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Posts Tagged ‘comedy’

Having an orderly brain, I noted a few years ago that the gap between the first Men in Black film and the second one was five years, and further that the gap between the second and the third was ten years. It seemed a fairly reasonable assumption that there would be a twenty year gap between the third and the fourth, presumably with Will Smith moving into the role of the grizzled old veteran and someone as-yet-unheard-of providing the youthful glamour. Friends, I am shocked to have to relate this, but I was wrong. The new Men in Black film has come out thirteen years early, and I have to say that some might suggest it shows.

The title of the thing is Men In Black International, concerning the global doings of the secret agency which, for the purposes of this franchise, polices alien activity on the planet Earth. (‘But… but…’ anyone who was paying attention back in 1997 might be spluttering, ‘wasn’t it kind of established then that aliens were really just limited to the New York area?’ Good point. But shush.) The story gets going, chronologically speaking, with a young girl named Molly witnessing the Men in Black in action and wiping her parents’ memories afterwards. She grows up to be a massive over-achiever (Tessa Thompson) and through diligence and ingenuity manages to track the agency to its secret base, where she persuades the director (Emma Thompson, mostly phoning it in) to recruit her.

She is then packed off to the London branch, where there are suggestions of something not being quite right in the ranks of the persons with a wardrobe of a limited chromatic range. It seems that a few years ago there was a showdown atop the Eiffel Tower, which contains some sort of hyperspace gateway built by M. Eiffel, who was also a Man in Black. (‘But.. but… wasn’t it kind of established that the Men in Black came into existence as an exclusively American agency, in 1961?’ Another good point. But shush again.) The two agents involved (Liam Neeson and Chris Hemsworth) saved the world from an invasion by shape-shifting alien horrors, but Hemsworth’s character has been acting rather erratically ever since.

And there is some more plot following this, but I will not trouble you with the details as they are unlikely to linger much in your head, even if you see the movie. The general recipe for the film is kind of the same as before: there’s a gentle send-up of some of the tropes of B-movie sci-fi, mixed with some spy and cop movie clichés, and also a few potentially slightly scary bits with an almost Lovecraftian sense of gribbly tentacled unpleasantness pressing in on the margins of the mundane world.

The thing is that this time around… well, here’s what I have been led to understand about this film. Apparently director Gray was keen to make a film with a bit of a satirical edge to it and some social commentary on the topic of immigration (you can imagine how that would work, along with some of the more obvious gags – one wonders what kind of dismal alien hell-world could have spawned the current US administration). Producer Walter Parkes (who I feel obliged to mention has some pretty decent movies on his CV) wanted something a bit more middle-of-the-road and proceeded to start rewriting the script while the film was actually in production. Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, who reputedly signed on on the strength of the Gray script, were understandably bemused and independently recruited writers of their own to polish their dialogue.

(Yes, I know, it is utterly baffling that films are made this way, and we have to assume that it is not standard practice in the industry. Even so, this is a production with a budget of somewhere in the region of $100 million, yet the creative process involved seems to have primarily been based around squabbling and bemusement.)

When you consider all this, not to mention the producer and the director both assembling their own edits of the finished film (the producer’s version won out), one does have to say that Men in Black International is a staggering achievement in the way it still manages to be a more or less coherent story without a large number of holes in the plot. This is not to say that there aren’t any – there are still a few, and to be honest they are biggies, but it is unlikely to bother most members of the audience as the clash of different visions has resulted in a film with very little sense of what it’s supposed to be beyond a brand extension and franchise instalment. No one is likely to care or be engaged enough to worry too much about whether it makes any sense.

I mean, look, there is virtually wall-to-wall CGI for most of the film, and it is all very professionally done; fights and chases turn up on a regular basis; there are plot reversals and so on too. But none of it feels as if it means anything – it is all very mechanical and uninspired. It feels like a Men in Black film produced by some sort of artificial intelligence, or a joke written by a computer – all the structural elements are present and correct, it’s just completely flat and lifeless.

Now, of course, with this kind of film, winning chemistry from charismatic leads can go a long way towards taking up any bagginess in the other departments, but the film is also afflicted with, if this isn’t too harsh a way of putting it, the Chris Hemsworth problem. I have certainly enjoyed many Chris Hemsworth films and Chris Hemsworth performances in the past (mostly the ones where he has been playing Thor, to be honest). I have no beef with him as a person, not least because I have no personal relationship with him. However, he is in the awkward spot of being someone whose films make hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars, but only when he plays that one character he’s famous for. So just how big a star is he really? Opinion seems to be divided on the topic, especially if you consider the stories that one of the reasons the fourth Bad Robot Star Trek movie folded was Hemsworth’s involvement being judged not to be worth his very hefty asking price (he was due to reprise his before-he-was-famous role as Captain Kirk’s dad). Hemsworth’s attempts to establish himself as a leading man in his own right are not helped by the fact he is essentially giving a lightweight version of the same performance he delivered in his last couple of MCU movies (here the ratio is about 70% swagger to 30% smug), or the fact he’s paired with Tessa Thompson, one of his regular foils from those same movies, or the fact that the film brazenly includes cheesy in-jokes alluding to Hemsworth having played Thor for the last eight years. As for Thompson herself, I have to say I’m not entirely sure she has the chops to be co-lead in a big aspiring blockbuster like this one. She’s not actually bad. But you’re still perhaps a little surprised to see her there, vaguely feeling that you were expecting someone else.

