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Posts Tagged ‘2020’

It’s something of a remarkable week, as for the first time since March they have released two new movies which interested me enough to make the effort to see them (well, all right: a friend suggested seeing this second one, I’m not entirely sure I would have bothered otherwise). Both of them were partly financed by Ingenious Media – I’m not sure whether this was a coincidence or not – and, confirming my suspicion, both of them were preceded by virtually an identical set of trailers: Kenneth Branagh dusting off his moustache and Belgian accent, Colin Firth weepy, Blumhouse’s Craft remake and peculiar mash-up of Freaky Friday and Halloween, etc, etc. I forgot to mention – perhaps my subconscious was heroically trying to shield me – another movie on the way out, which looks like being a vehicle for Melissa McCarthy to do her usual schtick. I don’t have a problem with this per se, but it also seems to prominently feature James Corden as the voice of a super-computer. Friends, if we all get out of this year intact, one of the things I will take away from it is the sudden realisation that I don’t need to brutalise myself by going to see movies with James Corden in them, and I’m damned if I’ll watch another.

Not that I’m swearing off dodgy movies entirely, of course, or I probably wouldn’t have gone to see Barnaby Thompson’s Pixie. This is Thompson’s first movie as sole director, but as a producer he has a track record going all the way back to Wayne’s World, nearly thirty years ago. Since then he has had a hand in a bewildering variety of films, including Spice World, The Importance of Being Earnest, Fisherman’s Friends and a version of Lassie – of the few of these that I’ve seen, none particularly impressed me, if we’re honest, and some of them were honestly really poor. However, I knew none of that when actually going to see the new movie (which is probably just as well).

Pixie is set in Northern Ireland and mostly concerns the doings of the title character (played by Olivia Cooke) and the various men (young and old) who wind up in her orbit. One of these is her stepfather Dermot (Colm Meaney), who is the local gangster kingpin. The fact that this is going to be a knockabout crime thriller aspiring towards black comedy is established when two young men kill some drug dealers dressed as Catholic priests (despite the fact that two of them are supposedly Afghan) and steal a huge quantity of drugs from them.

After some rather convoluted plotting has unfurled itself, the drugs end up in the possession of two entirely different young men, Frank (Ben Hardy) and Harland (Daryl McCormack), who are not the sharpest or most self-aware tools in the shed. Luckily, they are acquaintances of Pixie, who blackmails them into cutting her in on the drug deal they are hoping to set up: her share will finance her going to art school in America, apparently.

However, the original owner of the drugs, one Father Hector McGrath (Alec Baldwin, giving a textbook demonstration of a phoned-in performance from an imported American star), would like them back, and in addition Dermot has also sent one of his people in pursuit of the trio, not realising one of them is his own stepdaughter…

Well, when the lights came up at the end of Pixie and we were sitting there watching the closing credits, I turned to my companion, feeling compelled to share my gut reaction. ‘People have got to get over wanting to be Quentin Tarantino sooner or later.’ My friend is perhaps a little too young to have lived through that era where every aspiring film-maker and their dog was trying to do a knock-off of Pulp Fiction – things like Two Days in the Valley, The 51st State and Killing Zoe – so it took him a moment so see what I meant, but the odd thing about Pixie is that it does feel very much like a script from the mid-to-late nineties that it’s taken them twenty years to find the financing for.

If this were actually the case, I might even suggest they could have usefully spent the intervening time polishing the thing up, because while films about laid-back Irish chancers out for a bit of craic are all very well, they still need to have reasonably sharp and cohesive screenplays. This one has one of the most fumbled opening acts I can remember seeing, with what feels like a lot of needless faffing about – or at least poor exposition – and characters being introduced in the wrong order. It does all settle down eventually, but it’s still a needless demand on the audience’s goodwill.

Even then, the film constantly feels like it’s on the verge of unravelling completely, with jokes not really connecting, significant bits of storytelling just not there and inconsistent characterisation being used to keep the plot going: Pixie herself is a cool, smart, plans-ten-steps-ahead kind of girl, except when it’s necessary that she isn’t. After meandering about amiably for over an hour, the film suddenly seems to realise it needs to have some kind of climax, and so one is rapidly contrived: though just what the principal characters’ plan is never quite becomes clear – the director seems much more interested in a slo-mo shot of a screaming nun firing a pump-action shotgun.

As I say, it is kind of amiable, and it does have some very able actors in it like Colm Meaney and Dylan Moran (who gets a very funny cameo). Front and centre all the way through, though, is Olivia Cooke, whose career I have followed, not without interest, since she appeared in the Nu-Hammer movie The Quiet Ones in 2014. She does her usual fine job, but this is not one of the better films on her CV. ‘What do men see in irritating free spirits?’ wondered Julia Roberts’ character in Larry Crowne; well, it’s clearly still a live question, as the film is named after Cooke’s character for a reason, and we are all clearly supposed to fall in love with her. She’s an odd mixture of butt-kicking feminist and Holly Golightly – streetwise, ambitious and determined, but also caring and not without her vulnerable side (with the faintest suggestion of a slightly kinky sexual availability too). I have to say the character didn’t really seem plausible to me, despite Cooke’s best efforts – and even if she had been, I would probably have found it difficult to warm to someone whose repertoire includes dealing in drugs, swindling her so-called friends and the odd cold-blooded murder.

Then again, none of the film really feels like it has any connection to the real world, even the real world we were expecting at the start of the year. It’s not the worst film of its genre that I’ve ever seen, but it has nothing like the genuine warmth and texture and really good jokes of a film like The Guard (another black comedy thriller set on the island of Ireland). Olivia Cooke, possibly not for the first time, passes the movie star test by being very watchable in a not very good movie, but this is still really a waste of potential in most ways that count.

 

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A few weeks in, and something of the shape of the revised cinema ecology is becoming clear: in the near-total absence of major releases, mid- and low-budget movies are having something of a moment in the sun, so things aren’t as bad as they could have been, always assuming you like modest genre movies and slightly quirkier films. On the other hand, the reduced number of films out there means that the trailers have become somewhat more heterogenous than has traditionally been the case: a year ago, if I’d seen three trailers for horror movies, one for a quality weepy, and one for a big-budget literary mystery, all in front of the same film, I would have been left scratching my head.

As it turns out, none of these were in the same genre as the film I’d turned up to see, for it seems that not even the biggest global crisis in half a century can impact on the metronomic regularity with which the world is treated to Liam Neeson-starring thrillers. Honest Thief has been produced, written and directed by one Mark Williams, a curiously obscure (or possibly reclusive) individual whose most surprising credit, to me at least, is as a producer on the hospital soap opera Casualty. From a car park in Bristol to the set of a bus pass badass movie in only fifteen years: career trajectories can be funny old things sometimes.

