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Posts Tagged ‘2019’

There was a point, during the Great Late Summer Interesting Movie Drought, that I took to hanging around the local library in the afternoons while waiting for the evening Almodovar revival to get under way. One of the books I dipped into was The Greatest Movies Never Made, an account of just exactly what went wrong with the production of Brazzaville, Superman Lives, The Defective Detective, and many others. Of course, ‘never’ is a big word, and I must admit I took derived some amusement from the fact that at least two of these ‘never made’ projects had of course either been finished or were well on course to make it to the screen – Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, long a near-mythical enigma, is currently available on Netflix, while Gemini Man, for decades a resident in Development Hell, is out at the moment, finally dragged to the screen by Ang Lee.

A list of all the people at one time tipped to star in this movie reads like a who’s who of Hollywood leading men and action stars: Sean Connery, Clint Eastwood, Schwarzenegger, Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford, and so on. The fact that we have eventually received a version starring Will Smith… well, I suppose it depends on what your opinion of Will Smith is, but I can’t help feeling that he does not have quite the same legendary status as someone like Connery or Eastwood, at least. One must try not to dismiss a film just because another possible version sounds more interesting.

For once, this is not a TV remake and has nothing to do with Ben Murphy turning invisible for 15 minutes a day. Smith plays Henry Brogan, one of those either very trusting or morally flexible chaps who has had no problem with making a career out of being an assassin for the US government, on the understanding he only has to shoot baddies. However, now Brogan is knocking on a bit and decides to retire, rather to the dismay of his handlers. It turns out he has left this just one job too late, as he discovers his last target was not a terrorist as advertised, but a genetic scientist. Dark forces within the military-industrial complex, chiefly personified by private security contractor Clay Varris (Clive Owen), decide that he knows too much to be allowed to live. But how are they going to take out the world’s greatest killer?

Well, it turns out that Varris has got just the man for the job: he’s young, gifted, and black, not to mention the owner of an impressive set of ears. But hang on just a minute here! What can this possibly mean? Well, you’re probably way ahead of me, or have read the publicity for the movie: Owen has sneakily had Smith cloned, and is sending the younger version out to eliminate his progenitor. Older Smith is obliged to go on the run in the company of friendly agent Danny Zakarewski (Mary Elizabeth Winsome) and an old comedy-relief buddy (Benedict Wong). Will the day be won by age and experience or youth and commitment?

As noted, the script for Gemini Man has been doing the rounds since the late 1990s, and the finished movie does have a weirdly old-fashioned vibe to it – perhaps that’s just because it stars people whose years of greatest star wattage do seem to be rather behind them – before Aladdin this year, Will Smith hadn’t had a significant hit in a long time, Clive Owen’s years of being talked of as a potential Bond-in-waiting are long over, and even Mary Elizabeth Winstead seems to have been focusing on her TV career of late. But perhaps it’s more than just the personnel choices – the script is functional enough, but the whole film feels glib and superficial, about surfaces rather than details.

This is, by any reasonable metric, an SF movie of sorts, but the opening section at least feels much more like a slightly hackneyed action film about an aging hitman beginning to grow a conscience. In this respect it has a definite Bourne Identity feel to it, with rather less grit – the presence of Owen probably adds to this. As such it trundles along quite cheerfully. But the clone element is badly fumbled in all sorts of ways – the big reveal that Smith’s pursuer is, well, him, has minimal impact, the revelation sort of seeping into the film rather than being a significant, discrete plot point. The script fails to engage with any of the potential of the idea of being confronted with your own double – it doesn’t address nature versus nurture, the desire for second chances, the potential for resentment, and so on.

The script may not be much cop but what I must concede is that Will Smith does give an unexpectedly good performance – as the older Brogan, anyway. He manages to find some soul and depth and is probably rather better than the script deserves. Everyone else struggles a bit – Owen plays a cartoon baddie, while Winstead is stuck in a largely decorative, transactional role: box office considerations mean there is no prospect of her and Smith, er, getting jiggy with it.

As for the junior Smith – well, the special effects involved in rejuvenating him are somewhat variable, to be honest. In places they are astonishingly good – at one point Smith engages in a complex fight sequence with himself, and the deep-fakery involved is virtually flawless. Other scenes, particularly ones with the two of them wandering about in wide shot, are less than fully convincing. This may also be a consequence of the way the film’s been made – it is available in super-high-frame-rate-3D (I gave it a miss and saw the regular version, as six dimensions of Will Smith is far too many for me), and to make this work it has been shot on special cameras. The end result is crisp and bright and colourful but also strangely lacking in atmosphere. The fact the whole screen is in pinpoint focus all the way through is also strangely distracting and unnatural – it’s not just Smith who spends half the time in the Uncanny Valley, the whole film is there throughout.

