip Reeve.

I have to say the initial omens do not seem to be great for Mortal Engines, if only because this is a lavish fantasy film with a budget somewhere north of $100 million, and it’s ended up showing only twice a day in a very small auditorium in Oxford city centre’s most mainstream multiplex. I went to see it on the evening of the first day of release, and only eight people were there, including myself. These are not the kinds of numbers that bust blocks.

The film itself is a piece of big-budget steampunk actually directed by Christian Rivers, set many centuries after a brief but devastating war using quantum bombs toppled civilisation as we know it. In the aftermath, the various surviving towns and cities ‘mobilised’ themselves (according to the opening voice-over), which basically involved sticking caterpillar tracks, balloon tyres, and little scuttly legs under them. Now these ‘traction cities’ roam around all over the map, and a peculiar ecosystem of municipal Darwinism has evolved, with the larger cities acting as predators, hunting down, gobbling up and assimilating the smaller ones.

Much of the action is set in London, which is now a multi-tiered juggernaut topped by St Paul’s Cathedral, rumbling across mainland Europe devouring any civilised settlement in its path. Noteworthy citizens of the city include zealously visionary engineer Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), non-threatening young historian Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), and Valentine’s daughter Kate (Leila George – to be honest, this character is a bit less crucial than the others in plot terms, but I feel obliged to mention her simply because George is such a remarkably pretty young woman – yes, my shallowness runs deep). As the film opens, London is pursuing a small German mining town, aboard which is the mysterious Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), a scarred young woman who is passionate and empathetic but also feisty and resourceful (so there’s a few more boxes ticked, if nothing else).

After a lengthy chase, the German town is dragged into the bowels of London to be disassembled and melted down, its population forced to join that of the larger city. Things take an unexpected turn when Hester, on coming face-to-face with Valentine, coldly tries to murder him: it seems she’s been trying to get onto London for months, for this sole purpose. When Tom stops her attempt at assassination, she lets slip a few facts about Valentine’s shady past before fleeing the city – and as Tom now knows too much, Valentine kicks him out as well. The duo, who initially hate each other in a way that only characters scheduled to end up together are capable of, are forced to wander the wasteland while Valentine proceeds with his evil plan (yes, of course he’s got an evil plan, as flagged up by some fairly clumsy exposition near the start of the film)…

The first thing I must say about Mortal Engines is that you are never in any doubt about exactly where all the money has gone: this is an extremely lavish-looking movie with some tremendous production designs and art direction. The only problem is that it often feels just a bit too obviously designed and directed – this is one of those movies that feels like it’s taking place in its own bubble world. Not that it’s necessarily completely original, of course – the idea of a city on wheels trundling inexorably across the landscape dates back at least to Christopher Priest’s brilliant 1974 novel Inverted World, while you could argue that the whole premise of this film owes something to that of James Blish’s Cities in Flight stories. Personally, I couldn’t help thinking of the Crimson Permanent Assurance from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life – but then again, a lot of steampunk films get me thinking of Terry Gilliam and Brazil.

No disrespect to Christian Rivers, who oversees a big and complex film quite competently, but I couldn’t help thinking that Mortal Engines would have been a lot more interesting (not to mention better) if it had had someone like Terry Gilliam in charge of it. As I said, the film opens with a city pursuing a small town across the landscape, but the film seems to have no awareness of its own absurdity – it’s all played absolutely straight, with a kind of earnestness that will probably strike a chord with the teenage audience it seems to be aimed at, but which most of the rest of us will most likely find a bit wearisome. There’s obviously potential here for some kind of subtext about the nature of modern society and some low-key social satire, but it’s one that the film eschews almost entirely in favour of its tale of attractive young people on missions of great import.

The plot of the movie is very undistinguished, broadly speaking: for quite a long time it’s not really clear who the good guy is, who the bad guy is, what they all want, what the stakes are, and so on. When this does come into focus it turns out to be nothing particularly interesting or innovative – this is one of those films that feels like it was written in accordance with a spreadsheet or a tick-list. Here’s the strong-willed young heroine, here’s the love interest, here’s some exposition, here’s an unconvincing romance. Here comes someone from Asia in a significant supporting role (on this occasion it is the South Korean singer Jihae) so they can sell the film in that market, here comes a painstakingly diverse bunch of minor characters who it’s quite easy to dress up as, if that’s the kind of thing that floats your boat… the script hits all its marks (hardly ever with particular deftness), but it’s almost totally lacking in quirkiness, wit, or any kind of genuine humour. The most interesting part of the film concerns Hester’s back-story and relationship with a kind of clockwork zombie played by Stephen Lang – more of this would have been better, but as it is it just feels like an odd tangent the film briefly wanders off on.