Generic movie, generic poster…

The movie doesn’t hang about and gets under way with pleasing economy, as it is very quickly established that Liam Neeson is playing a feller called Tom, who is a (naturally) highly proficient ex-marine explosives expert who has turned his hand to bank robbery with considerable success. The slickness and professionalism of his activities has led the media to dub him ‘the In-and-Out Bandit’; normally I would indulge in some low humour about this rather dubious nickname, but the film appeared to anticipate this and has a running gag with Neeson grumbling about the dodgy handle he’s been saddled with.

Next up we have Neeson enjoying a cute-meet with self-storage facility manager Annie, played by Kate Walsh: cue a quick ‘One Year Later’ caption and the happy couple are considering buying a house together (viewing properties is very easy for them, as Neeson just breaks in and has a look around without needing to check with the estate agent). However, being the decent, upstanding crook that he is, Neeson’s conscience just won’t let him settle down and enjoy his new life until he’s squared things with the authorities.

So he rings up senior FBI agent Robert Patrick (you know, off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single occasion where Robert Patrick doesn’t play either a cop, a fake cop or an FBI agent, other than Die Hard 2) and tries to make a deal: he’s prepared to give all the money back and say he’s sorry, on condition he only goes to prison for a little while and can still be visited by his lady friend (as he calls her, rather quaintly).  Patrick assumes he’s a crank and palms the job off onto junior agents played by Jai Courtney and Anthony Ramos, who are quite startled when Neeson turns out to be on the level and reveals to them where he has hidden all the money.

However, here things take a bit of a turn, as Courtney decides he quite likes the idea of keeping the cash and splitting it with Ramos, and talks his partner into going along with this plan. But what’s to be done about Neeson in this scenario? Well, one thing leads to another and sure enough Neeson soon finds himself the target of a full-scale manhunt by the authorities, wanted for a murder the corrupt agents have framed him for…

This almost inevitably leads to the moment where a very cross Neeson gets on the phone to his persecutors and essentially growls ‘I’m coming for you!’ It’s almost a convention of the Liam Neeson action movie that this happens, and it features prominently in the trailer. This may have been a mistake, as – let’s face it – the reputation of the Liam Neeson-starring action movie is not exactly stellar; as noted, these things seem to roll off a production line, with mostly only cosmetic differences between one and the next.

Honest Thief, however, is a slight cut above. This is still the kind of movie where one character can wrestle another out of a second-floor window and they both walk away with only minor cuts and bruising, or the duo can repeatedly empty their guns at each other from a distance of about twelve feet and only inflict a minor flesh wound, but it’s neatly plotted for the most part, with much more of an emphasis on characterisation than violence.

All right, there is a bit of an issue which the film has to negotiate in order to function – why does a moral, upstanding man of integrity like Liam Neeson rob banks in the first place? And why is he so determined to give the money back all of a sudden? Well, they kind of fudge the first point: it’s a combination of doing it for the fun of it, and a vague sense of moral outrage produced by corruption in big business (or something). As far as giving the money back – well, there’s a lot of waffle about Neeson not wanting to have to keep secrets from Walsh, and so on, but basically it’s because the film is predicated on his being determined to do so.

Once you accept these premises, the film is an entertaining and satisfying thriller, with enough quirky touches to lift it up a notch or two. Neeson’s basically playing the same character as always, but he does it pretty well, and there’s a very good performance by Jai Courtney, who initially seems like just a bit of a loose cannon before slowly being revealed to be a borderline psychopath.

Let’s keep things in perspective: while this is a superior Liam Neeson action movie, it’s still a Liam Neeson action movie, not really a film of substance, depth, or scope (there are only about seven speaking parts in the whole thing). However, in a world where more substantial movies have temporarily disappeared, it’s a reasonably safe bet for an undemanding couple of hours of entertainment.

 

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Once more unto the strange demi-monde which constitutes a trip to the cinema these days. The multiplex appear to be doing its best to battle on, showing whatever new films are being released, big-screen favourites (I suspect attendance for the inexplicably popular diversity barn-dance The Greatest Showman may be hit by the fact it gets its UK terrestrial TV premiere this week), and even the odd special event (they’re opening one evening especially to show a new documentary about Gretel Thunderbird). But the signs that something is not quite right are unmissable – normally you hardly ever get out-of-genre trailers ahead of a new film, but there was a real mixed bag this time, including the trailer for Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth’s new weepie twice (once was enough to do the job).

Anyway, this week’s Medal of Valour goes to the makers and releasers of Rose Glass’ Saint Maud – although, if we’re going to be strict about this, the film actually came out a couple of weeks ago, before the local cinemas went back into siege conditions. This is, one suspects, quite a low-budget movie (not that it comes across that way), and so the exposure of the backers should be limited: with a possible American release still to come, one hopes they do okay with it.

Morfydd Clark plays Maud, a young woman working as a nurse in a grim-looking seaside town in England. Before the film even gets going we are treated to a rather ominous tableau involving a corpse, somewhere vaguely medical, and a cockroach, and of course the question is whether this is backstory or a promise of things to come. It is some time before we find out. In the meantime, Maud (who is clearly very devout and much given to prayer) starts her new posting as a palliative carer for a former dancer named Amanda (Jennifer Ehle). Amanda is very ill – ‘you’ll be seeing her soon, I think,’ Maud says to God – and perhaps finding it hard to come to terms with her condition. She is cynical and jaded.

This is not, you would think, a recipe for happy relations with a committed Christian like Maud, but Amanda seems to be fascinated by Maud’s faith and even begins to show signs of having a bit of a spiritual awakening herself. However, as all this is going on, we are learning more about Maud herself: she is prone to strange, rapturous seizures, for one thing. And also, more ominously, it becomes clear that Maud is not her real name, and there is an incident in her past which led to her leaving a job at the hospital.

But all this seems to be behind her now, as she seems to be building such a good relationship with Amanda. Until, that is, her attempts to lead Amanda into a more virtuous way of living, controlling who she sees and what she does, cross the accepted patient-carer boundaries, with eventually regrettable consequences for both of them…

Jennifer Ehle, as you might expect, is very good as Amanda, but this is one of those films which stands or falls by the quality of the lead performance – and it must be said that Morfydd Clark is quite extraordinary here. This is the kind of acting that wins awards when it doesn’t appear in a horror movie, as Clark creates a wholly rounded, completely convincing, deeply alarming characterisation in the course of the movie. You get a complete sense of this person’s personality and how it has been shaped by events in the course of what’s quite a short film (less than an hour and a half); even from the start, when Maud might just seem to be another mousy, slightly prim and repressed young woman, there is a sense that there is something just slightly off about her. She is just a bit too intense and repressed. Naturally, we get to see other sides of her character as her resolution wavers in the course of the film: which just reminded me of something I was once told – it’s all very well letting yourself go once in a while, as long as you can get yourself back again.

