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Posts Tagged ‘2020’

Been to the cinema much recently? No, me neither: if you’d told me at any point in the last decade or so that there would be a four-and-a-half-month gap between visits to the pictures, I would have concluded that this indicated my leaving the country, going to prison, or having some kind of medical emergency. Nice one me, I suppose, as a medical emergency has indeed been to blame. However, for whatever reason, attempts to drag the country back to something resembling how things used to be have been in progress and this weekend saw the re-opening of the first cinema in Oxford.

Naturally I was there, but I wonder, I wonder. I am as critical as anyone of the efforts of those in power and their media cheerleaders to persuade everyone to resume their old lifestyles, mainly for the benefit of the bottom line and the continuation of the old economic model. People have, perhaps, begun to question what they took for granted, or were told, and even glimpsed another way of living more to their liking. Certainly the virus has shredded our former way of life, and it is foolish to pretend this can quickly or easily be repaired.

Then again, am I not just as worthy of scorn for clinging to the hope that the old model of cinema can be preserved? As you may have surmised, I used to go to the cinema two or three times a week, on average, occasionally far more often than that. Often this wasn’t because I had a burning desire to see a particular film, but I enjoyed following the schedules, finding new and unusual things to write about – even the simple routine of going to the cinema (buying my ticket, taking my seat, waiting for the lights to go down, watching the adverts for the umpteenth time) was something I genuinely took pleasure in. You don’t get any of those things just streaming something.

I hope it’s too early to make predictions, because the signs were not especially positive – although the whole experience was a little surreal, to be honest. It turned out I had forgotten which of my cinema cards was which, for one thing: that would have been unthinkable back in March. (Though looking on the bright side, my membership has been extended until the middle of next year.) There were all the masks and bits of hand sanitising equipment you would have expected, all for the benefit of… well, just me, if we’re honest about this. I had the whole screen to myself. Now, I should say that this was not that unusual even back in the old days, given some of the obscure films I went to see at funny times, and the afternoon showing of a subtitled art-house drama on a sunny August day would likely never pull a big crowd. But even so.

Notably few commercials, and – other than one for vodka – most of these were for either charities or public health agencies. Not many trailers, either – well, one, to be precise, for Tenet (which feels like it is rapidly becoming the last great hope of mainstream cinema for this year). According to the trailer Tenet is (or was) released in July 2020 – but, given the time-mangling nature of the story implied by the trailer, this actually feels oddly appropriate, and it’s far from the only film which had its publicity campaign overtaken by events: all over the city centre one could see buses still decked out in advertising material for movies which were supposed to open in March, and never did: ghosts of a vanished future.

Anyway, I went to the cinema to go to the cinema rather than see any particular film. The one I ended up going to see was Alice Winocour’s Proxima, which had a hopeful, slightly science-fictiony-sounding title – although had I known going in that Winocour also co-wrote the accomplished but slightly heavy Mustang I might have managed my expectations a bit. There you go: always do your research, friends.

Proxima does indeed turn out to be slightly science-fictiony, by which I mean it is a film about space exploration rather than an actual piece of science fiction. Or is it really about something else? Eva Green plays Sarah Loreau, a woman whose lifelong ambition has been to become an astronaut: her daughter (Zelie Boulant-Lemesle) is named Stella and her cat is named Laika, after the Soviet space dog. At the start of the film it looks like her dream has come true, as she is selected for Proxima, a long-duration space mission and a crucial part of the programme which will culminate in putting a person on Mars.

Rather tellingly, the first thing Sarah worries about once she gets this news is sorting out her childcare for while she’s away: Stella will have to go and live with Sarah’s former partner Thomas, an astrophysicist (Lars Eidinger). Then it’s on with the training, and having to sort out some sort of modus vivendi with the American mission commander, Shannon (Matt Dillon), who seems openly dubious about her abilities. As the training regime grows increasingly gruelling, Sarah becomes aware of the strain all of this is placing on her relationship with her daughter and the concerns of her psychiatrist (Sandra Huller).

I know what you’re thinking: Gravity knock-off. Well, I can see where you’re coming from, but no it isn’t, not least because none of the film actually takes place in space – it’s all resolutely earthbound, about the training process rather than the actual mission. A big chunk of it looks like it was shot at Star City in Russia (officially the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre), with some scenes being filmed around the Baikonur space centre. I’m not as much of a space enthusiast as some people whom I know, but even so, the nuts and bolts of the training regime are fascinating and occasionally unexpected, assuming the film isn’t just making things up: trainee astronauts watching upside-down TVs to prepare for work in zero gravity, for instance. I think this naturalistic element of the film will be quite engaging enough to satisfy many viewers.

On the other hand, though, by the end it is quite clear that the movie isn’t really about a woman preparing to go into space: it’s about a mother on that journey. Every element of the story is viewed through the lens of the relationship between Sarah and Stella and Sarah’s attempts to preserve the bond between them. We are invited – maybe even commanded – to sympathise with Sarah and accept that the maternal connection is one which the male-dominated space exploration establishment do not appreciate. At one point Sarah commits a massive breach of mission protocols in order to keep a promise to her daughter, and it is presented as a transcendent moment of togetherness rather than someone being dangerously irresponsible. It doesn’t quite sit well with a film which is implicitly critical of the chauvinist American alpha-jock played by Dillon (when asked how he feels about a French woman joining the crew, his response is that he’s happy, because they’ll have someone around to do all the cooking). Dillon’s character suggests that Sarah’s preoccupation with her daughter makes her a bit of a liability, but the really odd thing is that the film implies he is correct, while simultaneously presenting her as a sympathetic, admirable figure. (Then again I am neither a woman nor a parent, just someone who occasionally enjoys space films: I fully expect other people to have very different takeaways where Proxima is concerned.)

Well, apart from that it is competently written and directed, with a very good performance from Eva Green and solid support from everyone else (Boulant-Lemesle gives an extremely self-assured turn for one so young). As I said, the nitty-gritty of the story is fascinating, I just couldn’t buy into the film’s idealisation of motherhood, or the suggestion that mums who go into space are making some kind of unqiue sacrifice – plenty of fathers go into space, after all. Is Winocour suggesting they are all distant, cool parents without much of a connection with their kids? Oh well. Not the best film of the year, nor the worst, and so probably the kind of thing we should be hoping for going forward, if we really want to see the restoration of something resembling the old days. That still feels like it’s a long way off, though.

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Well, it has been a strange four months or so, hasn’t it? It seems strange that, just as the newspapers are full of ominous stories about the so-called ‘second wave’, there are actually signs of some kind of normality resuming – which, naturally, is code for ‘cinemas reopening locally’. Fingers crossed, of course. Not that we have been entirely short of new films recently, of course, one way or another, but the prospect of new theatrical releases is a relief if only because it will give us something to focus on other than whatever bizarre offering has somehow managed to find an audience on one of the big streaming sites.

