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Posts Tagged ‘2022’

The British governor of India (Ray Stevenson, from Rome and the earlier Thor movies) is visiting some of his subjects in a forest village in Adilabad. His wife (Alison Doody, who was in an Indiana Jones film aeons ago) gets a henna tattoo from a charming young girl named Malli (Twinkle Sharma): the tattoo is such a success and the girl so charming that she decides to take her on as an indentured servant, regardless of the wishes of her family. When Malli’s mother is bold enough to complain about this, she is smashed over the head with a log (mainly because the governor believes the life of an Indian isn’t worth a  bullet) and left by the roadside as the British depart.

Elsewhere, a British outpost is under siege by a huge pro-independence mob and things look bleak for the forces of the Raj. However, no-one has reckoned on the intervention of young officer Raju (Ram Charan), who leaps over the stockade (going about thirty feet in the air from the look of things) and single-handedly drives the vast crowd back using just a bit of wood. To say he is as keen as mustard is an absurd understatement.

Word reaches the governor’s staff that the villagers from the start of the story are very unhappy about Malli being kidnapped and have called in their guardian, a fellow called Bheem (Junior NTR), to rescue her. The British laugh this off at first, but as we get to see Bheem wrestling tigers in his pants we know that he is not a man to dismiss lightly. Eventually the governor comes around and offers a special reward to anyone who locates and captures Bheem. Bounding forward to accept this assignment, inevitably, is Raju, moustache positively vibrating at the prospect.

So, Bheem is in Delhi, looking for Malli, and Raju is likewise in town, but looking for Bheem (both men have adopted false identities for their missions). It looks like a calamitous confrontation is on the cards, but a strange twist of fate (actually an exploding train) leads to the two of them teaming up to save another innocent child (this is achieved through an extraordinary stunt sequence not easily or quickly described). Naturally two such superhumanly virile and powerful figures instantly become close pals, neither suspecting whom the other really is. In the course of their hanging-out, Raju helps Bheem court a beautiful young Englishwoman (Olivia Morris), which results in a huge anti-colonial dance-off contest at the governor’s residence. (Really.) But as they both pursue their missions, the moment of conflict draws implacably closer. Will the bonds of friendship survive the revelation of the truth?

This is how S. S. Rajamouli’s RRR gets going. (The title refers to the coming together of three Telugu-language cinema superstars: Ram Charan, Rama Rao (one of Jr NTR’s various names) and Rajamouli himself, though there’s also a subtitle suggesting it stands for Rise, Roar, Revolt: all three certainly happen in copious amounts throughout the movie.) I’d never heard of this film until a few days ago, when it started popping up all over ‘best films of the 2022’ lists. You don’t usually expect to find Indian movies there, and the rapturous critical notices the film has received were startling. Happily, the market-leading streaming service has acquired it, possibly inspired by the fact the film did impressive business in the US when it landed a theatrical release there.

Often, when a film has such a buzz about it, it can’t help but be a bit disappointing when you actually sit down and watch it, and the very early signs for RRR were not promising – before the action gets going there’s a very lengthy disclaimer making it absolutely clear that the film is entirely a work of fiction and the film-makers haven’t intended to upset anyone, and another one stressing that all the tigers, wolves, leopards, deer, snakes, etc, featured in the film are CGI and not subject to mistreatment. Then all the co-production partners get mentioned (this is the most expensive Indian film ever made), by which time you’re beginning to wonder if the film’s epic run-time (it’s nearly as long as the Avatar sequel) isn’t mostly just disclaimers and credits. It is not. This is indeed a very long film, but once the story proper kicks off it moves like a greasy bullet and never drags at all, barrelling from one outrageous action sequence to the next (pausing occasionally for a big musical number).

It’s almost completely ridiculous and yet at the same time irresistible: when it comes to his final rescue attempt, Bheem eschews stealth in favour of crashing a truck through the residency gates, from which he leaps (possibly forty feet in the air this time), a burning torch in each hand, surrounded by an entire menagerie of wild animals he’s brought along as a distraction. It’s absurd, and the CGI is pretty obvious – but the sheer bravura and confidence of the film is captivating. You can see the influence of western blockbusters like the Marvel movies here, and the broad-strokes plotting and characterisations aren’t usually the stuff of critical darlings – but RRR has a kind of earnestness and sincerity to it that somehow nullifies many of the normal criteria for judging a film. It is just relentlessly good fun.

There’s a fair degree of violence here which stops this from being a treat for all the family, and there are occasionally allusions to Indian culture and history which will probably go over the head of a western audience. I can imagine that some people might take exception to the presentation of nearly all the British characters as diabolically racist and sadistic, but I suppose that’s why the disclaimers are there at the start – the film may feature historical characters (Raju and Bheem are both based on real people) but the film is entirely fictional. (Again, I wonder if we aren’t cutting RRR some slack we wouldn’t allow to a Hollywood production.)

Nevertheless, I can’t overstate what a good time I had watching RRR: for sheer entertainment value it easily outshines every English-language blockbuster I’ve seen this year, and it has a vibrancy and liveliness to it which you likewise seldom find in western releases. It may not be subtle or particularly sensible, but RRR is the kind of film which makes you fall in love with the cinema all over again.

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People who feel it important to ruminate on such matters have suggested that 2023 will be the year in which the so-called ‘streaming wars’ turn nasty – rather than a bounteous wonderland where something for all tastes will be available for a reasonable fee just on Netflix, the suggestion is that we will find ourselves on a battlefield where the big N, Mouseplus, Paramount, Apple, etc, dig in and increasingly pitch for big middle-of-the-road audiences. (It seems to be taken as fact that Netflix’s long-anticipated crackdown on password sharing will come into force some time early in the New Year.)

If things really are this tough, you can see why the news that Netflix apparently spent $469 million on the rights to two sequels to the 2019 comedy-thriller Knives Out variously baffled, startled, and annoyed many of those same ruminators. The first film was good, and (more importantly) very profitable, but even so – over $450 million? (Including $100 million each for writer-director Rian Johnson and star Daniel Craig.) It does seem like mystifying insanity, and very possibly a sign of a profoundly decadent culture.

Still, whatever you make of the background to these films – and it is of course customary to emit a small sigh about the fact that this means that two potentially big and entertaining movies will only be appearing in cinemas for a couple of days each – here is the first of them, Glass Onion. This is very much a further adventure of Craig’s character, detective Benoit Blanc, rather than a sequel to the first film – marketing suggesting the two films share a storyline has apparently mightily annoyed Rian Johnson, but there you go, even $100 million can’t buy you complete creative control these days.

There is a strong element of topical satire to this movie and I expect a lot of fun will be had trying to guess who all the characters are based on. Chief amongst these is filthy rich tech tycoon Miles Bron (Edward Norton), who at the start of the film summons various old cronies to his private Greek island by sending them a large and intricate puzzle box, which contains the invitation. Amongst the recipients are a politician (Kathryn Hahn), a scientist (Leslie Odom Jr), a former model (Kate Hudson), an internet celebrity and men’s rights activist (Dave Bautista), and Bron’s former partner (Janelle Monae) – whom he treated very roughly indeed in some of their former business dealings. Also receiving a box is Blanc himself, who is confined to his bathtub and on the verge of going stir-crazy. (It’s somewhat relevant to the plot that all this is happening during the 2020 lockdown.)