But events have left Maud isolated and lonely, with only her faith for consolation and purpose. I can imagine that this is the kind of film that faith groups are likely to complain about, as it isn’t the most flattering depiction of religious belief – in fact, as the film goes on it gives, I imagine, a pretty good impression of what it’s like to be trapped in the mind of someone in the process of going completely insane. It’s an outstanding character study, but throughout the film you’re seeing the world through the eyes of someone profoundly disturbed, and this is quite as uncomfortable as it sounds.

This is a film which is strong on atmosphere – brooding and oppressive, as you might have guessed – with lots of rumbling cello on the soundtrack (Adam Janota Bzowski did the music). It’s such a long, slow burn that for a while I wondered if this was going to turn out  be another of those post-horror movies we’ve been having recently. In the en d I would say not: the scares and the blood eventually arrive, to shocking effect. The film deploys its small number of digital effects cannily, to produce a genuinely otherworldly effect when they appear. There’s one particular shot at the end of the film which is so unexpected as to be almost breathtaking, almost leading the viewer to reconsider all they’ve seen – but the volta to this, when it comes, hits like a hammer.

Saint Maud isn’t a popcorn horror movie by any stretch of the imagination, but something much darker and more intense, and I can imagine some people will wonder how I can find this kind of film actually enjoyable – it’s the kind of film you emerge from shaken and rattled and glad to get back into the light. The answer is simple that’s it’s supremely well-made, especially considering this is Rose Glass’ first film as writer and director, and there’s always pleasure to be gained from craft and artistry. It’s the most impressive debut I can remember seeing in a long time, and one that makes her someone to watch out for (at least if cinema survives the current crisis). This is one hell of a movie.

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I don’t often get feelings of deja vu at the cinema, but I did the other day: there was an odd sense of detachment from reality, and not in a good way, rather akin to the atmosphere at the showing of Bloodshot (the last film I saw in March before lockdown kicked in). Not to put too fine a point on it, the various short films with messages like WELCOME BACK! and LET THE LIGHT OF CINEMA SHINE AGAIN! felt a bit disingenous given that Cineworld and Picturehouse are – as previously discussed here – closing their doors again as of Friday, and the local Odeon is going down to weekend openings only.

Given that the postponement of No Time to Die is at least partly responsible for this, it’s rather ironic that this was pretty much the only film for adults being trailed on the trip in question – trailers are intended to provoke a range of emotions, but I doubt irritation is quite what Eon had in mind (the same run of trailers also included one for Peter Rabbit 2, so my negative psychic energy gauge was pretty much topped up to the brim by the time the actual film arrived).

In the circumstances I suppose one should feel grateful to anyone who’s taken a chance on releasing a mainstream movie at all, as they’re in the minority – both the Odeon and the Phoenix in Oxford have been showing Akira every night this week, just to fill their screens, but much as I admire Katsushiro Otomo’s epochal cyberpunk vision, I doubt there’s the audience there to justify this. In line for a medal along with the makers of Tenet, The New Mutants, and a handful of others are the people behind Bill & Ted Face The Music, a film which has apparently been ten years in the making (now that’s just plain bad luck).

Was there a burning appetite  for a third instalment in this particular series? I’m not sure, but post the John Wick movies, Keanu Reeves is apparently ‘hot’ again, which I suppose amounts to the same thing. Dean Parisot directs this time around. The movie opens with the revelation that, nearly thirty years on, Bill and Ted have yet to write the song which unites the world and paves the way for utopia, with the result that reality itself is starting to unravel: figures such as Babe Ruth, George Washington and Jesus are popping out of existence and reappearing in the wrong places. This struck me as quite a hefty piece of exposition to casually dump on the audience as part of an opening montage, but the film is nothing if not breezy and fast-moving.

Anyway, we find Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Reeves) reduced to playing at a family wedding (a complicated dynastic history means that in the course of the ceremony the groom becomes his own stepfather-in-law, or something). They go on to unveil their latest effort at musical immortality, a prog-rock horror concerning the meaning of meaning which involves Winter throat-singing and Reeves playing the theremin, the trumpet and the bagpipes in quick succession (and, frankly, if the idea of this doesn’t at least make you chuckle, this probably isn’t the movie for you).

Pretty much their only supporters are their daughters, Billie (Samara Weaving) and Theadora (Bridgette Lundy-Paine): their wives (who, the film takes pains to remind us, are former princesses from medieval England) are doing their best to be supportive, but finding this hard, and Ted’s father still refuses to believe any of their stories about travelling in time or visiting the afterlife. Ted has even begun to entertain thoughts of packing the music in, monumental destiny or not.

Still, there is that pesky matter of the impending implosion of the universe to consider, and the duo find themselves summoned to the future to explain their lack of progress on the world-unifying-song-writing front. The song must be written, toot sweet, or an alternative prophecy will be entertained – one where the universe is saved not by Bill and Ted’s music, but their deaths…

What ensues is pretty much of a piece with the two original movies (which I must confess to not having watched in absolutely ages): it’s either deceptively clever or deceptively silly, depending on where you stand, but all put across with great energy and commitment by the players. Reeves and Winter spend most of the film travelling into the future trying to steal a copy of the song from themselves, which basically produces a series of sketches where they appear in increasingly preposterous prosthetic make-up. The script is surprisingly generous in the amount of time it gives to the daughters, who essentially reprise the plots of the first two movies as they assemble the greatest band in history to back their fathers up – this includes bass-player Death (William Sadler), despite an awkward split (musical differences) needing to be resolved.

All of this is telegraphing a climactic twist which is obvious virtually from the start, as we are now living in a cultural climate where it seems deeply problematic to suggest that two white dudes can actually achieve anything positive and noteworthy. But so it goes, and Bill & Ted Face The Music is mostly very engaging stuff, hard to dislike, and often very funny. There is something undeniably touching about seeing Reeves ad Winter back together, and there’s no sense of Reeves leveraging his superstar status (which is not really surprising, given the plethora of stories about what a lovely human being he is) – this is the same double-act from thirty years ago.

In the end you can’t help feeling a bit sorry for a film which is so laid-back and cheerful making its debut in such awkward times: in any previous year, the upbeat final message about bringing people together through music would be an unexceptional one, but at the moment the world feels deeply and (in some ways) necessarily divided on all kinds of levels. A lot of classic science fiction films of all kinds share an essential kind of naivety – it’s perhaps one of the charms of the genre – so you can’t really criticise Bill & Ted Face the Music on these grounds. One could wish the film’s optimism were a bit less at odds with reality right now, though.

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Lots of positive press in the media this week about Sir David Attenborough’s latest film, which – obviously – is the perfect way of starting a review of something completely different. Well, mostly different. The wildlife documentary genre has diversified a bit in recent years.

