Posts Tagged ‘comedy’

Musings on The Death of Cinema, Part Three – well, hang on, before we really get properly stuck into Will Gluck’s CGI movie version of Peter Rabbit, perhaps a little more context is required. Beatrix Potter’s original tales of the adventures of woodland characters were amongst the very first stories that I was ever read, and as a result they retain a power to affect me on a deeply emotional level: my memories of them have a fondness and delicacy to them that I find it extremely difficult to articulate. Anyone tampering with the elemental stuff of my childhood is, in effect, jabbing a sharp stick down into my subconscious. I didn’t go and see either of the Paddington films for exactly this reason: I wasn’t sure I could cope with the upwelling of emotion even a good Paddington movie would inevitably produce. But at least the Paddington films did get universally good reviews. This is not true of Peter Rabbit.

So why in sanity’s name would I go near this film? Well, to bear witness, mainly; to stare down into the blackest pits of horror and debasement unblinkingly, so I can vent my spleen all over the internet with at least the semblance of an informed opinion. Plus someone asked me to, because he thought the ensuing review might be quite funny. I ask you.

Proper critics have said some quite peculiar and arguably silly things about Peter Rabbit: ‘not all bad, just very nearly’ is just one of the far too generous notices it has drawn. There have also been various references to Beatrix Potter herself ‘spinning in her grave’, when as any fule kno Miss Potter was cremated in December 1943. However, if the rocks and stones themselves of the Lake District were to rise up in violent revolt against this horrendous travesty, if the trees and waters and small furry creatures were to gather their strength and strike a terrible blow of vengeance against all the works of man – well, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

This is apparently ‘an irreverent, contemporary comedy with attitude’ – yes, think of Miss Potter’s famous The Tale of Peter Rabbit and the first three words that bound into your skull are ‘irreverent’, ‘contemporary’ and ‘attitude’, aren’t they? James Corden voices Peter Rabbit with all the heart-warming charm of a blocked drain, while Margot Robbie is Flopsy Rabbit and Daisy Ridley is Cottontail Rabbit. (Mrs Rabbit has been killed off, as she is obviously just not street enough for modern audiences.) The rabbits spend all their time sneaking into the vegetable patch of grumpy old Mr McGregor (Sam Neill).

The substance of the book is still just about visible off in the distance, but there now follows a sequence in which Peter Rabbit actively contemplates inserting a carrot into Mr McGregor’s rectum while the latter is chasing him about the garden. The exertions of the chase cause Mr McGregor to drop dead, however, before the deed can be done.

Yup, that’s right: this is a version of Peter Rabbit in which Peter Rabbit basically kills Mr McGregor. It makes that film version of Dad’s Army where Corporal Jones shoots someone in the head look like a triumph of authenticity. The film does squirm around on this point, though, claiming that McGregor’s ‘poor lifestyle choices’ were to blame, and including a throwaway gag about Asbestos poisoning. Ha! Ha! Asbestos poisoning! That’s so contemporary and irrelevent, not to mention hilarious!

Well, inheriting the house (and, of course, the vegetable patch) is Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson), a virtually unhinged control-freak who used to work for Harrods (which appears to have financed the film, as it features the most blatant and extended product placement I’ve seen in any film since Power Rangers). Cue another attitude-heavy gag about McGregor drinking water out of the Harrods toilet bowls. Needless to say, McGregor hates the rabbits and their woodland friends, but he is quite taken with his nature-loving neighbour Bea (Rose Byrne, who does not receive her customary ‘sigh’ on this occasion).

Yup, once again you are ahead of me: Bea is, we are invited to infer, Beatrix Potter herself, but rather than a multi-talented artist, natural scientist and expert mycologist, in the movie she is presented as a hippy-dippy free spirit and slightly inept abstract painter. Young McGregor is much taken with her, and she with him, rather to the chagrin of Peter Rabbit. Can Peter Rabbit drive McGregor away? Can McGregor successfully woo Bea? Can Bea make the rabbits behave, and encourage McGregor to be a bit less retentive?

All this, plus rapping sparrows, a sight gag where Mrs Tiggy-Winkle walks repeatedly into an electric fence, and the already-notorious moment when the rabbits pelt McGregor with blackberries, which he is allergic to, causing him to go into anaphylactic shock and collapse. Ho ho ho! Anaphylactic shock! That’s just so contemporary!

Once again, the film tries to smarm its way around any potential taste issues here, as the whole blackberry scene is prefaced by a moment where Peter Rabbit basically turns to the camera and says ‘Allergies are a serious business, and we’re not making fun of sufferers, because we don’t want to get letters’. Before the film proceeds to make fun of sufferers and do the whole comedy-anaphylactic-shock routine.