Let us (hopefully) bid a heartfelt farewell to this dark interlude by examining a movie which is the best argument possible for seeing all your new movies in the cinema: Barbara Białowąs and Tomasz Mandes’ 365 Days (Polish title: 365 Dni). This is a Polish film which actually got a theatrical release in the UK back in February, didn’t attract much attention, but has somehow managed to become a hit for one of the major streamers. It is comfortably one of the very worst films I have seen in the last twenty years, although (as you may soon discern) it does not achieve this solely on its own lack-of-merits: the makers have obviously been watching other very bad films and taking notes. (Not so much standing on the shoulders of giants as digging round the ankles of midgets.)

We open on a Mediterranean island where we meet our male lead, Massimo (Michele Morrone), who is being groomed to become the head of the Sicilian Mafia. The grooming comes to a rather premature end when someone puts a bullet through Massimo’s papa, leading him to have a bit of a near-death experience. Five years later, Massimo is now running the Mafia and wastes no time in sorting out some presumptuous Californian bankers who have messed up the mob’s investments.

This is intercut with another tense office scene in Warsaw where feisty young manager Laura (Anna-Maria Sieklucka) sees off an incompetent superior. Afterwards we see her sitting wistfully in the empty boardroom. This is intercut with Massimo brooding in the other empty boardroom. Thus does the movie smash the viewer round the head with the notion that these two somehow share a connection. It tries to capitalise on this by following up with a sequence where Laura amuses herself with a flourescent sex toy while Massimo requires the stewardess on his private jet to do more than just give him an extra blanket. (Or it may just be that the producers demanded a sex scene every ten minutes or so.)

Well, Laura and her inattentive boyfriend go to Sicily for her birthday, where he just treats her badly and goes on about her WEAK HEART every other line. (E.g.: ‘Hey, baby, don’t be angry that I went up Etna without you! Don’t forget you’ve got a WEAK HEART.’) I can only assume that Laura’s WEAK HEART will take on greater significance in one of the threatened sequels, because it has damn-all importance in this film. Eventually she has had enough and strops off, only to be descended upon by Massimo and his Mafia minions.

Soon she is recovering from being drugged (‘You’ve had a bad reaction to the sedative – maybe because of your WEAK HEART,’ says Massimo, getting with the programme briefly, but soon Laura’s cardiological irregularities are forgotten) and learning of what has befallen her. Not long after taking the bullet at the top of the film, Massimo had a vision of a woman (or so he claims) whom he fell instantly in love with. It has taken him five years to find someone who looks like his vision – and it’s her!!! Now she can look forward to being held prisoner by Massimo and the Mafia for a year, as he confidently believes that it will take no longer than this for her to fall in love with him.

Laura demurs somewhat at this prospect, being a feisty young manager in the hospitality industry, but Massimo does his best to reassure her by acting like a controlling psychopath. ‘I will never touch you without your permission,’ he growls, seemingly not realising he is copping an unauthorised feel even at that moment. But surely the millionaire lifestyle of a mob girlfriend and Massimo’s impressive but coyly-presented bod will not be enough to win Laura over?

Well, of course they are, for we are in the realm of possibly the nastiest of all film subgenres, the coercive romance: you know what I mean, the one with the subtext that if you really love someone, they will inevitably come to love you back: all you need to do is terrorise and lock them up for long enough. ‘Love is… never having to explain what Stockholm syndrome is.’ Yes, for reasons which remain persistently elusive, Laura decides that Massimo the psychopathic mafia boss kidnapper is actually a bit of a catch. Many games of hide-the-sausage and whose-leg-is-that? ensue, while 365 Days may very well find itself on the shortlist if anyone gives out an award for the most-cunningly-framed fellatio sequence (there are a number of contenders: the directors seem to have let this sort of thing go to their head, if you see what I mean).

As you may recall, I did my tour of duty in the trenches when the Fifty Shades trilogy was on release and concluded, like many others, that seldom before had such bad movies done such good business. Well, I tell you, friends, 365 Days makes Fifty Shades of Grey look like Inception or Parasite, which is slightly curious considering it is clearly attempting to follow the same formula of soft-core humping interspersed with glossy consumerist drivel. But, unless you subscribe to the notion that it is somehow acceptable to kidnap people and basically force them to have sex with you, it just doesn’t function as a romance at even the trite level the Grey films did. (The interminable sex scenes, as you might have expected, carry the same exotic frisson as giving an elderly relative a pedicure.)

It barely functions on any level other than simply looking like a commercial, anyway. The acting and direction are about as good as you’d expect for this kind of film, while the English dialogue is just painful on the ear (‘Five years ago, my life has changed,’ announces Massimo ahead of a key piece of exposition, which I had to rewind and watch twice as my cries of sympathy for the suffering of English grammar drowned out the dialogue the first time). Even the basic storytelling seems to break down around the ending, although once again this may just be to facilitate the threatened sequels. (Basically, we are meant to believe that Laura carks it in a mob hit, while pregnant with Massimo’s child, on her way back from her wedding dress fitting. Yup, no pudding knowingly goes un-egged around this film. As we barely learn how or why this happens, and certainly don’t see it, it is a dead cert she has just been kidnapped again and may be forced to fall in love with a different Mafia boss in the follow-up.)

Literally the only positive thing I can say about all this is that it doesn’t actually take 365 days for the plot to unravel, although it certainly feels like it at times. This is the kind of film which is so dreadful it is likely to bring on an interlude of existential fugue: you question not just its existence, but your own. But it’s not just bad, it’s nasty to the core, and if parts of it are so inept they’re amusing that shouldn’t distract us from the unpleasantness of the rest of it. You may find yourself tempted just to have a little look at it, to see if it’s quite as bad-funny as you’ve heard. Resist the temptation. Proper films will be back soon, or so we can only hope.

 

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We should have been deep in the summer season for big dumb movies by now, but of course things are different this year. People have been predicting the death of the traditional blockbuster for years, and if – as seems to be a distinct possibility – cinemas don’t fully recover in the post-virus world, it may well be the big dumb movie follows them into oblivion. But for the time being they are hanging on, not least because the streamers are making them as well as the traditional studios. Which brings us to Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard, which, if not quite a big dumb movie, is certainly a medium-large slightly dim one.

Things get underway with a flashback introducing us to Charlize Theron’s character, Andy. The movie finds Theron in the ass-kicking-babe/man-with-breasts mode which seems to be her default mode of expression in most of the movies she makes these days, for Andy is the leader of a team of elite international mercenaries, made up of Frenchman Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Italian Nicky (Luca Marinelli), and non-specific North African/Middle Easterner Joe (Marwan Kenzari). (Andy herself is implied to be of Greek origin, not that she particularly looks it.) It seems that the team have been on a break due to Andy become disillusioned by the terrible state of the world (well, maybe she has a point) and is inclined to pack in their business activities (they are that particular type of movie mercenary who only do jobs for virtuous causes).

However, they are contacted for (all together now) One Last Job, courtesy of former contact Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who used to belong to the English-accent division of the CIA. A bunch of innocent children have been kidnapped by a militia in Africa and are desperately in need of rescuing, and the team agrees to go in. They make their way through the guards like an especially salty dose of salts, and descend to where the children are supposedly being held captive – only to all be repeatedly shot and mown down by bad guys with automatic weapons! Crikey!