One of the most vivid TV memories of my youth was watching Attenborough’s Life on Earth in 1979, the show which really began his ascension to the position of global icon which he now occupies. This was not inevitable, however: the American networks which helped to fund that first series were a bit uneasy about the fact it was fronted by a then-obscure British TV executive and suggested that, for the US transmission, Attenborough’s on-screen appearances be cut back to an absolute minimum and his inimitable voice-over be replaced by those of someone more familiar to the good people of Boise, Idaho – Robert Redford, maybe? Attenborough checked the contract and refused. Nevertheless, the influence of the US backers on the blockbuster series persists, and has – if you ask me – become rather more pernicious.

The first few big Attenborough series had all the big images and breathtaking photography you would expect – but coupled to this you actually learned something, about ecology, animal behaviour, deep time and how evolution functions. The world being as it is, you won’t hear much talk about evolution in the new, blockbuster shows. Lots of beautiful images, stirring music, and powerful narratives about animal lives – but actual science? Not so much of that. The emotional response has supplanted the intellectual.

It’s a trend fully on display in Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed’s documentary My Octopus Teacher, available on that big old market-leader streaming site. Now, you might just possibly be drawn in to watching this film by the thought that it is about some wealthy eccentric who hires another person to teach his collection of cephalopods something. (Is this the time or place to get into that knotty ‘what is the correct plural for octopus?’ question? Apparently, it’s octopuses, but I’m not expecting it to come up that much.) There’s actually some potential there – another good title gone to waste. Or it could be about someone who is educated by an octopus, which likewise invites the potential viewer to engage in some productive speculation.

(Foster is the one at the bottom.)

Well, it turns out to be the latter, sort of, but I do suspect most people will conclude the title of the film is a bit of a chiz. It concerns the activities of one Craig Foster (apparently some sort of documentary film-maker, m’lud, and also the producer of this film), who seems like an intelligent and intense fellow, though perhaps not a man one would wish to be trapped in a lift with. The story as the film tells it – and the only voice you will hear throughout the film is Foster’s – is that Foster was having some kind of existential crisis, many years ago, when he decided to start swimming every day in a kelp forest off the coast of South Africa. It was during his daily briny sojourn that he first made the acquaintance of, um, a little octopus. (At the time of writing this film’s Wikipedia page lists the cast as ‘Craig Foster’ and ‘Little Octopus’.)

Foster says he was gripped by a sudden idea: what if he spent time every day swimming with Little Octopus and really got to know her and the kelp forest? Which is what he obviously did, as it’s the subject of the film. The documentary goes on to recount the growing bond between Foster and Little Octopus, their increasing fascination with each other, Foster’s grief and trauma when Little Octopus is partially-eaten by a pyjama shark (not as cute as it sounds), his joy at her recovery, and his gradual acceptance that the two of them are just not destined to be together. (I think there’s scope here for a companion piece – maybe The Man with the Octopus Teacher’s Wife – in which Mrs Foster’s feelings about her husband’s activities are made clear.) 

At least, that’s what we’re told. Recently, though, the issue of just how extensively the narrative of this sort of documentary film has been massaged has become a live one, and it seems to me that there’s something fishy about this octopus. The whole thing is framed as Foster looking back on his time with Little Octopus and her impact on his life – and vice versa, I suppose – and yet it is accompanied by suspiciously high-quality footage of the events he’s talking about. Was he filming it all at the time? If so, who’s doing all the second-unit stuff showing him swimming around? Are we actually seeing reconstructions of what happened, using a different octopus? If so, does the octopus know it’s just participating in a reconstruction? It seems unlikely.

Frankly, it all comes across as a bit one-sided, too, and would be greatly improved by some input from Little Octopus herself, giving her side of the story. ‘I was just overwhelmed by my feelings for her,’ confesses Foster at one point. Was this a reciprocal situation, or was he just the latest in a long line of men to have their heads turned by a much younger and impressively flexible female? Sadly the technology is not there yet for Little Octopus to make a proper contribution concerning how she felt about this whole situation.

(One of the odder things I’ve been involved in recently was a protracted and slightly combative discussion over the philosophical issues involved in translating communications between human beings and intelligent cephalopods – we weren’t even talking about that film in which Amy Adams teaches alien squid to speak English rather badly – particularly when it comes to proper nouns. But it has been that sort of year overall, I suppose.)

In short, I found the whole thing to be rather suspect simply on a conceptual level, but then it’s pretty clear that the film is not intended to be especially rigorous when it comes to objective fact. The nature of cephalopod cognition and the possible inner lives of octopuses is a fascinating topic, on which books have been written, but it’s one which is barely touched on here – although Foster does mention that one of the differences between Little Octopus and him is that her brain is largely distributed throughout her body – this film is only really educational in a ‘look at these wonders of nature!’ sort of way. The real focus of the thing is on Foster talking about Little Octopus in a brazenly anthropomorphic way, often accompanied by stirring violin or piano music. As previously mentioned, the whole film is intended to work on a sentimental rather than an intellectual level.

If you were to design a documentary intended to leave me cold, I think you would find it hard to do a better job than My Octopus Teacher – although I must confess to deriving a sort of pleasure from shouting at the screen, which I did on a regular basis throughout. The camerawork and images of the sea life in the kelp forest are, needless to say, very beautiful to look at – but most of the rest of it is borderline irritating. It might actually be a bit less annoying if they released an alternative version with all of Craig Foster’s pieces to camera edited out, along with his voice-over. It would be nice to look at and still emotionally fairly stirring, I expect, and the most egregiously questionable bits would be excised, so I think that might be a great improvement for everyone.

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Now here’s a funny thing: I’ve been reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories since I was eight. I’ve read the lot, watched nearly every TV adaptation in the last thirty-five years, seen most of the major film adaptations, even read quite a few pastiches, and – and if this isn’t a sign of the irretrievably lost, I don’t know what is – have even had a go at working out the chronology of the canon, and can explain fairly succinctly why all such attempts are doomed to inevitable failure. And yet I find myself strongly suspecting that I am not in the target audience for Netflix’s new slice of Holmesian schlock, Enola Holmes (directed by Harry Bradbeer).

What’s that then, you may be thinking, and what kind of a name is Enola, anyway? Well, fair point: ‘Let’s be blunt about this – you should not name your baby girl after the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb,’ advises one website dealing with infant nomenclature (the pushback from irate Enolas who are sick of this particular historical association dominates the comments section). Apparently the name dates back to the 1850s, at least, so it’s not totally implausible that it could have been given to the younger sister of the slightly better-known Holmes brothers, Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and Mycroft (Sam Claflin).