Just how bad is Peter Rabbit? Well, for once, words fail me. I have to resort to the following picture, which basically depicts the expression on my face for most of this movie:

In short, it is horrendously, almost indescribably bad, assuming you come to it from the point of view of someone wanting a movie with even the barest resemblance to Beatrix Potter’s charming, gentle stories.

It’s not even as if the guilty parties can claim ignorance, for the tiny sliver of the film which is actually pleasant to watch is a fully-animated flashback, done in the style of the book’s original illustrations, depicting the happier days of the rabbit family. It completely gets the sweetness and subtlety of the original tales, which just makes the ghastliness of the rest of the movie all the more reprehensible: they could have done a whole movie like that. They chose otherwise. They have no defence.

This is almost the Platonic ideal of a well-known property being wrenched violently out of shape simply in order to exploit its name-recognition factor. In places this almost resembles a mean-spirited parody of Beatrix Potter, with her stories subverted by the inclusion of a knowing, desperately self-aware sense of humour. Is the whole thing supposed to be ironic on some level? I’m not sure. The closing section certainly seems to be having some fun at the expense of grisly and formulaic Richard Curtis-style rom-coms. Fair enough; there’s fun to be had there. But don’t do it if it means doing this kind of violence to poor little Peter Rabbit.

Normally I could find the generosity to suggest that this film has a certain level of technical competence, and the performances of the two leads are serviceable enough. But not in this case. This is a knowing, premeditated violation of an innocent children’s classic, a wilful, unconscionable cash-grab (and before you say anything, I used my free ticket card to get in to see it, so my conscience is clear) of such mercenary awfulness it is almost impossible to watch without despair swallowing your soul. The success of the Paddington films means more horrors of this ilk are almost inevitable, I fear. The one faint glimmer of hope I can offer is that there were only five people at the screening I went to, and none of them were from the target demographic for this film. So there is at least a chance it is dying on its cotton-tailed arse. It deserves to; it honestly deserves to. Not so much a work of art as a sin against nature.


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I imagine that life is not currently as easy as it might be, if you’re involved in the creation of cinema trailers. If a trailer isn’t criticised for being wildly misleading and inaccurate, and giving a wholly false impression of the film in question, then the chances are that it’s going to be given a hard time for giving away far too much information and basically spoiling the entire film. It seems like they just can’t win: unless of course it’s a film which people are already excited about, in which case most of the pressure is already off as far as the trailer is concerned. Do you trust a trailer for a film you really know nothing else about? It’s a fair question. As with most things, I try to keep an open mind.

Long-standing readers of this here blog (hello, masochists) will be aware that two of the mainstream genres you are least likely to find me settling down to watch are modern horror movies and contemporary American comedy films. And yet I found myself trundling off to watch John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s new comedy Game Night, mainly on the strength of the trailer. What can I say, it made me laugh. I have no other excuse. Finding enough funny material for a three minute trailer, of course, is considerably easier than populating a 100-minute movie with adequate jokes. So… was the trailer lying to me?

This is another one of those films about affluent and aspirational American folks bumbling into areas of society they are ill-equipped to deal with, hopefully for comic effect. Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams play Max and Annie, two ferociously competitive games-loving people who cute-meet at the very start of the film, are married by the end of the opening credits, and as things get properly underway are contemplating starting a family. However, Max has, not to put too fine a point on things, motility issues, which may be a psychosomatic result of his inferiority complex when it comes to his richer and more successful older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler).

Sure enough, Brooks rolls into town and joins their weekly game night, along with their other friends, soon insisting on hosting a session himself. Intent as ever on belittling his sibling, Brooks announces they will be taking part in a kind of real-life role-playing game, a bit like the one in that Michael Douglas film called, um, The Game: there will be a phoney kidnapping, various clues, and the first person to solve the ‘crime’ will win a fabulous prize. However, not all goes to plan, for just as the game is about to begin, a couple of genuine criminals burst in and actually kidnap Brooks – helped by the fact that everyone else is watching, eating tortilla chips, and making admiring comments about how realistic it all looks.

(A couple of other trailer-related observations here: firstly, most of the trailers preceding Game Night were absolutely dire. Secondly, while the trailer for Game Night makes the premise of the film absolutely clear – slightly clueless couples get mixed up in underworld escapades in the mistaken belief they’re playing a game – the film itself seems to assume you already know what’s going on. Although  this may just be the movie actually crediting the audience with some intelligence, which I suppose is possible, it’s just incredibly rare in a modern Hollywood comedy film.)