Not unconnected to their fate is that of Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne), a US Marine serving in Afghanistan. She and her team are likewise looking for a bad guy and seem to have found him, but things take a regrettable turn and Nile finds herself with a grisly mortal wound she expires from in fairly short order. But no! She revives in the infirmary, completely healthy, without even a scar for her trouble – having had some peculiar dreams about Andy and the others…

Well, you know, they’ve been talking about trying to do a Highlander remake for years now – apparently Ryan Reynolds was on board at one point – but I suspect that one way or another, The Old Guard will have taken its head (so to speak). If you did Highlander again nowadays, it would probably end up looking very much like this film.

Certainly, the similarities between the two are extremely pronounced in some ways, mainly in the way they don’t seem particularly worried about coming up with a back-story that makes any sense or has any apparent logic to it. Why are some people born immortal and seemingly destined to battle their way down through the centuries? In both films, the answer is that They Just Are (with the implicit corollary Look, Don’t Worry About This, It’s Cool). Why do the immortals in this film dream of each other until they meet? They Just Do. Why is their immortality seemingly quite random and arbitrary in its limitations? It Just Is.

Of course, one has to bear in mind that this is a big dumb movie (or a medium-large slightly dim movie)  and none of this really matters: the immortality is just there to enable the story, and more importantly, the Cool Stuff (squads of heavily armed soldiers being scythed down by an ass-kicking babe with an axe, for instance). We should also bear in mind that attempts to rationalise this sort of thing never end well, as the producers of the Highlander franchise discovered when they found themselves making a script revealing their immortals were actually exiled political dissidents from the planet Zeist. Probably best not to worry, enjoy the fight choreography and remember that this is all ultimately cartoon stuff (based on a comic-book series, after all).

That said, even a cartoon action fantasy has other things to think about these days, which is why The Old Guard ticks every box you would expect it to with mechanical diligence. Nearly every demographic and minority is appropriately foregrounded, with the obvious exception: the role of bad guy is reserved for the straight white male, naturally. It’s all done without much sign of wit or imagination or self-awareness.

Now, for me the problem isn’t that this is a movie with feminist and LGBT elements. I have no problem with these kinds of themes, provided the films are well-made. The issue is that it doesn’t really feel like they inform the heart of the film at all – the heart of this film is immortal warriors being menaced by dark, exploitative forces before bouncing back and tearing their way through them, in other words cartoon action fantasy – and it just feels like the film’s meeting its diversity quotient in order to get the approval of the Progressive Agenda Committee. As a result it feels just a bit too calculated and soulless.

Perhaps this is why the film feels oddly joyless and dour too: it doesn’t feel able to enjoy the potential for romance and genuine fantasy implicit in the notion of its characters living for centuries and experiencing countless lives. Everyone is doing their serious face throughout. You can take this sort of thing too seriously, in more ways than one. As a result the good things in The Old Guard never really manage to lift the film – and there are good things in it; the action choreography is decent, and there are a number of very good performances in it, too. Layne has presence, Schoenaerts is as good as ever, and Harry Melling is a hissably evil cartoon bad guy (a villain with evil designs on immensely long-lived beings with regenerative powers? What would Mellings’ grandpa have said?). But in the end, the film never manages to shake off the sense of being rather like lots of things you’ve seen before, and calculated and glum to boot.

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It is an odd coincidence, to say the least, that one of the world’s leading streaming sites chooses to release a movie about the Eurovision Song Context in the first year since the ESC’s inception that it hasn’t actually been run. Whether or not David Dobkin’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is a worthy substitute for the actual show will probably depend on what you think of it – always assuming you’re the kind of person who actually feels the absence of Eurovision in your life.

But hey, let us not forget: people from all over the world read this blog (and are left equally unimpressed) and it may just be possible that you don’t actually know what the Eurovision Song Contest is. Hmmm. Well, born out of a desire to increase international amity and prevent another war, Eurovision marks the one night of the year when the nations of Europe (or at least those who belong to the European Broadcasting Union, which includes some definite outliers when it comes to what ‘European’ actually means) come together and… sing songs to each other. First comes the best bit: the songs. Six people max on stage, no politics, any language is permissible, and your singer doesn’t actually have to be a native of the nation they’re representing: hence Celine Dion turning out for Switzerland in 1988. Then comes the other best bit: the voting. An international snake-pit of bias and partiality, a mixture of total predictability and wildly random choices. One year Norway won with an instrumental. Another, Finland entered a heavy metal band dressed as Orcs with exploding guitars and won by a record margin. There are even rumours that the UK may have won at some point, back in the mists of antiquity. It’s totally absurd and (yet?) strangely wonderful.

For the wider world, of course, Eurovision’s most famous alumni are ABBA, who won the contest in 1974. The movie opens on this night, with the people of the small Icelandic town of Husavik gathering to watch the show, although recently-widowed local eminence Erick Erickssong (Pierce Brosnan) is rather disapproving. However, the sound of Bjorn and the others is enough to lift the spirits of his son Lars, and sparks a life-long love of the contest.

Forty-something years later, Lars (Will Ferrell) is the town’s parking attendant by day, and an aspiring musician by night, part of the duo Fire Saga with his friend Sigrit (Rachel McAdams), whom he’s pretty sure is not his sister. His father still seems consumed by contempt for him, though. Will all this change when opportunity knocks, and – through a fairly unlikely series of events – Fire Saga are given the opportunity to go to Edinburgh to represent Iceland at Eurovision? Will his father come to respect him? Will Lars come to recognise his true feelings for Sigrit? Will Iceland’s moment of Eurovision glory finally arrive?

Perhaps I have already given you a clue as what one of the major issues with Fire Saga (not typing that title out in full every time) is: once you strip away all the Eurovision-themed gags and other material, what you are left with is a fairly predictable story of ridiculous underdogs coming good coupled to that of, well, a couple beginning their coupling. Eurovision is largely a backdrop.

Not entirely, however, but the problem here is possibly a UK-specific one. Over twenty years ago the makers of the sitcom Father Ted did a brilliant spoof of Eurovision in one of their episodes. I’m not saying that Fire Saga is knowingly ripping this episode off. I’m just saying the two have suspiciously similar stretches of plot in key areas.

I mean, it’s obvious that Ferrell (who also co-produced and co-wrote, along with Andrew Steele) has done his homework when it comes to Eurovision, which his Swedish wife apparently introduced him to – there are lots of little gags and references to reward devotees of the contest. A group looking suspiciously like the Finnish Orcs briefly appears, as does Demi Lovato as a character with authentic Euro-hair and Euro-cleavage. Dan Stevens turns up as a slick and rather metrosexual Russian entrant; Melissanthi Mahut appears as a cat-suited Greek singer presumably based on Eleni Foureira. They even work in a sequence with Will Ferrell running in a giant hamster wheel. It goes beyond affectionate spoof, though, and things take on a rather smug and self-congratulatory tone with a lengthy sequence where various Eurovision celebs from recent years turn up and sing a medley together – the one who looks like a Swedish Claudia Winkleman crops up, as does the Israeli chicken woman, the Russian chap with the violin, and so on. Is the movie sending Eurovision up or not? It’s hard to tell: the fact that contest director Jon Ola Sand is one of its executive producers suggests  this was never on the agenda. (Even so, the movie gets enough Euro-specifics wrong to annoy actual fans of the contest (I would expect) – if Edinburgh is hosting the show, why are the presenters from eastern Europe? Why is Graham Norton commentating on a semi-final? Why is the voting procedure different?)