Enola Holmes herself is played by Millie Bobby Brown, who also produced it (you know you’re getting old when the film producers start looking younger, but then again Brown is only sixteen). With the Holmes patriarch having passed away, the youthful Enola is raised by her mother (Helena Bonham Carter, cast so absolutely to type it practically sets a new record), with a somewhat eccentric home-schooling curriculum. However, this bucolic idyll is dispelled when our heroine herself turns sixteen and her mum vanishes, almost without a trace.

This occasions the turning up of Enola’s brothers for the first time in over a decade – Sherlock is making a name for himself as a detective, while Mycroft is some sort of non-specific civil servant – and she is somewhat dismayed by their response, which is basically to pack her off to a grim, Gilead-like finishing-school run by Fiona Shaw. She demurs at this and heads for London, following a trail of clues left by Mrs Holmes using her first class scrabble and ju-jitsu skills. Is a mother and child reunion on the cards? Or will another, unconnected mystery end up occupying most of the movie’s running time? (Clue: it will.) This concerns a non-threatening young toff on the lam (Louis Partridge) and the future of British society.

This is the movie that managed to get Netflix sued by the Conan Doyle estate, on the grounds that it depicts Sherlock Holmes as having emotions (this is supposedly still covered by copyright). This surprises me not because of the possibly opportunistic nature of the litigation (the Conan Doyle heirs have form in this area, having previously taken a tilt at the 2015 film Mr Holmes), but because the emphasis given to particular aspects of the great detective’s character is really the least of the film’s offences when it comes to the canon of the stories. Speculation as to the existence of a third Holmes sibling has been going on for years and has taken many forms, so the existence of the film isn’t a problem per se – but the moment the film begins to present Mycroft Holmes as a bitter, reactionary misanthrope, jealous of the greater intellectual gifts of his younger siblings, you know that whoever is responsible (the book was by Nancy Springer, adapted by Jack Thorne) either doesn’t know the Conan Doyle stories or just doesn’t care about them.

Mycroft’s basically there to represent The Man in a film which is only nominally a mystery and much more about sending the right kind of messages about self-realisation and emancipation, leavened somewhat by a very chaste YA-friendly sort-of romance for Brown. It doesn’t bear much resemblance to the Conan Doyle stories, but then neither does it seem to have much to do with the actual reality of life in Victorian London, or anything else connected to historical fact: the film is much more about now, something reflected in a jaunty and slightly frantic visual and directorial style – at times Enola Holmes seems more interested in breaking the fourth wall and talking to the viewer than in interacting with the other characters in the story. No doubt this is where the kids are at.

To be fair, Brown does have a certain winsome presence and carries the film about as well as one could reasonably expect in the circumstances. Most of the other performances are competent as well. I imagine most eyes will inevitably turn to Henry Cavill, who is after all joining a long and very distinguished list of actors to have played the most-filmed human fictional character. I do find Cavill to be an agreeable presence who can be fairly effective in the right part, but on the other hand he is best known for playing another crime-fighter of a slightly different ilk. Now, there’s no rule saying that the same person can’t play both Sherlock Holmes and Superman, but I think it’s a safe bet that they’re going to be somewhat miscast in one of those roles. Cavill is decent if a bit bland as Holmes, but this is down to the script as much as the actor: he’s there as a comforting supporting character, not as someone who drives the plot in any meaningful sense. Does that really sound like Sherlock Holmes to you? Nevertheless, this is the part Cavill has been engaged for.

The film is made to the usual standards of competency, with the English countryside nicely presented and an impressive CGI London, but then that’s really nothing special these days. There’s also some fairly nasty violence, which doesn’t feel like a particularly good fit for a film which seems to be aimed at a very young audience. I could be wrong about this, but the laboriousness with which the film bangs on at the same theme again and again suggests it doesn’t have high expectations with regard to its viewers’ mental development.

Watching Millie Bobby Brown chuck men about in the course of the plot inevitably put me in mind of the late Diana Rigg, whose performances have been one of the things keeping me sane recently. Rigg ended up as the kind of icon of female strength, intelligence and independence that I suspect the makers of this film would quite like Enola Holmes to be, and yet I don’t recall any of Rigg’s characters belabouring the audience on the topic: she just got on with being strong, intelligent and independent. This put the point across perfectly adequately and resulted, on the whole, in films and TV series which were much more entertaining and rather less wearisomely obvious than Enola Holmes usually is. This is rotten even as a piece of Sherlock-Holmes-at-one-remove, and fairly dull and obvious as a YA adventure film. It may not have been quite so ideologically correct, but in terms of simple entertainment value Barry Levinson’s Young Sherlock Holmes did this sort of thing much better.

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Just the other week I was observing with a degree of sadness that Joseph Gordon-Levitt seemed to have rather dropped off the radar in recent years: this was, of course, the cue for him to reappear in what I suppose must qualify as a fairly high-profile movie (it’s a streamer, but conventional releases still seem to be on pause while the accountants see how well Tenet and The New Mutants do in the new climate). It seems, by the way, that Gordon-Levitt took a couple of years off to concentrate on raising his family – which is highly laudable, of course, even if the fact he has this option just drives home how extravagant the salaries of Hollywood performers often are. There’s a trade-off, he suggests, saying that the professional options open to him have narrowed compared to what they were before his break.

I wonder if this could be construed as why an actor sometimes to be found in rather prestigious studio productions now finds himself in an original superhero movie made by Netflix? Perhaps I am letting my prejudices show, for I am still wary of anything which seems to undermine the theatrical experience in the way that Netflix’s business model does, while it’s hard to think of an own-brand superhero movie (by which I mean, not based on a pre-existing comic book character) with any real merit. (I suppose some people would argue for Darkman.)

The movie in question is Project Power, directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. The setting is the city of New Orleans, still depicting as struggling many years after the impact of Hurricane Katrina. But now the citizens of the Big Easy have something new making their lives more difficult: a designer drug is being sold on the streets. Known as ‘Power’, the one and only effect of it is to give the taker superpowers. There are some arbitrary genre movie rules attached to this, of course: the powers only last for exactly five minutes, and it’s not like you get a random new power every time – it’s more as if the drug activates whatever potential you have.

(Shame they can’t organise posters like this so everyone stands under their own name. Hey ho.)

So far, so preposterous but at the same time fairly generative as far as story ideas go – but, possibly to try and make it all sound a bit more credible, the writer (Mattson Tomlin) attempts to put some kind of quasi-scientific gloss on this by indicating the drug gives people powers derived from the natural abilities of various animals. Nothing too objectionable about this, I suppose, but the movie rather blows a hole in its own credibility by introducing a character whose power, when activated, is so terrifyingly destructive even he is frightened of it. And what animal has he apparently gained this from? A shrimp. You can’t beat a bit of bathos.