Still, as noted, it does work quite well as a weirdly old-fashioned thriller, and there is some well-choreographed action at several points in the movie, even if the climax is vaguely unsatisfactory in a couple of ways. Gemini Man isn’t exactly a bad film, it’s just that given the premise and the talent involved, you would be forgiven for expecting something rather more substantial.

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When it comes to Rupert Goold’s Judy I find myself in grave danger of repeating things I’ve already said at least once this year. Within the wonderful world of cinema there is, of course, space for many weird and niche subgenres – I recall relatives boggling, many years ago, when I sat down one evening to watch a documentary focusing on Mexican luchador wrestling horror movies – but I never really thought of the ‘biopic focusing on the declining years of a Hollywood star, preferably set in the UK’ to be one of them. But it seems I could be mistaken: a couple of years ago we had Films Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, then earlier on this year there was Stan and Ollie, and now we have Goold’s Judy Garland movie.

The resemblance between Stan and Ollie and Judy is particularly pronounced – to the point where they both feature the impresario Bernard Delfont as a character – and one wonders why nobody on either production noticed this, especially when you consider that both have been made by the film wing of the BBC (hence all those UK settings). Oh well – I suppose that sometimes there’s just a natural, obvious way of telling a story, and you may as well stick to it. The potential downside to this is that you end up making exactly the film everyone is anticipating, which can be a problem.

The movie flashes back and forth between Judy Garland’s early career in the late 1930s and early 40s, where she is portrayed by Darci Shaw, and the late 1960s, by which point she has turned into Renee Zellweger. (It will probably come as no surprise if I say there is rather more Zellweger than Shaw in the film.) By this point Garland’s life has become dismayingly chaotic – she is hugely in debt, unable to get work, rootless, addicted to all kinds of substances, reduced to dragging her children on stage with her in small-time shows. One of her ex-husbands (Rufus Sewell) begins proceedings to take custody of them. The only bright spot seems to be her new friendship with Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), a young entrepreneur.

Desperately needing money, Garland agrees to a stint appearing at the Talk of the Town in London, as this will provide funds for the custody battle if nothing else. But the ghosts of her past are hard to shake off, and her assistant/minder (Jessie Buckley) finds that she really has to earn her money getting Garland on stage, on time, in a fit state to perform every night. Is this residency in London the start of a new beginning for her, or just another stage in her decline and fall?

Well I think we all know the answer to that one, as part of Judy Garland’s still-potent allure is the heady mixture of Hollywood glamour and pervasive tragedy surrounding her: no matter what her talent as a singer – and the film does not equivocate in its presentation of her as one of the greatest performers of the 20th century – if she had turned her life around and retired into obscurity, she would not be the legend she remains today. But the film suggests this was never really an option, that the manipulation of her life by Hollywood studio bosses from a very young age, and the pressures of stardom, hollowed out Garland as a person – such was the focus on her image as a star that the real Frances Gumm disappeared somewhere along the way, and Garland was left only having any real sense of who she was while performing to an audience.

It’s a tragic story but it does rather lend itself to the style of performance that Renee Zellweger opts to give: she is playing Garland the icon, all sass and vulnerability, the brittle diva. It’s an impressive physical transformation, to say nothing of Zellweger’s recreation of Garland’s vocal style. All together, it’s very much one of those full-on I-want-an-Oscar-and-I-want-it-now turns, and I wouldn’t bet against Zellweger snagging a nomination at least. But I’m not sure she does any more than hit the marks you’d expect in a Garland impersonation; I don’t think she necessarily finds anything unexpected in the role.

Nevertheless, she does dominate the movie (as you would expect). This is almost a shame as the film does feature some very capable performers who are perhaps a bit underserved as a result – most obviously Jessie Buckley, a tremendously capable singer and actress herself, doesn’t get a huge amount to do as Garland’s handler. The brevity of Michael Gambon’s contribution as Delfont is also somewhat disappointing. A pleasant surprise is a brief but affecting appearance by the magician Andy Nyman (creator of the brilliant Ghost Stories) as a dedicated Garland fan, acknowledging her enduring popularity with a particular fanbase. I feel obliged to mention the faint oddity of John Dagliesh showing up as Britain’s King of Skiffle Lonnie Donegan, but manage your expectations: we don’t get to see Renee Zellweger giving us Judy Garland’s cover version of ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’ (the film would have been a bit more interesting if it had).