Well, anyway, Bateman and McAdams and the two other couples spring into action, all determined to win the ‘game’ by fair means or foul, whether this means actually trying to follow the trail of clues, engaging in bribery and corruption of the game-planning company, or just doing some sneaky Googling (the bane of so many quiz nights)…

I think you will agree that what we have here is a pretty good premise for a film about smug members of the affluent strata of American society (I should mention that the Irish actress and writer Sharon Horgan makes her Hollywood debut in this film, too) blundering unwittingly into danger, with hilarious results. However, it quickly becomes very obvious that sustaining this conceit for the full duration of the movie – even after a reasonably lengthy section setting everything up – is a monumentally difficult prospect and one which Mark Perez’s script rapidly begins to struggle with. There is actually something rather heroic about how hard the script works to keep the story (and, more importantly, jokes) going. In the end, though, one has to say that things have got extremely contrived and implausible by the time of the closing credits, and most of the funniest scenes are in the middle of the movie.

They are extremely funny, though: I am not a person who is especially easily moved to mirth, but there are a couple of scenes in particular in Game Night which left me weeping and breathless with laughter. The rest of it is consistently funny, too. It is all knowingly ridiculous, of course, but still very winning. A lot of this is down to the script, which is smartly and solidly constructed, squarely hitting every beat of the plot, and the rest of the credit must go to the performances. Jason Bateman is an extremely capable deadpan comic actor and he is on top form here, very nearly matched by Rachel McAdams. The rest of the cast are also very good, regardless of whether they are playing a comic role or a more serious one.

There is something tonally quite peculiar about Game Night, in that while much of the interplay between the protagonists, and indeed many of the plot developments, are totally absurd and very tongue in cheek, the comedy-thriller aspect of the story is played absolutely straight. There is some quite dark stuff going on here: that very fine actor Michael C Hall turns up as a bad guy and is absolutely terrifying, for he plays it exactly as if he was the villain in a genuine thriller. Playing it straight in a black comedy is often a reliable route to success – the example I always give is that of Herbert Lom in The Ladykillers – but off the top of my head I can’t think of another film which intentionally combines such very different styles of performance with such success.

That said, this is still a film which you’d better not think about too rigorously; for all that it is clearly the work of very bright people, and aimed at an intelligent audience, it is still deeply silly and the plot does not stand up to too much analysis. But, as I say, it is consistently entertaining, and it is a real pleasure to come across a modern comedy film which doesn’t simply devolve into people talking about their sex lives in an attempt to seem edgy and shocking.

Pop-culture references to Liam Neeson and Marvel movies probably means that Game Night is likely to confuse members of future generations who come across it, but may also mean it has a certain value as a social document of how a tiny sliver of American society entertained itself for a while in the early 21st century. In the end it is still a modern comedy film, after all, but a superior example of the type. One can only hope it does well enough for other film-makers to take a chance on following its lead and making comedy movies which are clever rather than crass, and which work hard to be funny.

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I do find myself to be somewhat inclined towards a very unbecoming smugness: it is a dreadful flaw in my character, one that I do contend with as the years go by. Is it one of those truisms that a person’s predisposition towards being smug increases in inverse proportion to their actual justification for it? I don’t know: but it is nice, sort of, to occasionally feel pleased with yourself and know you have a very good reason for this.

Or at a least a half-decent reason. Unexpected delights are pretty rare when it comes to the Academy Awards (unexpected anythings are unusual in Oscars territory), but the nomination of Greta Gerwig for best director and best screenplay certainly qualifies. Gerwig has been on my own personal one-to-watch list for years now – mainly as an actress, but given she co-wrote two of the films she has starred in, her move into – how best to put it? – full-blown auteuseship is only the next logical step.

The film in question is Lady Bird, and it is not a political biography, nor a badly punctuated tale of children’s books or obscure superheroines. Saoirse Ronan plays the title role of Christine McPherson, a seventeen-year-old girl growing up somewhat restlessly in Sacramento, back in 2002. Not caring much for her given name, she has decided she wants to be known as ‘Lady Bird’, just one of many things which her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalfe) finds rather exasperating. (Her father (Tracy Letts) is much more laid back about everything.)

The family is just about surviving, although times are tough, and Lady Bird’s determination to apply to (expensive) colleges on the east coast is another cause of friction between her and her mother – not that these are ever in short supply, it would seem: money, her behaviour around the house, her schoolwork, her general attitude…

Over the course of a year, the film follows Lady Bird as she embarks upon a brief theatrical career, launches into a number of possibly unwise romances, attempts to become one of the cool kids at school, and so on. Will she ever reach some kind of understanding with her mother? Is her life ever going to be less sucky and embarrassing?

Well, everyone goes through the same milestone moments in their life, and for some of us, another one has just arrived: this is the first film I’m aware of which treats the early years of the 21st century as the subject of genuine nostalgia. Greta Gerwig has said that Lady Bird is not specifically an autobiographical story, but it’s hard not to see how her own experiences haven’t informed this story, considering that she herself was graduating a Catholic high school in Sacramento at just about the same time this film is set. The noughties nostalgia is handled with a light touch, anyway – it’s certainly not the sine qua non of the movie.

