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Posts Tagged ‘Chiwetel Ejiofor’

In terms of premises for apocalyptic fiction, nuclear holocausts seem to have gone out of fashion in recent years, replaced (perhaps understandably) by climate change, pandemic, and zombie uprisings (now more than ever, an interestingly flexible metaphor). Given there are still the best part of 4,000 active nuclear weapons in the world, we could argue about whether the fact we seem less worried about all going up a mushroom cloud is sensible or not, but one way or another the idea just doesn’t seem to interest creative people any more. Unless they’re working on something which had its origins in the age of atomic angst, such as Craig Zobel’s 2015 film Z for Zachariah. (Zobel isn’t a particularly well-known director; his most recent film, The Hunt, was one of those that had its release clobbered when lockdown closed all the cinemas.)

The film is based on Robert C O’Brien’s posthumous and, it seems to me, quite well-known novel. Margot Robbie plays Anne, a young woman living alone in an isolated valley somewhere in the midwest of America (although the film is an international co-production and was filmed in New Zealand). There has been some kind of nuclear war and the world outside the valley is now irradiated and uninhabitable (quite a few books from years gone by have curious ideas about the spread and effects of nuclear fall-out: see, for instance, Nevil Shute’s On the Beach and its film adaptation). Her family have one-by-one all departed the family farm to go in search of help or other survivors, and – unsurprisingly – not returned.

There are a few scenes of Anne’s solitary and perhaps lonely life in the valley; she is a devout young woman and this seems to be something of a consolation to her. Soon enough, though – perhaps too soon for the success of the film – she finds a stranger has made his way into her world: a man in a radiation suit, named Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor). However, Loomis makes the mistake of swimming in a contaminated pool and falls gravely ill with radiation poisoning. Being a kindly sort, Anne takes him in and nurses him back to health.

Loomis recovers and confirms that the world outside the valley is essentially dead, and that their only hope for the future is to stay where they are and make the best of what resources they have. Things are a little awkward between them, however: Anne is young and not especially well-educated, while the more mature Loomis is a scientist and engineer with a different perspective on the world. When he proposes tearing down the chapel built by Anne’s father to provide raw materials for a building project, this is a source of tension between them. But there are other realities of the two of them living together long-term which he seems, perhaps, a little quicker to grasp than she is…

So far the film has stayed relatively close to O’Brien’s story, although the whole issue of why it’s called Z for Zachariah is skipped over somewhat (Anne’s reading of the Bible has led her to conclude that as the first man in the world was named Adam, so the last man must be called Zachariah): the book revolves around the disintegration of the relationship between Anne and Loomis as his true nature becomes apparent. The pace of the movie has been a little stately and the feel of it slightly theatrical (the actors are given plenty of space and time for their performances, especially Robbie), but this isn’t really a problem.

What is a problem is what comes next… or at least, it seems like a problem to me, for (as long-term readers will know) I am of that breed of weird eccentric who turns up for an adaptation of a book expecting it to have essentially the same story as that book. I know, stupid and unreasonable, but there you go. What happens next in the film of Z for Zachariah is that a third character turns up: Caleb, played by Chris Pine (I’m not going to have another go at Chris Pine at this point; his performance here is perfectly acceptable). Caleb is a former coal-miner and comes from a background much more like Anne’s than Loomis does. The two of them have a chemistry perhaps missing between Anne and the older man. Can the three of them find a way of living together amicably…?

Well, look, not to put too fine a point on it, but this is such a fundamental change to the story that it sends the whole thing off into the realms of being an adaptation in name only (adding a third character to a story the sine qua non of which is that it only features two characters will have that effect). You can’t really do a story about a young woman’s relationship with the last man on Earth if there are two last men in it (I was wondering what a better and more accurate name for this might be, which has led me to realise how very few traditional western first names start with a Y). Whatever the merits of this story – and it does hang together as a story solidly enough – it’s not O’Brien’s story. This bears as much resemblance (if not more) to other stories of tricky post-apocalyptic relationships, such as The Quiet Earth and The World, the Flesh and the Devil, as it does to the novel of Z for Zachariah.