On the whole the film sticks pretty closely to the template for this kind of thing, with the hugely talented icon given humanity by the insight into their human failings and frailties. The film plays this rather smartly – it doesn’t shy away from depicting Garland as being demanding, needy and often nearly impossible to work with, but at the same time ensures she retains audience sympathy by the inclusion of the flashbacks depicting her treatment by Louis B Meyer and others: treated as a commodity from a very young age, not allowed to eat or sleep properly, manipulated by the studios to the point where it virtually constitutes abuse. Cynical and desensitised though I obviously am, I still found these scenes to be affecting and I was surprised to find myself quite angry on Garland’s behalf; likewise, the climax of the film proved to be unexpectedly moving.

It’s not quite enough to lift the film to a higher level – it doesn’t provide the same insights as Stan and Ollie did, for example. It gives you the Judy Garland you’ve heard about and are expecting to see, but not much more than that. It is well-mounted, decently-scripted and the performances are generally well-pitched. It’s by no means a bad film, but whatever power and emotion it acquires are derived entirely from its subject.

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There are a number of ways one could approach the discussion of Todd Phillips’ Joker. One of the best jokes in last year’s Teen Titans Go! To the Movies concerned a succession of spoof Batman spin-offs desperately trying to wring every last drop of commercial potential out of the character’s mythology – a movie about the Batmobile, a movie about Batman’s utility belt, and so on – and from a certain point of view the new movie does look like exactly this sort of thing.

Or, one could suggest that the new film comes from the same place as recent successes like the Deadpool films and Venom: there does seem to be a market for dark, morally ambiguous fantasy films aimed at an older audience, and you don’t get much darker or more morally compromised than the world’s most famous supervillain. (If you wanted to be really nasty you could start comparing it to the 2004 Catwoman film, which it likewise bears a passing resemblance to, but that would surely qualify as unnecessary cruelty.)

Then again, you could also view it as the inevitable next step in the rise of comic book movies to complete world domination: superhero films routinely make billions, and are beginning to acquire a certain sort of respectability – Black Panther was nominated for Best Picture, and it’s a reasonable bet that Avengers: Endgame will be, too – and Joker looks very much like a calculated attempt at a classy, serious film intent on receiving critical acclaim in addition to its almost-inevitable financial success.

Who knows? Maybe it’s all of these things. What we can definitely say is that it is set in a squalid, 1980s version of Gotham City, where we find Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). By day, he is a white-faced, green-wigged clown for hire; by night, an aspiring stand-up comedian (unexpectedly, pretty much the only joke we hear him deliver is a classic Bob Monkhouse line). He is a deeply troubled man twenty-four hours a day, though, living alone with his mother, obsessed with a TV chat show host and comedian (Robert De Niro), taking seven different medications for various psychiatric conditions, and afflicted with a curious nervous complaint causing him to laugh uncontrollably in stressful situations.

But, over the course of one hot summer, with the city wracked by a financial crisis, those stressful situations keep coming, taking their toll on Arthur’s fragile mental state. The tipping point comes when he is attacked on the subway by three entitled, arrogant young employees of the Wayne corporation: in a matter of seconds his assailants are dead and he realises he feels much more cheerful and comfortable with himself. News reports of a killer clown preying on the wealthy are soon spreading, while it is becoming increasingly clear that a nihilistic force of chaos is incubating within Arthur, only waiting for the right moment to manifest itself…

It may be a coincidence, but films featuring the Joker have a tendency to attract controversy more or less in proportion to the acclaim received by the actor in the role: the 1989 Batman featured one of Jack Nicholson’s biggest turns, and was a very rare example of a film which required the BBFC to create a new certification for it (the 12 rating, should you be wondering). Heath Ledger famously won a posthumous Oscar for his performance in The Dark Knight, but the film was again mired in controversy for supposedly glamorising knife violence. It should come as no surprise that Joker is also getting some commentators hot under the collar, the suggestion being that it may inspire copycats to perpetrate the same kind of violence that the Joker indulges in here.

There is certainly a question to be asked about what exactly is going on with a film like this, and it’s the same one many people asked about the last movie to feature the Joker, 2016’s Suicide Squad: why do a movie about the Joker without Batman in it? Isn’t the whole point of the character that he’s an antagonist and a foil to someone else? One of the many smart things about The Dark Knight was its handling of the unhealthily co-dependent relationship between the two of them. All the word on Joker is that this is a standalone film; any appearances of the character in the foreseeable future will feature the Jared Leto version, not Phoenix’s. So what’s the point of an origin film for a someone we’re never going to see again?

Well, the quality of the film is more than high enough to answer most criticisms along these lines: the depiction of a grimy, seething Gotham is as good as any other we’ve seen in the movies, and the film is built around a characteristically intense and committed performance from Joaquin Phoenix. This is quite a long film, with the recognisable Joker persona not appearing until the closing stages of it, and Phoenix takes us through every step of Fleck’s psychological disintegration and transformation. This is the kind of performance that normally gets award nominations when it isn’t in a comic book movie; it will be interesting to see how hard the old prejudices die.