I have seen criticism of Lady Bird suggesting this is just another by-the-numbers high school coming of age movie, with nothing new to offer an audience – well, I’m not sure how it compares to a lot of high school coming of age movies, as this is not a genre of which I regularly partake, but surely the point of this kind of movie is that it deals with universal rites of passage, those elements of growing up which are common to nearly everyone. Part of the charm of this genre is recognising things from one’s own experience, and I have to say I did find Lady Bird to be an extremely endearing film, regardless of how far divorced it is from my own experiences.

The film captures the essence of life as a teenager with great accuracy and skill – the soaring ups, the crushing downs, the unexpected pleasures and disappointments, the little moments of transition – and, particularly, the unintentional self-centred cruelty of which young people are particularly capable, along with their generosity and other virtues. You completely understand why Marion finds her daughter to be such a pain in the neck, yet at the same time Lady Bird never becomes actually unsympathetic.

For a film like this to focus primarily on the mother-daughter relationship is obviously kind of unusual, and this is another thing to make the film distinctive and (in its own subtle way) very much a film of our time. To this we can add a further innovation – if the film has an analogue from previous generations, it might well be Howard Deutsch’s 1986 movie Pretty in Pink, which likewise dealt with themes of popularity, class, and coming of each. However, the key difference here is that that Lady Bird’s realisation of herself as a person does not primarily revolve around getting a great boyfriend, which is the focus of Deutsch’s film. Instead, relationships with family and friends are presented as being of equal significance and value, especially that with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein). It’s probably overstating things to say that this alone marks the film out as one about the female experience which has actually been written and directed by a woman, but it still seems to me to be significant.

Saoirse Ronan has been building a formidable reputation as a young actor of considerable ability for many years now – in a further sign of sensible career management, she appears to have gotten all the dodgy fantasy blockbusters out of the way already – and Lady Bird should do nothing but add to this, as she is effortlessly convincing when playing someone still in their teens. She is well supported by the rest of the cast, especially Metcalfe and Letts – Gerwig shows every sign of having cast the film with enormous shrewdness, considering it features two young actors (Lucas Hedges and Timothee Chalamet) who have appeared in other highly-acclaimed films recently.

As I say, Lady Bird feels very much like a film of the current moment, for all that it has a recent-past setting. For all that, it does not feel like an especially angry or openly political one, as throughout it is warm, charming, and often extremely funny. It would be great for such a positive and tender film to do really well at the Academy Awards this year; we can only hope the voters there are as won over as everyone else has been.

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One of the more ignoble moments of my teaching career came a few years ago when an interesting young woman attempted to strangle me in the middle of a spoken skills lesson. (Relax, I survived.) The casus belli for this particular outbreak of classroom strife was my decision to share with the students my belief that ice dancing is not, when you come down to it, really a proper sport, primarily because it is not objectively scored. (It turned out she had been a fairly serious competitor in this particular discipline in her younger years.) What can I say – never afraid to court controversies on the big issues of the day, that’s me.

I seem to find myself having the same discussion every four years during the world’s premier festival of gravity-dependent sport, a.k.a. the Winter Olympics. Now, it’s not like I’m a particular fan of even the aestival outbreak of this particular event – while the rest of the population of the UK was entranced by the opening ceremony of the London Games, I was locked away in a room by myself watching Gamera the Invincible over the internet – but I generally find myself particularly unmoved by the snowy version, partly due to the arbitrary oddness of many of the events, but also because so much of it is, let’s face it, subjectively scored.

Perhaps it is the very realisation of the dubious nature of their activities that has left so many winter sports athletes prone to outbreaks of sudden, savage violence. Or maybe not. Certainly concerning itself with an act of violence, not to mention figure skating, is Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya, which is almost certainly the best Winter Olympics-related movie ever made.

Like many people I was vaguely aware of the scandal at the 1994 Winter Olympics concerning the rivalry between the skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan and startling way in which it developed: in the USA, however, Harding became hugely infamous, one of the most recognisable and widely-hated figures in the country. Gillespie’s film does not so much attempt to rehabilitate her reputation as tell her story with a minimum of bias.

Of course, this is quite difficult as relations between all the key players in the story are adversarial, to say the least, and their various accounts of what happens differ when it comes to some of the essential facts. The film cheerfully embraces this – this is a pretty cheerful film all round, when you consider it – and ploughs into the morass of trying to establish just who knew what and when, regardless.