(I was so annoyed by this that I tried to track down a copy of a genuine adaptation of the novel, the BBC version from 1984. This relocates the story to Wales but retains the actual narrative. Obviously a product of the same era of nuclear anxiety as films like Threads, what I saw of it seemed bleak and dour, with an equally slow start – although Anne’s family do appear in flashbacks. However, this was a two-hour film and I could only find the first hour online, so I can’t really comment on it any further.)

As a tale of obsession and controlling relationships in a post-apocalyptic setting, the movie is pretty reasonably done, although I did find the studied ambiguity of the conclusion to be a little bit irritating. What keeps it watchable despite the stately pace and the vague sense that you’ve seen similar stories told in fairly similar ways many times before are the performances: Ejiofor is always good, but here he’s in very much a secondary role. The movie is essentially a vehicle for Margot Robbie to show her range and perhaps be a bit less obviously blonde than usual (by which I mean this is a role where she de-glams herself, does a regional accent, and so on).

This isn’t a terrible movie if you like your slow-burning post-apocalyptic melodramas, especially if you like one or more of the actors involved. However, I do think the title is badly misleading and maybe even just there to lure in people familiar with the book. Z for Zachariah is not in any meaningful sense an adaptation of Z for Zachariah, and the fact it’s trying to pass itself off as one just makes me less inclined to recommend it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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You may relax, your calendar is not broken: there are, as usual, two Marvel Studios films on release this year, it’s just that one of them hasn’t come out until now – not quite the first time the studio has done something like this, but not exactly their standard practice either. Anyway, not content to rest on their laurels and do another sequel with an established brand, Marvel have opted to press on with bringing what sometimes feels like their entire catalogue of characters to the big screen (well, except the ones that Fox still have the rights to, anyway). This time, Scott Derrickson has been put in charge of adapting one of Marvel’s less prominent properties, a bit of a cult character from years gone by, if the truth be told. Yes, finally, it’s a movie version of Night Nurse!

Well, not quite, although one of the Night Nurse characters does appear (another one is sort-of in the Daredevil TV show, of course). No, the new movie is Doctor Strange, based on one of the few major Marvel characters not to primarily be a Stan Lee-Jack Kirby creation – on this occasion Lee worked with Steve Ditko. This was the same pairing which created Spider-Man, so you would think that the omens were good. Well, sort of, but we’ll come to that.

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Stephen Strange, a brilliant but egotistical and obnoxious neurosurgeon, is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who is probably overdue to be making a major appearance in this kind of movie. (Yes, this does mean that Dr Strange is technically one of those superheroes who operates using his real name.) Strange has sort of nibbled around the edges of a romance with fellow doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) – the Night Nurse character to whom I alluded earlier – but having a relationship is tricky as he is really much more in love with himself.

Things inevitably change when Strange is involved in a serious road accident which leaves him with severely damaged hands, thus ending his surgical career. Exhausting his fortune in pursuit of some kind of treatment for his condition, he eventually learns of a school in Nepal where apparently-miraculous cures have been known to happen. (The school obviously isn’t in Tibet, because Marvel want to sell their movie in China.) There, he encounters a mystic teacher known as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her disciple Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and rapidly discovers that this is actually a school for your actual magicians and sorcerers…

Well, this isn’t enough to rattle a character played by a performer of the magnitude of Benylin Thundercrack, and so Dr Strange signs on to learn to become a magician, though he is excused the scene with the Sorting Hat and also quidditch practice. What he doesn’t know at first, however, is that a fallen disciple of the Ancient One (played by Mads Mikkelson) has entered into a pact with the dread Dormammu, tyrant of the Dark Dimension, and is planning to conspire in the world’s destruction in exchange for eternal life. Is there a doctor in the house?