This is cinematic entertainment as disposable, mechanical product. It is rarely actually dull, for at least it has been edited together to provide a good deal of pace. But it is just a succession of sounds and pictures that makes sense in a transactional sort of way. It has no resonance, no subtlety, no depth, nothing new to say or do. It almost feels like it is aspiring to be mediocre. Anything which made the first couple of films in this series memorable and entertaining has been scraped out of the carcass and what remains lurches across the screen in an almost wholly affectless way. It doesn’t engage the emotions, the brain, or the sense of humour. Nobody was demanding this film, I suspect, but it could still have potentially revitalised and updated the series. Instead, I think that in a sane world it would constitute the final swift blow to its throat. So we can probably expect a reboot at some point in the next ten years.

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Some of my friends refuse to believe me when I say I’ve never seen the Disney animation of Aladdin. It’s true: didn’t see Aladdin, didn’t see Beauty and the Beast, didn’t see Little Mermaid. Of all of those 90s cartoons the only one I caught was Lion King, and that was because someone gave me free tickets to it. My whole attitude to the Disney Aladdin may in fact be coloured by the fact that, in November 2005, I found myself obliged to watch ‘A Whole New World’, one of the big production numbers of the film, performed on live TV by Peter Andre and Jordan. No living soul could remain unaffected by such an experience.

Given this baleful connection between Jordan and Disney’s Aladdin, I suppose there is something of an irony that the corporation’s latest attempt to farm money from their back catalogue by updating the charming animations with live action and CGI, which is of course a new version of Aladdin, was actually filmed there. It’s a funny old world sometimes, as well as a whole new one. Although possibly not in this movie, where much of the humour is either laboured or rather sentimental.

The fact that Guy Ritchie’s film is likely to define perceptions of this story for another generation causes me a mild pang, for it persists in relocating the story of Aladdin from ancient China to somewhere generically middle-eastern, and furthermore ruthlessly scythes Widow Twankey and Wishee-Washee from the plot (they don’t even have the bit where they divide up the audience for the singalong near the end). Instead we just meet Aladdin (Mena Massoud), an improbably well-groomed small-time crook and homeless person, who makes the acquaintance of sultan’s daughter Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), who has some rather anachronistic ideas about emancipation and self-empowerment. Things get more complicated when…

Oh, come on, Constant Reader! Do I really need to describe the plot of Aladdin? It’s from A Thousand and One Nights (albeit somewhat unrecognisably), one of the most famous collections of folk-tales in history! There’s an evil vizier/magician (Marwan Kenzari). There’s a cave. There’s a lamp. There’s a genie (Will Smith). There are a finite number of wishes to be granted. There are show-tunes, power-ballads and dance routines. You know how this one goes, I would imagine.

Well, if nothing else it is less horrid than Tim Burton’s baffling version of Dumbo, but once again the whole thing is somewhat hobbled by the fact that it is essentially a recreation of the 1992 animation rather than an attempt to do something genuinely new and creative with the story: in addition to all the required beats from the folk-tale, the film is also obliged to include all the bits people will remember from the cartoon, as well. It even attempts to look like a cartoon, with a garish colour-palette and cinematography, although the list of things which seem to have influenced this new film is a long one: it is a peculiar chimerical beast made up of panto plotting, blockbuster CGI, Broadway show tunes, MOR power-ballads, and Bollywood dance routines. No doubt the film is expecting to receive plaudits for ethnically-appropriate casting (not that anyone is actually Chinese), although I do note that the closer a character is to the centre of the story, the greater the chance that they speak exclusively in an American English idiom.

Frankly, I found it rather hard going, not really being in the target audience – I only went because we normally go to the cinema on a Tuesday night and my friends preferred this to yet another trip to watch Godzilla: King of the Monsters (yes, I know; but I try to be kind to them anyway). It does acquire a certain energy and sense of fun once Will Smith turns up, but on the whole you could easily dismiss this as very bland, rather vacuous stuff.