Harding is mostly played by the Australian actress (and now, I note, film producer) Margot Robbie (Kerrigan, played by Caitlin Carver, is a fairly minor character). Robbie seems to have figured out that your best chance of winning an Oscar (and thus progressing to a properly lucrative role in a superhero franchise) is to take on a role which requires you to de-prettify yourself. This is certainly one of those – Harding is a girl from, as they say, the wrong side of the tracks, a self-described redneck, described by others as white trash. Her situation is only compounded by the less than maternal influence of her mother (a performance of hag-like monstrosity from Allison Janney), and later an allegedly abusive relationship with her boyfriend-then-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan).

Despite all this, Harding’s genuine ability as a skater, particularly her unique mastery of the apparently-quite-tricky triple-Axel, whatever one of those is, gets her near to the top of the tree in the world of US skating. This is despite the general contempt she received from the skating establishment because of her deportment, styling and background. The decision to bring the Winter Olympics forward to 1994 provides her with an unexpected second chance at a medal, which she embraces.

And here we come to what the film refers to as ‘the incident’ – an assault on Harding’s chief rival Kerrigan, when she was bashed on the kneecap during a training session by a goon in the employ of… well herein lies the tale. Who was responsible? Was this a premeditated attack ordered by members of the Harding camp (effectively Tonya and Jeff)? Or a bit of private initiative on the part of an enterprising associate?

The film ducks out of attempting a definitive answer, quite properly suggesting that we’ll never be completely certain on this one, until someone owns up anyway. Through a neat bit of cinematic ju-jitsu the film exploits the fact it has multiple, equally unreliable narrators to comic effect – ‘This never happened,’ Harding informs the camera during one scene, while we are told that ‘this next part is completely untrue’ by Gillooly shortly afterwards.

Weirdly, the fact that at least some of it must not actually have happened as presented here does not make the narrative of the film at all confused, and the way it manages to keep its feet on the ground as a drama as well as simply a grotesque, absurd black comedy is also quite impressive. It doesn’t shy away from the fact that Harding spent much of her early life in circumstances where domestic violence was a given, and these scenes are (mercifully) not played for laughs. There is even some implied criticism of the skating establishment for its snobbery towards Harding (although given the whole basis of the sport is subjective, it’s not a massive surprise, if you ask me).

Having said all that, events surrounding the attack on Kerrigan is the meat of the film – ‘the part you’ve been waiting for’, in Harding’s words – and this is very much presented as an absurd black comedy, particularly the role of Gillooly and his fantasist buddy Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser). In the end, though, the film remains compassionate towards Harding, and the scenes depicting the fall-out of the incident and its impact on her life are unexpectedly moving.

There is, of course, a degree of technical trickery involved in turning Margot Robbie into an Olympic ice skater – that software which digitally pastes one person’s face onto another person’s body may be banned in some contexts, but not movie theatres – but her performance is very strong throughout. Opposite her is Sebastian Stan, an actor who has appeared in many highly successful movies (principally the Marvel series), but not a genuine star in his own right yet – his performance here should do something to rectify that. Neither of them quite match the astonishing awfulness of Janney’s character, but this really is one of those stranger-than-fiction scenarios. Let’s just say the strength of the performances matches the outlandishness of the characters.

I, Tonya studiously avoids sports movie cliches, but then this is not quite your typical sports movie. It’s about sports, certainly, but the story concerns itself more with other things – it’s a character piece about Harding, but also a film which touches upon issues such as the modern media, American attitudes to class and background, and even – fleetingly – the nature of truth itself. It’s also thoroughly engaging and often very funny. I’m not sure it’s quite politically correct enough to really do well at the Oscars this year, but I enjoyed it a lot – always assuming my subjective opinion is worth anything, of course.

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For a nation which supposedly possesses a classless society, the United States of America often does a good job of looking otherwise. There may not be the delineation of society into a stratified series of groups, defined by their economic and educational status, but one frequently gets a definite sense of certain institutions and regions looking down on others – for a relatively young nation, the States often seem to have a definite mad on for age and tradition.

This occurred to me while watching Sidney Lumet’s celebrated 1976 movie Network, which is an example of one medium commenting on the values and workings of another – not entirely unlike The Post, currently enjoying its own moment of acclaim. However, where The Post is a paean to noble journalism, Network is a scabrous satire – but nonetheless astonishingly prescient for all of that.

The key character is Howard Beale (Peter Finch), a long-serving news broadcaster whose ratings have fallen to the point where he is fired by the network (a deadpan opening monologue recounts the high and low points of Beale’s life, all framed in terms of his TV ratings). Approaching old age, and with his marriage a casualty of his career, Beale feels he has nothing to live for and announces live on air that in a week’s time he will commit suicide on television. Naturally, the producers terminate the broadcast and see that Beale receives support.