Well, everyone rocks up somewhere beautiful in Greece, accompanied in some cases by hangers-on and so on, and they are welcomed by Bron in several displays of appalling ostentation. Bron reveals his plan for the weekend – they’re going to play a murder-mystery game, in which he will be the victim. But several things end up complicating this, mainly the presence of Blanc himself, who it turns out was never intended to receive an invitation in the first place. Blanc has profound misgivings about the very idea of Bron staging this kind of game with a group of people all of whom have – it turns out – good reason to want him dead. Soon enough the murder-mystery game has been supplanted by a genuine murder, and it’s up to Blanc to work out exactly what’s going on…

Releasing Glass Onion over the holiday period was probably a smart move on the part of the big N, as the piece inevitable recalls one of those lavish all-star Agatha Christie adaptations which comfortably fill up the schedule of a Bank Holiday afternoon – you know the sort of thing, usually starring Albert Finney or Peter Ustinov and with Maggie Smith lurking somewhere in the supporting cast. The resemblance is intentional, of course; this is a Christie pastiche, albeit one thoroughly updated for the era of the Metaverse and coronavirus, and with a rather broader element of comedy to it than the dame was wont to include in her stories.

I can imagine many families settling down to enjoy the film and having a good time doing so, for there is much to entertain here – you can see where the budget went, the ensemble cast are clearly enjoying themselves, and the script is clever and often very funny. (There are also some amusing cameos along the way, although given that some of the celebrity walk-ons have died since shooting was completed, the pleasure of seeing them again is inevitably bittersweet.)

And, you know, it is fun to watch, although I found it less satisfying than Knives Out. Why was this the case? Well, it took me a while to figure it out. I think it’s partly down to the sheer lavish expansiveness of the storyline – this is not a short film, and it’s getting on towards the half-way mark before anyone actually gets murdered (which is surely the whole point of a murder mystery film). I suppose what I’m trying to say is that the core storyline takes its time to unfold, slowing down to facilitate the various jokes and funny hats and comedy turns the film also contains.

I would suggest it’s also the case that while the film itself is undeniably a clever and engaging puzzle-box of a story, the cleverness comes more from how it’s presented than in terms of the plot itself. You expect various twists and turns, red herrings and misdirections, in this kind of story, but the plot here is actually relatively straightforward – that’s almost the point of it, although I’m hesitant to explain too much – the telling of it, however, is greatly complicated by extensive use of flashbacks and repeated scenes. There’s nothing actually wrong with this, of course, and I suppose it is just a matter of taste; I suppose I was just expecting something a little more traditional.

But in the end, this is an entertaining film, even if it does feel like Daniel Craig himself gets rather sidelined as it goes on. It’s another jolly performance, even if he hasn’t quite found a way to stop Blanc from feeling like the Poirot-clone he technically is. As a general rule I’m not the biggest fan of the genre which turns murder into a sort of parlour game, especially when it uses humour to make outrageous characters and plotting more acceptable (and this is that sort of film). But I did find this quite entertaining, if not quite up to the standard of the first one. It will be interesting to see what direction Johnson takes in the third one.

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‘You know, there is no sequel. There’s only the one story. You can have another picture about further adventures among the monkeys, and it can be an exciting film, but creatively there is no film.’ – Charlton Heston, about Beneath the Planet of the Apes

Crikey, you wait thirteen years for an Avatar sequel and then… well, only one comes along, but look at the size of the thing. This is the kind of big studio release where the sheer scale of the movie forms one of the main planks of the publicity strategy. Three hours long! A budget of knocking on for $500 million! Filmed using specially-developed technology! It needs to be one of the most successful films in history just to stand a chance of breaking even!

Yes, it’s Avatar: The Way of Water, directed once again by Jim Cameron (with any of Cameron’s projects, ‘directed’ always feels like such an inadequate phrase – perhaps ‘willed into existence’ would be better), which at the time of writing is probably inescapable at every cinema near you. Cameron, as ever a man not short on self-belief, seems to think his little baby is going to do the business, thus opening the door for Avatar 4 and 5 a few years down the line (Avatar 3 is already in the pipeline, so cancel any holiday plans for next Christmas). Even the gargantuan length of thing may indeed be part of his cunning plan: people can apparently ‘see the scene they missed [due to going to the bathroom] when they come see [the film] again.’

Well, we carefully prepared for our visit to watch Way of Water by going onto a low-fluid intake regime and draining all our bodily cavities during the commercials (this wasn’t terribly popular with the people in the next row, but at least we weren’t crunching popcorn all the way through). We’d sat down and rewatched the first film not long ago, which turned out to be a wise move as not many concessions are made to anyone who isn’t up to speed on what happened the first time around.

So: Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is now a full-time feline Smurf living on the paradise moon of Pandora with his partner (Zoe Saldana) and their gaggle of offspring. (Saldana’s character does seem prone to going off on one, so it is appropriate she has spent the gap between films having kittens.) Scholars of the dark arts of Hollywood will be amused to note that Worthington and Saldana now share top billing, rather like Paul Newman and Steve McQueen in The Towering Inferno, presumably because Worthington hasn’t really made a notable film in a decade while Saldana is an established member of the Marvel ensemble.

Needless to say, a serpent finds its way into this particular Eden with the return of those nasty humans, whose dying planet is apparently not quite dead yet. The humans now want to come to Pandora and colonise it, not just strip it of its natural resources, and here to help them is a new incarnation of Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the bad guy from the first film (who, yes, is technically dead, but the loophole Cameron finds to revive him is acceptable enough).

Quaritch’s vendetta against the Sully family eventually forces Jake into moving house, and they all go off and live with some island-dwelling Na’vi in a part of the planet which looks rather like Hawaii: the leaders of their hosts are played by Kate Winslet and Cliff ‘Maori Jesus’ Curtis. Slowly the forest-dwelling visitors come to understand how to be one with the water and understand the wisdom of the oceans (or, to put it another way, hold their breath, swim, and fish). Needless to say, there impressive CGI beasties with those bio-USB ports for them to ride around on, too. It will perhaps not entirely surprise you if I reveal that the Sully’s pelagic idyll does not endure, for Quaritch and the other heartless exploiters of the planet eventually show up for the big third-act set pieces and climax…

You know, it’s as easy to be snotty about the new Avatar as it was the first one, for these are not subtle or complicated films, and they have an earnestness about them which is not particularly fashionable these days. The stories themselves are really not very distinctive; they exist as a visual experience more than anything else. This one is as pleasing to look at as the original, although the ‘weird alien ecology of Pandora’ element is perhaps suffering from diminishing returns, probably due to the marine setting – many Terran fish look weird, so weird alien fish are that bit less striking.

Either way, while Cameron may see himself as a visionary and an innovative artist, it’s the sequences with the full-auto gunfire and things blowing up that really pay the rent in this movie – I was getting quite restive by the point the bad guys showed up near the end, but the ensuing battle is tremendously well-executed on all kinds of levels, even if it (and the climax of the film) do feel a bit overlong.