I did notice, however, that beneath all the froth and nonsense there is a film putting across an unexpectedly rigorous, if somewhat flawed thesis about the nature of power, particularly as it relates to the citizens of traditional hierarchical societies. All the major characters are to some extent defined by their social mobility, or lack of it: none of them, initially at least, have any prospect of changing their station in the manner they would prefer. Aladdin is going to stay on the street forever, Jafar is not going to ascend the throne due to his lack of the blood royal, Jasmine (being a woman) is not going to be allowed to rule as she would like, and the Genie’s whole peculiar existence is defined by some rather arbitrary rules (you could argue that the Genie is in fact emblematic of the whole subtext of Aladdin).

Obviously this is a cause of frustration for all of them, and when Aladdin and Jafar decide to do something about it, it is in the same way: the use of magical (and thus unnatural, i.e., outside the bounds of conventional society) power to change their station in life. (The hero-and-villain-are-two-sides-of-the-same-coin trope is a common one, but it’s presented here in an unusually systematic fashion.) What’s notable is that neither of them is ultimately successful in this, and the changes that do result are more due to their essential characters than whatever magic they have managed to lay their hands on. The deeper subtext of the film is that power itself is an illusion at best, a trap at worst: we see Aladdin symbolically represented as a puppet of the Genie, an inversion of the supposed power relationship here. By the end of the film it has been made clear that the degree of power a person nominally wields is in inverse proportion to their ability to actually make free use of it – the Genie, whose powers seem to border on omnipotence (with a couple of exceptions), actually has the least control over his own existence, while it is the homeless Aladdin who is closest to being actually free.

And yet the film is ultimately rather conservative (perhaps this shouldn’t be a great surprise), choosing to ignore its own thesis in the closing stages and present a happy ending in which the characters do manage to achieve some fairly improbable changes in the previously-monolithic status quo of the film. The root cause of all the suffering and conflict in this story is the existence of the strictly hierarchical society, and therefore for the film to have a truly happy ending one would expect to see the old power structures torn down and a new model of society in some kind of nascent form – but no. There are some specific and not especially significant reforms, primarily that Jasmine gets to be the Sultana (one might describe this as her raisin d’etre). So in the end, as I said, the film is ultimately flawed in how it implements its sociological and political analysis. But some of the songs are quite catchy anyway.

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Any sensitive person would be forgiven a certain degree of wariness when it comes to the value of democracy nowadays – the track record of major votes in certain English-speaking countries over the past few years has not exactly been stellar. And so I permitted myself the odd moment of foreboding when, in the absence of an obvious candidate, the popular vote as to which film our happy little band should go to see on our weekly cinema trip went almost unanimously to Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, Booksmart. (Then again, the only other serious alternative – and I use the word ‘serious’ inaccurately – was Ryan Reynolds in Detective Pikachu, and, you know, frankly, no.)

You may have heard of Olivia Wilde; certainly, I can’t hear her name without thinking of a scene in Cowboys and Aliens with a bonfire, and another one from a film called Alpha Dog that has been widely shared on the internet… but I digress. I kind of get the impression that Cowboys and Aliens marked the end of her association with big, broad studio movies (though then again, she was in Rush, but I’d forgotten about that) and she’s been ploughing her own furrow doing a mixture of roles in lower-profile films and making documentaries. Booksmart, while maybe a bit too full-on to be entirely mainstream, is certainly a film aimed to appeal to a wide audience.

Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever play Molly and Amy, a couple of intelligent, dedicated, wide-awake young women just on the cusp of graduating from high school in the time-honoured fashion. Both of them have prioritised academic success over self-indulgent hedonism for the past four years and are feeling rather smug about it, accepting their reputation as a couple of joyless geeks is a reasonable price to pay for going to much better colleges than any of their peers.

Except… it doesn’t quite seem to have worked out that way. All their fun-loving, popular contemporaries also seem to be going to very good colleges, or taking other equally attractive routes in the next stage of their lives, despite having enjoyed themselves fully. Molly in particular is absolutely traumatised to learn this, finding it grossly unfair, and in an effort to redress this decrees that the two of them will be attending the biggest party they can find, there to behave wildly and prove that they are fun people to hang out with. (The fact that both of their crushes will also be attending may have something to do with this new resolution, too.) Amy is a bit less keen on this plan, but goes along with Molly as usual. There is of course the problem of how to actually get to a party they don’t know the location of, but they are, as they keep reminding themselves, officially the two smartest girls in school…

I know there are some readers of the blog who take a special interest in the views of my good friend Olinka about the films we end up going to see; some of them are not even Olinka herself. So I imagine that Olinka’s verdict of ‘That was terrible… I was cringing all the way through,’ will carry particular weight with them. I should quickly add that it is not Olinka’s view or mine that Booksmart is actually a bad film, just that it brilliantly and vibrantly depicts a teenage world of social embarrassment and self-inflicted disasters. This is, I would suggest, not a film for Granny, for it contains various scenes of drug abuse, heavy drinking, and minority strumpy-pumpy, all held together by a script with an F-bomb total probably heading for four figures.