Phoenix works hard to be pitiable and relatively sympathetic early in the film, but by the climax the character has convincingly become a genuinely unsettling and frightening psychopath. The film obviously owes a big debt to The Dark Knight – in both films the Joker chooses to paint his face, rather than having his skin chemically bleached in an accident – but the climax is equally obviously inspired by a sequence from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (probably the single most influential Batman story of all time). It’s Miller’s version of the Joker which Phoenix seems to be channelling.

It’s still the case that the film-makers have made up a new genesis for the Joker from scratch (the Joker’s creators felt that giving him a history would humanise the character too much, something Christopher Nolan later agreed with) and so the decision to make the film about mental illness is a deliberate choice on their part. Again, one wonders whether this is a slightly portentous comic book movie which has adopted some very mature subject matter in order acquire some spurious gravitas, or if it’s a seriously-intentioned drama about the corrosive effects of urban alienation and isolation that’s roped in some of the Batman characters to make itself more commercial. I’m really not sure; the answer may actually lie in the film’s various homages to films made around the time it is set – most obviously King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, of course, but there are also surely references to Network and The French Connection.

All the call-backs are respectful and clearly sincere, but they seem to be the main reason why the film is set decades in the past. This is another decision which does have awkward consequences, especially when you consider that Joker seems to want to comment on various current social issues – for instance, the Joker finds himself adopted as the figurehead for an Occupy-style anti-capitalist movement (in line with this, the film features an atypically unsympathetic take on Thomas Wayne (played by Brett Cullen)). None of this feels especially thought-through, though, and the film doesn’t feel like it’s presenting a cohesive thesis. Heath Ledger’s enigmatic Joker was an agent of chaos and madness, demanding the other characters in the film re-assess their attitudes and moral choices; Phoenix’s more accessible¬†Joker is just a symbol of chaos and madness, the film too introspective for him to be anything more.

Then again, in the absence of Batman, he doesn’t really need to be. I suspect that this is a film which is liable to be over-praised for the way it brings a grim, gritty, psychologically naturalistic approach to its comic book source material (ironically, the writers of comic books figured out that going dark and mature was essentially a blind alley over two decades ago). The film is impressively made and Phoenix, as noted, gives a brilliant performance, but it offers little in the way of genuine insight and it runs the genuine risk of taking itself too seriously. Without Batman or an equivalent figure to engage with, the Joker isn’t an especially interesting or significant character. Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix are to be commended for making a film which to some extent manages to avoid confronting this problem, but this doesn’t mean they’ve solved it. Joker is very impressive on its own terms, it’s just that those terms are undeniably odd.

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Ready or Not, directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, opens with a young couple, Grace and Alex (Samara Weaving and Mark O’Brien), enjoying their wedding day – he is a member of an extremely wealthy family who have made their money from publishing various different games, she from a somewhat more humble background. Naturally she is nervous about being accepted by her in-laws, who are for the most part quickly established to be comic-grotesque super-rich types. Only after the vows and the party does her new husband broach the delicate topic of an unusual family tradition – when anyone marries into the clan, they have to play a game at midnight. The rich and their eccentric ways! Not wanting to offend her new kin, Grace agrees, and ends up having to play hide and seek with them all. Still a little bemused and amused by her relatives’ funny little ways, Grace heads off to find somewhere to hide for a bit, fully aware this is a game she can’t actually win. Meanwhile, her new father-in-law (Henry Czerny) is gravely handing out crossbows, elephant guns and axes to the assembled members of the family, as they prepare to go in search of her.

Thus Ready or Not manages to contrive an undeniably brilliant moment for a black comedy-horror film; it’s just a shame that the publicity for the film (and, come to think of it, any meaningful review) is virtually obliged to give it away in advance. (It’s good to know that autumn and spring are still the natural homes for modestly budgeted genre movies, which is also what Ready or Not is.) Decent movies have been built around less striking revelations. Of course, the problem which arises when you come up with one brilliant moment for your movie script is that you then have to provide it with a decent context – which in this case means coming up with a scenario where it seems at least remotely plausible for something like this to happen, and then also a climax which resolves the situation in a reasonably satisfying manner.