Anyway, the actual plot concerns a trio of characters: maverick cop Frank (Gordon-Levitt), who has taken to using Power in order to allow him to stand a chance against criminals who are using the drug; teenage drug-dealer and aspiring rapper Robin (Dominique Fishback), who is his supplier; and the Major (Jamie Foxx), an ex-military drifter who has blown into town and is determined to find the source of the drug for reasons of his own. Can they sort out their various differences and work together to get the drug off the streets?

It’s almost inherent in the superhero genre that the premise of a story is going to be fairly unlikely, and once you factor this in the premise of Project Power does not look entirely un-promising. There is the potential here for all the requisite action and crash-bang-wallopery, but in a slightly more gritty context than usual – it’s clear from the script that the writer intended to make points about the various injustices of US society and engage in other bits of social commentary too.

Well, I suppose in the end the movie’s higher aspirations are all still present, but you have to look quite hard for them as they sort of vanish into the background. I do wonder if I am unfairly prejudiced against some of these streaming movies – it’s possible that if I’d seen a movie like Project Power on the big screen, I might have been more impressed by the fact it is trying to be a bit more intelligent and thoughtful and engage with social issues as well as being a special-effects action movie. The film’s advantage in that setting would have been the faculty-numbing effect of a giant screen and huge sound system (this is all part and parcel of the theatrical experience I mentioned earlier). Watching it on a small-ish TV or laptop, it just doesn’t have the effect the makers are presumably hoping for.

In the end you are left with a movie built around lavish special effects action sequences, and while they look pretty good they are an essentially superficial pleasure. The very nature of these set-pieces and the way they are presented is really at odds with all the other things the script is trying to do: if you’re trying to make a film which has serious points about America’s drugs problem and its underprivileged citizens, you surely want to make something which is fairly gritty and naturalistic, not just another slick and glossy Marvel-style entertainment. That really would have been something new and interesting in this genre. As it is, the film’s noble intentions just seem like a fig-leaf to justify CGI overload and a lurid, colour-drenched visual style.

I could gripe about a few other things – the film can’t seem to resist beating the viewer over the head with pop-culture references, for example – but that is its main problem. That said, as this kind of film goes, I’ve seen much worse, and it has some visually impressive fights and chases (I should mention there are some rather grisly moments along the way). The presence of charismatic leads like Foxx and Gordon-Levitt is also, obviously, a plus, while everyone seems to agree that this film features a potentially career-launching turn from Dominique Fishback – I can’t argue with this, though I wonder if that career will be as an actress or a rapper (let’s face it, in today’s media landscape, probably both). In the end, though, this feels like another piece of slickly assembled and packaged Netflix product rather than anything genuinely interesting or exciting.

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A cynical person, and perhaps even a not-especially-cynical person, could be forgiven for their lack of surprise that one of the first studio movies released now cinemas are reopening is a Marvel superhero film, as it sometimes feels like one of them comes out every few weeks anyway. In the case of Josh Boone’s The New Mutants, however, this cynicism would likely be misplaced. This isn’t Marvel Studios reclaiming their position of box-office supremacy with a confident resumption of business-as-usual. This is one of Marvel’s former licensees basically dumping a film which no-one seems to have a great deal of confidence in.

Initially it’s not obvious why this should be the case. It opens with Native American teenager Dani (Blu Hunt) fleeing a mysterious disaster engulfing her home and killing her family and friends. She finds herself in a remote and slightly decrepit facility, a cross between a reform school and a mental hospital, apparently run by the enigmatic Dr Reyes (Alice Braga). Reyes wastes no time in expositing at her: this is a place where young mutants who are just manifesting their powers are brought, for treatment and evaluation, until they are no longer a risk to themselves or others – at this point they move elsewhere, to another site run by Reyes’ mysterious superior. Also currently banged up in this fairly unpleasant spot are Rahne (Maisie Williams doing a hoots-mon accent), who can turn into a wolf, Roberto (Henry Zaga), whose main power seems to be setting fire to himself, Sam (Charlie Heaton), who can blast himself through the air, and Ilyana (Anya Taylor-Joy doing a moose-and-squirrel accent), whose mutant power is that she has magic powers (er, what…?). There is much sparring and bonding between the quintet, but strange events keep happening: some ominous force is at work in their midst, and none of them may get out of the facility alive..

How’s this for a tale of woe? The New Mutants was filmed in 2017, initially for a release in April 2018. As this would have clashed with Deadpool 2, however, it got pushed back to February 2019. And then August 2019. And then Fox, the producers of the film, were bought by Disney, owners of Marvel Studios, which paradoxically made everything even more complicated: Disney apparently didn’t like it, cancelled the extensive reshoots which had been planned, but still considered retooling it as the film which would introduce mutants and the core X-Men concepts into their own shared meta-franchise. In the end they didn’t bother, though. (The whole thing is so mangled that Stan Lee is credited as an executive producer, despite the marque at the front being that of 20th Century Studios, an entity which didn’t even exist until over a year after his death.)

As a result it’s quite hard to assess The New Mutants fairly, as apparently it didn’t even get the usual pick-up reshoots most movies now get, let alone the major surgery it was in line for at one point. This is almost a first draft or rough-cut of what the finished product should have been, put out into cinemas as a contractual obligation to amortise at least part of the expense of making the thing.

Let’s be clear: this is, on some level, an X-Men film, although links to that franchise have been pared back to pretty much the minimum possible. It’s based on a comic spun-off from the core X-Men title in its imperial 80s phase, which blatantly took the concept back to basics – a soap-opera about a group of teenagers with uncanny powers (the New Mutants title itself has the ring of a placeholder about it). Perhaps quite wisely, the film version feels the need to do something a bit different, and the director and the publicity material are very open about what: this is supposedly a horror film set in the X-Men universe.

Except it isn’t, really – that may have been the director’s original vision, but this isn’t really a horror film. Or at least it isn’t a successful one, by which I mean it isn’t actually scary or creepy or unsettling. Your youth-wing X-Men for the proceedings are Psyche, Wolfsbane, Magik, Cannonball and Sunspot (although Sunspot’s powers seem to be different from the comics), and if those names mean nothing to you then you may well struggle to get especially invested in these characters, as they are quite drably presented. If you do know the characters, on the other hand… well, the script has to do some awkward jigging about, as Dani is taken to a hospital for mutants despite it not being at all clear what her mutant power is. The revelation of what it is she can do is therefore obviously of great significance to the plot… which means that if you’ve read the comic and already know, you’re way ahead of the characters in the movie and the big twist will be a damp squib for you.

Quite apart from making an unscary horror movie, Boone also seems to be trying to do a gritty psychological drama about troubled teens – something quite downbeat and introspective. Here again the nature of the form seems to be fighting him: you expect a big villain, you expect major set pieces. A movie with only six characters almost entirely set in a single location is… well, going against expectations is one way of putting it. But it still has all the slickness and superficiality of a studio movie aimed at a youth audience: Boone has said he felt creatively neutered while making the film, and this does have the feel of a project where key people involved in production had very different ideas about what the end product should be. It ends up feeling inert: the narrative moves in fits and starts, rather than organically developing.