It may seem a little odd for Marvel to have held Doctor Strange back until eight years into their franchise-of-franchises undertaking, especially when more minor characters (Ant-Man, the Guardians of the Galaxy) have already made their movie debuts. Maybe so, but Dr Strange has always been a slightly tricky proposition as a character – Steve Ditko’s extraordinary psychedelic artwork in the early issues from the 60s led many observers to assume that the only magic involved came from mushrooms, while from a story point of view, Dr Strange is often presented as so nebulously omnipotent that he can be very difficult to write for.

So, very nearly full marks to Derrickson and his team for coming up with a movie that is distinctively Strange while still remaining wholly accessible (I would guess) to the uninitiated viewer. (I’m sure casting a very popular performer like Cumbersome Bandersnatch won’t hurt the box office numbers either.) Marvel’s policy these days seems to be to offer up something which is partly very familiar and partly rather new, and it continues here.

I feel I should mention that one of my friends who I saw the film with disagreed, suggesting that every Marvel adaptation sticks close to exactly the same formula, basically that they all end with a city on the verge of spectacular destruction, and that this one is no exception – I should quickly add that he still thought this film was enjoyable. Personally I don’t agree – neither Ant-Man nor Civil War ended that way – but on the other hand, I do think Marvel have played it a bit too safe in the characterisation of Strange himself. At the beginning of the film, at least, he is wise-cracking and self-centred in exactly the way Robert Downey Jr was at the beginning of the first Iron Man, to the extent where they almost seem like the same character. I wouldn’t be surprised if the studio were attempting to position things so that Bellyhatch Cummerbund can take over as a mainstay of the series once Downey Jr’s salary requirements finally prove too exorbitant, but even so: for me this doesn’t excuse a scene where the traditionally reserved and courteous doctor calls an opponent a name for a body part which is not normally found in a medical textbook.

On the other hand, this film isn’t afraid to make some slightly eccentric choices, and I don’t just mean using a harpsichord on the soundtrack: there’s a very trippy sequence early on which seemed to me to be very faithful to the spirit of Ditko’s artwork, while the climax itself is considerably weirder than anything comparable from other Marvel movies. The film is well played by a strong cast and visually very striking, rather skilfully repurposing some Inception-style visuals in a more traditional fantasy-adventure context. I can even just about forgive the decision to make much of Dr Strange’s sorcery look basically like CGI-enhanced kung fu. (Not all – by the end of the movie his ability to warp space and time is so developed that one wonders just how they will be able to meaningfully challenge him during future appearances, although as mentioned this is a problem with the comics version of the character too.)

Once again – and by the hoary hosts of Hoggoth, how do they keep doing it?!? – Marvel have produced a movie which is very comfortable with its own identity while meshing seamlessly with their wider franchise – although, to be honest, the rest of the world is kept in abeyance, at least until the closing credits. Dr Strange looks like being an engaging addition to the ensemble, and I’m looking forward to seeing Clumsylatch Bandicoot spar with some of the more established faces of the series. No one in the world is making more consistently entertaining and accomplished genre movies at the moment – Doctor Strange won’t change your life, but I suspect you’ll have a good time watching it. A good adaptation of a challenging book.

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Rather unexpectedly, we seem to have found ourselves in the middle of an Officially Recognised Golden Age of Space Movies (if only there was a convenient way of referring to it suitable for a family readership). Even NASA seem to have cottoned on to this, timing their recent press announcement of the discovery of salt water on Mars to coincide with a peak of media interest in the red planet – mostly courtesy of Ridley Scott and his chums, whose new movie The Martian is hitting screens even as I type.

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Ridley Scott’s track record when it comes to SF movies is… well, let’s just say I’m less of a fan of them than many people, but even so they are invariably never less than interesting to watch, and I’ve been a bit of a sucker for hard SF about Mars since reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Trois Coleurs trilogy many years ago. And one should always make the best of a golden age of anything while it lasts.

Based on Andy Weir’s novel, The Martian opens with an American mission already in situ, commanded by Jessica Chastain and featuring a number of moderately well-known faces (Michael Pena, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara, that sort of people) amongst the crew. Inclement Martian weather (i.e. a colossally violent sandstorm) forces an early evacuation of their outpost, but in the chaos mission botanist Matt Damon is struck by flying debris. With all contact lost, Chastain is forced to leave without him, believing him dead.

