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Posts Tagged ‘2022’

It has long been a slightly regrettable fact that any sign of a major Hollywood studio putting serious money behind a summer movie that isn’t a sequel, prequel, remake, or adaptation of a property from another media is cause for surprise (unless Christopher Nolan is directing it, anyway). The levels of ingenuity involved in building franchises out of the most unpromising material are enough to make you wonder why they didn’t just fish a cryogenically-preserved Leo out of the Atlantic and take a punt at Titanic 2, and why that Nick Cave-scripted Gladiator sequel which concluded with an immortal Russell Crowe working at the present-day Pentagon never got the green light – it’s getting to the point where this sort of thing is almost run of the mill.

As a case in point, let us take a look at Angus McLane’s Lightyear, which, you might expect, would be a fairly straightforward spin-off from the long-running Toy Story franchise, centring on Tim Allen’s Buzz Lightyear character. Well, yes and no: for while the film concerns the various exploits of Buzz Lightyear, the character in question is not the toy we have previously become familiar with. No, this Buzz Lightyear is an actual space adventurer, a real person (or at least as real as someone can be when they are a CGI construct, anyway). How does that work, then?

Well – and, as they say, strap yourselves in – Lightyear is essentially a kind of film-within-a-film, in that it is apparently a work of fiction within the Toy Story universe. The original Buzz Lightyear toy was a piece of merchandise for the (fictitious) Lightyear movie which came out in 1995. It’s a rather odd film-within-a-film as the film it’s supposedly within never actually features it and came out 27 years ago anyway. If you turn up late to the movie, there are no signs that Lightyear is actually a piece of meta-fiction, as this doesn’t inform the plot and is only mentioned in a couple of opening captions.

After that we’re off on a fairly lively space adventure, as the vessel on which Space Ranger Lightyear (voiced by Chris Evans on this occasion) lands to explore a mysterious alien planet. Needless to say the place turns out to be considerably more hostile than initially appears to be the case, and the ship attempts an emergency take-off: but, largely due to Buzz’s own monumental ego, the ship is forced to crash-land, its vital fuel element destroyed.

The mission becomes one of creating a new fuel source and using it to get the various unwilling colonists back into space. But, wouldn’t you know it, this isn’t as easy as it sounds and the lightspeed barrier proves a tricky obstacle. Compounding the problem is that every one of Buzz’s test-flights takes him closer to it, resulting in time dilation and him finding himself projected further and further into the future – friends and colleagues grow old and build lives for themselves on the planet while he remains a youthful over-achiever.

Eventually the new leaders of the colony decide that, as they’ve been here for many decades now and there’s still no realistic prospect of the fuel cell working, the escape project is to be shut down. This completely goes against Buzz’s ‘finish the mission!’ ethos, and so – along with his robot cat – he sets off on one last unauthorised test flight, determined to make amends for his original mistake…

You could argue that Pixar have for once missed a trick by not leaning more into the whole this-film-was-supposedly-made-in-1995 angle, as there’s surely potential there for some jokes about the rather variable quality of mid-1990s science fiction films (it’s a little bit too late, historically, but if you close your eyes and squint there are some definite similarities between Lightyear and the big-screen version of Lost in Space from 1998). As it stands, the metafictional conceit doesn’t really stand up to much scrutiny – quite apart from whether this is supposed to be a CGI movie, or a live-action movie made in a CGI world, adventure films about time-dilation were thin on the ground back in 1995, especially ones which are as ostentatiously progressive as this (Lightyear feels like the kind of film which treats being banned in the Middle East as a badge of honour).

The heady aroma of the (fairly) early 21st century surrounds the film, anyway: both the hero and the antagonist (Josh Brolin) are Marvel alumni, and one key element of the plot is not so much similar to as exactly the same as one in a Warner Brothers animation from over three and a half years ago (the lead times on Pixar movies can be considerable, but this is still awkward, to say the least). As a contemporary animated movie, Lightyear is… well, it’s okay, I suppose. It looks stunning, as you might expect, with superb designs and animation. The cast do their best with the script (apart from Evans and Brolin, probably the best-known participant is the inescapable Taika Waititi, who has presumably given up sleeping), but it’s probably here that the film’s problems lie.

The structure is a bit odd and takes a while to settle down. A bigger problem is the fact that the very premise of the Toy Story movies meant they were whimsical, largely comic fantasies. The internal logic of the film would suggest that this, however, should be a more straightforward adventure film – but someone on the production seems to have felt a bit uneasy about this, and as a result there are quite few broadly comic moments, up to and including slapstick. The moral premise of the movie – the message the kids are supposed to take away with them – also seems to have got a bit confused somewhere along the way. Initially it very much looks like ‘take responsibility for your own actions,’ a creed so simple and laudable that anyone other than a British Prime Minister could get on board with it. But by the end it’s turned into ‘don’t needlessly muck about with the time-line’, which is a lot less clear-cut and has many fewer applications.

Lightyear still isn’t that bad a movie – there are some decent jokes, it’s well-assembled, and visually it’s a treat for the eyes. But the same is true of all the other Pixar films, including all the ones with scripts which are much better-constructed and with more genuine heart to them than this one. It’s certainly not the worst film of the summer, but future outings for our fragile plastic chum should only follow a bit of a rethink about the terms of engagement of the whole undertaking.

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Studio blockbusters these days have such massive resources behind them that it is very rare for them to be technically substandard in any appreciable way: art direction, production design, sound, special effects, and cinematography, all of them are usually no worse than extremely competent, and frequently excellent. So if you go to see one of these films you can at least be assured it will be pretty to look at and listen to. For this not to be the case would be about as surprising as the film missing a major sequence simply because they forgot to switch the camera on.

However, because this has become so standard, it follows that achievement in these areas is not in and of itself grounds to praise a movie, unless it really does feature something exceptional. All that this technical accomplishment has done is throw into sharp relief which films have good scripts and directors, and which are – not to put too fine a point on it – a load of old nonsense assembled by a hack. This brings us to Jurassic World: Dominion, directed by Colin Trevorrow. (This looks very much like a fridge title, like you couldn’t have guessed.)

For once the film takes pity on the casual filmgoer and opens with a brief recap of the state of play following the end of the last installment: following the escape of a dozen or so dinosaurs from a mansion somewhere in North America, four years later the prehistoric beasties have spread worldwide, multiplied seemingly like crazy, and are now a major pest, threatening to cause an ecological collapse. (If you think this doesn’t particularly make sense, well, what can I say, you’re right.)