You might think be thinking this sounds like a spiritual companion piece to Eighth Grade, which came out a few weeks ago – Twelfth Grade, maybe. Well, the two films do obviously have something in common, but whereas Eighth Grade was implicitly critical of modern society and almost felt quite bleak in places, Booksmart turns out to be a joyous, upbeat, very, very funny film. Certainly it does have things to say about modern society, and it does poke fun at some young people’s obsession with identity politics (not to mention nearly every other kind of politics). But these are friendly pokes, not mean-spirited at all; this is not a reactionary film, and it is firmly on the side of its protagonists.

Booksmart certainly belongs to a popular tradition of American high-school comedies, and I suppose it will be hailed as the first entry to the genre to be written and directed by and star women; well, this may be so, but as noted the film does not labour the point and remains notably light-footed throughout. This isn’t to denigrate the quality of the script, which is consistently pacy and clever throughout, and works as well as it does mainly because of the way it’s not afraid to be completely absurd. All of the characters are caricatures to some extent, but they’re written and played to the hilt by the cast, who know when to go big and when to rein it back for a moment of something approaching genuine emotion.

That’s the thing about Booksmart: I turned up expecting another loud, agitprop-y comedy more concerned with ticking the right political boxes than actually serving its story, and an hour in I realised I was watching something consistently funny, frequently over-the-top, highly inventive, and with a central relationship that was totally believeable and that I had somehow become honestly invested in. It’s the warmth and heart of Booksmart that pushes it over the line from good film to great film – it’s not just that you care about Molly and Amy, and feel for them when various social and personal disasters overtake them, although this is the case. This is a rare example of a film where pretty much every character eventually turns out to be a decent, likable human being – again, all credit to a cast which includes Jessica Williams as their class teacher, Skyler Gisondo as the class goon, and Billie Lourd as a drug-crazed free-spirit.

There are not many films I have come out of recently feeling quite as buoyant as I did after Booksmart. The phrase ‘instant classic’ gets tossed around fairly glibly these days, but in this case it does feel justified. It’s interesting that a film that wears its progressive credentials very lightly and simply concentrates on delivering solid laughs ends up feeling much more positive than any number of studiously right-on dramas and documentaries. Funny old world sometimes; but this is a very funny new film.

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People complaining about not being able to make movies seem to have a diminishing stock of excuses at their disposal. It’s not as if you still need lots of expensive equipment or an army of support staff – there has been at least one fairly recent release shot entirely on a smartphone, not that you’d know that from looking at the film (Soderbergh’s Unsane). Film-making has been democratised along with many other forms of artistic expression in the internet age; the real challenge is getting past the gatekeepers so your film shows in cinemas (or at least on a big-name streaming site), not just on YouTube. Of course, it helps if you have form when it comes to making successful films, either commercially or critically.

Then again, some people have bigger barriers than others, such as the Iranian director Jafar Panahi, who made a career out of films which were quietly critical of the establishment of Iran. This eventually led to his arrest for producing propaganda against his own government, and a ban on making any films for twenty years. I will happily admit that I don’t know as much about Panahi’s case as I perhaps should, but somehow he has managed to carry on making films despite being unable to leave Iran, and they keep turning up in the west (one was apparently smuggled out on a USB stick hidden inside a cake). How is he allowed to do this? Why are there no repercussions? Constant reader, I don’t know: all I can say is that if his latest film (the first I have seen), 3 Faces, is representative of his output, I am not entirely sure what the Iranian government is quite so worried about.

Why is this film called 3 Faces? Good question. No idea. The first face we see is that of a teenage girl named Marziyeh (I should mention that virtually everyone in this film is playing a version of themselves, who lives in a remote village and is not very happy about it. She wants to be an actress, her family disagree, and in her desperation she is sending a message via smartphone to the well-known Iranian movie star (well-known in Iran, anyway) Behnaz Jafari in the hope she will come and help her. The film appears to conclude with Marziyeh doing something rather regrettable.

Well, Jafari receives the message, courtesy of Panahi himself, who is the person it’s actually been sent to. The two of them immediately stop what they’re doing and drive off to Marziyeh’s village to see what’s going on – was Marziyeh telling the truth? What has befallen her? – despite the increasingly irate phone calls coming from the director of a film which Jafari is supposed to be making. Jafari openly wonders – is this all a scam? Is Panahi in on it? Is the message genuine?