The film certainly has a lot going for it when it comes to constructing this sort of narrative scaffolding. For one thing, it is notably polished and well-shot for what is still essentially a low-budget movie – the various gore effects which ensue as the story gathers pace and the body count racks up are also very acceptable. It also has an unusually strong cast for this sort of thing. Samara Weaving (who, weirdly, appears to be some sort of genetically-modified hybrid clone of both Emma Stone and Margot Robbie) is a relative newcomer, but still carries her section of the film rather well – elsewhere there are well-judged turns from Adam Brody, Czerny, Melanie Scrofano, and Nicky Guadagni (as a particularly unhinged member of the clan). Different things are required from different sections of the cast – Weaving does a lot of running, breathing hard, and contending with jeopardy, while everyone else gets the blackly comic stuff – but that doesn’t change the fact that they are all at least up to scratch. The plum veteran role in this particular movie goes to Andie McDowell as the mother-in-law – while McDowell has not quite transformed herself into Meryl Streep, it is still a very reasonable turn.

That said, the film still has to sort itself out the rest of the script, and this is a bit tricky – we’re up against the problem of people in horror movies not acting remotely in the way that real people do, to some extent. Just why are the members of the Le Donas family quite so desperate to hunt down and kill their newest member? What’s going on with this family tradition? And, given the extensive estate the film takes place in, why doesn’t Grace just hole up somewhere until dawn (at which point the game concludes)? Well, the movie manages to divert your attention away from some of these things by positioning itself as a kind of extravagant tongue-in-cheek satire, which helps a bit, but it doesn’t completely remove the need for solid narrative carpentry. In the end the film more or less gets away with it: the big reveal is terrific, as mentioned, but the rest of the film just about qualifies as good enough.

The fact that it arguably peaks at the end of the first act shouldn’t detract from the fact that Ready or Not manages to pull off one of the trickiest combinations in cinema by managing to be a horror comedy film which is pretty successful when it comes to both genres. Now, I must qualify this by saying that it is not what I would call appreciably scary – it is a horror movie by virtue of its Grand Guignol stylings and increasingly spectacular eruptions of gore and violent mutilation as it continues. If you like watching the blood spray freely and flesh get shredded, then this film should meet your needs, although this (coupled with a lot of casual profanity) probably rules it out as a good choice for a family outing. The scenes with the various family members engaging in the hunt with differing degrees of enthusiasm and skill are genuinely amusing, though – their casual irritation as the events of the film take an unfortunate toll on the domestic staff of the mansion I found to be particularly droll.

On the other hand, I have some sympathy for the view that a truly great horror movie can’t just function solely in terms of being mechanically scary and dousing the screen in fake blood – it has to be about something resonant and probably timely; the genre functions as a kind of social history on those terms. If there is a deeper theme to Ready or Not than ‘rich people are weird and horrible’ then it’s a little difficult to make out what it is. Not that this isn’t in and of itself valid – there is, after all, a very long history of the bad guys in horror stories coming from the upper echelons of society and preying upon the flesh and blood of the lower orders. But there doesn’t seem to be much new going on here beyond that simple idea. If you took out all the splatter and profanity, you could probably rewrite Ready or Not as an episode of the 1960s incarnation of The Twilight Zone and it would be at least as effective.

So, then, not a truly great horror movie, or a classic comedy, but it is fun and passes the time very engagingly – the direction is capable, the performances generally well-pitched, and if the script is a bit inconsistent that’s only because the writers haven’t yet quite figured out how to convert a great premise into a great movie. Much promise on display here anyway.

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One of the running themes hereabouts over the last umpty-tump years has been the way in which the cinematic landscape has been changing – not just with the Death of the Movie Star, or the fact that virtually every really big film these days is financed by Disney, but also in an odd form of cinematic climate change: you used to get certain kinds of films only at certain times of the year. Big genre movies started to show up around the beginning of May, had their moment in the sun, and were all finished by the end of August, to be replaced by early awards contenders. Nowadays, of course, you can potentially come across something hoping to be a blockbuster at any time of the year; no month is immune to the spread of big dumb genre movies.

It must make it trickier for anyone looking to release the less commercial kind of movie and make an impression – but still they soldier on. Good word-of-mouth and early buzz still counts, and on this score Lulu Wang’s The Farewell has a good chance of doing okay for itself – good, but not great, for this is still a slightly oddball film with a couple of elements which can’t help but impair its chances of connecting with the wider audience.

The film opens in New York with Billi (Awkwafina, which – should you be wondering – is the stage name of the performer Nora Lum), a young Chinese-American woman struggling to find her place in the world – she is far from financially secure and has a strained relationship with her parents. However, she is very close to her grandmother, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), who still lives in the old country.

So when she learns that her grandmother has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, Billi is deeply upset – although it’s not entirely clear what’s more distressing to her, Nai Nai’s condition, the fact that her family have chosen to keep Nai Nai in the dark about this, or their decision to exclude her from the family get-together that has hastily been convened, on the ground that her American acculturation will make it impossible for her to maintain the pretence that her grandmother is really okay.