Then again, what is overlong in this context? ‘The Way of Water has… no ending,’ says one character in the hushed tones which many people use quite a lot in this film, and it certainly feels that way while you’re watching it. If you subscribe to Cameron’s belief that the visual and sensory experience of Avatar is the main reason to see it, then you probably won’t care whether there’s enough story there to support three-hours-plus of screen time. If you think that beautiful CGI should be there to service a solid story, on the other hand, you will probably conclude that Avatar: The Way of Water is very slow in parts, sometimes repetitive (‘I can’t believe I’m tied up again!’ complains one character near the end), and doesn’t have particularly interesting characters.

Jake, for example, has lost the tension between his human and Na’vi identities which was central to the first film, and Cameron can’t find anything as interesting to replace it with: he’s just a stern, frowny dad most of the time. Something similar happens to Neytiri. Their kids are a bit interchangeable as well, with the possible exception of the one played by Sigourney Weaver, who clearly has a Special Destiny. The one character with the potential to be interesting is the new version of Quaritch, who faces a similar choice to the one Jake did in the first film – but as he is essentially a two-dimensional villain, this isn’t really explored. Most of the bad guys are lucky to make it into two dimensions; the same goes for most of the humans – although Jermaine Clement manages to make a tiny bit of an impression as a conflicted scientist.

Of course, beyond their visual appeal and adventure storylines, the Avatar movies work on another level, as environmental parables. The snippy thing to say at this point would be that James Cameron has spent thirteen years and $500 million making a film which presents the astonishing revelation that hunting whales is bad, something which Leonard Nimoy managed to communicate at least as entertainingly in Star Trek IV, in two-thirds of the time and for 5% of the budget. All right, yes, the film is very persuasive (and there’s a not-entirely surprising nod to Moby-Dick at one point), but… the sci-fi presentation of the whales here is mawkish and twee in a way that the ecological ideas of the first film usually weren’t. Having done his bit for the rainforests in Avatar 1, and now whales in Avatar 2, one wonders what Cameron has left up his sleeve for the next three episodes – I predict the Na’vi will reveal themselves as space Wombles and teach the humans the value of recycling.

I enjoyed watching the first Avatar again because it turned out to be a film with some interesting ideas embedded in its storytelling, and the resonances with Aliens were fascinating. My joke ahead of seeing Way of Water was that it was going to be another visit to Cameron’s back catalogue – watery setting? Kate Winslet? This was going to be Avatar meets Titanic. Well, rather to my surprise it turned out I was right, in several respects – but I should say that for me, Titanic was a rather pedestrian romance elevated by some terrific special effects, in terms of ideas it’s rather vacuous. Watching The Way of Water I was reminded of the Charlton Heston quote we opened with. It’s a good-looking film, often very entertaining, but there are no new ideas here, nothing that needed to be said, and certainly not in such a grandiose way. I’m curious to see if the other sequels get made, but even if they are I suspect it will all be more of the same.

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Early-to-mid-December for the five years or so prior to the pandemic was always a promising time for documentaries and other films that would usually struggle to get a cinema release: as we have discussed before, no one wants to release a mainstream commercial film around the same time as a colossus from one of the big studios, and so smaller distributors would swarm in and fill the resulting gap in the schedule: nature abhors a vacuum, and so do multiplex chains. These days it doesn’t seem to be happening, however, which may be another fact of the new world order.

Nevertheless, there are still people around who are happy to take advance of the lull in business-as-usual which is preceding the arrival of James Cameron’s watery sequel, although this is perhaps something of a mixed blessing. I’m a fairly easy-going person, but I still can’t stop myself from emitting a groaning snarl (or perhaps a snarling groan) from the very pit of my soul when I sit down in a movie theatre and discover that the film I have paid to see is preceded to the screen by a big red ‘N’. Not that I have anything against Netflix; quite the opposite, in many ways, but that’s kind of the point. Fond though I am of the theatrical experience, it annoys me just a bit to realise I’ve accidentally ended up paying to see a film which is going to be free on my TV a few weeks later. Yes, I know, I should do my research – but the line between due diligence in the research department and actually spoiling a movie for yourself can be a vanishingly thin one sometimes.

Netflix are quite happy to release films into cinemas for periods of time which make a mayfly’s life expectancy seem like a geological age, and presumably don’t care whether or not anyone actually turns out to watch them. This is what makes them unlike a traditional movie studio: they’re not releasing films in cinemas to make money, they’re releasing films in cinemas so that their films play in cinemas, usually just long enough for them to qualify for the major film awards. The money comes afterwards, once the films have won various trophies and hopefully spurred a few people into getting (or reviving) a Netflix account. I suppose it’s a valid enough business model, but it still seems to me like trying to game the system. Whatever you think about it, it’s a tactic that Netflix are obviously very good at, presumably in part because they seem to have that bottomless well of cash to attract big-name and acclaimed film-makers.

Newly on the big red N’s payroll is Noah Baumbach, who these days is as close to being the acceptable replacement for Woody Allen as anyone. His new movie is White Noise, based on an acclaimed (but supposedly unfilmable) 1985 novel by Don DeLillo. The change of sponsor doesn’t seem to have resulted in a very different product to Baumbach’s back catalogue, however – his partner Greta Gerwig appears, as does Adam Driver, and it’s not like he’s suddenly decided to do an action movie or a superhero franchise film.

The movie opens with a scene in which Don Cheadle comes on as an academic who proceeds to give a lecture on the place of the car crash sequence in American popular cinema, urging his audience to appreciate this for the optimistic, positive trope it has become. Contemplation of whether this is all very tongue in cheek, or if the film is just weird, is dispelled, as we are launched into the lives of fellow academic Jack Gladney (Driver) and his wife Babette (Gerwig, almost unrecognisable under a Gorgon-like perm), not to mention their various children. Gladney is a pioneer in the field of Hitler Studies at the local college – ‘I teach Advanced Nazism,’ he tells a new acquaintance, in one of quite a few lines that feels ripped from the pages of a Woody Allen script – while Babette amuses herself as an exercise instructor for local senior citizens. All should be well but for the insidious dread the couple share when it comes to their own creeping mortality. Virtually the only thing they don’t agree about is who should be allowed to die first: and we are clearly intended to appreciate exactly how facile this particular discussion is (it did put me rather in mind of something from a Miranda July film).

However, they finally get something concrete to worry about when a petrol tanker crashes into a train carrying chemical waste, producing a vast toxic cloud blanketing much of the state and rolling implacably in their direction. The various Gladneys pile into their station wagon and join the exodus along with the rest of the town. As you can perhaps surmise, there is something a bit tonally odd about White Noise, and this sequence in particular did remind me of a late-70s Spielberg movie, with the minutiae of family life juxtaposed with huge, potentially world-changing events (or maybe I was just thinking of the fake chemical spill which is part of the plot of Close Encounters).