On the other hand, I can imagine the entire population of Iceland (that’s nearly 365,000 people) getting justifiably cross with the way their country is depicted as being bankrupt, saddled with a mind-set out of the dark ages, and populated largely by fish-obsessed drunks whose idea of culture is singing along to a song called ‘Yah Yah Ding Dong’. There’s even what seems to be a joke about the Icelandic nation being inbred, though this may just be a different joke that isn’t put across very well.

The ultimate problem with this is that it mostly isn’t actually funny. It’s not a complete desert of mirth, because there are a few funny moments: Pierce Brosnan knows how to handle himself in a comedy (though he’s not permitted to sing), and there’s a very funny cameo from Nadja the Vampire as Fire Saga’s choreographer. Rachel McAdams is also rather better than the script deserves; she is a very capable comic performer and it would be nice to see her get the chance to carry a movie. Here, however, she is saddled with Will Ferrell. (I should also say – and it has taken a few days for this to become apparent – that Husavik, the song McAdams mimes to at the climax (actual vocal by Swedish popstrel Molly Sanden), is one of the genuine musical highlights of the year.)

Now, if we’re talking about bad Will Ferrell comedies, Fire Saga is not as bad as Holmes and Watson, but then you can say the same about a mild case of gangrene. The thing is that Ferrell’s particular style of knowingly ironic stupidity coupled with so-so slapstick has lost most of its freshness. You can see him working hard to find some laughs throughout the movie. But they elude him almost completely.

Compounding this problem is the way in which Fire Saga most accurately captures the Eurovision experience, by seeming to go on forever. A brisk ninety-five minutes is about right for this kind of film – an hour and three quarters at the absolute most. This one goes on for over two hours, and by the end I was feeling every minute of that time.

What are Americans doing making a movie about Eurovision, anyway? The tone is almost patronising, the suggestion that Eurovision is somehow inherently silly. Well – all right, it is, but this film misses the point, which is that something so self-confidently mad really can play a role in bringing the world together. Not having Eurovision this year was one of the genuine (if minor) tragedies of the pandemic. This movie is no substitute: it will not stop you missing Eurovision. If anything, it will make you miss it (ooh ah) a little bit more.

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The gravity of the current situation didn’t completely sink in with me until this weekend just gone, especially when I made one of my regular visits to the cinema. Everything was ostensibly the same as normal, but it had all changed, especially when it came to the trailers for coming attractions: there was something very detached from reality about studios boldly promising their next blockbuster would be coming out in April, May or June; even the ones offering a less-specific ‘Coming Soon’ seemed hopelessly optimistic. As previously mentioned hereabouts, some big movies are being pulled from the schedules and it’s hard to imagine others won’t follow suit, even if the cinemas stay open. Even Marvel Studios may finally have met their match in the coronavirus; whether this results in a fender-bender of their unreleased films piling up on top of each other remains to be seen – at the time of writing, they seem intent on hanging tough and sticking with a May date for Black Widow.

Universal, on the other hand, are being ultra-cautious and Fast and Furious 9 has been pushed back by a whole year (and this follows its release date being delayed to accommodate last year’s spin-off). Never mind the pandemic – what is the world to do without its regular fix of Vin Diesel driving crossly and quickly? Well, this particular sub-crisis could be potentially be ameliorated by the fact that Vin has had another go at a non-F&F movie (what’s that quote about doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results…?) and it is available to view in cinemas now: Bloodshot, directed by Dave Wilson, a co-production between the often badly-named Original Film Company and  Bona Films (which sounds like something out of Round the Horne).

Diesel, resembling as ever a cross between Telly Savalas and a Cape buffalo, plays Ray Garrison, an elite US special forces soldier whom we first encounter shooting some bad guys with great aplomb in Kenya. That all sorted out, he heads off for a holiday in Italy with his lovely wife (Talulah Riley). This occasions various scenes of Vin trying to play the romantic lead, which finds the big man some distance from his comfort zone, and could be considered a gruelling experience for the audience, too.

Luckily enough, the two of them are soon kidnapped by some bad guys out for revenge, led by a character named Martin Axe (Toby Kebbell). Kebbell comes on and does a little dance number to ‘Psycho Killer’ by Talking Heads, just to make it quite clear he is a psycho killer. He proves his psycho killer credentials by killing not just Vin’s missus but Vin himself (this barely qualifies as a spoiler as we haven’t even reached the opening credits yet).

Well, it probably will not come as a shock to you if I reveal that it takes more than being killed to keep a man like Vin Diesel down, especially when his body is donated to private industry by the US government. That mighty carcass falls into the hands of cyber-boffin Dr Emil Harting (Guy Pearce), who brings Vin back from the dead by replacing his blood with robots (look, I just write this stuff down). Now he is super-strong, heals like Hugh Jackman, and his new robo-blood can log onto the internet and do all kinds of improbable things. Harting wants Vin to join his team of cybernetically-reconstructed forces veterans (Eiza Gonzalez plays the obligatory ass-kicking babe), but Vin is having trouble getting his shiny head around all of this, not least because dying has given him amnesia. He wanders off by himself a lot and sits looking aggrieved, occasionally putting his head in his hands (viewers of the film may be doing the same by this point).

But then someone plays some Talking Heads on the radio and it all comes back to our man. Off he trots to exact a violent revenge on Kebbell, making full use of his robo-blood and other special faculties. But isn’t this all just a bit convenient? Could there be more going on than Vin is aware of…?

Yes, I know: the world is gripped by a pandemic, with everyone encouraged to exercise social distancing and avoid unnecessary travel, and this is the movie I spend my Sunday evening watching: not just a non-prestige superhero movie based on a comic book even I have never heard of, but a Vin Diesel vehicle to boot, and one with a very silly name. Well, what can I say: every trip to the cinema is a potential gamble nowadays, and I never was very good at knowing when to fold ’em and when to hold ’em.

Of course, in this case the odds get rather longer, because Vin Diesel’s record outside of the F&F franchise (and, I suppose, his work with Marvel, such as it is) is so variable he has pretty much given up on making other movies. This is his first non-Toretto, non-tree lead role since The Last Witch Hunter five years ago – a film which made a small profit, but was critically reviled. Quite what attracted him to this project I don’t know – but the fact it potentially gives him a chance to be in at the start of another proposed ‘superhero universe’ based on comics from Valiant (no, me neither) must have had something to do with it.

I did turn up to Bloodshot expecting not just junk, but bad junk, but I have to say this movie is not quite as poor as one might reasonably expect (someone in the theatre audibly said ‘Let’s see just how **** this movie is’ as it got underway), nor as it probably sounds from the synopsis. This is mainly due to things that happen in the second and third acts of the movie, which would really count as spoilers, so you’ll just have to trust me on this. There are some interesting ideas in the mix here, mainly connected to Vin’s unreliable memory and the way in which this affects his character. There’s something almost existential about this – if you don’t trust your own memory, how do you make any kind of decision? – and while the film certainly doesn’t dwell on the notion or explore it more than strictly necessary, it was still a touch more thoughtful than I was expecting.