What’s really striking is how little this situation informs most of the plot of the rest of the film, which has nothing to do with this clash of wildlife from different eras (unless you count the interactions of the multi-generational cast). The first main plot thread instead concerns tough former dinosaur trainer Duke Thundervest (Chris Pratt), who is still very reliant on his ability to calm down any dinosaur just by holding up his hand, and his wife Brenda Bigeyes (Bryce Dallas Howard) [Note to self – double-check character names before submitting final copy]. They have retired to the wilderness to raise their adopted teenage clone (Isabella Sermon) and are also occasionally looked in upon by one of Duke’s pet velociraptors, which has been through a sort of virgin birth experience. Bad guys working for an Evil Corporation kidnap both the clone and the baby velociraptor, which makes Duke and Brenda both cross and sad.

Meanwhile, and you may well be noting that dinosaurs do seem to be a bit tangential to everything that’s happening, giant locusts are threatening to devastate the world’s food supply – or at least those parts of it not controlled by the same Evil Corporation from the other plotline. Working the case is Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), and to help her, in a strikingly vague and general way, she recruits her old boyfriend Alan Grant (Sam Neill). We get another take on that scene where a character repeatedly says ‘I’m done, I’m finished with all that’ before immediately going off on one more adventure, which in this case also includes one of those moments where two characters call each other by their full names just for the audience’s benefit (‘Ellie Sattler!’ cries Alan Grant. ‘Alan Grant!’ cries Ellie Sattler).

Grant and Sattler are knocking on a bit for blockbuster movie characters, but they date back to the original 1993 Jurassic Park and so they have been allowed in for reasons of pure nostalgia. Sure enough, when they fly off to the Evil Corporation’s hide-out, it is with the help of their old acquaintance Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), who is one of the boffins in residence there. Needless to say, Duke and Brenda are heading in the same direction, but can there be anything more than a spurious and contrived link between the kidnapped clones and the giant locusts? (Answer: no, not really.)

The original Jurassic Park still stands up really well today, I would argue, mainly because it understands how to do a story about dinosaurs: the scientists responsible are misguided and quickly got rid of, and the film becomes a simple question of how not to get eaten. There is a unity of focus and purity of intent which is completely absent from the more recent films in the series. This film has an actual villain with a nefarious plan and various henchmen; stopping him and dealing with the minions is initially far more prominent in the movie than any dinosaur-related peril. From being the focus of the film, the dinosaurs become a kind of set dressing – the first act and a half often resembles a Bourne or Mission Impossible film in which people just happen to keep driving past a triceratops. Some of these sequences are very well staged – for example, a car-chase around Malta featuring laser-guided attack-dinosaurs – but it’s hard not to get the impression that somebody somewhere is missing the point.

Towards the end the dinosaur-related peril does improve a bit, with dialogue like ‘Are there dinosaurs in the mines?’ (the answer turns out to be a surprising ‘no’, technically, as the beasties in there are actually synapsids) and the usual chasing about. However, the decision to bring together the entire surviving principal casts of both iterations of this franchise, and also to include a bunch of new protagonists to broaden out the ethnicity of the genome a bit, results in some heroically unwieldy sequences, almost resembling a coach tour gone astray rather than the heroes of a blockbuster movie. (In the practically obligatory helicopter flight to safety at the end of the film, people are very noticeably having to sit on each other’s laps as there just wouldn’t be enough space otherwise.)

The whole thing is actually quite unwieldy and off-kilter, and conspicuously badly-written in places (one character, presented as a hard-bitten and self-interested mercenary when they first appear, undergoes a rapid and complete change of attitude and loyalty for no obvious reason at all). At least there aren’t any made-up dinosaurs this time – a tyrannosaurus gets wheeled on, rather like the Rocky Balboa of the Cretaceous Era, for a climactic tag-battle against a giganotosaurus, along with a therizinosaurus (another slightly off-the-wall choice). It seems like we are supposed to feel some kind of sympathy and attachment to this grizzled old thing, simply because it also was a fixture of the older films.

Speaking of grizzled old things… as noted, the eventual message of the film is the importance of life-forms from different geological ages getting along with each other. The only way it actually incorporates this idea is by putting Sam Neill and Chris Pratt in the same scenes during the final act. I have to say that the three elder stars really do make the most of their opportunity here and manage to be funny and charismatic and generally lift the film; it’s not a great experience even so, but without them I can only imagine it being a horrendous slog. Something awful seems to have happened to Chris Pratt: a light has flickered out behind his eyes and he is notably boring all the way through (he’s much, much more entertaining in the Thor trailer which is running before Dominion in most places).

(In my head I imagined an entirely different Jurassic Park sequel with Neill and Dern’s characters: a touching autumnal romance about two characters rekindling their relationship during an entirely peril-free visit to a quiet and extremely well-run dinosaur sanctuary. I’d pay to watch that. It would have more going for it than Dominion does, anyway.)

In the end Jurassic World: Dominion is the kind of sequel that feels like it exists only because the people responsible felt obliged to make a sequel. It doesn’t feel like there was a bold new idea or a radical reinvention of the concept burning in anyone’s mind. It just takes up all the bits from the recent films, adds a few really old ones, along with some new ones that don’t really belong, and idly shuffles them all around a bit half-heartedly. The result is a film which happens in front of you for a couple of hours, gradually getting louder, and then stops. Possibly you will have been entertained occasionally during all of this. But it feels like the work of a franchise which has gone extinct and just hasn’t noticed it yet.

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A new horror film from Alex Garland certainly deserves the attention of anyone interested in the genre: it was Garland, after all, who wrote 28 Days Later, arguably the most influential horror movie of the century so far. Since then Garland has established himself as a writer and director of stylish, usually unnerving and intellectually dense genre movies and TV series, all of which I have admired even if they have sometimes seemed hard to love.

This continues with his new movie, Men, which at first seems like the director exploring territory he hasn’t visited before. Jessie Buckley plays Harper Marlowe, a young woman from London who has decided to take a short break in the depths of the English countryside, to help her recover from a traumatic personal event. Already, perhaps you can discern that we are surrounded by a virtual thicket of genre conventions – variations on this same set up form the premise of Midsommar, Arachnophobia, The Stepford Wives, and too many other films to mention. The drive from the city to the village where most of the film is set is likewise the same symbolic journey that happens at the start of Dracula: a departure from the ‘ordinary’ world, and an entering into a place of Horror.

It soon becomes clear that Garland is very comfortable with laying it on thick, both with his use of genre tropes and when it comes to some rather obvious symbolism – virtually the first thing Harper does when she arrives at her rented country house (it’s a bit too grand to be a cottage) is pick an apple off the tree in the garden and tuck in; within minutes this is explicitly described as ‘forbidden fruit’, just to drive the allusion home. This comes from the gentleman renting her the house – Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), a posh and hearty country-squire type, who manages to massively patronise her while still seeming outwardly quite genial.