Network bosses, amongst them Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), are initially minded to fire Beale on the spot, but when a second live appearance – supposedly an apology, which turns into another scatological rant – draws big viewing figures, they reconsider. Plans have been afoot to downsize the news division of the network, simply because it runs at a considerable loss, but rising young programming executive Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) sees an opportunity here to give the news a bit more glamour and entertainment value, to the horrified disbelief of traditional news editor Max Schumacher (William Holden).

Despite showing every signs of being in the midst of some kind of psychiatric breakdown, Beale is given his own show where he vents his spleen about the modern world. His repeated cries of ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!’ connect with an audience for whom the oil crisis, Vietnam, and Watergate (to name but three) are still a recent memory, and he becomes a kind of folk hero as ‘the mad prophet of the airwaves’. The network executives are delighted, but do they fully understand the forces they have unleashed?

Almost no-one gets everything right when they try to predict the future, but in criticising what he saw as the state of television at the time, Paddy Chayefsky managed to be almost eerily accurate in suggesting the way that TV news in particular would develop over the following years. There’s a general point about ratings-hungry TV executives being totally bereft of any kind of moral compass or principle, happy to put on anything that gets a good score – ‘gutter depravity,’ in Schumacher’s words – but also some more specific things. The movie predicts the rise of reality TV – one subplot concerns an attempt to mount a TV series, The Mao Tse-Tung Hour, based on the doings of a far-left terrorist group, with members of the group involved in the production – and there is, of course, the film’s depiction of how a possibly-unhinged rabble-rousing populist TV star achieves remarkable power and influence in the nation. No one actually mentions ‘fake news’, but you would not be surprised if they did.

The film starts off looking like a sardonic comedy-drama, and it’s only as it progresses that its wilder elements begin to appear, so gradually that they initially seem like throwaway jokes. Many of its biggest laughs come from its most outrageous moments – there’s a scene where the network lawyers sit down with members of the Communist terror group to work out the contract for the new show, and a snarling revolutionary insists on getting her share of the residual fees, while by the end of the film, the network executives are casually and calmly conspiring to organise an assassination in order to solve their ratings problems.

Despite all this, the characters remain well-drawn and well-performed – the film never quite loses sight of the nature of Schumacher’s affair with Christensen, or the effect it has on his wife. Perhaps this is one reason why the film won three of the big four acting Oscars – Finch’s bravura performance in particular obviously deserved recognition, but I must confess to being a little surprised that Beatrice Straight (playing Holden’s wife) won Best Supporting Actress for a performance where she’s barely on screen for five minutes. The cast is strong throughout; this is yet another film featuring a minor appearance by a (fairly) young Lance Henriksen, who sometimes seems to have been hanging around the set of every noteworthy film of the 70s.

On the other hand, writer Chayefsky sometimes seems to have been as fond of a rant as Howard Beale, and in the closing stages of the film it sometimes feels like everyone gets a chance to deliver an impassioned and largely uninterrupted monologue about their personal beliefs. Beale rants about the death of democracy, the network owner speechifies about the deep truths of market economics, Schumacher rails against the moral vacuum at the heart of the TV medium…

Is it true to say that when Hollywood makes a film about newspapers, it generally depicts the men and women who work on them as generally upstanding and heroic figures, but when it does one about TV, it is much less inclined to be complimentary? It certainly feels that way. Perhaps it is just the case of cinema looking up to an elder medium (print) and looking down on a younger one (the tyranny of the cathode ray tube). You can argue about whether that’s entirely justified or not, but the fact remains that Network is an entertaining and well-argued polemic that history has proven to be on the money about many of its claims.


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There were, of course, many things about the pre-financial crisis world that any sensible person might look back on with a sense of regret and nostalgia. For myself, one of these is Borders, a chain of bookshops which operated on an epic scale – just a bit too epic, as it turned out. These days the Borders which I most often frequented have turned into branches of Tescos or pet supply shops; I suppose I should just be grateful that Waterstones survived the cull.

Adding just a little piquancy to all this fond remembrance (don’t worry, we will get to something of substance fairly soon) is the fact that, during the last months of Borders’ existence, I found myself somewhat financially embarrassed and was entirely unable to take full advantage of the bounty on offer. The only thing I remember buying was a book which, on later reflection, I found myself almost wishing I hadn’t: Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (based, obviously, on the famous novel by Jane Austen, who is rather cheekily credited as co-writer).

I will spare you yet further ramblings about my somewhat turbulent relationship with different incarnations of Pride and Prejudice, and merely note that Grahame-Smith’s parody is another manifestation of the Great Zombie Boom of recent years. The book itelf was successful enough to spawn various follow-ups, with titles like Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Android Karenina, while Grahame-Smith put his obvious talent for a snappy title to work and went on to write Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, filmed by Timur Bekmambetov a few years ago.

The thing about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is that it’s a funny title which tells you exactly what to expect, but is it actually something you can drag out for the length of a whole novel? It’s a funny concept, but you need a bit more if you’re making anything longer than a comedy sketch.