In the same way, while the revenge vendetta element of the plot may sound hackneyed and predictable, there’s almost a suggestion that this is intentional – that this is a narrative intended to function on a number of levels, as a predictable, no-brainer action movie, but also as a knowing deconstruction of this kind of story. Unfortunately, mainly due to a clumsy script and direction that seems more interested in always getting to the next action sequence as fast as possible, this falls a bit flat: the whole movie is hackneyed and predictable, just not on purpose.

There are other problems too: some of the supporting performances are rather over-the-top, and there are places where the tightness of the budget just can’t be hidden – a foot chase with Vin being pursued around central London has clearly been filmed in suburban South Africa, and it’s absurd that anyone thought for a second this substitution would work.

That said, the meat-and-potatoes action stuff is reasonably well-presented. Vin Diesel is kind of an odd outlier as an action star, as he doesn’t seem to have any kind of wrestling or martial arts background (when his peers were off at the dojo, Diesel was busy playing Dungeons & Dragons) – his signature move, if that’s the right way to describe it, seems to be to hurl himself bodily at his opponents and crush them with his sheer bulk (something which perhaps achieved its apotheosis in the ‘dolphin’ headbutt demonstrated in Fast & Furious 6). Nevertheless, he is reasonably effective as the relentless human bulldozer of vengeance the story here requires.

In the end, though, this is not a great movie, for all that it ticks all the boxes and passes the time in a reasonably diverting way. If it feels particularly disappointing, that’s because there are signs here of a film with genuine wit and intelligence that never got made – instead, it’s just very routine genre stuff, aiming low and just about hitting the target, possessed of a belief that lavish CGI is a good substitute for a proper script. Who knows, we may see future appearances by Diesel as this character, or further movies in this setting – but I don’t think we’ll be missing much if they never happen.

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Normally the news that the release of Peter Rabbit 2 has been delayed for months would count as unusually good news, but the circumstances, coupled to the fact that the new Bond and Fast and Furious films are also being put back by a considerable period of time (with other big releases no doubt to follow), kind of takes the shine off it. One wonders if the time will come when UK cinemas close entirely, either due to government decree or a complete lack of films to show (although there must be some intriguing possibilities for counter-programming opening up at the moment). I suppose one must do the best one can in the circumstances, for an eclectic range of films is still on offer, always assuming there isn’t a power cut in the cinema (this actually happened to me the other night; details to follow when we get around to watching the end of the interrupted movie).

Which brings us to Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe, which by any reasonable metric counts as a very peculiar film indeed: what I suppose we must describe as an Anglo-Germano-Austrian post-horror movie (yes, another one of those). There are things about this film which feel very familiar indeed, but the overall tone and posture of the piece are, well, challenging and unusual, or will be to most audiences, especially the ones most likely to be drawn to it.

The film opens, and much of it occurs in, the austere confines of a greenhouse attached to a scientific research facility. The people here are intent on breeding genetically-modified plants, with variable degrees of success. One of the most dedicated and passionate researchers is Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham), who is going against the flow by attempting to create a plant which needs especially high levels of care and maintenance from its owner – some of her colleagues are doing the exact opposite, trying to breed plants which don’t need watering when you go on holiday. The pay-off, in the case of Alice’s flower, is that the plant releases chemicals promoting the happiness of the owner and ensuring a strong bond between the two of them.

As you can imagine, this is demanding work and Alice is devoted to it, ignoring the awkward advances of a colleague (Ben Whishaw) who has a bit of a thing for her. Virtually the only thing she allows to impinge on her dedication to the plant is her relationship with her son Joe (Kit Connor), who is in his early teens. As a special gift for him, Alice smuggles one of her plants out of the lab and gives it to him. They decide to call it Little Joe.

But then the Little Joes still in the greenhouse start producing large amounts of pollen – something they shouldn’t be doing, considering they have been engineered to be sterile. Other plants in the same facility wither and die, and Alice’s boss insists on a full examination of the Little Joes to see if they could be harmful or allergenic. Another colleague’s dog is exposed to the pollen and begins to behave very oddly indeed – the colleague (Kerry Fox) insists that the pollen ‘infects’ people and changes their behaviour, that the plants are trying to ensure their survival through other means now they can no longer reproduce in the conventional manner. Naturally Alice resists this idea entirely – the Little Joe is just a very unusual plant, that’s all. Of course, it transpires her genetic modification of the planet has entailed a few unauthorised short cuts, so she is invested in having it proven harmless for a number of reasons. But when Joe starts to behave strangely, she begins to wonder if there might not be some truth to her colleague’s wild accusations about Little Joe…

The involvement of BBC Films means, probably, that a substantial proportion of the British public can sort-of take pride in being a producer of Little Joe and thus ensuring the continuation of the proud tradition of the botanical horror-SF movie. The British pedigree in this sort of thing goes back a long way and includes some very impressive books and films – starting with The Day of the Triffids and quite possibly proceeding on to The Girl with All the Gifts. (For fairness’ sake I must also admit that Z-movies like Womaneater and the segment of Dr Terror with Fluff Freeman and the killer vine also qualify.)

On paper Little Joe does look like a fairly straightforward horror-SF film about a creepy plant with more to it than meets the eye. However, anyone turning up to it expecting that is probably heading for disappointment, for this is a rather more subtle and restrained movie than most of the other blooms in this particular flowerbed (is this metaphor overdoing it a bit? I’m not sure).

One thing you can definitely say is that this is clearly a movie which has been made with a very great deal of care and attention: a lot of thought has clearly gone into the composition and framing of every shot, with the camera gliding implacably past scenes and characters, seemingly completely detached and disinterested in them. There is a certain austerity to the film – the visuals are crisp and colourful, but it always feels cool, detached, and calculated, with very little sense of the organic about it.

This persists. The script (by Hausner and Geraldine Bajard) works brilliantly to establish the premise and then slowly track the development of the situation, as the influence of the flowers seems to grow stronger. Equally good is Beecham’s award-winning performance, with her trajectory from dispassionate sceptic to uneasy believer in Little Joe’s odd sway completely plausible. But it’s all done with almost too much restraint and understatement. There’s not so much tension as a sense of creeping unease and vague disquiet, which never quite resolves itself or reaches the expected moments of revelation or resolution (this is the main reason why I’d almost describe this as a post-horror movie, rather than a true member of the genre).

In other words, we never really get the money shot, but the film is still well-made enough to keep the attention, not least because of the performances. The film naturally touches on some interesting ideas, as well: quite apart from the whole issue of genetic modification and the possible consequences, there is also the question of chemical happiness – whatever else it’s doing, the Little Joe flowers do seem to be making people happy, so why do they seem so sinister? Needless to say there are shades of Invasion of the Body Snatchers here, and perhaps even of Rosemary’s Baby.

I don’t think Little Joe is up to the standard of either of those, quite, but it is an impressively made film with some very good performances in it. Anyone expecting a traditional horror movie is likely to be disappointed, but viewers with an open mind will probably find a lot to appreciate.