Once she has got rid of Geoffrey, Harper settles down to enjoying her break – flashbacks to what preceded it make it very clear just how badly she needs some respite – which includes a long walk in the nearby woods. Here she comes across a disused railway tunnel, which she has some fun making echoes in (the sound design in this scene, and indeed most of the movie, is terrific). However, this seems to awaken,  or stir up, something inside – a shadowy figure appears, and Harper finds herself fleeing home, catching sight of a naked man apparently following her out of the woods.

She ends up calling the police; a female constable is helpful and supportive, her male colleague rather less comforting. The local vicar proves to be unexpectedly handsy and likewise not much help: all the men in the village suggest that, whatever she thinks she’s been the victim of (and this extends to other events in her life), she’s either imagining it all, or is in fact actually to blame herself. Although this display of toxic male solidarity may be a bit less mysterious considering that all of them – Geoffrey, the vicar, the policeman, a young boy, the naked man, everyone in the local pub – are played by Rory Kinnear, using various wigs and prosthetics and bits of digital wizardry. Harper doesn’t seem to notice this, but soon comes to the conclusion that the men of the village seem to be conspiring together and that this is not the safe retreat she thought it would be…

It would be a brave person who attempted to suggest that Men is not, in fact, a genuine horror movie – there are some lavishly gory moments, not to mention a climactic sequence of such extravagant, semi-gynaecological grotesqueness that it’s bound to be known as ‘that film where Rory Kinnear [spoilers redacted] himself’ for years to come. Certainly Garland sprinkles it liberally with motifs and imagery redolent of the British folk-horror tradition. The verdancy and vibrancy of the countryside is almost palpable, and much use is made of the imagery of the Green Man, a folkloric figure symbolising fertility and rebirth, not to mention that of the sheela na gig, a cryptic figure appearing in carvings on older British churches.

However, while Men does a good job of looking and sounding like a folk horror movie, I think this is really camouflage for a quite different and rather more contemporary film. The conceit with Kinnear in multiple roles is almost played for laughs – ‘The League of Gentlemen directed by David Cronenberg’ is one critic’s slightly reductive take on the film, while others have compared it to Kind Hearts and Coronets – but it’s there to express a straightforward (and perhaps even slightly simplistic) idea, that all men are the same.

Certainly Harper has to deal with the same manipulative nonsense from every male character in the film – the only one not played by Kinnear is her former husband (Paapa Essiedu). She is consistently patronised and gaslit, and of course the question is whether this is a conscious conspiracy or whether it is the instinctive behaviour all men engage in. The casting conceit does essentially reduce the entire male gender to an amorphous, oppressive gestalt intent on causing her misery, usually while claiming the opposite. Needless to say this is very on-message for some elements of modern culture, and the notion is convincingly put across by the film, helped by effective direction from Garland and some very strong performances.

However, the problem with Men (the film, not the genre) is that this is the kind of piece of work where it makes perfect sense in terms of its subtext and moral premise: some of the symbolism may be a little obscure, but the message that Garland is trying to put across is absolutely clear. The problem is that what’s happening in terms of the narrative, the actual story, is not. The movie only works as a rather obvious allegory or fable; as a piece of fiction it is badly wanting.

Nevertheless that central metaphor is viscerally brought to life and Garland handles the surrounding trappings of a more traditional horror film with deftness and skill: parts of the film are repellent, others are genuinely suspenseful and creepy. It is a polished and memorable package – but even if you agree with the message at the centre of the film, there remains the sense that this is a film where the subtext was the main, possibly only consideration; certainly a satisfying narrative seems to have been very much a secondary concern. As a result I can imagine it infuriating and annoying as many people as it entertains.

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Do foreign language releases end up getting better reviews, on the whole, than your standard Anglophone movies? And if so, why? Well, you could argue that there are fewer seats at the table for subtitled films, so to speak, and it’s natural that only the cream of the crop will manage to rise to the top (I apologise for this metaphor, which seems to have got somewhat out of control on me). Or perhaps your serious critics are just prone to getting their heads turned by exotic foreign beasts.

Whatever the reason, earlier this year the Norwegian rom-com The Worst Person in the World got glowing notices from many critics. You would not expect, perhaps, the Norwegian sensibility to lend itself to frothy amatory misadventures, but it only goes to show the danger of believing in stereotypes. In any case, if you think that everything in Norway is dour and intense, Eskil Vogt’s The Innocents (N-title: De uskyldige) has arrived to confirm you in all of your preconception, not to mention possibly freak you out really badly. Vogt was the co-writer on Worst Person in the World, too, and thus ended up with two films showing at Cannes in the same year: now that’s just showing off.

The film opens with a young girl, Ida (Rakel Lenora Flottum – O with a line through it) moving into a new apartment building with her parents and sister – her sister, Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) is autistic, and demands a lot of attention from their parents. The film is quite clear that Ida’s response to this is an unthinking, petty viciousness; the first sign that this is not a film which will send you whistling from the auditorium.

The estate on which the girls now live is actually a really nice one, and their new apartment is also rather lovely – must be that Scandi genius for interior design, I suppose. The only downside is that they have arrived at the beginning of the summer holidays, and nearly everyone is away, leaving it deserted and rather eerie. While out playing, Ida makes friends with another resident, a young lad named Benjamin (Sam Ashraf). Benjamin casually shows her a trick he’s somehow learned how to do – she drops a discarded bottle-cap, which rather than falling straight to the ground whizzes off at an angle. Meanwhile, another girl on the estate, Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), discovers she has a strange connection with Anna – she can understand what the other girl is thinking, and even has a kind of clairvoyance where she is concerned.

It’s all very underplayed and a bit Stephen King, in an austere sort of way: there’s never any hint of an explanation as to why this particular group of children should have developed what are essentially psychic powers, it’s just essential to the premise of the film. Vogt treats it very casually and matter-of-factly, and yet at the same time something undeniably and horribly ominous is bubbling under the surface.

The children continue to play together as their powers burgeon, and Anna begins to make a seemingly-miraculous recovery from her condition, astonishing her parents. But these are still very young children, not yet possessing the maturity or self-control to understand the consequences of their actions. This is not an idealised depiction of childhood – Benjamin and Ida both have a penchant for cruelty, often aganst animals, which certainly earns this film a strong trigger warning for anyone troubled by such things. And when the children fall out, the consequences for them and the other people on the estate border on the nightmarish…

For the most part – there are a handful of really nasty moments – The Innocents is rather restrained, resembling some kind of social-realist drama more than anything else. And yet while watching it, I was most strongly reminded of some of the early horror movies made by David Cronenberg – the relentless pursuit of its theme, and the cool, detached attitude of the direction. It’s this, perhaps, which makes the film so tense and uncomfortable to watch. Nothing is sugar-coated, and the gaze of the camera is seldom diverted.