In the end there are some half-decent performances (Taylor-Joy in particular is working hard to make the best of some fairly ripe material), and the climax, in which the characters finally come together to do battle with a common enemy, is effective on a purely functional level. But this is the point at which it feels least like a horror film and most like another slightly anonymous CGI-slathered superhero movie.

Apparently there were plans for a trilogy, with each film mimicking the style of a different horror subgenre; possibly even appearances from some of the main X-Men characters. But none of that seems likely to happen now, and we are left with a film which doesn’t seem to have had a fair crack of the whip on any level. There seems to have been a concerted effort to keep the director from bringing his vision to the screen from the producers, the initial studio, and now the new owners of the film – although that isn’t to suggest an X-Men horror film is a particularly good idea anyway.

Twenty years is, as they say, a good innings, for a movie franchise at least: thirteen movies in twenty years, many of them decent or better, is an even more impressive achievement. I think The New Mutants isn’t quite as bad as last year’s X-Men: Dark Phoenix, though it’s a tough call (someone at the end of Dark Phoenix shouted ‘That was so bad!’ while the audible cry at the end of this film was ‘Awful! Awful!’) – but either way, this is a rather dismaying end for what was once a genuinely exciting series of movies. Of course, this was never the plan, but it is the reality we’re stuck with. The delay in the release date may have done The New Mutants one favour, in that it does feel very timely – overtaken and undermined by unexpected events far beyond its makers’ control, it does feel so 2020.

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‘Cinema is Back!’ proclaimed the advertising at the multiplex, finally open once again. If it’s true, then it certainly feels like we owe this to one man: Christopher Nolan, now more than ever elevated to the status of a heroic figure – the hero we need right now, and perhaps better than we deserve. With Marvel, Disney, and the Bond franchise all running for cover, it is Nolan who has stepped up and taken the hit by insisting on a theatrical release for his new movie, the first major release since March. Is this the kick that will awaken cinema? Too early to say. What’s certain is that the circumstances of Tenet‘s release would normally threaten to overshadow the substance of the movie, were it not so… well, extraordinary is the only word that springs to mind.

John David Washington is commandingly cool as the protagonist, who is known as the Protagonist (a slightly smug piece of knowingness, but much of a piece with the rest of the movie). Initially an operative with the CIA, when a mission goes wrong he finds himself initiated into an even more shadowy organisation with grand, existential concerns. He is sent off to meet Clemence Poesy, playing a sort of Basiletta Exposition character, who explains (if that’s not too strong a word for it) that weapons and other items with negative entropy have begun to appear with increasing and worrying frequency. The Protagonist is quite understandably slightly baffled by this, but what it boils down to is objects travelling backwards through time, their causality inverted. Bullets obligingly jump out of the target into the Protagonist’s gun when he is given the chance to try out some inverted-entropy gear for himself.

It seems that the forces in the future have declared war on the past and are using advanced technology to reverse the specific entropy of objects and project them backwards this way. The chief representative of these future forces is an arms dealer named Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh, giving us his Bond villain), whom the Protagonist must get close to – which requires, first of all, for him to get close to Sator’s wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki)…

Well, the first thing to say is that Nolan has either missed a trick or is being a bit perverse by not calling the new movie Inversion: it would suit the story perfectly and mean that those of us who keep our DVDs in alphabetical order could have a whole batch of Nolan movies all together. The second thing is to comment on the way that a lot of the publicity material is stressing the fact that Tenet is essentially a spy thriller, full of people in sharp suits effecting unusual entries into secure facilities, chasing each other around in cars, and swanking about on yachts in photogenic locales. All this is, of course, strictly speaking true – although suggestions that this is essentially Nolan auditioning for the job of Bond director seem to me to misjudge the power dynamic involved – and it does keep the form and structures of a spy movie pretty much intact, and indeed handles them in a way which is almost formal and stylised – the Protagonist and his chief sidekick Neil (Robert Pattinson) aren’t so much fully-realised characters as charismatic collections of plot functions, and there is something stark and austere about the way the film proceeds from one grandiose set piece to the next, with a minimum of exposition.

What all of this overlooks, of course, is all the other stuff which the publicity people have decided not to make a big deal of in the trailer and so on, possibly to retain a sense of surprise, but more likely because they just couldn’t make sense of it. Nolan-watchers are used to the director’s penchant for films with bold and ambitious narrative conceits and transitions; there are plenty of those here, but what is a little unusual is that for once his sources are showing: what Nolan has basically done here is hit upon the slightly insane scheme of taking Mission Impossible or a Bond film and mashing it up with Primer (Shane Carruth’s baffling 2004 time-travel film): the closest equivalent I can think of would be Looper (on which Carruth apparently consulted).

Nevertheless, he makes it work, although the result is what initially feels like a ferociously convoluted and challenging narrative: no-one gives such good boggle in such generous helpings as Nolan. Characters proceed through events in the usual way, then have their entropy inverted and experience them again, in reverse: in a sense the film is largely building up to the moment when the Protagonist steps out into a world which, for him and the audience, is moving backwards, and the genuinely disconcerting sense of this is very well achieved. The narrative bends back on itself as slightly mystifying events from early in the film recur in reverse, from the point of view of inverted characters: the whole structure of the film is to some extent palindromic.

Clemence Poesy gets in early with some dialogue about how it’s more about how things intuitively feel than the hard logic of what’s happening, which is sensible: negative-entropy bullets leave holes in a wall before (or until) they’re fired, which seems reasonable until you consider that someone must therefore have built that wall with bullet-holes in it, mustn’t they? Trying to keep track of this sort of thing while you’re actually watching the film is impossible; I suspect it certainly passes the Primer test in terms of demanding a second or third viewing in order for any normal person to understand all the intricacies of the plot. Perhaps some of the storytelling is not quite as clear or clean or user-friendly as it might be – but you still can’t help but be astonished at Nolan’s ambition and cleverness in even conceiving of a narrative like this one, regardless of any slips in its execution.

Nevertheless, this is an almost entirely left-brained film (a fairly common and to some extent justified criticism of Christopher Nolan’s movies): technically brilliant, but also lacking in some of the depth and heart of his very best work. The emotional element of the film, such as it is, mostly comes from Debicki’s character, trapped in an abusive relationship for the sake of her son: it just about fills the hole which has been left for it, but still feels a bit perfunctory. The core of the film is made up of its ideas about causality and our perception of time, and there isn’t really any space here for a more human metaphor, as there was in the dream-scapes of Inception.