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I first started writing about films on the internet back in 2001, and at the end of that first year announced the list of films I was particularly looking forward to – one of them was Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Well, it has taken somewhat longer than anticipated, but I am finally in a position to write about this movie. I must express my gratitude to Terry Gilliam for finally finishing it and getting it into cinemas, even with the disgracefully limited UK release it has eventually received – I could have ended up looking quite silly otherwise.

The travails of Gilliam’s Don Quixote have become legendary, helped by the release of Lost in La Mancha in 2002 – intended as a making-of film to go on the DVD, it ended up as the chronicle of a collapsing film shoot, as an already-chaotic production was sent into a terminal spin by scheduling problems, terrible weather, injured stars, and much more. It would have been enough to win The Man Who Killed Don Quixote a spot in the book The Greatest Movies Never Made – but, as I have previously noted, ‘never’ is a bold choice of words, and just as a few of these projects have finally crept out into the world, so Gilliam has finally finished this movie.

You can’t accuse The Man Who Killed Don Quixote of a lack of self-awareness, as the opening credits ruefully acknowledge the long and troubled history of the production (‘and now, after 25 years in the making, and unmaking’). This kind of playfulness continues on into the movie itself, where we encounter Toby (Adam Driver), a pretentious director surrounded by obsequious hangers-on, engaged in what looks like a troubled and chaotic production of a film of Don Quixote on location in Spain. Things are not going well, with abrasive crew-members, endless hold-ups, and a distinct lack of inspiration. The situation is not helped when Toby’s boss (Stellan Skarsgard) leaves his trophy wife (Olga Kurylenko) in his care: she turns out to be much taken with Toby, and the director finds his amorous instincts over-riding his better judgement.

It all takes an odd turn, however, when a chance encounter with a gypsy selling various wares reunites Toby with a copy of the student film that made his name, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. He realises he made the movie in the same area, a decade or so earlier, using local people in the key roles – an old shoemaker, Javier (Jonathan Pryce) as Quixote, and a bar-owner’s teenage daughter, Angelica (Joana Ribeiro), as Dulcinea. But a brief visit to the locations of the movie reveal that it has had a less positive effect on the other participants: Angelica became fixated on becoming a famous film star, which led to her being sucked into a netherworld of crime and degradation, while Javier became convinced he really was Don Quixote and abandoned his old life entirely.

Various misunderstandings from Toby’s chaotic life lead to him being arrested by the police, but he is less than entirely delighted when the old man appears on horseback and ‘rescues’ him. The self-styled Quixote addresses Toby as Sancho Panza and declares that great deeds and adventures await the pair of them…

Don Quixote defeated Orson Welles long before Terry Gilliam ever attempted to film it, and entire films have been made recounting the tortuous progress of Gilliam’s version to the screen: two of the director’s choices to play Quixote died while the film was trapped in development hell, while other cast members have shifted roles in the meantime (Jonathan Pryce was originally supposed to be playing an entirely different part). Perhaps most significantly of all, the script of the movie has been significantly rewritten since Lost in La Mancha came out: I was expecting there to be an explicitly fantastical, time-travel element to this movie, but it has been removed.

In its place is something more subtle and unexpected, and rather more in keeping with Cervantes: the novel was published in two parts, many years apart, and the second volume opens with Quixote and Sancho rather nonplussed by the fame they have acquired as notable literary figures (not to mention outraged by an unauthorised sequel penned by other hands). The Man Who Killed Don Quixote manages a degree of the same kind of witty self-referentiality – nearly all the characters in it are aware of the book, and intent upon acting various bits of it out for different reasons. Despite (or perhaps because of) this, it is also a remarkably faithful adaptation of a novel which doesn’t easily lend itself to other media.

You could argue this is a double-edged sword, for Don Quixote is a sprawling, episodic, picaresque, apparently undisciplined book, and Gilliam’s film is arguably many of these things too. The first act in particular feels slow and rambling, the story unsure of which way to go. But once Toby and Quixote set off on their peculiar exploits, it lifts enormously, and it slowly becomes clear that in addition to being an adaptation of Cervantes, this is also an engaging and affecting comedy-drama about Toby’s own personal redemption and discovery of his own inner knight-errant.

Adam Driver wouldn’t necessarily have been my first choice for this particular role, but he carries it off well: this is a proper leading role, which he does full justice too. While I would deeply love the chance to peep into the parallel quantum realms where this film was made five or ten years ago and John Hurt or Michael Palin played Quixote, I honestly can’t imagine either of them doing a better job in the role than Jonathan Pryce does here – Pryce is enjoying one of those periods of late bloom that actors sometimes have, and this is one of his best performances.

Of course, Pryce and Gilliam have worked together a number of times in the past, and I first became aware of the actor following his lead performance in Brazil. His presence here isn’t the only thing that recalls some of the classic Gilliam movies of the past: there is the way in which the present day and the medieval collide with each other (mostly figuratively, here), and also the film’s focus on the conflict between imagination and dreams on the one hand, and dreary old reality on the other. You’re never in doubt as to which side the director is on; you could probably argue that Terry Gilliam’s whole career has been building up to doing a film of Don Quixote.

I’m not sure this is quite as consistent or as impressive as some of Gilliam’s other feats of cinematic legerdemain, but neither is it far from the standard of his best films, and there are moments which are as accomplished as anything he’s done in the past. It feels like a minor miracle that The Man Who Killed Don Quixote has been finished at all; the fact it is as good as it is simply adds to the sense that it is something we should be grateful for. (It’s just a shame that – true to form – the film is still entangled in legal difficulties affecting its release and distribution, which is presumably why it has barely appeared in British cinemas.) A heart-warming achievement for Terry Gilliam, anyway, and a treat for those of us who’ve loved his films for years.

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If an alien or someone fresh out of long-term hibernation were to cast an eye across the cinematic landscape and try to guess who amongst the actors currently working was, by some metrics, the most successful movie star in history, the chances are they would go for one of the Toms (Cruise or Hanks)  – which would be a reasonable guess, but not quite right. In the end it all comes down to how you measure these things, and many people would suggest that Samuel L Jackson’s string of cameo appearances in huge movies from the Marvel and stellar conflict franchises, not to mention Jurassic Park (and many others), puts him on the top spot, but others reckon it to be someone who has a rather lower profile these days: Harrison Ford.

Now, as with all right-thinking men of a certain age, I loved Harrison Ford when I was younger – or, more accurately, I loved the movies he made as Han Solo and Indiana Jones, and those movies made me go on to watch many other Ford performances in films like Witness and The Fugitive. At this point I was all set to do my usual thing of bemoaning the fact I haven’t done a good job of keeping up with Ford’s more recent movies – but then I checked out his recent filmography and it turns out that I have seen every film he’s made in the last seven years, and only missed eight of the twenty he’s appeared in this century. He just doesn’t crank ’em out any more.

How he picks his projects I’m not entirely sure (though I imagine an enormous paycheck was a factor in his last couple of appearances for Lucasfilm), but it does seem that he still has proper movie star clout and consequently draws the salary one would expect. Chris Sanders’ new version of The Call of the Wild has Ford’s name above the title, and he is prominent on the poster – though in some of the advertising he is definitely playing second banana to a dog.