It soon becomes apparent that the title of the film is ironic, or at least not as straightforward as it first appears. Are the children really the innocents of the title? It depends. We are used to using innocent in the legal sense, which is to say not responsible for a particular crime or immoral act. But it seems to me that Vogt is suggesting another meaning: these children are innocent in the sense that they are not yet fully cognisant of the nature of good and evil. They are not yet truly moral agents as the film begins: they acquire that agency as the story unfolds, and they choose how to use their uncanny abilities.

In line with this notion, the film is notably non-judgmental even as the actions of the children become more extreme – one of them shows definite signs of going to the dark side – and what started out as a playground spat shows every indication of becoming a battle to the death. Where does someone’s character come from? The film makes no very great innovation when it suggests that one should ultimately blame the parents – children who are given love and attention and discipline ultimately develop a sense of moral responsibility; those who are indulged and ignored become a hazard to themselves and others.

It’s ultimately a rather conservative subtext for a movie, but it’s a coherent one and it certainly doesn’t feel trite or hackneyed in context. The rest of the film is quite unsettling and tense enough, anyway; I spent quite a lot of it hunched down in my seat with my fingers half over my eyes. This is mostly down to Vogt’s script and direction, but the acting from the children is impeccable, with a really remarkable performance from Ramstad. This is both a slow-burning thriller and a proper horror movie, and a profoundly disturbing and unsettling one at that. But it’s a horror movie dealing with serious ideas about childhood and morality, rather than rote scares and casual gore: fans of the more thoughtful end of the genre should certainly seek this film out, but everyone else might find it a bit too much to cope with.

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Waiting thirty-six years to do a sequel is fairly ridiculous – if the gap before Downton Abbey 3 is that long, it will be coming out in 2058 – but then again fairly ridiculous things do seem to be the wheelhouse of Tom Cruise these days. To be fair to the makers of Top Gun: Maverick, the inordinate delay is not entirely their fault – the film was originally supposed to come out nearly a decade a go, and was delayed by the death of the first film’s director, Tony Scott. (He has been replaced by Joseph Kosinski, who previously worked with Cruise on the good but derivative sci-fi movie Oblivion.) Then it was scheduled to come out in Summer 2019, only to be pushed back a year for technical reasons, and we all know what happened to the slate of releases for Summer 2020.

Hence the fact that the trailer for Top Gun: Maverick feels like it’s been a fixture at my local cinema forever; I’m actually slightly surprised it’s being released at all. Just let the trailer run indefinitely as a tribute to… oh, I don’t know what. It’s not a terrible trailer, after all. Anyone subscribing to the Muppet Theory (i.e. ‘everybody knows the sequel’s never quite as good’) could be forgiven for the odd qualm as the new film taxis into view – as I have previously observed, Top Gun is a bit like Dirty Dancing in that it is undeniably iconic, the subject of immense nostalgia, and not actually much good when you actually sit down and look at it properly.

The new film opens with virtually a carbon-copy reprise of the beginning of the 1986 film – same caption, same footage of planes trundling around on a carrier deck, same austere bonging on the soundtrack. This is a bit of a cheat as the aircraft carrier doesn’t properly feature in the film until well into the second hour. It soon becomes clear that, rather than flying a jet fighter off a warship, these days Tom Cruise has been assigned to Area 51: not because that’s where all the weird alien life forms get sent for examination, but because he’s now a test pilot for the Very Fast Planes Indeed Project. Here he promptly ticks off Admiral Ed Harris for flying one whole Mach faster than he is supposed to.

Harris is duly landed with the thankless task of reprising the scene where he supposedly wants to kick Cruise out of the Navy but ends up sending him on a special prestige assignment instead. This turns out to be teaching at the Top Gun school where most of the original film was set. No-one is pleased to see him there except for the landlady at the local pub, and this is not because Cruise is on the booze but because they have a romantic history together. She is played by Jennifer Connelly, who doesn’t get a lot to do to keep her interested, and the script attempts to finesse the awkward issue of parachuting in a new character with whom Cruise has an established relationship by making her someone who was mentioned but never seen in Top Gun.

Anyway, Cruise is there to train pilots for a suicidal mission to bomb a new uranium enrichment centre in enemy territory, which involves zig-zagging down a valley, flying over a mountain, hitting a thermal exhaust port with a bouncing bomb, etc etc. Being Cruise he accepts this assignment without batting an eyelid, but is finally given pause when he learns that one of his trainees is the now-grown son of his former buddy Goose, whose death provided what little emotional ballast the 1986 film possessed (the gosling is played by Miles Teller, who has been issued with what’s possibly the very same wispy moustache worn by Anthony Edwards wayback in the formerwhen). Can the pilots pull together and reduce the casualty risk from suicidal to merely insanely dangerous? Can Cruise bond with with his buddy’s kid and strike a blow for human pilots in an age of drone warfare? And can the film really get away with never mentioning exactly which country Cruise and the others are bombing?

I mean, really. The first film played a kind of nudge-wink game when it came to who exactly it was that Cruise was shooting down in the climax, but the new film keeps an entirely straight face on the topic, which feels particularly bizarre given a war is now in progress in Europe in which the US is very pointedly not participating. Admittedly, the bad guys are flying Su-57s, which are a primarily Russian jet, but they also have F-14s sitting around the place. Based on the landscape it looks like the Americans are bombing Norway, or possibly New Zealand. It’s undeniably problematic – it clearly wants to be a war film but it doesn’t seem that interested in what the actual war is.

It isn’t quite enough to properly spoil a slick and enjoyable action movie, which is – and this will surprise Muppet Theory adherents, even though the bar on this occasion is very low – appreciably better than the first one. It’s not just a vacuously good-looking film about how fantastic Tom Cruise and the US Navy are; it feels like there are proper stakes, the characters feel actually developed, and there is a genuine moral premise of sorts – the idea that human character and spirit have not yet been eclipsed by technology.

Admittedly, the film doesn’t handle this theme with a great deal of subtlety or nuance – the first two thirds of the film, and the beginning of the final act, are admirably restrained and gritty and everything is quite credible. But then the plot resolves through a sequence of such jaw-dropping silliness it’s hard to believe it hasn’t been edited onto the end of the film by some disgruntled junior producer as a prank. On the other hand it does feature some superb action and one of the best air combat set pieces I’ve ever seen. But it does feel like a film that was heading in a particular, quite sombre but nevertheless satisfying direction has been hijacked and sent somewhere a bit more cheery for the popcorn audience.