I would not be surprised if Tenet turns out to be the year’s most complex narrative, and also its most impressive action movie – we knew 2020 was turning out weird, and here is the confirmation of that. It’s a bit too spare and formal and cold, consumed by its own narrative folds and tricks, to really qualify as Nolan’s best work, but it still delivers everything you expect from a film by this director: a remarkable experience, and a compelling reason to go back to the cinema.

.semordnilap fo raef lanoitarri nA*

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Anyone taking an interest in the future health of British cinemagoing may be pleased to hear that attendance at the film I ventured out to see this week was double that of the week before: which is to say, there were two of us here. At least I think there were only two: the other person was clearly deeply unsettled by the fact that my allocated seat was potentially within viral-transmission distance of theirs, and withdrew to the darkest corner of the theatre. As I say, I think that’s what happened. Word has reached me that the big mainstream cinemas will be reopening in Oxford in a couple of weeks too (it seems like a line in the sand has been drawn to protect the cinematic release of Tenet), so we shall see how things pan out then.

For now, though, it’s still mostly art-house movies, a few old favourites (no sign of our own dear Queen’s supposedly favourite film, ah-ahh, though apparently that is showing in some places too) and a few films which had their initial release clobbered by the lockdown which have crept back into cinemas for a day or two. I was here to see one of these: Philippa Lowthorpe’s Misbehaviour, which had been out for less than a week in March when all the cinemas closed. (No sign of Military Wives, which I saw the first thirty minutes of before the power failed in the cinema. Oh well: some things are clearly not meant to be, and it wasn’t as if I was enjoying it that much anyway.)

The movie opens with variations on the theme of a wall of men: hundreds of US soldiers serving in Vietnam (it is 1970) express their admiration for the reigning Miss World, who has been brought to see them by legendary comedian Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear), while aspiring university student Sally Alexander (Keira ‘Twice’ Knightley) faces a not entirely sympathetic interview panel. As exercises in setting a tone go, this is not the most understated in history, but the film does improve.

Sally ends up joining a Women’s Liberation group led by a – hippy anarchist? anarcho-syndicalist? drop-out? – named Jo (Jessie Buckley) – the far-left politics of the group are sort of danced around delicately, as they are supposed to be our heroes and thus not too off-putting for the traditionally more middle-of-the-road viewer of feelgood British based-on-fact social entertainment. The Libbers are not pleased that Miss World 1970 will be happening in London itself, and hit upon a scheme of doing more than just picketing the event – they will get inside and disrupt it.

This is one whole strand of the movie. Happening in tandem with it is the story of Miss World 1970, told from the inside: the event is the brainchild of Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans), a businessman and promoter still remembered on British screens courtesy of a perpetual credit on the grammatically-suspect celebrity hoofathon juggernaut Strictly Come Dancing (Morley created the original Come Dancing format). He and his wife Julia (Keeley Hawes) are contending with all manner of criticism, on grounds of both sexism and racism (the anti-apartheid movement have the contest in their sights).

The thing which elevates this strand of the movie far above the level of that with the protestors is that everyone involved seems to have twigged that all you need to do to make it absolutely clear what an indefensibly sexist anachronism Miss World was (and possibly remains: I wouldn’t know, as it’s kind of slipped off the cultural radar in the UK) is to just present the facts in a relatively straightforward way: I say ‘relatively straightforward’ because there is always the possibility of the scriptwriters slipping something in on the sly. But I am assuming it is a matter of historical record that, in order to fend off allegations of racism, the competition included both a Miss South Africa (paler complexion) and a Miss Africa South (not so much), that the contestants were measured and checked for padding ahead of the actual event, that the choreography of the television coverage was quite so reprehensible, and so on. It is ghastly, but you feel you’re being allowed to make your mind up about this for yourself, rather than having someone shout editorial commentary in your ear (which is the case with many of the scenes with the protestors and their encounters with the patriarchy).

The scenes with Sally Alexander, Jo Robinson and the others feel like they’re from a slightly different movie, in that they are clompingly nuance-free and rather simplistic: it’s clear there were political differences amongst the protestors, but these are essentially ignored in the name of an I-expect-it’s-supposed-to-be-life-affirming-and-empowering tale of sisters coming together to stick it to The Man. It feels like lowest-common-denominator film-making, and the strangest thing is that almost seems to be at odds with the other strand of the movie.

This is because, rather than operating in terms of duotone absolutes (beauty contests – BAD! lipstick – BAD! and so on), the behind-the-scenes part of the film does the contestants the great service of not treating them as victims or drones or idiots, but allows them the opportunity to make it clear why they have chosen to take part. Some of them are simply in it for the money, but for others the issues involved are more complex. Here the film starts to deal with the issue of race, and does so with more sophistication than I would have expected – although I detect a certain tentativeness on the part of the script to get into anything too complex and challenging. The best thing in the movie is Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s performance as Jennifer Hosten, the Grenadan entrant, as she provides the sort of depth the film is largely missing.

Of course, what you’re hoping for is the scene where Sally (who thinks the contest is an exploitative outrage and an affront to all women) and Jennifer (who sees it as a chance to raise the profile of and create opportunities for women who aren’t Caucasian) talk the issue over. For a long time it looks like this isn’t going to happen, but the scriptwriters eventually contrive one – however, they basically just skim over the surface of the topic in a couple of minutes, so you’re ultimately left feeling a bit unsatisfied.

It’s a shame, because the film could easily have lost a bunch of other scenes and used the time more effectively. There’s another subplot about Bob Hope flying in to appear at the contest, and to say this is unflattering is to put it rather mildly: he comes across as pompous and sleazy, much more so than Eric Morley himself. Why have they even bothered to make such a fuss about Hope’s fairly small part in this incident? Well, I guess that putting Greg Kinnear and (Academy Award Nominee) Lesley Manville in the publicity will help them flog a film about feminism in the States (Manville plays Hope’s long-suffering wife). Also, the one thing about this incident that everyone remembers is Bob Hope getting flour-bombed on-stage during the protest itself, so it would be odd not to include Hope in the movie in some way.

As you may recall, when the theatrical run of Misbehaviour was originally curtailed or delayed or suspended, I passed a quiet evening by watching Carry On Girls, another British movie inspired by the same events. That turned out to be a much grislier experience than I recalled, so the bar for Misbehaviour was lowered a bit. In the end – well, I turned up to the movie expecting to be preached at, and for some of the time I was. However, the behind-the-scenes bits of the film are interesting and occasionally thought-provoking, with an impressive performance from Mbathu-Raw and a fun comic turn from Rhys Ifans (in places it’s almost as if he’s trying to do Sid James, only in the wrong movie). There is enough of a glimmer of recognition that some of the issues involved here are not as simple as they first appear for the film to ultimately be fairly satisfying, even though it’s still very patchy.

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