It feels like the onset of the Airborne Toxic Event is the inciting incident for the rest of the film, but it only comprises a relatively small portion of the film: the disaster is resolved and everyone goes back to their business-as-usual, the only difference being that Jack has been exposed to toxic vapour and is told there is a high probability he will die at some indeterminate future time. This is a deliberately absurd and meaningless prognosis – the same could be said for literally any of us – but it doesn’t do Jack’s thanatophobia any good at all. The plot spirals off into an odd realm concerning drug trials and potential marital infidelity and the way in which the supermarket of the 1980s symbolises an intermediate realm between life and death…

I wanted to like it, honest, and some parts of it I really did – there are some very funny moments and sequences and some of the more absurd plot elements are almost Kafkaesque: it turns out the disaster of the toxic cloud is being used by the emergency services as an opportunity to practise their extreme disaster response techniques, in case something serious should happen in future. ‘But something serious is happening now,’ protests a character, when they learn about this. Yes, and it’s a great opportunity to practise, comes the response. But it still feels like a filmed piece of literature, if you know what I mean: it doesn’t have that driving sense of narrative nearly all mainstream films have – this feels much more interested in picking up ideas, playing with them for a bit, and then moving on to something else for a while, perhaps returning to an earlier point of interest later on. There are things which look like jokes, which are delivered as jokes, and meet every criteria for being a joke except for the fact they’re not funny in any intelligible way. (I know it sounds like I’m trying very hard to avoid saying this is essentially a failed comedy, but I’m not sure it’s as simple as that.)

Maybe this really is just a bad movie, but there are very successful moments scattered throughout it and Driver gives a fine performance – probably Gerwig too, though she seems a bit subdued, and possibly overwhelmed by her hair (and maybe the demands of doing the Barbie movie). Baumbach’s orchestration of such a diverse set of elements is probably deserving of much praise, too. But it didn’t quite click with me, or resolve itself into a film with a deeper thesis than ‘people often do weird things to distract themselves from the certainty of their own eventual deaths’.

This is a big, colourful film with some lavish set pieces – some might say extravagantly so, particularly with regard to the closing dance number (set in the supermarket, it is clearly a dance of dearth, given that consumerism is at least as much about not having material things as possessing them). And it may be that this is the kind of film which rewards multiple viewings and some cogitation. But on the basis of just the one watch, this is just an ambitious, oddball project which doesn’t quite come together in the way you’d hope.

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Rudyard Kipling once said that four-fifths of everyone’s work must be bad, with the corollary that the remaining fifth made it all worthwhile. By the time of George Orwell, things appeared to have shifted to the point where he (wearing his book reviewer’s hat) was obliged to conclude that in over ninety percent of cases the only objective conclusion would be that a given book was worthless. Despite all that, this truism is most often ascribed to the American science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon (these days probably best remembered for his Star Trek scripts), who formulated it as ‘ninety percent of everything is crap’.

That seems like a reasonable and perhaps generous assessment, if you ask me, perhaps a little over-charitable when it comes to things like Christmas-themed movies. The sheer quantity of these never fails to astound me: one channel in the UK starts showing them on a daily basis round about the beginning of November, and these days all of the streamers start weighing in with their contributions too – usually inescapably glutinous tales of hard-nosed metropolitan types rediscovering the Important Things in Life, usually in conjunction with a romantic interlude with someone in chunky knitwear. There are some good Christmas movies, of course: the local arthouse is showing Die Hard again, and you’d have to have a heart of stone not to at least give a sympathetic hearing to The Muppet Christmas Carol. (I know it came out in May, but maybe Iron Man Three also qualifies.) But on the whole it seems to be one of those genres which actively discourages innovation.

Well, we must be grateful, I think, for people like the makers of Violent Night, which tries to do something a bit different with the Christmas movie. Directed by Tommy Wirkola, the movie opens with a rather boozy man in a Santa Claus outfit (David Harbour at his most agreeably ursine), sitting in an English pub and bemoaning the materialism and commercialism of the Christmas festival these days. The twist comes when it is revealed that this is not just any shopping centre Santa but the genuine, thousand-year-old article, enjoying a pre-work drink or six. The ensuing warm glow of realisation that there may yet be magic in the world is somewhat compromised when Santa projectile-vomits from his sleigh onto the head of an unsuspecting passer-by.

Meanwhile, over in the Land of Good Old Uncle US of Stateside, little Trudie Lightstone (Leah Brady) is preparing for Christmas with her family, a cartoonishly horrible clan of disgustingly wealthy monsters: her parents are somewhat estranged and what she really wants is for them to get back together. The family are too busy buttering up hag-like matriarch Gertrude (Beverly D’Angelo) and jockeying for control of the fortune, however. You might reasonably think they are in line to get what they disturb when their incompetent catering company turns out to be a group of heavily armed thieves looking to break into the family vault for the $300 million of dirty money being held there: the leader of the group, code-named Scrooge (John Leguizamo), is not one of those people inclined to be sentimental during the holidays.

But there is little Trudie to think about, who obviously doesn’t deserve to be shot by a professional criminal. And, of course, there is also Santa, who has dropped in on the Lightstone compound to deliver a gift, eat some cookies, and – most importantly – make liberal inroads into their drinks cabinet. On being apprehended by one of the bad guys, Santa’s first instinct is to zip up the chimney and flee the area, but the goon is unwilling to let this happen, something he briefly lives to regret: never mind delivering presents, Santa discovers a facility for delivering a telling head-butt.

Yes, it turns out that Santa has a bit of a past, and soon his old skills are coming back to him. For Trudie is on his nice list, unlike all the thieves, and perhaps by saving her and the family, Christmas itself can be saved. One thing is certain: the words ‘Santa Claus is coming to town’ have never before been delivered with such an air of baleful menace.

Yes, it’s basically Die Hard, but with Santa as the main character. Either this will seem to you to be an inspired idea, that we should be ashamed that no-one came up with decades ago, or you will be inclined to dismiss it as one of the stupidest, most obnoxious, and possibly even sacrilegious notions ever consigned to the screen (that said, I must reveal that my research has shown up the existence of the 2020 film Fatman, in which Mel Gibson plays a Santa who must contend with a hitman sent after him by someone off his naughty list). Coming across the trailer unexpectedly generally draws cries to the effect of ‘Is this a real movie?!?’ Yes, it is: the question is whether it’s one of those ideas that sounds good on paper but doesn’t actually work as a full-length film.

Well… I think it does, but it’s certainly not one for everybody: the traditional Christmassy elements of goodwill and redemption are there, sort of, but mixed in with them is a graphically-violent action movie and a bracingly horrible black comedy, too – the movie circles between them somewhat erratically. The idea of Santa beating people up and slaughtering bad guys by the dozen runs out of steam a little, for all the film’s inventiveness when it comes to deploying the trappings of the season as implements of destruction – tinsel used as a garrotte, pointy Christmas decorations being rammed where they really don’t belong, and so on – and it wanders off and starts riffing on Home Alone, too. (The moment, seemingly promised by the trailer, where someone opens up on Santa’s sleigh with an anti-aircraft gun, is not here, but will no doubt turn up if there’s a sequel.)

I laughed a lot all the way through, not that I’m necessarily proud of that: the action choreography is nicely done, the jokes generally land, and the actors mostly pitch their performances just right. If the film has a more serious subtext – and I’m inclined to suspect this may not be intentional – it’s a reminder that, beneath the Dickensian, Coca Colarised version of Christmas and Santa which gets rammed down our throats every twelve months or so, there’s a much older, earthier, and more primal celebration, and it’s this more savage and brutal version of Santa that the main character finds himself reverting to. (The real-life gentleman whose remains are entombed in the Italian city of Bari, and who was the real Saint Nick, doesn’t get much of a look-in.)

The film even attempts the challenging trick of working on multiple levels simultaneously – the concluding battle to the death between Santa and Scrooge is so blatantly symbolic it’s obviously intended as spoof, and yet it still has a functioning sort of allegorical power. Several other moments manage the same thing: there is, as Spinal Tap famously observed, a fine line between stupid and clever, and Violent Night manages to straddle it reasonably comfortably.