Then again, this is par for the course with The Call of the Wild, which – again, according to some of the advertising – is based on ‘a classic family adventure’. I’m not sure what Jack London, who wrote the original novel, would have made of that. I’m not entirely sure I ever actually finished reading The Call of the Wild – I can only imagine I bought a copy as background material while planning out a Werewolf RPG chronicle – but I don’t recall it being particularly gentle or family friendly. The new movie rectifies this, of course.

This is the story of Buck, an enormous St Bernard-Scotch Collie dog who as the film begins is living a pampered existence in California in the late 1890s, as the pet of the local judge (Bradley Whitford, briefly appearing). He is good natured but disruptive, and generally a bit of a softie. But Buck’s life changes when he is dognapped and sent north to Alaska, where the Gold Rush is in progress and dogs are required for all sorts of jobs. Here he briefly encounters grizzled, grumpy, but ultimately likeable prospector John Thornton (played by grizzled, grumpy, but ultimately likeable actor Harrison Ford), before being bought by a couple (played by Omar Sy and Cara Gee) running a dog-sled mail route. Can Buck find a place for himself in the savage north? Will destiny bring him and Thornton back together (hint: yes)? Can he resist the call of the wild (hint: no)?

I imagine the thinking behind the new version of Call of the Wild (this is a much-filmed tale) was basically that the CGI version of The Jungle Book was based on a classic novel and made a ton of money, and so a CGI-heavy version of London’s book was likely to do the business too, especially with the cachet brought to it by the presence of a superstar like Harrison Ford. It all makes sense when you put it like that, but the fact remains that Call of the Wild looks likely to lose the studio (it is the first film released by the newly-rechristened ‘Twentieth Century Studio’) a nine-digit sum. Maybe people will only go to see Ford playing either of the characters who made him famous, or maybe people don’t have the same kind of warm associations with London that they had with the Disney take on Kipling. Either way it’s a shame, as this is a solid movie that I found to be rather more satisfying than I expected.

Of course, it is a movie of the modern day, with all that goes with this both narratively and technically. The most striking thing about it is that much of the time the dogs and other animals in the film are all CGI, which I suppose cuts down on trainers’ fees but also lifts the whole thing into the realm of being effectively part-animated. Buck is ‘played’ (through the wonders of mo-cap) by Terry Notary, who I suppose is the American answer to Andy Serkis: other mo-cap roles include parts in the last King Kong film, along with the Hobbit trilogy, the most recent Planet of the Apes films, and (almost inevitably) a bunch of films for Marvel. You really have to get on board with the fact this is a CGI/mo-cap heavy film, or it will just do your head in; it mostly does look indefinably fake, but it’s a pretty enough fake to be tolerable.

Needless to say, the Progressive Action Committee have also made an appearance in the course of the production and various diversity quotas have been met, with characters given racial and gender makeovers. For once I’m not too inclined to grumble about this, because the actors employed as a result – Omar Sy and Cara Gee – are both very able and engaging. The role of bad guy has been taken from some native Americans and – of course – given to a privileged white man (played by Dan Stevens).

The other main departure from London is that the film has been softened up quite considerably – there’s a lot of whipping and clubbing and biting and clawing, if memory serves, and the story doesn’t shy away from some brutal realities. The hard edges have been sanded down quite considerably for the screen, though, with the result that the film rests comfortably in the PG bracket. It is mawkish and sentimental in places, but the moment I was dreading, when the dogs would start talking to each other, never arrives. The animals are allowed to be animals to this extent at least.

And the humans are allowed to do some decent acting, too. Whatever else you want to say, the film does seem to lift considerably whenever Harrison Ford comes on the screen. He’s never been the most extravagant of performers, but his ability to give heart and heft to unlikely material remains undiminished and it is a pleasure to watch his slightly earnest performance in this movie (I should say the movie itself is determinedly earnest and somewhat old-fashioned in its storytelling). For a while I was wondering why this movie was making me feel quite so nostalgic, but the fact it features Ford partnering up with a co-star who is enormous, hairy, and doesn’t have any dialogue should have tipped me off. Eventually I remembered the Russian word for dog is sowbacca and it all fell into place.

Let’s be clear: The Call of the Wild isn’t going to rock your world or give you a thrilling night at the movies you will never forget. But it is a well-made movie in its way, which is clearly trying hard to be respectful to the source material, and in the end it is very engaging and satisfying entertainment. And it’s always good to see Harrison Ford in a movie. Hopefully it will find some kind of audience.

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Every now and then I do like to go to the cinema with my parents, partly because I think it’s nice to share one’s interests, also because I imagine it’s a bracing experience for them to watch the latest Fast and Furious or whatever. Of course, we also go to see things that they are genuinely looking forward to: last autumn we went to see the Downton Abbey movie, and just recently we saw Autumn de Wilde’s new adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. (This movie has been slightly irksomely styled as Emma. in some places, with the final . apparently indicating that this is a – wait for it – period piece. I think we should put a stop to this sort of thing.)

I don’t want to engage in lazy generalisations any more than is absolutely necessary, but watching the new Emma I found myself sort of flashing back to the last time I was out with them. Maybe films aimed at – how can I put this delicately? – a more seasoned audience have this much in common, by which I mean that both Downton and Emma seemed to me to have a definite ‘comfort viewing’ quality to them. It is almost obligatory for the makers of new films based on famous, well-loved books to announce they have found a bold, exciting new approach to the material resulting in a movie the like of which has never been seen before. Not only does this generally turn out to be palpably untrue, but it would be a bad idea even if they could somehow manage it: the kind of person who goes to see a movie based on a Jane Austen novel is not, I would suggest, looking to have a startling, world-upending experience. They want to see something with pleasant-looking people attending balls, riding around in carriages, and swanking about in top hats and Empire-line frocks, a wedding at the end and no bad language.

Autumn de Wilde’s Emma is unlikely to outrage the sensibilities of its target audience, regardless of what the marketing department has come up with. Anya Taylor-Joy, who up to now has mainly distinguished herself by appearing in horror movies, plays Austen’s heroine on this occasion. Emma Woodhouse is the wealthy, comely, and brainy daughter of an eccentric country gentleman (Bill Nighy), who – finding herself spared most of the usual imperatives compelling young women to seek an advantageous marriage – is quite content to stay single and amuse herself. This usually takes the form of trying to organise suitable matches and otherwise orchestrate the lives of her friends and neighbours. Most of them, such as her new friend Harriet (Mia Goth), are sufficiently dazzled by Emma’s beauty and wit to go along with this, even when it causes them some personal inconvenience. The only person who seems to be less than entirely thrilled by Emma is her neighbour and close acquaintance Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn).

However, the social scene in the area becomes rather more complicated, with the arrival of a startling number of eligible young bachelors and nubile young ladies, and Emma begins to find herself on the verge of actually doubting her own cleverness and understanding of everything that’s going on around her. Could an opportunity for learning and personal growth, and maybe even romance, be on the cards?

Well, whatever else you might want to say about Emma, it is certainly a very agreeable film to look upon: the compositions are lovely, and the costumes and sets are also of a very high standard. Given all this and the period setting, I found myself thinking ‘There’s almost something of Barry Lyndon about this’ – the crucial difference being that there is no sense of the film’s visual style being part of a thought-through creative vision.