All very relevant, one would suspect, to the film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, written and directed by Burr Steers, and produced by Natalie Portman, who was clearly at one point really desperate to play Elizabeth Bennet, no matter what the context. This is another of those films that never made it to the local cinemas in Oxford, and I was quite glad to catch up with it, even if my expectations were, shall we say, moderate at best.

Steers has a conscientious go at setting the scene in a manner which is vaguely coherent: the expansion of the British Empire in the 18th century brings all kinds of foreign exotica to England’s green and pleasant lands, most notably the zombie virus, which proceeds to sweep the nation. London is fortified (a touch of steampunk here), and sensible folk of the upper classes invest in combat training so they may defend themselves against the undead hordes.

It is against this backdrop that much of the same plot as in the traditional Pride and Prejudice unfolds: the Bennets are a well-bred but slightly impecunious family, and Mrs Bennet (Sally Phillips) is determined to find good and wealthy husbands for her five daughters. Top of the list are Jane (Bella Heathcote) and Elizabeth (Lily James). The arrival at the neighbouring estate of the dashing and wealthy Mr Bingley (Douglas Booth) is surely a good sign, but his stern friend Mr Darcy (Sam Riley) seems to disapprove entirely of the Bennets. Meanwhile, Elizabeth finds her head turned somewhat by Wickham (Jack Huston), a young soldier who appears to have been badly wronged by Darcy. Can the Bennet girls find romance and happiness? Could it be that Elizabeth has badly misjudged Darcy?

And, of course, there are also zombies rampaging about the countryside, although as this film is only a 15 certificate in the UK, the actual blood-soaked horror is inevitably a bit low-key. One of the big differences between the Grahame-Smith novel and the movie is that the latter moves much further away from the original Austen story, inserting much more of an action-adventure climax involving the Four Horsemen of the Zombie Apocalypse, not to mention the Zombie Antichrist.

I can kind of see why they’ve done this, as its identity as an action-horror zombie movie is clearly very important to this film – note the poster, on which the word ‘Zombies’ is considerably larger than the others. But it does inevitably take the movie further away from Jane Austen, which – given the whole point of the thing is that it’s an Austen-based mash-up – is surely a mistake. Perhaps it’s just an indication that this film has a fundamental problem, trying to bring together things which just don’t fit in the same story.

Well, maybe, maybe not. My problem with the book was that Grahame-Smith seemed to have chickened out of just putting zombies into Pride and Prejudice – which is, as noted, a funny idea – and had started trying to be actively funny, with creaky jokes like ‘Mr Bingley was famous for the size of his balls’, and the inclusion of the whole martial arts element, which isn’t rooted in the works of either Jane Austen or George A Romero.

Perhaps the problem is that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is quite funny as an idea, but once you start actually writing the story and genuinely attempt to stay true to both elements, it turns into something else. You could make it work, probably, but it wouldn’t be the comedy that the title suggests.

Certainly, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies sort of hangs together as a zombopocalypse movie with a period setting – and in its own way it’s not much tonally weirder than Maggie, for instance – and in some ways it’s the Austen-specific bits of the plot that feel intrusive. It’s as any kind of comedy that it falls down, being fatally short on wit and self-awareness. Mostly, it takes itself painfully seriously, and the actually funny bits are the ones that feel like they’ve wandered in from a different film – Matt Smith (one of many actors who’ve managed to swing the ‘and’ position in the credits on this film) goes into comedy overdrive as Mr Collins and blasts everyone else off the screen, while a crucial scene between Elizabeth and Darcy juxtaposes authentically Austenesque dialogue with the pair of them engaging in hand-to-hand combat: suddenly the film comes to life, even though it feels like much more of a spoof as it does so. (The moment where a hot-under-the-collar Darcy dives into a lake, an emendation of the story first added by the BBC in 1995, makes an appearance, apparently because it’s expected to nowadays. It’s handled completely straight even though it’s surely ripe for spoofing.)

But these are only a handful of moments in what is quite a long film which never quite figures out its own identity – does it want to be a proper costume drama, a rom-com, an action horror movie, or what? Is it actually supposed to be funny? And if so, on what level? Is it trying to be clever, or knowingly dumb? It’s genuinely difficult to tell, not least because the answers seem to change throughout the course of the film.

As I have often noted in the past, you can do a lot with zombies (as recent films have shown). But you can’t do everything with them, or at least not all in the same movie. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies takes a talented and attractive cast and doesn’t give them the material they deserve, apparently never quite knowing what to do with them. It may be the film-makers never settled on the type of film they wanted to make. It may be that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is only funny as a title, not an actual story. I’m not actually sure. But I’m sure that this is a movie which doesn’t really work.


