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Posts Tagged ‘2019’

There’s a sort of running gag in Tom Harper’s Wild Rose where the lead character gets increasingly hacked off with people confusing country music with country-and-western music. I have to say that I wasn’t even aware they were substantively different things, but there you go, this isn’t usually my kind of culture. I suspect this is one of those things that you either get or you don’t – I remember Billy Connolly’s joke that, as country songs are usually concerned with family, religion, tragedy, crime, disability and death, the perfect title for one would be ‘My Granny Drowned in the Grotto at Lourdes (Because a Hunchback Pushed Her In)’; also a moment in Every Which Way But Loose where a snotty student tells Clint Eastwood that the country-and-western mentality runs the gamut from ‘dull normal to borderline moron’ (needless to say, Clint doesn’t stand for much of this kind of talk) – but I also know many people love this genre, not just for the songs but for its supposed rawness and honesty. Maybe there is a sense of wallowing in weltschmerz in some aspects of country, what the writer and singer Rich Hall has described as the ‘whiskey on the cornflakes’ element of it.

Harper’s film certainly tries hard to feel gritty and authentic. It opens with main character Rose-Lynn (Jessie Buckley) getting over a case of the HM Prison blues, as she concludes a stint in the big house for what we eventually learn is a drug-related offence. The country roads take her home to Glasgow, where in her absence her two young children have been standing by their gran (Julie Walters) – obviously, I could keep this up all day if I wanted to, but let’s press on with the synopsis. Rose-Lynn just wants to get back to singing on the Glasgow country music scene; she dreams of going to Nashville one day, but small details like her lack of money and the fact she’s obliged to wear an electronic tag as part of the terms of her parole cannot help but get in the way of this. Eventually she lands a job as a cleaning lady for an affluent older woman (Sophie Okonedo), who learns of her ambition and, in her own way, tries to help her. But there are hard truths to be faced and choices to be made: just how much is she prepared to sacrifice in pursuit of her dream?

This is a bit of a change of pace for Tom Harper, certainly after his last film, the slightly underwhelming Nu-Hammer sequel The Woman in Black: Angel of Death. That was a perhaps-too-glossy modern spin on Gothic horror, this is a decidedly more gritty and down-to-earth undertaking. Everyone’s critical yardstick for Wild Rose seems to be last year’s update of A Star is Born, and I can sort of see where they’re coming from – they’re both musical dramas about aspiration and the demands it makes of a person, both films feature eye-catching central performances, and they both feature big musical numbers amongst their most memorable moments, although they’re really more like dramas with music than actual proper musicals.

This is certainly the case with Wild Rose, which features Buckley extensively on the soundtrack but only includes a handful of scenes where she sings on-camera. There’s a slightly disingenuous moment where Buckley is given a line where she dismisses Saturday night TV talent shows as being no good as launchpad for a career – disingenuous, because this is exactly how Buckley herself first rose to fame. Needless to say, she can really do the business vocally, while the fact that she can also really act was established last year in Beast. The lead role of this film demands someone who can do both, and Buckley carries it off with aplomb.

However, it takes more than one great performance to make a great movie and I was initially not completely impressed by some aspects of Wild Rose, as it seemed to me to be doing the Breakfast at Tiffany’s thing of assuming I was going to be hopelessly charmed by the lead character despite the fact they have major personality and behavioural issues. The film is carefully coy to begin with about just exactly why Rose-Lynn has been in prison, but still makes very clear that – initially at least – she is irresponsible, a neglectful parent, with anger management issues and one finger never far from her self-destruct button. It’s relatively easy for me to feel sorry for someone like that, but I’m not going to root for them unless you give me a better reason than that they’re a bit of a character and can carry a tune.

The surprising thing about Wild Rose, and the one that elevates the film, is that it works tremendously hard to make you genuinely care for Rose-Lynn, despite all the reasons why you possibly shouldn’t. I know some people have criticised this film for lacking comedy or romantic elements, but I think this misses the point: this is a more serious drama than some of the advertising suggests, dealing with moments of genuine emotional pain. It doesn’t feature anyone losing control of their bladder on stage or making very bad decisions in a garage, but it is about failing as a person in very serious ways, taking responsibility for that failure, and then trying to make amends. Every uplifting moment of musical beauty or success is earned through heartbreak and disillusionment, generally depicted in a refreshingly unsentimental way. The film also seems to be challenging that usual glib dictum that to succeed, you have to follow your dreams, no matter what the cost – Wild Rose isn’t afraid to suggest that doing so may or may not lead to success, but it has a very good chance of turning you into a horrible person to be around.

The film also impresses in its refusal, for the most part, to indulge in fairy tale contrivances and easy answers. There’s a curious plot tangent where Rose-Lynn gets a free trip down to London to visit Whispering Bob Harris at the BBC (Whispering Bob’s performance is not entirely convincing, which is weird considering he’s playing himself), but it doesn’t really advance the story, while the film isn’t afraid to defy expectations elsewhere, either. There are unexpected touches of subtlety, too, especially in the relationship between Rose-Lynn and her employer/sponsor – just who exactly is exploiting who, here? Only at the very end does the film cheat a bit, concluding with a moment of unqualified joy that we’re left to imagine our own context for (a trick which at least borders on sentimentality, if you ask me).