Maybe Violent Night does work better as a trailer than a two-hour movie, but then it is a particularly winning trailer. Anyway, I thought the movie was a lot of fun, in its bracingly horrible way. Bonus points for having a very accurate title; further bonus points for having Slade’s Merry Christmas Everyone on the soundtrack (song and film share a sort of lairy exuberance that makes them a very good fit for each other). It’s a little difficult to imagine it gaining admission to the canon of authentic Christmas classics, but – and, given Harbour’s involvement, no pun intended – stranger things have happened.

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Nothing else you see at the cinema this year is likely to be a soul-shreddingly harrowing as the PETA commercial currently running in front of certain screenings in UK theatres. They say that modern commercials don’t advertise products, they advertise the lifestyle which the product being flogged supposedly enables you to have – well, PETA have gone further ahead of the curve on this one and have made an advert for a lifestyle itself (it is, not entirely surprisingly, Veganism). The commercial features a cartoony lovable young turkey, a van en route to the turkey farm, a very suggestive moment when chopped tomatoes spray reddish fluid everywhere, and… well, you get the idea. Subtle stuff, guys.

Then again, I saw it before Luca Guadagnino’s Bones and All, for which it seemed strangely appropriate, even though the two things – on the face of it – seem to be pulling in diametrically opposed directions. On the face of it this looks rather like another slightly soft-centred, wet-between-the-ears YA novel adaptation (the book is by Camille DeAngelis, who is, and this may prove even more pertinent as we continue, a certified Vegan lifestyle coach); what Guadagnino (director of Call Me By Your Name and A Bigger Splash) actually produces is something much more… well, something much more than that, anyway.

Taylor Russell plays Maren, a young woman living in the American midwest in the late 1980s; her mother is not on the scene, she and her father (Andre Holland) seem to on the fringes of poverty and are new in town to boot. One of the girls at high school invites Maren to a sleepover, even though she has to sneak out of their trailer to do so (her father locks her in at night: our first inkling that this story may be headed to uncomfortable places). All goes well until, in the midst of the trying on of different shades of nail varnish, Maren suddenly yields to an impulse, pops her friend’s finger in her mouth, and strips all the flesh off it with her teeth. Looking duly apologetic (then again, is it possible to look apologetic enough for trying to eat your hostess’ finger?) she flees into the night – what amplifies the sudden note of disquiet the film has acquired is that her father has clearly been anticipating something like this will happen.

They relocate, as you would. However, Maren shortly turns eighteen, at which point her father reasonably takes the position that he’s had enough of a pattern of behaviour going back to when Maren ate the babysitter, and that she’s old enough to take care of herself – so he exits the scene with alacrity, thoughtfully providing her with her birth certificate and some money. From the document she gleans some information about her mother, and sets off to try and learn more about her.

On the way, she encounters Sully (a monumentally creepy performance by Mark Rylance), a man subject to the same awkward dietary impulses that she is, and she learns something about herself and those like her (she and Sully share a meal, provided by an old lady they meet – if you get my meaning). They are Eaters, afflicted by the urge to eat human flesh from time to time – an urge that increases in strength and frequency as they age. (They don’t seem to get any special benefits from this, so it’s not like they’re vampires or anything; Eaters come across as pitiful as much as revolting.) Sully clearly has it in mind to be some sort of mentor to Maren, but she has different ideas: she bails as soon as she can and continues her journey.

But on the way she meets Lee (Timothee Chalamet), another Eater who is much younger and more handsome than Sully, something which seems to incline her to overlook the fact he goes around murdering and devouring people on a semi-regular basis (there’s a slightly spurious plot point where he claims to only eat bad people, but it doesn’t seem to take much to earn a place on Lee’s menu). Soon they are travelling together, and the spark of romance flickers between the pair of them…

Yes, it’s the cannibal romance roadtrip movie that you may have heard about. I can easily imagine many people reacting with disgust and moral outrage to a film like this, and maybe they have a point – but cinema normalises, maybe even glamourises, all sorts of socially-aberrant behaviour, so the crime here is really one of degree only. Nevertheless, there’s a sense in which the whole film is a rather fragile construction, falling apart on some levels if you think about it rigorously – so it’s to Guadagnino’s credit that you generally engage with the film on its own terms. It’s not as if he’s glamourising cannibalism as a way of life, anyway – the film’s use of gore is not sensational, but makes it very clear what a messy and gruesome process it is. The whole film has a kind of measured thoughtfulness to it that makes the horror fade somewhat into the background, almost lost amongst the great midwestern skies and granular Americana of the film.

Perhaps this is something akin to what Sergio Leone did with the western over fifty years ago: an outsider coming in, taking an arguably quintessential American genre, and recreating it as something wholly new and startling. Whether that genre is the road movie or the horror film is a good question, for Bones and All functions as both, but it’s the craft and beauty of the film’s atmosphere and imagery that lingers with you. This isn’t one of those quiet-quiet-quiet-LOUD horror films, but something more pervasive – it knows where your phobic pressure points are (to use Stephen King’s helpful phrase) and gently caresses them to create disquiet and unease, only very occasionally squeezing tight.

To be honest, there is something very much of Stephen King about this film, in its evocation of real-world horror and the careful detail of its world and characters. It reminded me rather of Doctor Sleep, but I think this is a better film, in almost every way.

Of course, if we’re going to discuss Bones and All as a horror film, then the question we should be asking is what it’s actually about, how does it function, what is it trying to say? That eating people is wrong, as the old line has it? Well, it seems to me that the device of the Eaters is a useful way of establishing the main characters as somehow apart and distanced from ‘normal’ society, an allegory for alienated youth, and the dispossessed generally (perhaps they are distant cousins to the redneck vampires of Near Dark). Feeling different and misunderstood is part of the deal when it comes to being a teenager, I suspect; being an Eater just legitimises this feeling. It’s significant that the cannibalistic urge in the film is depicted as uncontrollable, thus supposedly freeing Maren and Lee from much of the moral responsibility of their activities – the film pointedly includes a scene where they meet a ‘normal’ person who’s a cannibal simply because he enjoys it (played by David Gordon Green, director of the recent Halloween sequels), and Maren flees in horror and revulsion from him.

Is there more to it than this? Vampire films are about deviant sexual activity, werewolf films about the conflict between the Apollonian and Dionysiac aspects of human nature – so what’s going on here when Maren and Lee feel their stomachs start to rumble? It’s not entirely clear, although I think it may be something to do with the desperation arising from their social backgrounds – all the Eaters in the film seem to be part of the underclass, steeped in poverty, scrabbling to survive. Society so often treats the underclass as sub-human – perhaps that is the metaphor here, and we are nearly back to H.G. Wells’ morlocks.  Life on the fringes certainly feels like one of the themes of the film.

Guadagnino sustains the film’s atmosphere and credibility brilliantly, aided by some great, committed performances. The climax and ending are perhaps a little predictable and obscure, respectively, but – as is usually the case with road movies – it’s much more about the journey than the destination. Bones and All is a strong challenger to Raw for the title of the best horror movie about cannibalism ever made, but it’s much more than that – not just a great horror film, but a great film full stop.