However – spoiler alert – Matt Damon is not dead, just resting, and accepts that he is effectively Home Alone on Mars with good grace, once he has finished stapling himself back together. A spot of DIY hydroponics provides him with a food supply of sorts, but the fact remains: NASA and the folks back on Earth remain blissfully unaware of his survival, and it’s a long walk home…

Well, it’s an unfortunate fact that Matt Damon’s service record when it comes to long-haul one-man deep space missions is not entirely unblemished, even when Jessica Chastain is involved, but even so, this is the kind of movie which leads sensible people to say things like ‘It’s hard to imagine Matt Damon making a bad film’ (Stuck on You and The Brothers Grimm clearly don’t linger long in the memory). The Martian may rest very comfortably in the same subgenre as Gravity and Interstellar, but I suspect it’s a more certain crowdpleaser than either of those.

This is despite the fact that, on some levels, it is actually a deeply nerdy film. Large sections of the plot revolve around fairly abstruse problems of hydroponics, astrodynamics, engineering and maths – the film seems to be trying as hard as it possibly can to get the science as right as the expectations of a major Hollywood movie will allow. (That said, there is a considerable amount of licence employed, particularly in the closing scenes, where the twelve-minute lag in communication between Earth and Mars is fudged for dramatic effect.)

Despite all this, it remains an extremely likeable and accessible film. This is largely due to the presence of the always-engaging Damon in the central role (he does, after all, have to carry lengthy sections of the film unaccompanied), but also the result of a script which works extremely hard to put a human face on the story. On one level this works simply as an adventure story about the power of human ingenuity and the will to survive, and it’s a good one: it’s really rather refreshing to find a film with such an upbeat view of humanity, without a single really unsympathetic character, especially when it works so well as a story. The film-makers work hard to fill the movie with little moments of lightness and humour, many of them arising from an unexpectedly eclectic soundtrack, including performers like Abba, Hot Chocolate, and David Bowie (not even the song you might be expecting, either). A strong supporting cast including the likes of Sean Bean, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig and Chiwetel Ejiofor (who I note has ascended to the point where he qualifies for the ‘and’ position in the credits) helps a lot, of course.

Even as I was watching the film, and thoroughly enjoying it, I couldn’t help but find myself reflecting on the fact that the more science you put into a movie, the more certain it is that you’ll make tiny slips or compromises in the service of the story, and the more criticism you’re inevitably going to draw from the very same nerdy audience you were trying to satisfy in the first place. Both Gravity and Interstellar drew more of this kind of nitpicking than they really deserved, and I don’t doubt that some of The Martian‘s more striking plot twists will be savaged in the same way.

Oh well, there’s no pleasing some people. Speaking for myself, I found The Martian to be much more enjoyable than I would ever have expected a Ridley Scott-directed SF movie to be. The film is immaculately realised and – in terms of its setting – thoroughly plausible, but, more importantly, Scott seems wholly focused on simply telling the story, rather than dwelling on landscapes and set dressing. I might even go so far to say that this is challenging the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven as my favourite Scott movie.

As I said, The Martian sets out to be a number of things – a convincing piece of hard SF, a full-blooded adventure story, and a character study in human resilience, to name but three. Does it succeed perfectly at all of these things? No, not really – but it comes close enough to be considered a terrific achievement as a piece of film-making. It is sure to be lumped in with Gravity and Interstellar when people talk about this type of movie – but for once, the comparison is entirely justified. This is a seriously good, seriously entertaining film.

 

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Okay, so it’s January, and that means a certain class of film occupying all the theatres. It’s part of the turning of the year, and I really shouldn’t be surprised, but the current succession of ostentatiously awards-hunting factually-based dramas is starting to get to me a bit. Sorry about that, but it’s true.