Nevertheless, Wild Rose is a highly engaging, solidly made film, built around three extremely good performances – we’re at the point now where you kind of assume Julie Walters is always going to be excellent (needless to say, she is), and it’s always nice to be reminded of Sophie Okonedo’s ability as an actress – she has the least flashy role of the leads, but finds a lot to do with it. But this is Jessie Buckley’s film from beginning to end: she takes you on a journey from chaos into a kind of peace, from thoughtless selfishness to new-found responsibility, and makes you believe every step of the way. The supporting performances, direction, script and songs are all worth seeing (one of them was written by Mary Steenbergen, who has apparently reinvented herself as a country music singer-songwriter), but Buckley is the thing you will remember.

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Film-making is not an exact science, and the exact length of the Minimal Acceptable Period Before Remake is one of those subjective things: it used to be at least twenty years, but recent developments have seen this being cut down quite considerably – Dino de Laurentiis took considerable stick for making two versions of Red Dragon only fifteen years apart, but the response to Sony doing Spider-Man’s origin twice in barely more than a decade received much more muted grumbling. Equally open to debate is that other cinematic figure, Optimum Period Before Sequel, although here there seems to be more of a consensus – two or three years is generally considered to be the ideal, although Disney have taken up something of an outlying position here, what with the 54 year wait between films about their supernatural dominatrix.

All of which brings us, more or less, to Neil Marshall’s Hellboy, which began its development as a sequel to the two films about Mike Mignola’s hell-spawned superhero made by Guillermo del Toro in the mid 2000s. The producers eventually decided not to ask del Toro back to complete his planned trilogy (good move, guys, I mean – it’s not like he’s done anything worth mentioning in the last couple of years, is it?), at which point the film was switched to being a remake, or relaunch, or reimagining, or whatever the buzzy word for doing a new version of something well-known is these days.

It almost instantly becomes obvious that del Toro’s studiously subtle and quirkily atmospheric sensibility has not survived into the new film, as we are plunged into a flashback to the Dark Ages – known as such for a ‘****ing good reason’, according to the narration – where King Arthur is battling an army of demons and monsters, led by the sorceress Nimue (Milla Jovovich – ignore that sound you think you can hear, it’s just alarm bells starting to ring). The film’s extravagant fondness for lavish CGI gore becomes apparent as King Arthur dismembers his opponent and has the various bits entombed in secret locations across the British isles – ‘this isn’t over!’ cries Jovovich’s severed head as it is thrust into a box, and as we haven’t even reached the opening credits yet, it’s hard to argue with that. (Suggestions that the new Hellboy shares a fair chunk of its plot with The Kid Who Would Be King seem to me to have some truth to them.)

Then we’re back in the present day, where Hellboy (David Harbour) is taking part in a Mexican wrestling match with a luchador who’s actually a vampire, which sets up various plot and character points. Any thought that this might actually be a continuation of the del Toro films is finally put to rest, as Hellboy’s adopted father is alive again, and this time played by Ian McShane. For no particularly credible reason, McShane decides to fill Hellboy in on his origins, as he has apparently not bothered to do so in the previous 75 years and Hellboy has seemingly never thought to ask. With this flagrant slab of exposition out of the way, Hellboy is packed off to the UK to assist an aristocratic bunch of British occultists deal with an infestation of man-eating giants. But there is more afoot than the giant feet of the giants! Someone is gathering together the various bits of Milla Jovovich, and if they can complete the set, she will rise again and unleash a terrible plague upon the world, possibly even worse than the Resident Evil movie series…

Apparently the main idea that Neil Marshall brought to this project was the idea that it would straddle the horror and superhero boundaries. (This may explain the weird mish-mash of superhero, fantasy and horror trailers running before Hellboy, which included the same trailer for The Curse of La Llorona twice.) Well, hmmm. I have to say that I have always felt rather indulgent towards Neil Marshall, as his films tend to have a great sense of fun and energy, even if they are often wildly OTT gorefests. And he has made one genuinely great horror film, 2005’s The Descent, a wrenchingly tense and scary movie. Generally speaking, though, he just doesn’t seem to have the patience involved in creating the right kind of atmosphere to properly frighten an audience, and settles for just grossing them out with blood and guts spraying across the screen. This is certainly the route that his version of Hellboy takes, and I’m not really sure how it helps the project much: it doesn’t exactly broaden the appeal of the movie, just reinforces the impression that it is primarily aimed at heavy metal fans.

Of course, this was the movie that drew controversy before production even began because of some of its casting choices were considered to be ethnically inappropriate – the actor initially cast as Hellboy was not actually a demon, thus depriving representation to performers who were genuinely from the abyssal realm. Then everybody sat down and had a good think and realised that a) you’re never going to please everyone when it comes to this sort of thing and b) once someone’s in the Hellboy make-up, you can’t really tell who they are anyway, so it’s best not to get stressed out about it. So they went with David Harbour anyway. Harbour is okay at playing the sulky teenager elements of the role, but struggles to do much more with it; his great good fortune is to be acting opposite Milla Jovovich, who makes most people look good in comparison. Jovovich’s contribution sets the tone for most of the acting in this film, by which I mean it is by and large quite lousy; McShane phones in a decent performance, though, and there is some amusing voice work from Stephen Graham as a fairy with the head of a pig.