So in the end this is just a superior action movie rather than something which actually functions as a credible drama, for all that it is generally well-played and contains unexpected moments of humour and genuine emotion (that said, I found there to be something inescapably awkward about Val Kilmer’s cameo). Nevertheless, as an action movie it is often properly thrilling, which is what you want from this sort of thing, and I imagine it will satisfy fans of the original film and also those of Cruise in general. How the war-film element is handled is a bit problematic, but in other respects this is a fairly impressive piece of machine-tooled entertainment.

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There are a number of noteworthy and unusual things about Everything Everywhere All At Once, directed by ‘Daniels’ (this is the working name for the duo Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert); the film has apparently done unexpectedly well across a long and carefully-managed release, it is an (almost unprecedented) star vehicle for a leading lady a quarter-century on from her turn as a Bond girl; and there is the simple fact that the film is so damn weird. What is not so noteworthy or unusual is the film’s theme, which concerns an infinite multiplicity of closely connected parallel worlds and the main character’s perception of them. This is pretty standard story material at the moment, as we have already noted.

Michelle Yeoh, whose star has waxed impressively in the last five or six years despite her appearing in some (to my mind) decidedly iffy projects, plays Evelyn, a Chinese immigrant to America who has devoted her life to running a not especially successful laundrette with her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan, making what is surely one of the most impressive comebacks in recent years). But her relationship with her daughter (Stephanie Hsu) and father (James Hong, a veteran actor with a remarkable CV) is not good.

Worst of all, the business is being audited by the IRS, requiring all of them to go to the local tax office and contend with a not entirely sympathetic official (Jamie Lee Curtis). But strange things begin to occur as they arrive: Waymond in particular starts acting very oddly, writing strange notes to Evelyn giving her rather peculiar instructions. When she eventually follows them, she finds her consciousness transported into the janitor’s closet, which contains another version of her from a parallel universe. Or is the whole closet in another parallel universe? (It’s probably best not to worry too much about this kind of minor detail – and the thing about Everything Everywhere All At Once is that which universe the characters are in at any given moment really does constitute a minor detail.)

Well, it turns out that a parallel-universe version of Waymond is looking for Evelyn; or, to be exact, looking for an iteration of her with the potential to defeat a tyrannical multiversal despot named Jobu Tupaki (‘You’re just making up noises,’ complains Evelyn when told of this, not unreasonably). Jobu Tupaki has created a bagel with the potential to destroy the infinity of the multiverse (I promise you that this really is the plot), which interested parties are obviously keen to stop.

Fairly soon parallel-universe minions of Jobu Tupaki and members of other factions are possessing the bodies of their counterparts in Evelyn’s universe, intent on causing her some mischief, and so it falls to her to borrow the skills of some of her other iterations in order to fend them off (given Yeoh’s pedigree in Hong Kong action cinema you can probably imagine how this turns out). But what is the secret of Jobu Tupaki and can the apocalyptic bagel be neutralised before the whole of creation suffers?

Having just read that back I am aware that Everything Everywhere All At Once sounds like one of the stupidest, or at least most bloody-mindedly whimsical films ever made – and it does contain many moments which are finely-crafted pieces of absurdism and surrealism: quite apart from doomsday baked goods, there are transcendental paper cuts, dialogue scenes between rocks, and people doing things with trophies that defy genteel description. Not for the first time, the essentially cautious nature of the Marvel project is thrown into sharp relief by a smaller movie – the Dr Strange sequel suddenly looks very restrained indeed compared to the relentless frantic daftness of this film, both of them of course playing the idea of a multiplicity of parallel worlds. (What briefly resembled a spat between the two films on Twitter is rather peculiar given that talent both behind and in front of the camera on Everything Everywhere All At Once has been involved in Marvel Studios projects.)

It’s not quite as arbitrarily silly as it sounds, for there are rules and reasons for nearly everything that happens. What it really feels like, and I’m aware I don’t usually like this kind of reductionist comparison, is The Matrix blended with an offbeat indie comedy-drama: the kung fu stuff is great, even if it is quite daft, there’s a fairly solid rationale behind it all (though you do have to hang on really tight to keep track of all of the plot), and – somehow – underpinning everything is a relatively serious story about a woman coming to terms with her life and her relationships with her family.

It takes a while to get here, naturally, and one of the criticisms I’d make is that the endless possibilities that the film explores turn out to be just a bit too endless: I’d say it was about 15-20% too long, with most of the fat coming in the second and third acts. There are still some good jokes and inspired ideas, but I found myself flagging as the film bounced through yet another new take on its characters and concepts without much going on in the way of forward motion.

This being, at least in part, a film about the Chinese-American experience, it’s not entirely surprising that it eventually resolves as a kind of family saga – this is one of those films where colossal mayhem and an apocalyptic threat proves to be mainly a pretext for the protagonist to sort out their domestic relationships. But it’s a bit deeper than that – rather as with the TV series Life After Life, it eventually tackles concepts of existentialism and nihilism – if you can have or be everything, then ultimately you reach a point where nothing means anything. I’m not entirely convinced by the film’s solution to this particular philosophical quandary, but it at least does present some kind of answer to it.

Everything Everywhere All At Once is the kind of film which looks brilliant and inspired in the trailer; the challenge is how to take such a soaringly high concept and turn it into a functional and satisfying narrative. The Daniels do a pretty good job with it, in the end, although this is not a film which is especially strong on coherence. Nevertheless, there are so many good individual bits to enjoy that I am very happy to overlook the flaws in the overall story. It’s a mad and challenging film, but I mean that in the most positive way.

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Smaller studios and mid-budget mainstream films scatter and run for cover as the dominant force in popular cinema makes its presence felt once more: yes, Marvel return with Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, a somewhat baroque title which nevertheless is certainly appropriate for the film. That said, there are a number of factors which may combine to have some viewers expecting things which aren’t quite there in the movie: given the striking level of ambition some other Marvel productions have shown, perhaps this is only to be expected.

Benedict Cumberbatch is back in leading-man mode as surgeon-turned-sorcerer Stephen Strange, who is generally acclaimed for his role in saving the universe a few movies back but still not entirely happy in his personal life (as is practically obligatory for a Marvel character). The doc is also afflicted by bad dreams, specifically one about a young woman being pursued by malevolent supernatural forces while being aided by a slightly different version of him.

Well, the girl from the dream crashes a wedding reception Strange is at, pursued by a big gribbly demon, and naturally he saves the day and rescues her (with a little help from Wong (Benedict Wong), whom these movies have done an impressive job of making into much more than just a sidekick). She turns out to be America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a unique individual in that there is only one iteration of her in the entirety of the multiverse of parallel worlds, and she has the gift of being able to travel between the different worlds almost at will. Naturally this makes her a person of interest, especially to a powerful and ruthless supernatural being who wants to kill America and steal her power.