My understanding is that Autumn de Wilde has come to film directing quite late in life, and that prior to this (her debut film) she has paid the bills by working as a photographer. She certainly does seem to have that facility with the visual image that I mentioned earlier, but hasn’t quite yet acquired an accompanying sense of how to establish character and tell a story. There is a fair deal of plot to contend with here, and various Messrs. Knightley, Elton, Churchill and Martin to keep track of: I would suggest it is sometimes not always as easy to follow the story as it ideally could be. Nor does the story really to spring to life: it just sort of ambles along, not disagreeably, for a couple of hours.

That said, it should still probably do quite well for itself, as it does contain the appropriate quotients of top hats, Empire-line dresses, balls, carriages, etc. It is absolutely ticks all the boxes when it comes to being a standard-issue Jane Austen movie, and whether or not that is a problem is really up to the individual viewer to decide. The only surprising creative choice I could discern is the use of traditional folk music on the soundtrack – I liked this a lot, but it has an earthy, genuine quality entirely at odds with the carefully-managed visual style of the rest of the movie. If nothing else it does present Johnny Flynn, a brilliant musician in addition to being an able actor, with an opportunity to sing as well as play the lead. (Flynn gives a very decent performance, along with most of the rest of the cast, but if you ask me he would be a slightly more obvious choice to play Heathcliff than a polished Austen love interest. Still, I suppose this is a bit of a step up for him.)

I found it very hard to warm up to Emma – it’s an agreeable film, obviously, and decently made, and no doubt it should do very well with the audience it has been made for. But it feels strangely inert and unengaging; it’s not particularly funny, nor is it lushly and sweepingly romantic – it honestly does feel like the story was very secondary to the look of the thing. It does look good, but a satisfying movie needs more.

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I used to get a little bit exercised by people choosing inappropriate titles for their movies. I don’t just mean bad movies using good names, just titles which seem… not quite right for the movie. Back in 2011, Paddy Considine released a film called Tyrannosaur, which is a perfectly good title for a film featuring a carnivorous theropod on the rampage. Attaching it to an (admittedly very good) downbeat naturalistic drama about the corrosive effects of male rage struck me as a bit of a waste, to be honest.

When I first started hearing people talking about a movie called Parasite, I was pretty sure I knew what they were on about: I have vague memories of the film in question, which was directed by low-budget maestro Charles Band, released in 1982 and features Demi Moore in an early role. Suffice to say there is a lot of icky body horror and slimy things with teeth infesting various secondary members of the cast. This is exactly what I would expect from a movie called Parasite.

Of course, we now live in a world where – as is occasionally the case with films with mononymic titles – anyone wanting to watch Demi Moore just starting out had best take care, as there is now another, rather better-known film called Parasite. Not that confusion is particularly likely, of course: the 1982 movie has an 11% rating on a solanaceous review aggregation site, and won no awards whatsover, while the new one, directed by Bong Joon Ho, is currently scoring 99%, in addition to winning the Palme D’Or at Cannes and Best Picture at the Academy Awards – the first film to win both in 65 years, and the first film made in a foreign language to win the big prize at the Oscars.

This is the kind of acclaim that often leads to impossibly high expectations, but on the other hand it does work a treat in getting a slightly arty-looking subtitled film a major release – I note that, in the UK at least, Parasite didn’t start to appear in some multiplexes until after it won the Oscar. Certainly, to begin with it bears a passing resemblance to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, another acclaimed Asian movie which didn’t get a major UK release.

To begin with, we are in the company of the Kim family, a penurious Seoul family reduced to living in a basement and folding disposable pizza boxes to scrape a living. Patriarch of this unprepossessing mob is Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), a moderately successful hammer thrower now gone to seed, his wife Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), and their children Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and Ki-jeong (Park So-dam). The Kims are living so close to the edge that their neighbour putting a password on her wifi constitutes a significant problem for them.

However, this all changes when Ki-woo’s friend Min finds him a job giving English lessons to the daughter of the wealthy Park family – Min has a mind to woo her once he gets back from a trip abroad, and has thus recommended Ki-woo as someone from such a poverty-stricken background can’t possibly be a romantic rival to him. He also gives the Kims a lucky rock, which will supposedly bring them good fortune. ‘Wow, it’s so metaphorical!’ cries a delighted Ki-woo, in one of the script’s many droll touches. Ki-woo duly passes muster with the slightly dippy mother (Cho Yeo-jeong) of the Park family.

What rapidly becomes apparent is that this is the sort of opportunity the Kims have clearly been waiting for for quite some time. With the speed and ferocity of a burrowing maggot, they waste no time in inserting themselves into the Parks’ lovely home: Ki-woo spots that his new employers’ hyperactive younger child likes drawing, and thus introduces Ki-jeong as a potential art therapist for the lad. The sacking of the family servants is ingeniously contrived, creating vacancies that the two senior Kims can fill. Soon the whole family is cheerfully soaking the Parks for whatever they can get, with their hosts blissfully unaware even of the fact they are unwittingly employing four members of the same family. The Kims begin to have dreams of a better life and a better future – because what could possibly go wrong…?

Needless to say, something goes wrong, but the volta that occurs halfway through Parasite is so startling and genuinely unpredictable that one would have to be a real cad to give more than a few hints as to what goes on in the second half of the film. Needless to say, class tensions bubble to the surface, there’s an epically unsuccessful birthday party, the issue of body odour proves unexpectedly significant to the plot and the lucky rock proves to be quite unlucky, for one character at least.

So, this isn’t really a horror movie, but if it is an art-house movie it’s only because of the subtitles (‘the one-inch-tall barrier’, as the director so aptly put it). This is really no more ‘arty’ than a film by Christopher Nolan or Stanley Kubrick, unless by arty you mean made with tremendous imagination and skill. I didn’t see Snowpiercer (someone gave it to me on a hard drive, which then went pop before I could watch it) and my admiration for his giant pig film was qualified at best, but this is a terrific movie.

Obviously, this is a film with things to say about serious and universal themes: the awkward relationship between wealth and power, and class consciousness, most obviously (you could draw a definite thematic parallel between Parasite and The Time Machine, if you really wanted to). Not that the title is without a degree of ambiguity – it’s clear that both families need each other in order to function (so perhaps Symbiosis would be just as apt a title). You could also argue that the film takes the fact that servants and lower-class people often seem to be invisible to the rich and powerful and makes it one of the central metaphors of the movie. There is a lot going on here.

Nevertheless, the denseness of the film’s ideas never get in the way of its entertainment value, or its achievement as a piece of cinema. Almost from the start you are swept along, as the Kims put their plan into motion with a gleeful ruthlessness – they are such an agreeable bunch, and Mrs Park in particular is so useless, that you can’t help but want them to get away with it, even though what they are up to is deeply morally questionable. Towards the end of the film the comedic elements inevitably fall away, however, and the film becomes darker and more complex, but the shift is as impeccably handled as the rest of it.

Parasite has pretty much everything one could hope for from a movie, and it is fully deserving of all its praise and accollades. Hopefully the one-inch-tall barrier will not keep too many people from watching it, for this is a film which balances serious themes with superb storytelling skill and the result is a film which is compellingly watchable from start to finish. Proof that the Academy Awards do sometimes get things right.

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