Then again, I suppose you could argue that the actors can only work with what they’re given, which in this case is a fairly ropy script seemingly more concerned with lurching from one gory CGI set-piece to the next, with clunky exposition and iffy dialogue filling in the gaps. The saving grace of the new Hellboy is not that it brings us an important message or makes a great deal of sense, or even a small amount of sense, or even any sense whatsoever; it is that Marshall is clearly having a whale of a time smashing all these very disparate ideas together, doing so with great energy and even the occasional shaft of genuine wit (to pass the time before she is constituted, Nimue’s henchman piles her various body parts on a sofa, where she passes the time watching reality TV – it certainly provides motivation for her desiring the apocalypse).

The new Hellboy is not in the same league as either of the del Toro films, lacking their charm, subtlety or attention to detail; as mentioned, the actors are not well-served by the script, either. But I would be lying if I said it does not provide a certain kind of entertainment value. You really do have to indulge it a bit, though, and it may be that many people just won’t be prepared to do that. Which is fair enough. I don’t think any sane observer would claim that Hellboy is a great movie, but it’s a reasonably fun bad movie.

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Where do I begin with Carol Morley’s Out of Blue? Let’s get that title out of way, to begin with. That is not one of typos to which all flesh is occasionally prey, as a quick glance at poster below will confirm: movie really is called Out of Blue. But why? It is based on a novel by Martin Amis, which was titled Night Train; just why Morley has decided on retitling of it is by no means clear (one of many things about this film which is fuzzy, to say least). What does Out of Blue even mean? I don’t know. Omission of the definite article must be significant on some level: I wouldn’t mind having a bit of significance about the blog, which is why this particular piece will be an experiment in not including definite articles too (hopefully we won’t be required to discuss Matt Johnson’s well-known post-punk band, as that could get a bit tricky).

Basic plot of Out of Blue proceeds something like this: Patricia Clarkson is arguably cast somewhat against type as veteran New Orleans PD homicide detective Mike Hoolihan. Early in film she is assigned to a new case: body of a young female astronomer is found, dead from a gunshot wound. Her enquiries initially focus on dead woman’s colleagues, mainly Toby Jones and Aaron Tveit, but eventually move on to her family, a secretive and wealthy bunch led by patriarch James Caan and his wife Jacki Weaver. However, as investigation proceeds, Hoolihan discovers similarities with a series of unsolved killings committed by a serial killer decades earlier. Hoolihan finds herself becoming obsessed with discovering truth of case, even if it means having to grapple with her own personal demons.

When you distill it down like that, plot of Out of Blue sounds like that of fairly straightforward police procedural movie, and I suppose that on some level it operates as such. However, this is a very deep and well-concealed level, because no-one (I would imagine) is coming out of a screening of this film saying ‘Hmmm, that was a fairly straightforward police procedural movie’: critics are using words like incoherent and silly, and likening film to a clown car, while general audiences… I don’t know, but there were only three people at screening I attended, and I had to battle quite hard to stay focused on it; film is that unengaging.

As I say, film is based on Martin Amis’ novel Night Train, which I am not familiar with. Given that we have already discussed hereabouts dismal nature of certain elements of Amis’ career as originator of genre movies, my natural inclination would be to blame him – but on this occasion it seems that master of absurd grotesqueness is off hook, as his novel has been very freely adapted for silver screen. There seem to be some vague similarities of plot and theme, but also some very significant differences on many levels, particularly when it comes to serial killer storyline (wholly new, as far as my very limited research can discern).

So Carol Morley is clearly up to something beyond simply adapting Amis, problem is trying to figure out what this is. Obviously on one level film is trying to work as a piece of genre cinema, adopting familiar form of a very slightly noir-ish police procedural detective story – there are various suspects, and odd twists, and revelations, and  so on. Then again, there are also signs of it attempting to function as a kind of character piece: Clarkson is giving a very intense central performance and she’s in virtually every scene. Finally, there is way film appears to be grasping for some kind of profundity or resonance by exploring deep metaphysical and philosophical themes. There are various allusions to astronomy and astrophysics, and scenes where characters sit around having po-faced discussions about Schroedinger’s cat (at one point they even put a cat in a box as a kind of visual aid for the hard-of-thinking, just in case any of the audience couldn’t quite grasp concept).

Now, there’s nothing wrong with any of this in principle – when this sort of idea is executed correctedly, it can give heft to an otherwise lightweight genre film and provide big ideas with a way of reaching a mainstream audience. The problem is that Out of Blue fluffs the police procedural aspect so badly that deep thoughts about nature of universe just feel incongruous – and, to be honest, hopelessly pretentious. Or, to put it another way, thriller angle is handled in such a clumsily mannered way that it provides no comforting context for more outre aspects of the movie to embed themselves in. You do almost wonder if there is an element of send-up going on here, so hackneyed is background given to Clarkson’s character – she’s a dedicated, brilliant cop with a history of psychological troubles and a drink problem, and so on, but film is almost totally lacking in humour or warmth. Patricia Clarkson is a fine actress, but she seems all at sea here, the script requiring her to do some fairly ridiculous things before story concludes.