Well, Strange and his various allies (in addition to Wong, he goes to the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) for help) aren’t going to stand for that sort of thing, but needless to say they find themselves hard-pressed and Strange and America have to flee through a series of other parallel worlds, some of them jarringly odd, others rather familiar. But can they find a way of saving America’s life and defeating their adversary for good?

As noted here passim over the last decade or so, it’s quite rare for Marvel to turn out a movie which is not a solidly constructed and imaginative piece of entertainment – crowd-pleasers are what they do, and anyone who usually enjoys a Marvel film is likely going to enjoy this one too. Expectations are probably higher than usual for this one, partly because it’s directed by Sam Raimi (who has previously made some of the best Marvel superhero films ever), but also because it’s following on the heels of Spider-Man: No Way Home, another film with Cumberbatch which was deeply involved in matters multiversal.

Well, there are elements of Multiverse of Madness which certainly seem to be informed by Raimi’s CV as a director, but rather further back than his Spider-Man trilogy: there’s much more of a horror movie vibe to this film than anything else Marvel have done on the big screen recently. Some moments in the film are unexpectedly grisly and macabre, although I wouldn’t describe it as actually being any more scary than most mainstream films.

The multiversal element of the film is likely to be one of the things that may throw and possibly disappoint especially ardent viewers: following the cameo-stuffed pleasures of No Way Home, there has been a lot of excitable on-line chatter about just who could be turning up in this film. It’s tricky to talk about this without risking spoilers, obviously, but expectation management might not be a bad idea here – the closest thing the film has to a big gosh-wow moment won’t really come as a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention to the publicity for it. The rest of its surprises are clever, but you really need to be a devotee to get all the references and jokes, to the point where a Disney+ subscription is almost obligatory. This is certainly the case with a major element of the film’s plot, which is arguably lacking in the dear old objective correlative if you haven’t seen the applicable streaming series.

This is possibly a problem for the film, as it makes a big deal out of seeing alt-universe versions of familiar characters, certainly at the expense of other possible ways of exploring the multiverse concept. Strange is repeatedly asked if he’s really happy, and you might expect the film to explore the possibility of a world which has a Strange-iteration who genuinely is content. There’s dramatic potential here, obviously, but the idea is never really gone into – a typhoon of CGI and fan-friendly death-matches are what the script plumps for.

Long-term viewers might also be inclined to raise an eyebrow at how a character who was originally presented as powerful but not exceptional has, over the course of their last few appearances, become a virtually unstoppable force of reality-warping cosmic power, but that’s what the script here requires, I guess: in the same way, while the comics version of Doctor Strange is so nebulously omnipotent he’s often sidelined, treated as a plot device more than a character, the movie character is much more fallible and limited much of the time. He spends a lot of this film looking worried and running away – but, as I say, it’s all about the requirements of the story.

Nevertheless, the movie has a charm and energy of its own, especially in its weirder moments. This is what you hire Sam Raimi for, after all. What’s perhaps a little unexpected and quite pleasing is the fact that – for all its metaphysical extravagance – the impulse driving the plot is firmly rooted in recognisable human emotions and drives. This gives the actors something they can really work with – and while Cumberbatch is as good value as ever at the centre of the film, what’s really eyecatching is a very impressive performance by Elizabeth Olsen, almost certainly the best she’s given in a Marvel movie. The various ghoulies and spectres the film summons up are very insignificant compared to the moment of genuine emotional anguish at the heart of the story. It’s this which holds the film together and keeps it satisfying even when some of its peripheral pleasures threaten to become rather unravelled.

This even extends to the ending of the film, which comes close to being a less-than-fully-satisfying cliffhanger (maybe even more than one). If this latest phase of Marvel films is heading in a particular direction, what that direction is is by no means clear yet. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a mid-table entry for this franchise (perhaps just a little higher than average), but I don’t imagine the huge audiences Marvel movies routinely attract will be disappointed by it.

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A £194 million return on a £20 million budget, when combined with a built-in audience and established name recognition, means only one thing: guaranteed sequel! So here we are with Downton Abbey: A New Era, directed by Simon Curtis, written by Julian Fellowes (the creator of the TV show) and starring all the usual suspects.

I find myself sort of wondering about what it is exactly that makes this a ‘new era’, as to me it all looks very similar to the old era, or at least the first film. I was taken along to see this by the family when it came out in 2019, and – to save you the bother of going back and re-reading the original review – found it rather perplexing. This is mainly because I’ve never seen an episode of the TV show, which is obviously a disadvantage when it comes to a film series which is essentially a direct continuation of it.

The general sense of bemusement persisted as the new film got underway. It opens with a wedding which basically the entire principal cast attend – with a few exceptions (genial peer Hugh Bonneville, demonic matriarch Maggie Smith, redoubtable butler Jim Carter) I had no recollection of who any of them were. But the thing to remember about Downton is that all you really need to understand is the key division between the toffs upstairs and the plebs downstairs. The toffs are delighted being waited on hand and foot; the plebs seem equally delighted to be doing the waiting, though the reasons why are more obscure.

Paying close attention to the details of the film reveals we are in the year 1928, where the two main plotlines are jolted into motion by a letter from a French lawyer, revealing that Maggie Smith has inherited a villa within spitting distance of the Riviera from a mysterious man from her past, and a request from the film company British Lion to make a movie on location at the mansion itself. (Dearie me, from producing and distributing films of the calibre of The Third Man and The Wicker Man to providing background verisimilitude in a Downton Abbey movie – sic transit gloria mundi.)

Well, mainly because the mansion needs a new roof, they agree to let all the ghastly film-making people move in for a month, but only because many of the characters will be off in France discussing the new property with its former owners, not all of whom are particularly inclined to honour the bequest. Needless to say all the below-stairs plebs get tremendously excited by the prospect of mixing with film stars (Dominic West and Laura Haddock do the honours) and even sensible-but-quietly-naughty Lady Something-or-Other lets herself get dragged into helping the production out. Meanwhile, the visitors to France struggle to cope with their alien continental ways while revelations about Maggie Smith’s past threaten to bring on an existential crisis for the earl himself…

It’s possible that the makers of the first Downton Abbey movie got a bit stung by criticisms that it was not really a film after all, but basically a double-length episode of the TV show released into cinemas. Certainly one of the trailers for the new one banged on at great length about how ‘cinematic’ it is, and how it cries out for the big screen experience. Well, there’s certainly something you could describe as cinematic about Downton Abbey: The New Era, even if it’s just the fact that it cheerfully knocks off elements from a bona fide movie like Singin’ in the Rain – there’s a plotline about an actress who looks fabulous but doesn’t have the voice for a career in talkies which feels awfully familiar. The everyone-goes-on-a-foreign-holiday storyline, on the other hand, is more of a staple of less distinguished fare like the big-screen versions of Are You Being Served? and The Inbetweeners (which Laura Haddock was also in, funnily enough).