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The lazy way to describe Maria Schrader’s She Said is as The Harvey Weinstein Movie (something which has a very different connotation to the one it would have possessed even only six years ago). But then again, you could surely argue that a huge number of major studio releases over the last four years or so have, on some level, been Harvey Weinstein movies, or perhaps post-Harvey Weinstein movies – The Wife was a post-Weinstein movie, the Charlie’s Angels remake was a post-Weinstein movie, Marvel finally doing the Black Widow movie was arguably a post-Weinstein thing. Never mind winning all those Oscars (and being thanked in more Oscar acceptance speeches than anyone else except for Steven Spielberg and God), Weinstein seems to have inadvertently ended up changing the face of the culture.

Of course, this is looking for a silver lining to a particularly dark and repugnant cloud, as the film makes absolutely clear: this is not a film to go and see if you’re looking for simple entertainment – maybe not if you’re looking for entertainment of any kind, to be honest. The story gets underway with a plunge-bath of awfulness as we find ourselves back in 2016, when allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct on the part of Donald Trump are coming to light – investigating them is New York Times journalist Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan). Naturally, the revelation of this repulsive behaviour results in Trump being elected president, which means the women accusing him end up facing death threats and other sickening abuse for no reason.

A few months later, fellow journalist Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) is doing a piece about sexual harassment in Hollywood, when she receives a tip that actress Rose McGowan (to be honest, all I can remember about her without using Wikipedia is that she was the replacement sister in Charmed – sorry) is claiming to have been raped by big-name producer Harvey Weinstein. Other allegations are floating around Weinstein, but he is an immensely wealthy and powerful man, and no-one seems prepared to be the first to speak up about him. Twohey and Kantor interview several people who have indicated problems with Weinstein’s behaviour in the past, including Ashley Judd (two episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation – again, sorry) and Gwyneth Paltrow (various Marvel movies and Shakespeare in Love – hey, it’s better than nothing), as well as various former members of staff at the Weinstein company Miramax.

They come across clear evidence of a pattern of behaviour focused on the exploitation and abuse of young women in Weinstein’s power – but part of this pattern is the regular use of Non-Disclosure Agreements to ensure the silence of anyone making a complaint against the producer. Aware that Weinstein and his people are monitoring what they’re doing, Kantor and Twohey proceed with their investigation, trying to find someone prepared to take the chance and be the first person to go on the record against the producer…

There is a long and noble tradition of the true-life journalistic scoop movie, which basically depicts dogged and principled journalists putting in very long hours as they pester sources, look for evidence, follow-up leads and basically overcome establishment resistance to get the truth out to the waiting public. I suppose it dates back at least as far as All The President’s Men; more recent examples would be films like Spotlight and The Post. The movie business likes to see itself as a virtuous undertaking, and making movies like this is a chance for it to align itself with laudable efforts in a different media.

Of course, the downside to this is that it is arguably a bit suspect for any film studio to claim the moral high ground on this particular topic, given the clear implication that Weinstein was not an isolated offender. This film itself has drawn fire for similar reasons, given it is executive produced by Brad Pitt – Pitt was allegedly made aware of Weinstein’s behaviour by his then-girlfriend Paltrow decades before this story broke, but continued to work with him.

Nevertheless, this is a solidly-made and arguably significant film, even if it doesn’t do anything particularly new with this particular genre. That’s not the point – if this film is a piece of art then this is only a secondary concern, its main focus is to inform audiences as to how Weinstein was brought to justice, and in the process remind people of just what it was that Weinstein was and is guilty of.

The tone of the thing is admirably restrained, given the subject matter: the details of what Weinstein did are reported calmly, almost clinically, often above static tableaux of hotel rooms in disarray and other indicative images. It’s the performances that sell th story – Kazan and Mulligan carry the film well, supported by Patricia Clarkson as their editor, and Jennifer Ehle and Samantha Morton (amongst others) as some of their sources. (This is definitely a female-inclining movie, but Andre Braugher and Zach Grenier are also good.) Judd plays herself in the flesh, and Paltrow lends her voice, but McGowan is played by an actress (Trump is likewise played by someone else).

And it’s a very effective and powerful movie, very moving in places. And – how can I put this? – incredibly depressing to watch. This probably wasn’t the intent – this was probably meant to be a serious but inspirational film about a real-life wrong being righted. And this is correct in every respect but the one about it being inspirational. I didn’t come out feeling inspired; I came out feeling a profound sense of shame and despair, simply based on my demographic profile.

This was not something I had expected – I was rather dismissive of Alex Garland’s Men earlier this year for attempting a very similar ‘all men are worthless and pathetic monsters’ thesis. Perhaps it’s the fact-based nature of She Said, or – like any good journalist – its forensic precision and thoroughness. It’s also careful to make the point that Weinstein was not the beginning and end of this problem, just an extreme demonstration of what men will do, given power and influence. All men? Well, maybe not, but enough of them. It’s in the nature of the sex, something deeply embedded by evolution. I’ve done crass and stupid and deeply regrettable things in the past, and I suspect most men would say the same if they were being honest. The fact that a few exceptional individuals may have a clean conscience should be a source of pride to them, but it doesn’t change the fact that the male sex is – as civilised society would judge things – just not up to scratch, any more than a man’s doing the washing-up and being kind to animals would excuse him being a burglar or mugger. That’s the message I came away from She Said with: men are irredeemably nasty, and – excepting a miracle – will continue to do terrible things, more likely than not to women. It’s a hard truth to accept. But, looking on the bright side, when we eventually torch the planet, half the victims will be men. You’ve got to take your upside where you can find it sometimes.

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Bearly Illegal

I come across movies which are fairly criminal on a depressingly regular basis, though that may have something to do with my having what’s virtually a blanket taping policy when it comes to the Cellar Club strand on Talking Pictures TV. If we’re talking genuinely criminal films – well, not so much, although there was an exception to this the other day when I checked out Jafar Panahi’s latest project, No Bears (Farsi title: Khers Nist), as this film is properly illegal.

Illegal in Iran, I should say, although looking at the news it’s easy to get the impression that virtually everything is illegal in Iran these days. People used to complain a lot about the way that the UK government supposedly didn’t support the UK film industry enough, especially back in the pre-Working Title and Film Four days, but the UK government didn’t go around banning film directors from trying to make films, or putting them under house arrest. I have alluded to the various travails of Iranian director Jafar Panahi before when the cinema of Iran has crossed our path – a longtime critic of the regime, Panahi ended up being slapped with just such a ban over a decade ago. Since then he has been the auteur pioneer of the new wave of back-of-a-moving-car Iranian cinema, a torch which his own son picked up for his own recent film Hit the Road.

The ban is still in place, by the way, but is probably not Panahi’s biggest problem at the moment: he was imprisoned by the Iranian government for persistently being a thorn in their side earlier this year, and – given what’s happening in the country at the moment – one can’t help but be a little concerned for the welbeing of such a prominent critic. Needless to say, No Bears was made before his arrest, but post-ban; the fact of the ban is intrinsic to the plot of the film.

The film is quite like the last Jafar Panahi film we discussed, 3 Faces, in that it features the director Jafar Panahi himself playing a film director called Jafar Panahi. (Strap in.) As the film opens, Panahi is hiding out in a small village not far from the Turkish border, attempting to direct his new film over Skype, or Zoom, or something similar: suffice to say the lack of a reliable broadband connection is a problem, and he keeps having to climb onto the roof of his guesthouse to get a signal (rather to the consternation of his host).