In a way I am almost reminded of Paul Anderson’s Inherent Vice, another peculiar crime thriller with a notably impossible-to-follow storyline. There is a school of thought that actual plot of Inherent Vice is secondary to it giving you experience of what it feels like to be high on drugs: you just sort of drift mellowly from moment to moment as things occur in front of you. In a similar way, I suppose that Out of Blue would make much more sense if it was actually intended to make share experiences of someone undergoing a psychological breakdown – nothing seems to make sense, things seem to occur for no particular motivation, and so on. Alas, I have seen nothing to suggest this is actually case, but film certainly seemed to be giving me sense that I was drifting in and out of consciousness (of course, there is always the possibility that I genuinely was drifting in and out of consciousness – one should never rule this out at a matinee in the middle of a heavy week).

Very seldom does an English-language movie, especially a genre movie, fail to connect with me quite as completely as Out of Blue did, but I do note that Mark Kermode has seen it three times and found something new to enjoy on each occasion, while film’s publicists have managed to find people apparently willing to describe the film as ‘dazzling’, ‘thrilling’, and ‘mesmerising’ – although I note they are picking single words and using them out of context. Only one of those I would even come close to agreeing with is last one, and this is one trance I was very happy to wake up from.

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‘It’s pronounced Pet Seh-MET-a-ree,’ I said.

Olinka tutted and rolled her eyes. ‘No it’s not. It’s Pet Seh-met-AH-ree,’ she said.

I thought about this for a moment. ‘Are you sure it’s not Pet Seh-met-AIR-ee?’

‘Whatever. I think we should just get on and buy the tickets,’ she said.

We both turned and looked at the Odeon staff member responsible for seeing to our requirements. Her eyes seemed to have widened appreciably while we were having our discussion and there appeared to be signs of alarm in them. ‘I think you just pronounce it the usual way,’ she said, in a slightly quavery voice. Oh well: you live and learn, I suppose.

Stephen King has been a famous and successful writer for about forty-five years now, so perhaps it’s not surprising that some of his books are coming to the screen for the second time. The original movie of Pet Sematary came out in 1989, and all I remember about it is one UK reviewer complaining he couldn’t take it seriously because the spooky old man character was played by Fred Gwynne from The Munsters. It’s actually something of a rare pleasure for me to turn up to a movie never having seen the trailer and not knowing much about the plot, so from that point of view I was looking forward to Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmeyer’s take on the novel (I do like King, but this is one book I’ve never read). Of course, there is also the fabled Curse of King to consider – the fact that no matter how good his books are, they don’t have the greatest track record on the big screen.

Kolsch and Widmeyer’s movie gets underway in time-honoured fashion, with a wholesome young family moving from the ugly stresses of big-city life to an idyllic new home deep in the countryside. Of course, it is an iron law of cinema that whenever anyone does this, it proves to be an extraordinarily bad idea and they are shortly afterwards besieged by killer spiders, misogynistic android replicas, pagan cultists, or what-have-you. Naturally, neither husband and father Louis (Jason Clarke) nor wife and mother Rachel (Amy Seimetz) appears to have ever seen a horror movie, and are just looking forward to de-stressing a bit. Their young daughter Ellie (Jete Laurence) isn’t stressed at all, to begin with, and is looking forward to playing with her beloved cat in the great outdoors.

Well, everyone settles in and Louis starts his job as a local doctor. Back at home, however, Rachel is a little put out to discover that their new property incorporates the town’s traditional resting place for deceased domestic animals, which is apparently run by members of the remedial spelling class. Ellie bumps into their neighbour, Jud (John Lithgow), who is the area’s Creepy Exposition Yokel, although this early in the story he is only permitted to make vague general statements about not going too deeply into the forest. Well, anyway, the discovery of the animal graveyard occasions an opportunity for Louis and Rachel to have serious conversation with Ellie about life and death and what happens to people (or indeed animals) after they die; on the surface it is all innocuous enough, but your ears don’t have to be that keen in order to detect the sounds of heavy-duty foreshadowing equipment hard at work.

And so it proves; following a tragic accident, Louis is assailed by visions of a reasonably benign spectre who warns him that the boundary between the living and the dead must be respected, which seems quite sensible until Ellie’s cat is run over. It is at this point that Jud reveals that on the other side of the forest is a site of ancient supernatural power (suffice to say that Louis and Rachel have unwittingly entered into a time-share with Ithaqua) with the ability to resurrect the dead bodies of anyone interred there. They don’t come back quite the same as they left, of course, but that’s what you get for mucking about with fundamental cosmic principles. Louis resolves to make use of this unexpected amenity, but only this once, to restore the cat. Yes, definitely just the one time, there’s absolutely nothing that could ever impel him to go there again… is there?