Well, I know what you’re probably thinking, I was thinking it myself to begin with: this sounds a bit like a metatextual Iranian odd-couple road movie take on The Wicker Man, updated for the 21st century. However, it is clearly not Jafar Panahi’s style to do something so obvious and hackneyed. Exactly what he did set out to achieve in this movie is a bit less easy to work out. I had originally planned to go and see 3 Faces a few weeks ago, not least because it would give me a chance to hang out socially with the blog’s Anglo-Iranian Affairs consultant but problems at the cinema led to the screening being cancelled. We were quite glad when it popped up again at the UPP, and Anglo-Iranian Affairs seemed delighted when it transpired the credits were in both English and Farsi. At the end of the film I sought his opinion, with uncharacteristic delicacy.

‘Was there some kind of subtle Iranian subtext to that film, that as an outside I’m just not picking up on? Because it just seemed like two people wandering about with not much happening.’

Anglo-Iranian Affairs looked at me, a gentle smile upon his face. ‘Subtext? No, not really. It’s really interesting to see a film like that one, it’s so unusual these days.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘Well, one without much of an actual story. I kept waiting for something to happen, but…’

Well, if nothing else it looks like Jafar Panahi has made a film that crosses borders and cultural divides: whether you are the product of western civilisation or Iran itself, you can watch 3 Faces and come away convinced you’ve just seen a film about two people sitting in a car, with not much significance beyond that. I think I’m going to stress this again: very little actually happens in this film, in terms of story at least – Panahi and Jafari drive about, occasionally stopping to talk to someone or discuss what they’re doing. Sometimes he has to wait while Jafari signs autographs for the many adoring fans who materialise every time they stop somewhere. An old man tells a long story about his son’s circumcision. The closest thing to a plot twist arrives when their attempts to leave a village are stymied by the presence of the local prize stud bull – an animal with ‘miraculous testicles’ – lying injured in the road.

None of this is actually irksome to watch, but I did find myself becoming rather restive as the film entered its second hour with still only an ambient sense of plot about it. Every now and then it feels like the film is getting ready for something to happen, some grave reversal or development, but… nothing significant actually happens. They stop and have tea somewhere, maybe. It’s not even as if the film is that beautiful to behold – always a useful get-out for arty films without much story – as it looks like big chunks of it were made on Panahi’s phone (presumably a consequence of his ban, which the script itself alludes to). It may possibly be the case that he is trying to make some kind of point about cultural and generational divides in modern Iran – there is something ironic about the contrast between the hostility Marziyeh’s desire to become an actress is met with by her fellow villagers, and the adulation Jafari (herself a performer) encounters during their journey. But it’s all so obliquely done, with the lightest possible of touches, that the point of the film (if it has one) becomes almost imperceptible.

And yet 3 Faces still shared the award for best screenplay at Cannes: if I were the cynical type I would suggest this says more about Cannes’ desire to support a persecuted film-maker. Actually, I am the cynical type: this film winning a screenplay award says more about the bien-pensant folk of Cannes wanting to show solidarity with Panahi than it does about any quality the film actually possesses. I am beginning to see how Jafar Panahi is working around the ban on his making films, because while 3 Faces is not an outright objectionable way of spending 100 minutes, it barely qualifies as a piece of cinema.

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How’s about this for a subtle way of sliding a blatant plug into one of these pieces: I have a piece in a collection of essays coming out later this year, concerning a fairly-well-known fictional character whose generally benevolent nature rapidly vanishes whenever he experiences a moment of perfect happiness. The editor of the collection asked me to provide a one-line biography of myself, and it seemed natural to choose a moment of perfect happiness of my own – tongue slipping slightly into my cheek, naturally. I went for eating a $60 cheeseburger high in the sky over Tokyo, in the 50th-floor hotel bar where Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson sort-of hooked-up in Lost in Translation. (I refused to believe you could possibly justify charging $60 for a cheeseburger, no matter how nice the scenery was. Then I ate a $60 cheeseburger, and revised my opinion.)

It’s one of those questions which you can take as seriously as you want to, I suppose, and it is at the heart of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s film After Life (the Japanese connection is mostly coincidental). This is one of Kore-eda’s earlier films, released in 1998, and one presumes it (along with a bunch of other Kore-eda films) is enjoying a revival off the back of the success of Shoplifters last year. I have to confess I had never heard of it until only a few days ago; this is not the kind of Japanese movie which generally lands an international distribution deal.

As the film opens, we are in what looks like an abandoned or semi-derelict school or hospital; two co-workers are casually making their way into the office, gossiping about people they have met while doing their jobs. It is Monday morning and the departmental supervisor thanks his team for their efforts, but observes they have a large number of clients coming in this week who will all need to processed as smoothly as possibly. So far the general atmosphere has been of a naturalistic fly-on-the-wall documentary, but as the team’s clients begin to arrive, walking into the reception area out of a misty white void, we perhaps begin to discern that not all is quite as it seems. The clients are a disparate bunch, perhaps skewing more towards the older kind of person, and the reason for this is revealed as they are taken into private meeting rooms for their initial interviews with the processing team.