Comparisons to the ignoble tradition of the big-screen sitcom spin-off movie seem to me to be justified, as one of the odd things about Downton Abbey: The New Era is the general tone of the thing. We’re talking, essentially, about a soap opera, which in theory should have a mixture of tones – lighter storylines mixed with more serious material. And in theory this is happening here too. But the strange thing is that everything feels like it’s being pitched as comedy: broad, knockabout comedy in the case of the plebs, something marginally more refined and sophisticated in the case of the toffs. At one point a character is given cause to doubt their parentage, their heritage, their very identity, a moment of absolute shock. And (at the screening we went to) it got a laugh. Someone dies, and – despite a bizarre, bathos-laden moment where someone performs a soliloquy from King Lear – their death scene is built around a series of zingy one-liners.

Some of the cast members are good enough to make this stuff work, but a lot of the time I think the film is trading on the existing affection the audience is presumed to have for these characters: there is, needless to say, a degree of sentimentality going on throughout. Not much effort is made to keep things accessible for newcomers, anyway – beautiful scenery and architecture only goes so far, and the structure of the film feels odd. I expected the film to start wrapping up when everyone came back from France, but it continues for a good half-hour longer wrapping up various plot elements and dealing with a whole new development that, again, won’t necessarily mean much to new viewers.

Although you do wonder what the target audience for this film actually is. I watched it with someone who has requested their identity be kept a secret, and their view – and I feel the need to stress that they really liked this film a lot more than me – was that it was ‘like a film made for people with dementia’. I know exactly what they meant – time after time, once a scene has concluded the next scene features a bunch of the supporting characters convening as a kind of Greek chorus to tell each other, in considerable detail, what has just happened in the previous scene, discuss the significance of it, and wonder about what’s going to happen next. ‘On-the-nose’ barely begins to do justice to the kind of dialogue involved in these interludes, and it’s not as if the plot is even that complicated in the first place.

Then again, as I suggested when writing about the first film, this is all an exercise in comfortable familiarity and more-of-the-same. It’s a Downton Abbey movie, and the Downton Abbey part of that formulation is vastly more important than the movie part. I thought this film was interestingly weird, but it would be a stretch to say that I honestly enjoyed any of it. Then again, I’m not sure I was ever really supposed to.

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No movie this year is likely to have a more impressive or gorgeous soundtrack than Guiseppe Tornatore’s Ennio. The title itself is a dead giveaway as to the reason why: this is a documentary about the life and career of Ennio Morricone, the – and here one must pause for a moment to express regret that the language has become so debased, and some words so overused – legendary musician and composer. (The Italian title of the movie is Ennio – The Master.) Morricone departed from this frame of existence in 2020, a fact the film does not acknowledge despite it being completed after this happened. But on the other hand it does suggest that Morricone’s music will always be with us, and so to what extent can we really say that he has gone?

There is a good deal of gushing about Morricone’s work before the film is over, but this is not just a puff piece or a hagiography – it’s a film which strives to take both itself and its subject seriously. Given the sumptuous treasures of Morricone’s back catalogue, the film opens with the somewhat bold choice of no music whatsoever, just a ticking metronome. This plays over film of the 90-odd Morricone going about his daily fitness regime with great seriousness. (Exercise the Ennio Way was never released as a workout DVD, but I don’t think this is a great loss to the sum total of human culture.)

Various contributors say nice things about Morricone and it soon becomes clear that this documentary is not going to be indulging in any great formal innovations or stylistic surprises. We learn about Morricone’s childhood in occupied Rome, and his relationship with his father, who insisted he learn to play the trumpet. This led to studies at a conservatoire by day, and jazz trumpeting by night, and so on. By the early 1960s he was in enormous demand as an arranger of material in the Italian pop industry, which eventually led to a commission to write a film score – and ultimately a series of collaborations with his old school friend Sergio Leone, resulting in a series of movies which would change the face of cinema forever.

I would happily have turned up to the cinema just to listen to a selection of Morricone’s greatest hits for two and a half hours – this film is not afraid to go into some detail – and so it was a little disappointing that few of his most celebrated compositions get played at length. But I suppose being able to listen to Ecstasy of Gold whenever you like is one of the things that justifies the existence of the internet, and the documentary is not just here to remind you of things you probably already know about.

I’ve seen at least one documentary on the topic of film composition in general which suggested that the distinctive thing about Morricone’s work is not that he was particularly interested in innovation, but had a mastery of melody unparallelled even amongst other famous film composers. Ennio rather implies that all of this is actually complete balderdash, as it takes pains to give proper credit to Morricone’s other career as a composer of what he called ‘absolute’ music, music for its own sake, much of it highly experimental and avant garde (pieces where tape recorders and typewriters are instruments, and so on). It’s suggested that Morricone was rather dismissive of melodic music, which is a huge surprise given this is the man who wrote (for example) Gabriel’s Oboe.

Then again, one of the themes that recurs again and again throughout the film is Morricone’s own ambivalence about devoting so much of his energy to film music – one contemporary, who chose to work solely as a classical composer and musician, recalls how Morricone referred to to him as a purist, but to himself as a traitor. There are several moments when directors recall offending Morricone by expecting him simply to repeat or debase himself and his craft, usually drawing a fiery response as a result.

However, the film also chronicles Morricone’s ascent from simple movie composer to internationally revered artist, and in the process it touches upon all the things you might expect – his work on the Eastwood-Leone spaghetti westerns, culminating in his titanic score for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and then eventually moving on to the extraordinary period in the 1980s where he provided scores for Once Upon a Time in America, The Mission, and The Untouchables in the space of a few years. The creation of the score for The Mission is covered in particular detail, a section which concludes with an especially irascible Morricone complaining that the eventual winner of the Oscar for Best Score (Morricone’s lack of success at the Academy Awards does seem like one of those bizarre historical anomalies) should not in fact have been eligible for the category.

Of course, Morricone worked almost until the end of his life, and – rather charmingly – eventually received a competitive Oscar nearly ten years after being given an honorary lifetime achievement award. It’s on this note that the film chooses to conclude, mentioning in passing the abiding popularity and influence of Morricone’s music.

As I say, it’s a serious piece of work, seeking to inform as much as entertain – there’s a lot of relatively technical music theory mentioned in passing. On the other hand, one thing which happens over and over again is Morricone (and others) attempting to talk about music, finding that the human voice fails them, and resorting to going dee-de-dah-de-tumpty-tump as an expression of what they’re trying to say, which is oddly endearing. Music does seem to spill out of Morricone throughout the film; one contributor suggests that his work constitutes prima facie evidence for the existence of God, the kind of assertion which might give one pause if it were said about almost anyone else.