Well, I may not have been familiar with either the book or the 1989 film version of this particular story, but the way this film turned out was in no way a surprise to me: one of the things I quite enjoyed about Pet Sematary was that once the story had properly got going, I was never in any doubt as to how it was going to turn out – in a way, the film is the best kind of predictable, because the characters are introduced, their flaws established, and then they move towards their inevitable dooms, as circumstances compel them into making very bad choices. It also helps that the story itself is also rather familiar – it now seems to me that the Nu-Hammer movie Wake Wood is very substantially derived from Pet Sematary, which itself owes a large debt to W.W. Jacobs’ much-adapted tale The Monkey’s Paw.

Given the character-based nature of this story, the film does well in casting Jason Clarke, a very able and versatile actor, in the lead role. This is a character who goes on a bit of a journey in the course of the story, to put it mildly, and Clarke is never less than totally convincing as he moves from mild-mannered rationalism to unhinged mania. It feels like the script favours Clarke and John Lithgow (also very good in what could have been a deeply hammy part) over Amy Seimetz, but she also gives a fine performance – as, come to that, does Jete Laurence, although given there have been a number of memorable child performances in horror films recently, I’m not sure she does quite enough to stand out.

One of those other recent horror films was Hereditary, which many people still rate quite highly (my opinion hasn’t changed, although Olinka now believes it is less rubbish than she initially did), which also strikes some similar notes to Pet Sematary – both are on some level films about the effect that grief can have on people (and perhaps also the corrosive effects of guilt). Pet Sematary doesn’t have the freakily unsettling atmosphere of the first half of Hereditary, but then it doesn’t turn into absurd cobblers in the second, either, and on the whole I found it a more satisfying and entertaining movie. I should say, though, that while I thought this movie was borderline-nasty good fun, Olinka found parts of it genuinely upsetting to watch, simply because of the subject matter. I expect this is a personal thing, though, and it is interesting that while the film contains both distressing ideas and genuine grisliness, they seldom appear at the same time.

Apparently this adaptation has come in for some stick for being less than entirely faithful to King’s novel (the 1989 version was written by King himself). I have to say the film in its existing form is entirely satisfactory – although, having since checked out the synopsis of the novel, there is at least one moment where the film appears to be playing games with anyone familiar with previous versions of the story, suggesting it’s going to stay faithful to the novel before heading off on a new course. I’m not normally a fan of films getting all meta in this way, but on this occasion it works, feeling justified in terms of the story beats that it allows rather than simply being done as a cheap trick. One thing I would say, though, is that the film very properly takes its time establishing characters and atmosphere, but then seems to feel compelled to rush things to their conclusion within 105 minutes – it’s a very busy, slightly frantic home stretch. Nevertheless, the ending does work, with some very memorable closing images.

This is a mid-budget mainstream horror movie, so it was never going to contain anything too extreme or innovative, but it has style and polish and is very respect towards Stephen King’s style, if not every detail of his story. I didn’t find it particularly scary or unsettling, but I still enjoyed the ride the film gave me, mainly due to the craft of the script and the performances. Ultimately, this is schlock, but quality schlock.

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From a British perspective you can’t fault John C Reilly’s approach to the year so far: having befouled cinemas with Holmes and Watson right at the beginning of January, he has apparently been doing his very best to make amends, giving an excellent performance in the very good Stan & Ollie, and now doing much the same in The Sisters Brothers, which he also produced. On the other hand, this is sort of a trick of the light, given that The Sisters Brothers was actually released in the States well over six months ago and is only now reaching screens in the UK (and not many of them at that).

In our world of day and date releasing, with films usually coming out more or less simultaneously across the anglophone world, what can we infer from this delay? Well, it’s usually a sign that a studio doesn’t have much faith in a movie and isn’t in a hurry to capitalise on the buzz it has generated, often because there isn’t any. Certainly The Sisters Brothers has been released into the world at a fairly quiet time (at least, as quiet as it gets with everyone gearing up for the first really big releases of the year in only a few weeks), without much in the way of publicity, and much of that rather odd (we shall return to this). How come? Well, here we come to the nub of the issue. Money has nothing to do with artistic achievement – well, less than you might think – but in a spirit of full disclosure I feel obliged to mention that The Sisters Brothers was a bomb on its American release, making back only about a quarter of its budget.

The film is the work of the acclaimed French director Jacques Audiard, who won the top prize at Cannes with Dheepan in 2015 and before that made the very impressive Rust and Bone. The Sisters Brothers finds him working in that most American of genres and idioms, the western, with Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix playing the title characters, who are a pair of ne’er-do-wells – basically hired killers – in the service of a wealthy but unprincipled man known as the Commodore (Rutger Hauer, in what proves to be a startling instance of stunt casting). Reilly plays Eli, the elder and more thoughtful of the pair, who is beginning to have reservations about their lifestyle; Phoenix plays Charlie, who is more of a loose cannon and thinks everything is fine just as it is.