All the clients are people who have recently died, and the place where they are (it is never named) is basically the ante-room to the next life. The new arrivals are officially informed of their change in status, and the purpose of the place is explained: the newcomers have three days to decide upon which of their memories is most important to them. This memory will then be recreated and filmed by the staff of the facility. At the end of the week, everyone will watch the completed films of their chosen memories, at which point they will pass on into eternity, taking only that single memory with them.

Most of the early part of the film concerns the various clients discussing their lives and the things they remember most strongly. One of them isn’t sure he has any memories he really wants to take with him; another, a slightly flaky young man, refuses to choose, despite the fact he will not be able to move on until he does. These two characters are scripted, but even as you’re watching the film it’s clear that some of these scenes are real people honestly talking about their lives (not actual dead people, obviously, but the fantastical context in which they are speaking does lend their stories a significance and gravity they might not otherwise possess).

As the film progresses, though, it becomes clear that this is more than just an inventively-disguised talking-heads documentary. The people working here have their own stories, too: they are not angels or spirits or supernatural beings, but people who have chosen not to move on. Some of them are better at their jobs than others, and they have their own relationships. The film focuses most on what seems like a very low-key romance between two of them, Takashi (Arata) and Shiori (Erika Oda). The film is as subtle as ever in the way it raises ideas without beating the viewer about the head with them – just why are they still here? Is it even possible for two people in such a strange state of metaphysical hiatus to have a meaningful connection of this kind? When the life-story of one of the new clients proves to have a personal resonance for Takashi, it begins to look very much like they can.

When the film first made clear the rules of Kore-eda’s afterlife – specifically the part about only being able to take one memory with you, stuck in a moment you can’t get out of (to quote U2) – I have to confess it didn’t sound to me like a very good deal; what kind of life can be summarised by only a single moment or memory? But perhaps this is not the point. Quite what that point would otherwise be, I’m not sure, although the film does suggest that most people just choose moments of special happiness for them. Perhaps the implication is that people get the afterlife that they choose for themselves, whether that be one of bliss or self-flagellating guilt and remorse. It’s a slightly worrying idea and one which feels disturbingly plausible.

In all other respects, Kore-eda’s clearing house for the great beyond is a very appealing concept. I couldn’t help thinking of the grand conception of heaven in Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death, with its enormous escalators, great clocks, pristine uniforms and so on; Kore-eda’s alternative feels rather like a somewhat under-funded branch of the social services – the roofs leak, the place clearly hasn’t been decorated in ages, and there’s a slightly shambolic quality to everything from the film reconstructions themselves to the brass band that accompanies the clients to the climactic screening. I found it undeniably charming, and very much of a piece with the rest of the film, which opts for low-key, understated naturalism throughout. You can imagine the Hollywood remake of After Life: it would be all soaring string sections and luminous CGI dissolves, with Important Life Lessons being crammed down the audience’s throat; none of that is here and it is what gives the film its enormous, gentle charm.

The original title of After Life was Wandafuru Raifu, which translates into English as Wonderful Life (Japanese is sometimes less challenging as a language than people think). However, this isn’t obviously an update or riff on Frank Capra’s much-loved seasonal favourite; it has none of that film’s darkness, nor its implicit imprecation that we should take the time to be grateful for what we’ve got. This is a film about quiet reflection and acceptance, almost wholly non-judgmental and enormously humane and warm. It is genuinely a bit of a treasure.

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As Shinichiro Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead gets underway, we find ourselves in very familiar (perhaps dispiritingly familiar) territory: a young woman (Yuzuki Akiyama) in blood-spattered vest and shorts recoils from the ominous figure (Kazuaki Nagaya) of a looming, grey-faced walking corpse. There is pathos as well as terror, as it transpires these two were romantically involved, before he became, er, vitally challenged. The camerawork is a bit clumsy, and the zombie make-up a bit primitive, but we have been drowning in zombie films ever since 28 Days Later came out, nearly 17 years ago, and much worse work has made it onto cinema screens in this time.

However, not all is as it initially appears, for as the zombie attacks his victim, a voice screams ‘Cut!’, the camera pulls back, and it is revealed that this is not a low-budget zombie movie, but a film about the making of a low-budget zombie movie, and one which is not going well: the director (Takayuki Hamatsu) is revealing despotic tendencies, and they are currently on the forty-second take of this particular scene. After expressing his dissatisfaction with the actors’ performances in deafening terms, he goes off in a huff, leaving the make-up woman (Harumi Shuhama) to tell the young performers the eerie tale of the history of the abandoned industrial site they are filming in, with rumours of weird experiments on human bodies. We are back in the realm of the slightly hokey here, and then there is a rather odd interlude as the make-up woman demonstrates her hobby of self-defence. But then, it seems that there may be some substance to the rumours of the site’s dark past, as what appear to be genuine zombies appear and start attacking the cast and crew. Everyone is shocked and horrified – well, nearly everyone, as the director is delighted at this opportunity to use a bit of method-acting in his zombie spectacular…