Making the latest pitch for Oscar glory, and an admittedly strong one, is 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen (the other one). McQueen (the other one)’s first film was a searing account of a man on hunger strike. His second film was a searing account of a man suffering as a martyr to sex addiction. It should probably come as no surprise, therefore, to learn that this latest offering is not a searing account of a lovely little old lady who raises fluffy bunny rabbits, but – and I hope I am not overstating the case here – an extended travelogue through a horrific world of violence, pain, and misery.

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The ever-reliable Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, an affluent professional violinist living in New York in the early 1840s. Solomon’s happy life with his wife and children is torn to shreds when he takes an engagement to perform in a series of cities further south in the United States. All initially goes well, but then he is plied with drink and awakens to find himself in irons, in a slave pen.

Yes, someone has realised there is a tidy profit to be made in kidnapping free-born black men from the north, shipping them to the slave states of the south, and then selling them at auction. And this is the fate that befalls Solomon, a fate which the film depicts in some detail.

This is Ejiofor’s film, for he appears in practically every scene and delivers the kind of performance which has Oscar-winner written all over it, but he is supported by a succession of big-name white actors who turn up to play his various persecutors and tormentors – Paul Giamatti (who, funnily enough, played another slave trader in the first film I ever reviewed online), Cumbersome Bandersnatch, Paul Dano, Michael Fassbender; all of them turn up and none of their characters is wholly sympathetic – indeed, almost all of them are complete monsters. The only decent white man with any real presence in the film is played by Brad Pitt, who – to be fair – gives a very creditable performance.

However, neither the quality of the performances, nor the measured direction of McQueen (the other one), nor John Ridley’s thoughtful script, nor Hans Zimmer’s powerful score (much of which admittedly sounds like bits of the Inception soundtrack, reused) can disguise the fact that watching 12 Years a Slave is a grim and deeply uncomfortable experience from start to finish. There are numerous beatings, stabbings, lynchings, and rapes, most of them pretty graphically depicted. The ending of the film is not entirely downbeat, but the fact remains that this film is almost totally bereft of traditional entertainment value.

In this respect it reminded me of the similarly-depressing Grave of the Fireflies, which I finally saw last year. I concluded that this sort of factually-inspired historical gloom-a-thon is almost always made with a view to pushing a particular political or moral point. In the case of 12 Years a Slave, the point that Steve McQueen (the other one) is making is that slavery was an awful thing. But does this really need saying? Does anyone sane still seriously deny this fact?

I mean, you could make a film about one of the great plagues which  devastated Europe in the middle ages, and meticulously portray the entire cast dying in bubo-encrusted agony after lives of squalid misery, and it would be a faithful depiction of an actual historical happening, but why would any audience pay to watch something like that? What would be the value to it?

I suppose McQueen would argue that so many of the injustices and social problems which beset modern western culture are a consequence of its former complicity in the slave trade that a film like this is still of immediate contemporary relevance, but I’m not sure – nor do I think that 12 Years a Slave‘s unflinching succession of horrors is the most accessible way of handling this subject.

I might even go further and suggest that there’s something slightly skewiff about the very focus of the film. It clearly aspires to be an uncompromising account of total authenticity – but the fact that the central character comes from the northern US and lives a lifestyle recognisable to a modern audience, rather than being someone captured from another culture or born into the condition, seems to me to be indicative. It’s as if the director is aware of the need to keep the story accessible to a non-black audience, even if this results in it appearing to suggest that being enslaved is somehow more noteworthy and abhorrent when it happens to someone from a western cultural background.

(Personally I was struck by the (admittedly broad) parallels between Ejiofor’s tribulations in the first act of this film and those visited upon Charlton Heston in the original Planet of the Apes: provocative though I know this suggestion is going to be, I think you could profitably interpret Planet of the Apes as a post-slavery allegory.)

But anyway. This is a well-made, serious, and not entirely unaffecting movie, but it’s still bloody depressing for the vast majority of its running time. You can obviously argue that this necessarily goes with the territory, but I’m not completely sure that I’d agree. I can’t quite shake the impression that McQueen is more interested in cursing the darkness than in lighting candles. I’ve had it with the January detox: give me something first and foremost intended to entertain, please.

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