As the film opens, the brothers are dispatched in support of a private detective, Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is also working for the Commodore. Morris is on the trail of mild-mannered chemist Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed), who has developed a new process vastly facilitating the acquisition of gold – as this is 1851, with the California gold rush still a going concern, there is potentially very big money to be made here. Morris is to find Warm and restrain him, at which point the brothers will forcibly extract the secret of the process from him and then dispose of his remains. It’s very simple, if not exactly virtuous – but then Morris finds himself warming to Warm and his idealistic notions as to what to spend the gold on, and the two men strike up a tentative partnership of their own. Meanwhile, the pursuing Sisters have issues of their own, with Eli increasingly coming to the conclusion that this is not how he wants to spend the rest of his days…

I was fairly indifferent about the prospect of seeing The Sisters Brothers when it first started popping up in the ‘coming soon’ sections of my preferred media outlets – I’ve nothing against a good western, but this is a genre which feels like it’s been on life-support for decades. Whenever they do make a western now, it’s usually an opportunity for an art-house director to do something radical and revisionist to it, or it’s a clumsy attempt by a big studio to revive the genre which normally ends up bland and annoying. This is certainly from the former camp, and my tolerance for this sort of thing really depends on exactly what the director’s take on the form is: extra grit, misery and gore is neither inspired not particularly impressive. The trailer that eventually turned up for The Sisters Brothers promised something rather different: it was fast, funny, and was soundtracked by (I am assuming) Gloria Jones singing ‘Tainted Love’, which is not the kind of tune you would associate with the American west. The idea of a western with a northern soul soundtrack struck me as an interesting and witty one, and did the job of making me interested in seeing the film.

Well, I have to report that this is practically a case of false advertising, for while this film’s soundtrack is certainly quirky, it is almost wholly orchestral. Should I feel cheated? Well, maybe: but the rest of the film is certainly interesting and generally speaking a worthwhile watch. To begin with it looks very much like a classic western tale, dealing with issues of morality and self-realisation on the open range, but kept lively and very watchable by great performances from the four leads – but especially Reilly, who brings real depth and warmth to someone who could easily have had neither. Audiard isn’t one of those people who tries to ‘fix’ the western by turning it into something else – there is all the magnificent scenery one could hope for (I should point out that this film was made in the land of the Spaghetti western, i.e. Spain), and frequent shoot-outs along the way – for all of their tendency to bicker with each other, the Sisters brothers are alarmingly proficient killers. The story builds up to the encounter between the brothers and Warm and Morris very satisfyingly.

And then something very odd happens, which may be at the root of the troubles that The Sisters Brothers has had at the box office. The film takes an odd turn, with what feels undeniably like a allegory about greed and its effects on the environment briefly appearing, and then… Well, we’re into the final act of the film by this point, so I can’t really go into detail, but the film-makers essentially rip up the rule-book as to how a story should develop and do something radically different instead. It’s the kind of thing that could happen in real life, but never happens in movies, the sort of plot twist that film critics tend to love (85% on a well-known solanaceous review aggregation website) but general audiences respond very poorly to (only $3.1 million at the US box office). I can kind of admire Audiard’s audacity in playing with expectations and dispensing with traditional ideas of closure, but I have to say that something with a bit more rootin’ tootin’ would have felt more emotionally satisfying.

Still, one gets a definite sense that Audiard has made exactly the film he wanted to make, and it is still a pretty good one: the setting is well realised, the performances strong, and there are moments both amusing and emotional in the course of the film. But at the same time I can see exactly why it has struggled commercially: the strange shifts in tone and the lack of a conventional ending feel like an attempt to deliberately wrong-foot audiences, and this happens to late to really win them back again before the film is over. It’s hard to criticise the film for this, but I think this is certainly the source of its problems. Worth seeing, but I couldn’t give this an unqualified recommendation.

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Sometimes one can’t help but come to the conclusion that being a film director is a grotesquely over-remunerated job. There are, admittedly, some people who never seem to stop, and have multiple films coming out every year – you know what I mean, your Ridley Scotts and Steven Soderberghs. But for every one of them you seem to have several people who make a film (not even an especially big or successful one), then apparently vanish off the face of the Earth for years at a time. Just what kind of money are they making?

I am moved to reflect on this by the career of Joe Cornish, who started off, film-wise, as a friend of Edgar Wright: he was a zombie extra in Shaun of the Dead and together they co-wrote some of the early drafts of Ant-Man, along with the Spielberg Tintin movie. In 2011 he released his directorial debut, Attack the Block, a film which was nice enough but one of those that everyone else seemed to like much more than me; subsequent developments have not really inclined me to want to revisit and reassess it. And since then? Nothing much, so far as I can tell – at least, not until late last year when the first trailers for his new film The Kid Who Would Be King started to appear.

I know, I know: I am late to the party on this one. For a long while I was doubtful about seeing it at all – I first saw the trailer in front of Johnny English 3, along with that for Robin Hood, and I believe my comment to my companion was ‘Just how many classic English myths can you screw up in one set of trailers?’ But the reviews, to be fair, have been quite positive, and there are people on this film whose work I usually enjoy, so I decided to give it a chance.