In the end it resolves with a big action sequence and various scenes which anyone feeling the absence of a stellar conflict movie this Christmas will probably find quite reassuring. But even at this point, I was finding myself looking at my watch and wondering which bus home I was going to catch – Mortal Engines is a big, good-looking film, but as a narrative it just didn’t engage with me at all on any but the most superficial of levels. Great world-building, particularly aesthetically, but the actual story is a lot less interesting than I would have thought possible, given the premise of the movie. I think it will struggle to find an audience in a crowded marketplace.

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I’m not going to beat around the bush – I’m just going to come straight out and tell you this. Julie Andrews, movie legend, international treasure, beloved (it would seem) of millions, has decided to lend her talents to her first live-action movie in nearly ten years. Now, if you had told me this a couple of days ago, I would have said ‘Ha ha! Secret cameo! But of course. It was inevitable,’ in the full and certain knowledge of which film she was coming out of (semi-)retirement for. But I was wrong. She is not in the movie you would expect her to be in. Instead, Julie Andrews is playing a giant kaiju-esque sea monster living in a mystical subterranean ocean in James Wan’s Aquaman. This is one of those facts that causes me to wonder if I am having some kind of psychological episode, or at the very least have eaten the wrong kind of cheese.

On the other hand, it does give you a general sense of the kind of tenor of Aquaman, which is in no way the film I would have expected a year or so ago. With Marvel Studios cheerfully pumping out three films a year on a regular basis, it feels – perhaps unfairly – a little surprising that their rivals at Warner Brothers/DC should basically have taken most of 2018 off, as we’ve seen nothing from them since last November’s could-have-been-much-worse Justice League. On the other hand, the DC movie line has routinely been met with such eviscerating reviews (I put my hand up unashamedly) and use of words like ‘omni-crisis’ that it’s entirely understandable they should take a breather, listen to what people are saying, and rethink what they’ve been doing. Aquaman is definitely a change of gear.

Thirty-odd years ago, lonely lighthouse keeper Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison) is startled to find a woman (Nicole Kidman) in an outlandish outfit washed up during a storm. After  a bumpy start (she eats his goldfish and sticks a trident through the TV while Stingray is showing – clearly not a Gerry Anderson fan) romance blossoms between the two of them. It turns out she is Atlanna, queen of Atlantis, in self-imposed exile to avoid an arranged marriage. The pair of them end up having a kid, before her past resurfaces (sorry) and she is forced to leave them both and return to the underwater world.

The child is named Arthur and grows up to become the definition of a strapping lad (Jason Momoa), who leads a fairly carefree life when not appearing in other movies as ‘the metahuman known as the Aquaman’ (note the addition of the definite article – which I don’t recall ever seeing applied to the comics version of the character – in an attempt to somehow make him seem more mature and portentous), as he can swim at incredible speeds, breathe water, and talk to fish (historically the source of some embarrassment to writers of Aquaman), in addition being very big and tough.

The movie has been practically dancing along so far, but at this point the plot kicks in, which is fair enough – but as much of the exposition is delivered by Dolph Lundgren, with CGI magenta hair, while riding on a prehistoric sea monster, I was rather distracted and not in the best state to take it all in. Basically it goes a little something like this: Arthur’s younger half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) is intent on uniting the various splintered kingdoms of Atlantis and having himself declared Ocean Master. His plan to achieve this is to provoke a war between the people of the ocean and those living on the surface. Already King Nereus of Xebel (Lundgren) has signed up.