Needless to say, the film is not short of people willing to come on and sing the Maestro’s praises, including film directors and musicians of all stripes. One almost gets the sense that Tornatore was simply collecting big-name contributors, some of whom just come on for a few seconds. It would certainly have been interesting to hear more from John Williams (surely the only person to seriously challenge Morricone for the title of most celebrated movie composer of all time) and Hans Zimmer (one of the dominant figures in the genre these days), but the film chooses quantity over depth.

At over two and a half hours, this is a substantial piece of work, and the sheer seriousness and comprehensiveness of it may also make it challenging for some viewers (as noted, it’s not just the well-known tunes, but more obscure phases of Morricone’s career and some of his avant garde work). But it comes back again and again to the fact that Ennio Morricone spent decades making some of the most beautiful art of the twentieth century. Much of it is there in the documentary, which makes it a wonderful reminder as well as an impressive guide to the great man’s career. Worth watching for anyone interested in music, or cinema as an art form.

 

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Every once in a while a film comes along which you can tell that the usual channels of publicity and distribution are struggling to cope with – it’s a bit left-field, in other words, possibly doing something weird with genres, and it’s not at all clear who the actual target audience is. One pretty reliable sign of this is that the trailer for it starts showing up in all sorts of odd places, as the result of a ‘enough mud sticks’ advertising strategy.

The current case in point for this sort of thing is Tom Gormican’s The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. The title itself is perhaps a bit indicative as it sounds like it might be a reference to something else, but it’s not clear exactly what – The Unbearable Lightness of Being? Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close? Something else entirely?

Things start off conventionally enough, as a young woman is kidnapped at gunpoint. The film pays an unusual level of attention to the film she’s watching at the time, however (it is the rather good 1997 action movie Con Air), particularly its star, Nicolas Cage. However, we are soon off into the strange netherworld where The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent takes place.

We find ourselves at a meeting between film director David Gordon Green (David Gordon Green) and actor and movie star Nick Cage (Nicolas Cage). Cage is, it seems, an insecure, self-obsessed, and almost pathologically needy egomaniac, who insists on performing selections from Green’s latest script in the restaurant where they are having lunch. (Nick Cage is haunted by the spectral figure of his own uninhibited younger self; the actor credited in this role is ‘Nicolas Kim Coppola’.) Barely credibly, he does not get the part, which has an unfortunate influence on Cage’s contribution to his teenage daughter’s birthday party. His latest ex-wife (Sharon Horgan) throws him out as a result, sending him into a bit of a slump. (I feel the need to make it clear that Nicolas Cage and Sharon Horgan have never actually been married in what is generally agreed to be real life.)

Salvation, financially at least, comes when Cage is invited to Mallorca for the birthday party of an immensely rich super-fan, Javi (Pedro Pascal) – basically a paid personal appearance. It doesn’t do much for his mood, however, and Javi is appalled to discover that Cage is considering giving up acting – especially as he hasn’t even read the screenplay Javi has written for him yet.

But Nick Cage finds he has bigger problems, when he is picked up off the street by the CIA. Lead agent Tiffany Haddish reveals that Javi isn’t just an innocuous multi-millionaire, but the head of an international criminal cartel which has recently kidnapped the daughter of an influential politician. The CIA needs someone on the inside of Javi’s compound to locate and free the missing girl – could this be the role that Cage has been waiting for?

Well. Deciding whether this film is for you or not is a fairly straightforward question, and that question is ‘Do you want to spend one-hundred-and-seven minutes watching Nicolas Cage send himself up?’ Clearly someone believes there is a large enough audience that does, although this same someone may also have spent too much time on the internet and listening to the dozens of podcasts which concern themselves with the actor and his career. It is quite hard to imagine this film being made with any other actor in the lead role, mainly because Cage has become such an outlandish and mockable figure over the few years or so – stories abound about his ‘nouveau shamanic’ acting method, while his career trajectory over the last few decades (from Oscar-winning Hollywood A-lister to a string of DTV movies with titles like Jiu Jitsu and Kill Chain) would also indicate a career experiencing a degree of crisis. (I should perhaps mention that a Cage renaissance may well be in progress: Cage’s most recent movies have received favourable reviews and – perhaps more importantly – played in theatres.)

Whatever else this film has going for it, it is built around an immensely game and extremely funny performance by Cage himself, although of course it’s hard to be sure just how much of a stretch it is for Nicolas Cage to play Nick Cage. (Fictional-Cage’s personal history is slightly different from real-Cage’s.) It’s probably also worth mentioning that this is an essentially generous film, with no sign of any desire to really mock or deride its star (it’s doubtful whether Cage himself would have been dumb enough to sign up for such a role.

Beyond that, it’s a little unclear exactly what the idea behind this film is, beyond perhaps just being the Nicolas-Cage-iest movie ever made. There’s something quite meta and undeniably clever about the way the film manages to combine elements of the sort of semi-experimental film Cage was occasionally appearing in twenty years ago – he played a fictionalised version of Charlie Kaufman, not to mention Kaufman’s entirely fictional twin, in Adaptation – with the kind of action-movie nonsense which has bulked out his career since parting company with the mainstream last decade. But the emphasis is always on knockabout, broad comedy and Cage hamming it up; there’s a suggestion of something cleverer and more subtle – Nick Cage and Javi start collaborating on a screenplay, which as it develops takes on a suspicious resemblance to the plot of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent – but this extra layer of self-referentiality is not as central to the movie as it would be if this really was a Kaufman script.

Nevertheless, it’s all ridiculous enough to be consistently entertaining, and Cage is well supported by Pascal and Horgan (who is as majestic as ever). The Javi role is a tricky one, as it calls for someone who can work opposite Cage without being completely overshadowed, but who still isn’t what you’d call an actual star in the same way he is. Pascal is a shrewd choice for this, as he’s currently experiencing a bit of a career moment, but also best known for a role where he has a bucket on his head most of the time. He is clearly a smart enough actor to figure out that he’s here to support Cage rather than actually co-star in the movie, but manages to do so in a way which should earn him some credit.

In some ways a knockabout, acutely self-referential comedy is the last film you would expect to find Nicolas Cage appearing in – but then this actor’s cult has largely been born of his willingness to make unusual choices. It would be nice to think that such a distinctive and charismatic performer has another act left in his career that will see him return from the DTV wilderness and do some genuinely interesting work again. It’s quite hard to tell whether The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a step on that journey or just another nail in the coffin of the whole idea of Nicolas Cage as a serious actor, but – always assuming you enjoy watching Cage – it’s a lot of fun while it lasts.

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