The title, as any fule kno, is a riff on Rudyard Kipling rather than anything actually Arthurian, which should tell you everything you need to know about the script’s cafeteria-style approach to this particular myth cycle. A rather nicely animated opening sequence fills in the back-story for today’s under-educated youngsters, although it does the usual thing of conflating the Sword in the Stone with Excalibur and also writes Mordred out of the story. Soon enough we find ourselves in contemporary London, capital, apparently, of a ‘divided, lost, leaderless’ nation (can’t really argue with that, alas). Twelve-year-old Alex Elliot (Louis Ashbourne Serkis – yes, it’s Son of Gollum) is having a tough time, facing bullying and harassment at school and trying to cope with the absence of his father (who’s presumably off doing the mo-capping on Shazam! or another big effects movie).

Everything changes, of course, when Alex stumbles into a building site while being chased by his tormentors and finds a sword stuck into a block of concrete. Naturally, he draws it forth and discovers it to be the fabled Excalibur, magic weapon of the true High King of Britain, Arthur. Soon enough Merlin (Angus Imrie, mostly) has also popped up, mostly to do the exposition, and reveals that an imminent eclipse will mark the moment when the evil Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) will attempt to conquer the world with an army of undead hell-knights. It’s up to Alex to gather a new set of Knights of the Round Table and see off this terrible menace! Assuming they can get the time off school, anyway.

I have no idea about Joe Cornish’s personal situation, but this has something of a Time Bandits feel to it: you know, that moment in someone’s career when they realise they want to do something that their kids can watch and enjoy. Certainly this is much more family-friendly than Attack the Block, for all that it is recognisably the work of the same creative sensibility. It works hard to shoot for the same kind of audience that made both the Harry Potter franchise and Lord of the Rings such substantial successes, particularly in terms of its visual style: probably the most impressive thing about it is Cornish’s deft handling of big CGI action sequences – there is nothing much wrong with these at all, and one wonders why Cornish hasn’t been in more demand for a big studio project.

Given Cornish’s background as a comedian, it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that the movie also contains some very good jokes – for instance, Merlin needs magic potions containing all kinds of foul ingredients to revivify himself, but finds modern-day fast food a more than adequate substitute. When the film is moving along, it is fun, exhilarating stuff, but the problem is that it seldom stays in motion for very long – Cornish conscientiously includes a big learning-and-growing character arc for the benefit of the young audience’s moral development, but in addition to being slightly predictable this is kind of applied with a trowel, when a lighter touch would have been much preferable. This does slow the film down a bit, and it feels distinctly stretched as a result: at one point, it looks like everything has been satisfactorily resolved, but then there’s a plot twist and the film continues on for another twenty minutes.

Oh well. I am pleased to report the child acting is mostly acceptable, and Denise Gough supports well as Alex’s mother. I am trying to think of a way of commenting on Angus Imrie’s performance as Merlin which does not feel gratuitously cruel, but it is certainly fair to say that he has received the bummest deal of anyone on this movie: he plays Merlin in his disguise as a teenager (supposedly; Imrie does look a bit too old for this), but for key moments the wizard assumes a more traditional form and is played by Patrick Stewart. Stewart, needless to say, acts everyone else off the screen without even seeming to try that hard, but they can only afford to use him in a handful of scenes. Still, better than nothing.

In the end I found myself quite enjoying The Kid Who Would Be King, and feeling rather indulgent towards it: it is overlong, and it is really best not to think too hard about certain aspects of the plot, but in other ways this is a clever and imaginative movie that tells its story well. It seems, however, that the well of classic English mythology has been fouled by the likes of last year’s Robin Hood and the year before’s Guy Ritchie King Arthur film, for this new film has been a bit of a flop despite being much better than either of those. A shame: this is a fun, family-friendly film, and one hopes Joe Cornish will get another chance to show what he can do in the near future.

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Warning: I suspect we are about to go even further down the rabbit hole than is customary in these parts. Buckle up.

I have first-hand experience of the fact that you can be quite well-versed in your comics lore and still not really be fully cognizant of the sheer degree of obfuscation surrounding the superhero codename Captain Marvel: a colleague, who knows which SHIELD operatives have metahuman powers and who will happily discuss the provenance of the various Infinity Stones, turned out to be entirely unaware of the clutterbuck attached to this issue – then again, she is essentially a Marvel zombie, which may have something to do with it. The quick and easy version is that there are two versions of Captain Marvel in comic books, although this is really a significant simplification, given there are arguably nearly a dozen characters who have used this name at some time or other, to say nothing of related characters such as Marvelman (better known these days as Miracleman).

The original Captain Marvel first appeared in the early 1940s, boasting vast superhuman strength and resilience, the ability to fly, matchless courage, and so on: he went on to become the most popular superhero of the decade, comfortably outselling all his rivals, even DC Comics’ Superman (whom he was suspiciously similar to in some respects). However, just as Superman’s vulnerability is to Kryptonite, so Captain Marvel’s weakness is litigation – his publishers were sued by those of Superman on the grounds of plagiarism, and by the early 50s sales had declined to the point where contesting the issue wasn’t worth the legal fees. Captain Marvel vanished into comics limbo until DC Comics acquired the character decades later. By this point, of course, the word ‘Marvel’ had acquired a certain resonance in the world of comic books, with Stan Lee’s company trademarking the name and creating their own Captain Marvel character (one iteration of which is, at the time of writing, being played by Brie Larson in Marvel Studios’ blockbuster meta-franchise).