However, Nereus’ daughter Mera (Amber Heard) and Orm’s vizier Vulko (Willem Dafoe) recognise a mad scheme when they hear one and have a plan to stop it. This involves persuading Arthur to press his claim to the throne of Atlantis and go off on an epic quest to retrieve the magic trident which is one of the symbols of power in the sunken city. Orm, naturally, is not pleased when he learns of all this, and despatches a high-tech pirate calling himself Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) to stop them…

Now, I became aware of Aquaman at a fairly young age, along with most of the other core DC characters. At this point he was still a fairly nondescript chap in an orange shirt whose signature ability (talking to fish) didn’t really match up to running at the speed of light, having an invisible plane, or being able to shoot heat rays out of your eyes. Various attempts to make Aquaman a bit more interesting as a character ensued over the years, with the most effective (if you ask me) being the one done by Peter David (credited on this movie) in the middle 1990s – this would be the version of Aquaman with the attitude, the beard, the gladiator vest and the hook replacing one of his hands. Do I detect the influence of the David Aquaman on this movie? Well, Momoa obviously has the beard and the attitude, so maybe, although ultimately they go back to the orange shirt costume, and don’t bother with the hook (someone did point out it would make it difficult for Aquaman to go to the bathroom, although I’ve never been able to work out how the sanitation in Atlantis would function anyway).

Momoa basically plays Aquaman (or Ah-quaman, as some of the people here pronounce it) as a not-especially-bright bro, a take on the character which works in this context even if it’s not particularly authentic to the comics. It’s a perfectly good, charismatic performance, although I suspect the best he can hope for is a Chris Hemsworth level of stardom, where people will flock to see him only if he’s playing one particular role. Perhaps I’m damning with faint praise, for Momoa does do the heavy lifting when it comes to carrying what’s a big, hefty movie.

Anyone expecting the kind of industrial gloom of something touched by the hand of Zach Snyder will be in for a big surprise, for there is a very different sensibility at work here: this is a light, fun fantasy epic, somewhat influenced by a bunch of other recent blockbusters (and not just ones from Marvel Studios), with its own very distinct aesthetic – there are garishly-coloured vistas throughout, and all manner of unlikely CGI critters (including, and we mustn’t forget this, Julie Andrews). Perhaps they are overcompensating somewhat, for the grim-and-gloomy of the earlier films has been replaced by a tone which is often as camp as Christmas (shrewd choice of release date, guys), sometimes absurdly so, with a rainbow-hued fluorescent colour-scheme.

In the end, popcorn fun results, thanks to a script which hangs together well and doesn’t worry about too many other DC references (there’s an attempted HP Lovecraft in-joke at one point, but they seem to have chosen the wrong book). The film has an interesting, eclectic cast who do good work, on the whole – personally, I can’t believe I’ve turned up to see a major Hollywood release featuring Dolph Lundgren two weeks in a row. His appearance here isn’t as good as the one in Creed II, but could we nevertheless be seeing the start of a Lundgrenaissance? Fingers crossed. I’m not entirely sure what Black Manta contributes to the movie beyond a major second-act action sequence, but then again the character is saddled with an especially silly costume design.

Aquaman is such a change of pace for the DC movies series that I’m genuinely curious to hear what fans of these films make of it – apparently there were a lot of complaints that Joss Whedon’s cut of Justice League was just too entertaining and faithful to the comics, and that Snyder’s depressing and misconceived vision should be respected and preserved. We’re off into a whole new world of camp nonsense with this film, and on its own terms it works just fine – I imagine it will do rather well for itself, although this does seem like an unusually crowded Christmas for aspiring blockbusters (in the absence of a stellar conflict movie, everyone seems to be piling in). I’m not sure if this approach will work for any other characters in the DC stable, but then again maybe the trick will be to not worry about the consistency of tone which has been such a mixed blessing for the Marvel films. I don’t think Aquaman has quite the same quality as Wonder Woman, but it’s still a very enjoyable piece of silliness, much better than any of the other recent DC films – fingers crossed they can keep this standard up in future.

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As long as Kirk Douglas is still with us, the position of Greatest Living Movie Legend is filled, but there are a bunch of honourable mentions just bubbling under, most of them (naturally) ladies and gentlemen of a certain age. Doris Day is 96, Angela Lansbury is 93, Sidney Poitier is 91, and Sean Connery and Clint Eastwood are both 88. Compared to these guys, at only 82 Robert Redford is practically a brash young whipper-snapper, and still feels like a vital and energetic figure in the world of cinema – largely because of his work as a producer and director, and as founder of the Sundance film festival (it is perhaps telling that many younger people are likely aware of Sundance without appreciating the provenance of the name). On the other hand, it’s not as if Redford has ever completely vanished from the screen – there is probably a generation of young viewers who are only really aware of him as the senior bad guy in The Winter Soldier, a role which Redford apparently took mainly because it would be a change of pace and he was interested in learning about the technology involved in making a modern blockbuster.