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Normally, I would suggest that all that one really needs to say about Early Man is that it is the new movie from Nick Park and Aardman Animations, the award-laden creators of the Wallace and Gromit series, the Pirates! movie, the Shaun the Sheep movie, Chicken Run, and Flushed Away. Aardman are, I suppose, the closest thing to a British version of Pixar, routinely producing films which are, if nothing else, a showcase for the highest standards of creativity and craftsmanship, and Nick Park is their highest-profile creator (he has a habit of turning up to the Oscars in all-advised home-made bow ties).

Given it routinely takes years of work, comprising thousands of person-hours, to complete a movie, one wonders just how Park settles on one of his feature-length projects: I’d be terrified of getting bored halfway through or realising the idea just wasn’t as strong as I’d thought. No matter how his process works, the end result this time sees Park and his team venturing into new territory.

As the title suggests, Early Man is set in prehistoric times, and concerns Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) and his tribe of easy-going and generally inept cavemen (we should probably call them cavepeople, come to think of it). Catching even a rabbit is a push for this lot, and Dug’s ideas that they should branch out into mammoth hunting seem wildly optimistic.

Soon, however, they have bigger problems, for their verdant and peaceful valley is annexed by the forces of a much more advanced Bronze Age civilisation, overseen by the avaricious Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston, not that you can tell). Most of the tribe is driven into the hostile badlands where they are easy prey for predatory geese, but Dug finds his way to Lord Nooth’s city where he discovers the invaders have an unexpected Achilles’ heel – they are all mad about football (or soccer, depending on which variety of English you speak).

Dug hits upon a cunning plan – he challenges Lord Nooth’s team, Real Bronzino, to a match to determine the fate of the valley. Win, and the cave people get their home back and can live there peacefully. Lose, and they all go down the mine together. The gamble seems worthwhile, except for the fact that none of them have ever played football before…

Early Man opens with a tip of the hat from one master animator to another, as Nick Park lovingly spoofs one of Ray Harryhausen’s more famous films, the Hammer caveman picture One Million Years BC. Indeed, it initially looks like the whole thing is going to be a send-up of that kind of thing, with a few slightly Flintstones-esque jokes stirred into the mix. But then there are suddenly some jokes about football, and then the bad guys turn up, doing an array of outrageous European accents, and suddenly, it’s clear that… well, it’s clear that it’s very unclear what this film thinks it is, except on the most basic level.

Let us get the slightly problematic aspect of this film out of the way. Just as virtually every major American release these days is deconstructed to determine just what its attitude is to the Trumpclasm and the Unique Moment (etc, etc), so every significant British film is equally analysed to see if it is saying something about the probable British departure from the European project. Early Man is about a plucky bunch of cave people with British accents who come together to save their homeland from the depredations of a bunch of exploitative outsiders with French, German, and Italian accents. Togetherness and old-fashioned pluck is all it takes for them to win the day and reclaim their independence (if you doubt that this metaphor about the cave people representing the UK is intentional, the script is explicit about the fact that it was Dug’s lot who initially invented football and exported it to the rest of the world, who then learned to play it better than they did).

It’s not exactly scintillating stuff (unless you’re an op-ed chimp for the Daily Express or Daily Mail, anyway), but it least it suggests a level of depth to the film which just isn’t there most of the rest of the time: I suppose you could say Early Man is a kind of parody of sports movies (I found myself thinking particularly of Escape to Victory, but probably only because the two films are equally implausible), but a lot of the time it’s just a sports movie sprinkled with some rather variable gags, and hardly any of the little in-jokes and cinematic allusions one has come to expect from Aardman films. Quite apart from the sledgehammer satire, there are probably just a few too many gags about bodily functions for this to really qualify as a children’s film, strictly speaking, but on the other hand there’s not a great deal here for adults to enjoy on their level, either.

If you compare it to a film like Coco, which was at least as inventive and visually impressive, but also managed to be genuinely moving and included some lovely, resonant metaphors and a universal message, Early Man just comes across as rather shallow, knockabout stuff – unsophisticated slapstick backed up by a load of really bad puns. I’m not going to suggest that this isn’t a funny film, because I did laugh quite a lot, but it’s not exactly side-splitting, either, and some of the jokes earn their laughs solely because of their sheer perseverance.

There is the usual voice cast of distinguished actors, including Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall, Rob Brydon, Richard Ayoade, Miriam Margolyes, and so on, and the film’s technical achievements are genuinely impressive, as usual. The problem is that the script just isn’t up to the same level, and isn’t really built around a sufficiently strong central idea. This isn’t actually a bad film, and if it had been made by anyone else I expect it would be greeted as an impressive piece of work. But judged by the standards of other Aardman movies, Early Man can’t help but feel a little underpowered.

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