The upshot of this is that while it was possible for DC to publish Captain Marvel stories, they couldn’t actually call the comic Captain Marvel. Apparently this is such a big deal in the world of comics that a few years ago they made the somewhat baffling decision to rename the character Shazam, despite his long (seven decade) history in comics and TV. I am, as longstanding readers may already have guessed, a bit of a stubborn old purist in matters of this sort: this guy’s name is Captain Marvel, no matter what the company may say, and to suggest anything else is silly and does him and his creators a disservice.

All of which brings us (probably not before time) to David F Sandberg’s Shazam!, which is by any rational metric the second Captain Marvel movie in as many months, and the latest entry in DC Comics’ line of superhero movies. The story concerns troubled, streetwise foster child Billy Batson (Asher Angel), whose essential decency finds himself summoned via an enchanted subway car to the mystic Rock of Eternity, where he encounters an ancient wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou, whom the attentive will have noticed has done the superhero movie equivalent of winning the double, by appearing in both of this year’s Captain Marvel movies). All Billy has to do is say the wizard’s name to be transformed into his champion (Zachary Levi), a vastly powerful superhero known as…

Yeah, well, the awkwardness with which Shazam! tackles this point is undeniably a weakness in the film – Levi is billed as playing someone called Shazam, but he’s never addressed or referred to as such in the film. This itself is not that uncommon in the world of the modern, credible superhero movie – both Wonder Woman and the other Captain Marvel movie do the same – but it’s usually handled much more deftly than it is here. The script even draws attention to the fact, by playing with the idea of giving him various other codenames such as the Red Cyclone and Captain Sparklefingers. (Shazam is surely a terrible idea as a codename, as it just means he’d never be able to tell anyone who he is. I’m just going to refer to him as (Captain Marvel) and let the writs fly as they may.) Anyway, there are less abstruse things to worry about, as a corrupted former candidate to become the wizard’s champion, Sivana (Mark Strong), is aware of (Captain Marvel)’s existence, and determined to steal his power…

It is, as has been noted, a crowded marketplace these days when it comes to superhero movies, and the main way that Shazam! makes itself distinctive is through functioning primarily as a comedy – partly as a spoof of superhero films in general, but also by playing on the comedic potential of the idea of (Captain Marvel) basically being a young teenager inside the body of a demi-god (it’s a bit like Big, but with superhero battles, something the film tacitly acknowledges at one point).

Now, this idea of the hero being a child in an adult body (perhaps they should have gone with the codename Boris Johnson Man) isn’t quite how Captain Marvel has traditionally been depicted in the comics – there, he’s really a child’s idea of the perfect hero, made incarnate. The problems with this are firstly that it makes him massively uncool, and secondly, that he becomes totally redundant in a comics universe which already contains Superman. Since being acquired by DC, Captain Marvel has only really been allowed to shine in situations where Superman is out of the way for some reason, or when the writers have required a character capable of fighting Superman to a standstill (which, given his effectively limitless physical prowess, he is quite capable of doing). So you can kind of understand why they have gone down this particular route in the movie.

Still, for all the entertainment value of scenes in which we see (Captain Marvel) knocking over ATMs to fund a trip to a lap-dancing club (as any teenage boy would do, I suppose), I have to admit that I still found myself harrumphing a bit, on the inside at least: probably because turning this kind of film into a comedy feels like the safe and easy route to go down. (I was one of many people quite relieved when plans to do Green Lantern as a comedy with Jack Black were abandoned in favour of a more traditional take on the character (also featuring Mark Strong, of course), but as this resulted in one of the most relentlessly-scorned films in the genre, I’m not sure what the takeaway value of that is.) The problem isn’t just that this is a superhero film with comedic elements, it’s that it can’t stop undermining even dramatic moments by inserting gag after gag, some of them slightly dubious (‘Touch my staff,’ the Wizard commands Billy at one point, which,  if it isn’t a misjudged double entendre, certainly sounds like it).

And yet, somehow, I have to say that the film’s energy and sense of fun is infectious and somehow irresistible, not least because it does work hard to include so many references to the classic Marvel family mythos: Mr Mind appears, there’s a reference to Tawky Tawny the tiger, Billy and his foster-siblings attend Fawcett Central school, and so on. The performances are also excellent: Mark Strong is quite as good as you’d expect in what could have been a fairly two-dimensional role, giving it real heft and presence (let’s go down the rabbit hole one last time and note that his father is played by John Glover, who also played Lex Luthor’s father for a number of years).

In the end, Shazam! does work as a piece of entertainment, although it is certainly its own thing. It gets close enough to the classic version of Captain Marvel to satisfy anyone with fond memories of the character, probably, while it also does enough to work as a comedic take on the superhero movie for audiences not that familiar with him. I’m not entirely sure how it manages this ticklish balancing act, but I suppose it qualifies as an achievement of sorts. This is a solid movie that continues the positive trend in DC’s cinematic output.

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