Apparently this is how things are routinely done in Chinese families: learning you are dying of cancer is considered to be upsetting and bad for your health, and so people are routinely lied to. In this case it extends to Billi’s clan flying in from all over the world, for the (fake) wedding of her cousin to his understandably confused-looking girlfriend. Despite her parents’ wishes, Billi ends up flying to China to say goodbye along with everyone else – but will she be able to keep herself from blurting out the truth? Should she even try?

The consensus review for The Farewell would probably consist something along the lines of ‘One of the best/most moving films of the year’, more likely than not accompanied by five stars. Well, it’s certainly better than Angel Has Fallen or Fisherman’s Friends, and this is certainly a film that’s been made with a great deal of skill and intelligence, featuring the kind of performance from Awkwafina that launches careers.

Based solely on the premise, you would expect this to be a film about grief, and loss, and quite possibly the differences between western and Asian cultures, and to some extent you would be right. However, it’s the kind of movie which starts off looking like one thing but actually ends up being something quite different. There’s actually relatively little in the film directly addressing issues of grief and bereavement, although much of the film’s drama derives from the tension resulting from most of the characters being in the sway of strong emotions they are unable to express. (I suppose in itself this is possibly intended as a new way of exploring the stereotype of the supposedly inscrutable Asian.)

Instead, the film starts off with a nicely underplayed scene setting up the theme of the morality of deception, particularly when the person you’re deceiving is a close relative: Billi and Nai Nai share a pleasant, loving long-distance phone call, in the course of which they repeatedly lie their heads off to each other. Neither is left any the worse for the experience, which of course makes Billi’s upset when she learns of the greater lie perpetrated upon her grandmother a little hard to justify. There is a genuine attempt to explore the difference in attitudes, and the issue of who is really being kind to who in these situations. However, the film has other things to consider within a relatively brief running time: what it means to be a product of two cultures, for one thing; Chinese life in general, for another. The film may largely occur in subtitled Mandarin, but the family tensions and concerns it deals with are to some extent universal.

Prior to this film, I only really knew Awkwafina from Ocean’s Eight, where I felt she turned in a fairly indifferent performance in an undistinguished movie – here, though, she is very good, authentic, believable, and often touching. This is particularly true of her scenes with Zhao Shuzhen, who delivers the kind of turn that people who vote for acting awards often really respond to – it might be worth a flutter on Shuzhen picking up a few Supporting Role gongs next awards season; this is the kind of film juries like to reward, but I’m not sure it’s really going to be a contender for the big prizes.

Anyway, this is a thoughtful and well-played film, with an engagingly compassionate sensibility. It may just be that I am emotionally atrophied (too many Jason Statham and Gerard Butler movies, no doubt), but I didn’t find it to be either as absolutely heart-warming or tear-jerking as some others seem to have done – there are certainly moments of piercingly acute pathos and emotion, but for the most part the film takes an oblique and underplayed approach, encouraging the audience to find their own meaning in events on screen rather than actively trying to manipulate their emotions. I suppose this is one of the things that make The Farewell a drama rather than a melodrama; regardless, it is an impressive movie which deserves its success.

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There was a time, a few years back, when half the new movies coming out of Hollywood seemed to be adaptations of old TV shows to the medium: Mission: Impossible, Charlie’s Angels, The A-Team. This sort of thing has been going on for decades, of course, and shows no signs of letting up (the Mission: Impossible franchise is now Tom Cruise’s most reliable revenue stream, while we are threatened with a new Charlie’s Angels movie before the year is out), but it certainly felt like something of a peak when obscurities like The Mod Squad and SWAT were being dusted off for a big screen outing. Such is the nature of modern cinema, I suppose: there’s currently no bigger risk than originality.

British attempts at this sort of thing go back nearly as far: in fact, back in the 1950s, Val Guest and Hammer Films were actually making films based on radio shows. The British big-screen spin-off is usually a cash-in, made while the TV show in question is still a going concern or at least a recent hit, and most of them have been based on comedy programmes. The results have been extremely variable – some of the Monty Python films are regarded as genuine classics, and the two Inbetweeners films made a stack of money, but on the other hand the Are You Being Served? film is practically a shorthand summary of the many reasons why this sort of thing is a bad idea.

Of course, they have done movies based on drama series, too: there have been a number of Sweeney films, a big-screen Callan, and (not that long ago) a Spooks movie. Appealing to a rather different demographic, however, is the current release of Michael Engler’s movie version of Downton Abbey. I don’t just mean that this film features fewer men in overcoats delivering knuckle sandwiches to each other than the typical Sweeney film; Downton Abbey, whatever you think of it, has become a globally successful entertainment, even to the point where they do jokes about it in Marvel movies. It may be a few years since it was actually on TV, but the calculation seems to have been that an audience exists that will be prepared to leave the house and pay to watch what is essentially a new instalment (the $90 million return so far on a $20 million budget suggests this was a shrewd assessment).