Yes, this is a film about zombies attacking people who are making a film about zombies attacking people. My first thought when I heard about it was that it sounded very much in the (lacerated) vein of George Romero’s Diary of the Dead (one of the master’s less impressive latter-day films), in which people making a horror movie find themselves caught up in a genuine zombie apocalypse. This is not quite the same as that, however. I know we were talking the other day about how this is a good time for niche films to be released: well, once again, you don’t get much more niche than self-referential Japanese zombie horror comedy films. I knew very little about One Cut of the Dead before I went to see it, its Wikipedia entry is (perhaps intentionally) misleading, and I feel it would almost be spoiling the film to talk about it in any detail. On the other hand, I feel I have to say something, as this is one of the best films I have seen at the cinema this year (I should mention it’s taken its time arriving on UK screens, as its Japanese premiere was in 2017). So, this is one of the rare occasions where I will say Spoilers Incoming, but also that this film fully deserves the glowing notices it’s been getting pretty much everywhere, not to mention its enormous success (apparently this is the first film in history to make a thousand times its budget at the box office).

Why, you may be wondering, is this film called One Cut of the Dead? Well, I think this may be another case of our old friend the slightly dodgy translation making an appearance – One Take of the Dead would be a slightly more appropriate title, as you slowly become aware that the action of the film is unfolding in front of a single camera without any breaks – supposedly the camera filming the film-within-the-film, if you’re with me so far (thus explaining the film’s original title, Kamera o Tomeru na!, which translates as Don’t Stop the Camera!). Are you with me? I hope so, because we’re not quite to the heart of the matter yet.

After 37 blood-splattered minutes of hilariously over-the-top chaos, there is, finally, a cut, and a caption reading ‘One Month Earlier’ comes up. Suddenly the film adopts a much more conventional style. We meet Takayuki (Hamatsu again), a journeyman director of karaoke videos and the like (his motto is ‘fast and cheap, but average’) who is given a potential career opportunity – the backers of the soon-to-launch Zombie Channel (it’s only a matter of time before this really happens) want to kick off their new network with something special, and have decided to start with the live broadcast of a thirty-minute zombie movie, One Cut of the Dead, filmed in real time in a single take. Takayuki initially thinks this is a joke, but rapidly says yes when he realises they are serious.

Slowly it becomes apparent that this isn’t a horror film about zombies attacking people making a horror film about zombies attacking people. This isn’t even a horror film at all, in the strictest sense. This is a comedy film about people making a film about zombies attacking people making a film about zombies attacking people. What could be simpler? We are introduced to all the actors who play the characters in the film-within-the-film, and of course much humour is derived from the differences between their screen personae and real-life personalities. It is true that this section of the film is slower and less obviously funny than the bravura opening segment, but at the same time it is crucial to the film’s ultimate triumph, which is yet to come.

One Cut of the Dead is, I suppose, the equivalent of one of those Penn and Teller routines where they show you a hugely impressive and entertaining trick, then – in breach of all the magician’s union guide-lines – purport to show you exactly how they did it, which somehow manages to make it seem even funnier and more impressive than it was the first time around. The final third of the film is essentially a reprise of the beginning, but this time we are privy to all the desperate antics going on behind the camera in order to make the thing work – two of the actors haven’t turned up, which is why Takayuki and his wife (Shuhama) have been forced to step in and appear in the film, the bizarre performance of one of the zombies is revealed to be because the actor has drunk himself almost into a stupor, and so on. All the bizarre details and weird non sequiturs in the opening sequence are revealed to have a hilarious behind-the-scenes explanation; the stream of jokes is relentless and all of them hit their target. I have not laughed as much or as hard at any film in as long as I can remember as I have at One Cut of the Dead.

The film’s energy and invention are irresistible, and it enjoys two brilliant comic performances from Hamatsu and Shuhuma (Shuhuma’s transformation from mild-mannered make-up lady to axe-wielding berserker is funny the first time round, but even better when the reasons for it become apparent). And by the end it becomes a genuinely uplifting and joyous experience: you find yourself really rooting for these people as they desperately struggle to get to the end of the film despite all the problems it is beset by. In addition to being a truly great comedy, this is a loving tribute not just to bad horror films, but also to the craft and art of film-making itself. A fake-gore-splattered delight, and a wonderful surprise.

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Let’s get one thing straight before we go any further: I really, really liked Avengers: Endgame, despite all the (arguable) plot holes – I actually felt myself having significant emotions during it, both times, which isn’t a very common occurrence. It’s a great movie. But before we all sit around shaking our heads with impressed disbelief at that $2.2 billion (at the time of writing) box-office take, we should probably bear in mind the situation in which all those tickets are being sold.