Everyone assumes that Panahi’s ultimate goal is to have himself smuggled over the border and out of Iran – why else would he have come here in the first place? His intentions remain ambiguous, however – but he does occasionally drive out close to the border of an evening, not least because the wifi is better out there.

The villagers are initially welcoming, but it slowly seems that Panahi has outstayed his welcome, especially when he takes some photos and footage of a village wedding. The village elders approach him, and reveal that there is trouble afoot – one of the main participants in a long-standing arranged marriage seems to be rather lukewarm about going through with it, and is suspected of being involved with another man. It seems that Panahi may have inadvertently taken a photo of one of these assignations. For the sake of peace and quiet in the village, could he possibly hand the incriminating picture over?

What ensues is a bit Kafkaesque, to say the least: Panahi insists that the photo in question doesn’t exist, but nobody believes him; village superstitions and traditions seem to be on the verge of engulfing him, there is the threat of violence hanging in the air. It seems like the villagers, who make a large chunk of their living by smuggling contraband over the border from Turkey, are worried about the scrutiny that will descend on their home if Panahi uses it as the launch-pad for his own break for freedom, and are using this as a pretext to drive him out of the village. Certainly it feels like there is an element of social tension in what’s going on – the villagers are happy to take Panahi’s money, but seem to be looking for an excuse to get chippy with him.

Happening in parallel with this are some equally convoluted events concerning the film that the fictional version of Panahi is attempting to direct. It, too, is a love story, about a couple who are seeking to flee to the heart of Europe using stolen tourist passports. The problem – and there’s a whiff of Casablanca here that Panahi doesn’t quite acknowledge – is that it’s very difficult to procure passports for both of them at the same time, and both refuse to leave the other one behind. The actors find themselves in the same situation as their characters – there’s a whole second front of metaness opening up here – and their loyalties to the film and each other likewise come under strain.

I went to see 3 Faces with my Anglo-Iranian affairs advisor, and it’s fair to say we were less impressed by it than the average film festival jury. ‘Nice to see a film where they didn’t worry too much about the plot,’ was his verdict, roughly speaking; my thought concerning No Bears was that it might prove to be more of the same sort of thing – some sort of metafictional social commentary with the actual story being so oblique and understated as to be almost imperceptible. Well, No Bears does have more of an obvious plot (as well as fewer scenes set in Panahi’s car); it is also quite an honest film, in that it definitely doesn’t have any bears in it.

Mind you, there are lots of other things that don’t appear in the film – bird-tables, electromagnets, karaoke machines – so why be particularly concerned about the absence (or otherwise) of our ursine friends? Well, there’s a scene in which Panahi – who has previously been warned not to stray too far at night, for fear of being eaten by a bear – is told that (you guessed it) there are in truth no bears in the area. The bears are just a myth, intended to frighten people and keep them under control. It’s a relatively on-the-nose moment in a film which is otherwise very subtle in its themes and storytelling. You’re never in doubt that this is a film about Panahi’s own situation – and by extension that of many other people in Iran today – but this is not a film of loud or obvious protests.

Looking back I see I was very cruel about 3 Faces, perhaps unforgiveably cruel. This is a better film – by conventional standards – in every way, although the careful pace and lack of obvious incident may be an issue for many viewers. The two plots weave around and reflect each other very pleasingly, and afford Panahi at least one moment which is a brilliant coup de theatre. The acting is also very creditable. Again, I’m by no means sure I picked up on every subtlety embedded in the film, but it’s clearly been made with intelligence and conviction. One can only hope that circumstances allow Panahi to get back behind a camera before too long.

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Here’s a name that has rather unexpectedly drifted up out of the mists of the past: Mark Mylod, long-time film and TV director, whose first movie, 2002’s Ali G Indahouse, dates back even unto the pre-blog days when I was solely doing this on a weird appendage to the BBC website. As you can see if you click the link, I was distinctly unimpressed by the film at the time, but – it may shock you to learn – Mr Mylod has gone on to have a solid career in both the UK and the US. (He’s the kind of person that Former Next Desk Colleague Now Manager may have worked with in his previous life as a TV editor; I must check.)

That said, it’s been a few years since Mylod’s done a movie, and his new one certainly looks like a change of pace from his previous work: it is The Menu, which feels rather like a horror film made for people who are normally a bit sniffy about horror. Or is it a satire? I think it’s probably a satire, to be honest, but a satire which has decided to hedge its bets by looking a bit like a horror film. This strikes me as a sensible strategy and one which doesn’t do the film any harm.

The film opens with enthusiastic foodie Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) preparing for the experience of a lifetime: he and his companion Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) are paying $1250 apiece to spend the evening at Hawthorne, a very exclusive restaurant on a private island. Also attending are a pretentious food critic (Janet McTeer) and her editor, three nouveau rich bros with far more money than taste, a veteran politician and his wife, and a fading film star (John Leguizamo) and his PA, who is trying to quit but finding it a challenge.

Hawthorne is famous for its unique and enigmatic menus – every sitting is different, and specially prepared with great precision by its head chef, Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). Having received a tour of the island from Slowik’s steely head waiter (Hong Chau), everyone settles down for what they fully expect to be the meal of a lifetime. This turns out to be exactly what they get, although their lifetimes turn out to be somewhat shorter than they had anticipated when they arrived on the island.

Perhaps you can see what I mean about the horror trappings of The Menu: a group of people arrive on a secluded private island and find that their host has more planned than they originally expected. They have, in fact, been specially selected according to a rather particular set of criteria, and the fact that one of the people who have turned up is not the one featured on the guest list turns out to be pivotal to the plot. It’s not a million miles distant from fairly recent films like The Hunt and the horror version of Fantasy Island, in its premise anyway. The trailer makes it quite clear that, before the end, there will be a sequence in which many of the guests will be pursued across country by burly members of the kitchen staff.

That said – and this really shouldn’t come as a surprise given Mylod’s involvement as director – while some of the events of the film may be horrific (there are various stabbings, dismemberments, immolations, a drowning and a suicide) these never feel like the raison d’etre of the film, which they possibly would if this were an out-and-out horror – the movie seldom dwells on the gore, it is more about the idea of the violence than the grisly details. It’s an arch confection, and never that visceral.

Instead, this really is more of a black comedy, and specifically a social satire. The most obvious target is the world of the celebrity chef and the ridiculous adulation they occasionally receive for dishes which no sensible restaurant would have on their menu – a few years ago an elite restaurant in the UK started serving things like snail-flavoured porridge and bacon ice cream, and of course it very quickly became a kind of gastronomic mecca. The sheer absurdity of some of the conceptual courses that Slowik serves up to his guests is genuinely very funny, as are their reactions to the food (not to mention the helpful captions detailing the precise ingredients of the dishes) – at one point he sends out empty plates dabbed with sauces, for rigorously logical and well-explained reasons. Later on, as the tone darkens and the guests begin to suspect what’s going on, they get individualised tortillas, each one laser-inscribed with incriminating images of them.