Full disclosure: I never watched Downtown Abbey on the telly and never felt like I was missing out on much, either; I’m not saying I would have walked five miles and stuck my head down a sewer in order to avoid watching it, but it’s just not my cup of tea. However, I did find myself taken along to watch Engler’s film by various family members who were more than passingly familiar with it. In brief, they all found it to be inoffensively engaging and occasionally rather amusing, and if you are a die-hard Downtonite this may be all you need to know.

The film opens with a lavish credits sequence concerning a letter being written and delivered, which kind of sets the tone for the high-octane thrills which follow. It turns out that the King and Queen are about to embark on a trip round the country and are intent on spending the night at Downton Abbey. Needless to say, this sends everyone into a proper tizzy, from genial good-egg Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) to the assistant cook (Sophie McShera).

It seems like everyone has their own particular concerns as the royal visit approaches: is the best silver going to be polished correctly? Can the boilers be relied upon to keep functioning? Will there be enough chairs for everyone? Primarily, though, the Downton domestic staff are somewhat peeved to learn that they are to be displaced by the King’s own servants for the duration of his time at the house. Can they really be expected to take this kind of treatment?

Mixed in with all this (and there are a great many other plotlines, some of them very minor indeed) is a subplot about an attempt to assassinate the King. I would hazard a guess that in 90% of films, this would be the main focus of the script, and the climax would see the domestics showing their quality by coming together to save the King’s life, a deed for which they would receive due gratitude and respect. However, this is not the kind of level on which Downton Abbey operates. The assassination plotline is resolved quite early on, without a great deal of fuss, and everyone carries on as they were for the rest of the film. The message is clear: this is not a film about tension and excitement. It’s a film about using the right knife for the fish course and knowing your place in Downton’s labyrinthine social ecology.

It’s all a bit like HG Wells’ The Time Machine, with the feckless but presentable upper classes wandering about in self-absorbed bemusement, while the much more capable domestic staff get on with ensuring that everything actually works – although, once again, there is never any real prospect of Mr Carson the butler (Jim Carter) actually eating the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith), as that would be far too surprising.

Of course, to say all this is to miss the point of a film like Downton Abbey, which is absolutely not intended to surprise the audience – what it is there for is to deliver more of exactly the same sort of thing as the TV series on which it is based. (I get the sense of the movie jumping through hoops in order to ensure all the main players are in their customary positions, even though some of them departed them at the end of the show’s run.) My companions had all seen the series and found it to be entirely satisfactory entertainment, which may be all you need to know.

I, on the other hand, couldn’t help noticing a number of things. It is true that the film contains a number of very capable actors, Bonneville, Carter and Smith most prominent amongst them – on the other hand, such is the diffuse and episodic nature of the film that none of them actually get much to do beyond simply showing up and doing their usual business. More problematically, from my point of view at least, is the essentially complacent nature of the film. The main thrust of the plot concerns a group of people who are utterly determined to go out of their way to be as servile and deferent as they possibly can: the film doesn’t so much let a particularly rigid form of the British class system go unquestioned, as swooningly celebrate it.

Of course, I suppose much of the charm of Downton for its many fans is the very fact that it depicts a picture-book version of a world that hasn’t so much vanished as never existed in the first place (who was it who said that progressive escapism tends to look to the future, while the reactionary kind is set in the past?) – somewhere that is clean, and essentially untroubled, where everyone knows their place and sticks to it. (The film is not entirely backwards-looking, but a storyline about the lives of gay men in the 1920s feels laboriously crowbarred in.)

Perhaps this is why the focus of the film remains so firmly on the continuing characters, with the newcomers in distinctly secondary roles even when they are played by people who are relatively famous (Stephen Campbell Moore shows up, along with Geraldine James and Tuppence Middleton). The rules and regulations of Downton Abbey supercede conventional movie-making concerns. In the end it only barely feels like a genuine film at all; it could be just a particularly lavish and extended episode of the TV show. Which was surely the idea; but whether this is the film’s biggest strength or weakness is a matter of perspective.

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There has been some concerned muttering amongst the commentariat of late, brought on by some unusual statistics from the global box office – while this year has indeed seen the most successful movie of all time, attendance in general seems to be on a downward trajectory. People are going to the cinema less, and when they do go, it’s probably to something funded by Disney. Coupled to this is the fact that, of the top twenty films at the US box office so far this year, only two of them have not been a remake, adaptation, or some form of sequel, and barely any of them have been star vehicles in the traditional sense. Perhaps it is the case that the old star system is withering away – I have commented here in the past that while audiences have turned out in droves to the last two or three movies featuring Thor, Chris Hemsworth is not capable of opening a movie playing any other character. Why this should be of genuine concern to anyone other than millionaire movie stars I’m not quite sure, but there you go.