All this is about to change, of course, as Redford has announced his retirement from screen acting, his final role being the lead in David Lowery’s The Old Man & the Gun (and produced by Redford himself). This is a mostly true story concerning the doings of Forrest Tucker (played by Redford), a man with an unshakeable love of robbing banks and a comparable fondness for busting out of the various institutions his first passion tends to get him stuck in (at one point escaping from San Quentin in a home-made sail boat). The movie opens with Tucker ambling out of a bank, getting into his car and driving off, only to stop and discreetly change vehicles after only a couple of blocks. Heedless of the police cars zooming about the area, sirens wailing, he goes on to stop and help Jewel (Sissy Spacek), a woman whose car has broken down. Naturally, he refrains from telling her his vocation – or perhaps it’s better to say he doesn’t force the issue when she refuses to believe him on this topic, as he’s just such a warm and pleasant man.

Tucker’s string of bank robberies continues, sometimes alone, sometimes with a couple of equally elderly accomplices (Tom Waits and Danny Glover) – he has a police scanner disguised as a hearing aid, which helps with the getaways. One day he happens to rob a bank which is being visited by down-at-heel police detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck), managing to do so with hardly anyone noticing. Hunt becomes fascinated by this curiously courteous bank robber (‘Chin up, you’re doing a great job,’ says Tucker to one sobbing cashier) and gets himself assigned to the case of the ‘over the hill gang’. Will Forrest’s growing relationship with Jewel finally motivate him to pack in his criminal career? Or will the forces of law and order finally catch up with their man?

Well, at one point I was planning to watch this with my friend Olinka, who (as regular readers will know) is a sucker for anything which vaguely resembles a thriller. I’m quite glad we didn’t (in the end she decided to go and see Aquaman with me instead), as, despite the bank-robbing-police-manhunt elements of the plot, this isn’t really the kind of film it looks like. On paper it sounds like it has a lot in common with King of Thieves from earlier this year, another film about a gang of superannuated bank robbers, and indeed there are a few things they have in common – in both cases, footage and publicity shots from old movies is re-used to depict the characters as younger men (here we are treated to reminders of Twilight Zone-Death-era Redford, Butch Cassidy-era Redford, and Out of Africa-era Redford) – but while the British film came on like a blackish comedy and gradually acquired an edge of genuine menace, The Old Man & the Gun isn’t really any kind of thriller, but a gentle and low-key character piece (the old man is in the majority of the scenes but the gun never gets used).

The relationship between Redford and Spacek is charming and believable, but the heart of the film is really the relationship (such as it is) between Redford and Affleck. Hunt is apparently a man who has all the important things in life – a beautiful wife and children, a decent job, and so on – yet Affleck manages to suggest a subtle melancholy and a sense of a man who is subtly dissatisfied with his lot. One of the things which fascinates him about Tucker is the fact that, quite apart from the fact that everyone comments on what a nice man he is, he is grinning broadly as he goes about his business. Tucker, the film suggests, is one of those fortunate people who has found the secret of genuine happiness – it’s just that in his case, the secret is to get his fix of robbing banks and escaping from prison on a regular basis. Apart from this, he seems to be a lovely chap.

If the film is trying to make a point about how everyone is different and this makes Tucker’s lengthy criminal career somehow excusable – and, aided by the megawatt power of Robert Redford’s natural charisma, it is almost impossible not to like him by the end of the film – then it does so in a very understated way. This is a very understated film in almost every way, naturalistic and low-key, with a great period soundtrack (it is mostly set in the early 80s). It has to be said that, after an interesting start, the plot ends up just meandering along, really turning into just a series of undeniably effective character vignettes. There are no great character epiphanies by the end, but you do come away with a distinct sense that Forrest Tucker was a man entirely at peace with himself.

Is it too much to say the same is clearly true of Redford himself? It’s easy to get a bit sentimental at a moment like this. As a valedictory appearance before the camera, this is a great summation of everything that has made him such a star: charisma, intelligence, and subtlety. Even the greatest movie stars seldom get the swan songs they deserve, but Robert Redford has come very close to it here, I think. An extremely well-made and very likeable film.

 

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