However, there’s something a little more general going on here too, which is why it isn’t a great surprise to find Adam McKay listed as one of the producers of the film – he may be best known as a comedy director, but – amongst other things – he made the incisive, socially-committed comedy-drama The Big Short. The joke here is on the filthy rich and the careless way they make use of their vast wealth. From early on the film is drawing attention to the different levels of social strata occupied by the serving staff and the guests – Tyler is startled when a junior chef knows his name, but (as Margot notes) it doesn’t occur to him to ask the man’s name in return. Later on the distinction between those who give and those who take proves to be of the deepest significance.

The satire becomes increasingly grotesque one as it continues. You do get the sense that the idea of doing the satire was the priority, and the rest of the plot was built around it – it gets a bit unravelled towards the end, and perhaps could do with losing a course or two – certainly some of the characters’ actions, and their motivations, never quite ring true as those of real people: these are mostly caricatures, arch grotesques.

Nevertheless the performances are excellent, particularly from Fiennes and Taylor-Joy – Fiennes has the tricky job of essentially acting as the MC for the whole movie, and does it rather well. Taylor-Joy has become something of a fixture in all kinds of films since her early roles in horror, but as ever she brings a touch of class along with that truly remarkable bone structure. Then again, this is a classy movie, well-made, witty, and with something to say. Not quite a horror film per se, but horror-adjacent in the best possible way.

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Stephen Frears’ The Lost King appears to have an opening title sequence and score which is a homage to Psycho: this is by no means an untouched well when it comes to people making reference and paying tribute, of course, but it does seem a bit unusual given what we are supposedly dealing with here is a true-story comedy-drama about events in fairly recent history (although the whole question of what actually constitutes recent history is one of the issues raised in passing by the film itself). The film is, in some ways, a follow-up to the very well-received and accomplished Philomena from 2013 – Frears directed that one too, and it likewise had a script and lead performance from Steve Coogan (whose production company is behind it). One might be forgiven for having reasonably high expectations, especially given the appearance in the lead role of Sally Hawkins, a very able and accomplished actress.

Hawkins plays Phillippa Langley, who as the film opens is an unfulfilled office worker in Edinburgh – the fact that wherever she goes she passes some feature or other of outstanding natural or architectural beauty doesn’t seem to cheer her up much, which only goes to suggest that a) familiarity breeds content and b) Screen Scotland’s support for the production was not entirely string-free. She is separated from her husband (Coogan), though their relationship is amicable, and suffers occasionally with ME – which her boss seems to use as a pretext to promote younger and blonder co-workers over her.

Things change when she is obliged to take one of her sons to see Shakespeare’s Richard III. Being (it is not-very-subtly suggested) something of a put-upon figure, she finds herself empathising with Richard himself rather more than she expected, and she gets quite vocal about the fallacy in the automatic assumption that anybody with a physical deformity must also somehow be morally lacking too (a perfectly sound and reasonable position, but presented here in a very on-point and slightly hectoring way which feels extremely 2022).

Anyway, she ends up joining the local branch of the Richard the Third Society and, after expressing a desire to visit his grave and pay her respects, is surprised to learn that no-one knows where it is. She sets out to rectify this, doing her own research into everything involved, even at the expense of some of her other obligations. If this seems to you like a sudden and rather niche interest for a character to develop – I’m struggling not to use the word obsession – then I entirely agree with you; the script does its best to sell the idea, not least by having an apparition of Richard (played by Harry Lloyd) occasionally appear to Langley for chats and moral support.

The quest eventually involves a trip down to Leicester, which looks like the likely area. Langley’s investigations eventually lead her to a car park, where (it is suggested) she is seized by an almost clairvoyant sense that this is where the king is buried. Would it be appropriate in the circumstances to suggest she has a sudden hunch? Maybe not. (Perhaps you are already getting a sense of some of the reasons why I had issues with the script of this film.) Of course, persuading others of this is not that easy (and understandably so, you might say), and the rest of the film deals with her struggles with the archaeological and academic establishment, leading up to the tense moment where the car park is finally excavated, and…

Well, spoilers, obviously, unless you were watching TV a few years ago when the re-burial of King Richard III’s remains was extensively covered (it wasn’t quite as grand an affair as the more recent royal funeral, but on the other hand the queues were a lot less punishing). There’s no doubt that the story of the discovery of Richard III’s grave more than five hundred years after his death is a remarkable one and worthy of the big-screen treatment. Worthy of this kind of treatment? Well, this I am not so sure of.

There is of course a profound irony at work here. The Ricardians, to give them their proper title, have long been of the opinion that Richard III wasn’t the monster of popular repute: Shakespeare’s persuasive characterisation of him as a machiavellian supervillain was done at the behest of the ruling Tudors, the theory goes, who had a vested interest in denigrating the man the founder of their dynasty had overthrown. Fair enough. If you’re going to do a story based on actual events, especially quite recent ones, then you have an obligation to get your facts straight.

Quite how this squares with a film which may yet be the subject of legal action on the grounds of its own historical inaccuracy is a little unclear, but there’s obviously scope here for schadenfreude (if you’re anything like me, at least). You can see how it suits the film’s narrative thrust and moral premise for Phillippa Langley to be presented as a determined underdog-like figure, battling a dismissive establishment in the name of something she truly believes in – but it’s also entirely understandable that the representative of Leicester University depicted here as a slimy self-serving politician who’s prejudiced against the disabled should feel the need to explore the possibility of suing the film-makers for defamation of character.

I don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong, though I will say that I lived in Leicester for three months last year and the bus service is excellent. I am inclined to doubt the version of events as presented in the film, though, and not just the scene in which Steve Coogan goes to watch Skyfall at the cinema several months before the film was actually released. The film would have you believe that Phillippa Langley went to watch a production of Richard III and a couple of weeks later was solving a historical mystery which had baffled the world for centuries. Even if it were true, it would have to be presented a lot more convincingly than it is here.

There’s also a kind of anti-intellectualism implicit in the film; Langley’s attraction to the Richard case is presented in largely sentimental terms, and at several points her intuition comes into conflict with the more rational approach of the archaeologists and academics (mostly men) she is regularly locking horns with. Naturally she is proved right, of course. To be fair, Langley herself has spoken of having a strange feeling upon visiting the car park for the first time, but, you know, we’re getting a bit anecdotal at this point. The film notably fails to mention that the car park in question had been identified as a possible site of Richard’s grave as far back as the mid-1970s: once again, historical fact comes off worst in any conflict with the story they actually want to tell.

The actors, who apart from Hawkins and Coogan are mostly people you will recognise from other low-budget British movies and telly programmes (James Fleet, Amanda Abbington, Mark Addy), do the best they can with the material, though Coogan the script-writer fails to find much for Coogan the actor to get his teeth into – perhaps he’s there on screen just as a face to guarantee funding for the film? He gets the odd funny line – ‘Boys! Your mum’s found Richard the Third!’ he cries to his children at one point – but this isn’t nearly as good a vehicle for him as Philomena was. You equally get a strong sense of Hawkins repeatedly bashing into the limitations of a rather thinly characterised protagonist.

I suspect the movie of the court case provoked by The Lost King (should there ever be one) may well turn out to be rather more interesting than The Lost King itself, which is fairly undistinguished in every department despite the talent involved. There is certainly a fascinating story to be told here, but not like this. Its own lack of self-awareness is probably the most interesting thing about it.

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