All of this makes James Gray’s Ad Astra more than usually interesting, for it looks very much like an attempt at an old-school big movie – it’s not a sequel, a remake, or an adaptation (though this is a point we shall be returning to), and it’s built around a big star performance from Brad Pitt, a leading man of the old school. (I do recall stories from about fifteen years ago, when Marvel were just setting up their operation, about them hiring big names to play all their characters – Tom Cruise was in talks for Iron Man, Brad Pitt was mentioned as a candidate for Captain America, and so on. Clearly either these guys all asked for too much money or Marvel figured out very early on that the appeal of these films would lie in the characters, not the performers.) Nowadays, as noted, this is noteworthy, and the fact it looks like another attempt at making the ‘proverbial really good science fiction movie’ (S. Kubrick, March 31st 1964) only makes it more interesting to those of us who love the genre.

The movie is set in an unspecified near future (technology has advanced to the point where they can get a spacecraft to the outer planets in well under a year, but Subway are still in business), and Pitt plays top astronaut Roy McBride, renowned for his eerie calm in stressful situations. One of these comes at the top of the film, where a strange power surge results in him falling off what’s essentially an orbital tower and having to keep it together long enough to open his parachute. It turns out there have been a string of such incidents, which the powers that be have determined to be the result of cosmic rays emanating from somewhere in the vicinity of Neptune. It is feared that this is the result of the long-lost Lima project, which was sent to this region to use anti-matter to search for alien intelligences. As Roy’s dad Cliff (Tommy Lee Jones) was in charge of the mission, and is missing presumed dead in space, the authorities have decided it would be a good idea to get Roy to send him a message, presumably in the hope this will make him knock it off with the cosmic rays.

For important and serious plot reasons, Roy has to go to Mars in order to talk into a radio set, and so off he sets, accompanied part of the way by one of his dad’s old colleagues (Donald Sutherland): first to the Moon, then to the red planet itself. Along the way there is a moon buggy chase with laser guns and an encounter with killer baboons (I did wonder what the killer baboons were doing in space, but then I had misheard the name of McBride Sr.’s mission as the Lemur project, and assumed there must be some primate-based connection).

Now, if you’re anything like me, you will probably be thinking something along the lines of: killer baboons? Laser gun moon buggy chases? What kind of movie is this, exactly? Well, quite. The thing about Ad Astra is that it may not actually be a sequel, adaptation, or remake, but it is certainly a highly derivative movie – there’s more than a touch of Apocalypse Now to the structure of the plot, but mostly it draws upon the better space and SF movies of recent years. There’s a lot of Interstellar to this tale of a lengthy voyage in supposedly realistic spacecraft, but also the basic premise and subtext of the movie is that of Gravity, inasmuch as the external adventures undergone by Pitt’s character mirror the way in which he comes to terms with more personal, psychological issues as the story progresses. This makes for a thoughtful, stately, and arguably often portentous movie.

Hence the buggy chase and the baboons, I guess: they have the feel of something inserted, not especially credibly or organically, just to pep the movie up a bit whenever it gets a bit too slow. I suppose I shouldn’t complain too much, as they did jolt me back into paying full attention when I was honestly flagging a bit. We seem to have arrived back at point where new SF films are either good-looking, but entirely cerebral and humourless, or almost wholly camp fantasy; Ad Astra sorely needed to be a bit more fun.

It would be remiss of me not to say that this is still a lavish, very good-looking film, and Brad Pitt gives an excellent, subtle performance that is honestly rather better than the script deserves. The world created by the film doesn’t make a very great deal of sense (as mentioned, it features Subway and laser pistols in close proximity), but it’s not without interest, even if the director’s intentions are occasionally difficult to make out (flying to the Moon is explicitly likened to air travel nowadays, which is an odd approach to a film supposedly about the mystery and wonder of going into space).

In the end the script just isn’t good enough, and the film feels compromised by the need to include obvious action beats to break up Pitt’s introspective monologuing. What was left implicit in Gravity is gone over very heavy-handedly here; there’s a slightly clunky plot device where Pitt has to keep making log entries recording his psychological state, just to facilitate the subtext of the movie. The fact it is also essentially about a troubled father-son relationship also feels like a hoary old chestnut. I mean, fair play to the film-makers for having the guts to make a film like this one, and Pitt carries the movie well. But good intentions alone won’t necessarily carry you very far, let alone to the stars.

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