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We should not be under any illusions about the way that Disney, owners of the Marvel franchise, are leveraging their box office clout in order to maximise returns on the movie. Cinemas that want to show Endgame have had to agree to show it a minimum number of times a day for a minimum period of time in order to get the opportunity (Disney do the same with their own big films and the stellar conflict franchise, which is another one of their properties). It makes sound business sense, as we can see, but it doesn’t exactly encourage biodiversity in the movie ecosystem. People were running scared even before Endgame came out, with hardly any competitive releases the weekend before; the only films coming out at the moment are ones which are very sure of landing an audience, such as Tolkien, and niche films which were never really going to appeal to a mainstream crowd anyway.

Which brings us to Benedikt Erlingsson’s Woman at War, which is probably one of the most niche films to make it into cinemas this year. This is an Icelandic-Ukrainian co-production, which in itself is an exotic pedigree, but this is just for starters – just wait until we get onto the plot. Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir plays Halla, a middle-aged choir mistress from (one presumes) suburban Reykjavik. She outwardly lives a completely happy and unremarkable Nordic life. However, Halla has – for want of a better expression – a secret identity, as ‘The Mountain Woman’, a longbow-toting eco-terrorist. As the film opens, she is just in the process of sabotaging some electricity pylons in an attempt to shut down a smelting plant producing heavy pollution, before skedaddling across country with the authorities in hot pursuit. But she manages to stay one step ahead – for the time being, at least.

Halla’s campaign has inevitably attracted media attention, not least because she is jeopardising investment in the country from the Americans and Chinese; satellites and all the other apparatus of the technological age are due to be deployed against her. She needs to move quickly to complete her plan if her adherence to her convictions is not to lead to another sort of conviction. But then something completely unexpected occurs: she receives a letter, telling her that an application to adopt, made literally years earlier, has been approved, and there is a small Ukrainian girl waiting for her in an orphanage there. Will this bring about a shift in Halla’s priorities?

So, yes, another film about an Icelandic eco-terrorist choir mistress – how many of those have we seen in the last few years? But this is not just another film about an Icelandic eco-terrorist choir mistress. This is another film about an Icelandic eco-terrorist choir mistress which goes out of its way to be even more off-beat than the brief capsule synopsis up the page suggests. There are various other plot elements I didn’t mention there – for one thing, fairly central to the plot is the fact that Halla has an identical twin sister, Asa (Geirharðsdóttir again), who is a yoga-teaching free spirit. There is also a droll subplot about a hapless foreign tourist (Juan Camillo Roman Estrada) on a cycling tour of Iceland who just happens to be in the area whenever Halla goes into action, and is forever being nicked by the police and being dragged off to jail as a result.

However, the most self-consciously quirky thing about an extremely self-consciously quirky film is the way the soundtrack is handled. Most of this is provided by either a choir of Ukrainian throat-singers, or a local trio on keyboards, drums and sousaphone. But wait, it gets even more quirky than that sounds. The first sign of how odd this film is going to get comes early on, with Halla making her way across country, the local band tootling away on the soundtrack. Or are they? The camera pans to follow Halla, and as it does so we can clearly see the band and their instruments in the back of the shot, looking rather incongruous on the Icelandic moorland.

But wait, it gets yet more quirky still. The whole issue of whether this is diegetic or non-diegetic music becomes even more confused, as not only do the various musicians pop up in the background on a regular basis throughout the film, there are also points at which they start interacting (in a low-key way) with Halla and the rest of the story. At one point, the band start getting tweets about her activities; later, she gets home and discovers she is being denounced as a terrorist (no eco-) on the news by the government, and switches off the TV angrily – but the band, who are present, are apparently following the story and switch it back on, rather to her annoyance.

The least you can say about this is that it is distinctive, and not un-amusing, to begin with at least. However, as the film goes on and the choristers and musicians continue to make their on-camera appearances, it loses most of its comedy value and becomes, if not actively irritating, then certainly distracting. Is Erlingsson just including this conceit because he thinks it’s amusing and unusual? It’s hard to think of another reason for it. It is also quite distancing, constantly reminding you that you’re watching something artificial, which is the opposite of what good films usually aspire to do – it keeps deliberately kicking you out, rather than pulling you in.

This is a shame, because the film does touch on some potentially interesting ideas and is generally rather well-made: some of the themes it briefly engages with are the ethics of the kind of direct action that Halla is engaged in (who are the real criminals, aren’t her actions wildly undemocratic, and so on), and the tensions between traditional Icelandic society and the globalised world attempting to increase its influence over the country. There’s an extended sequence of Hall being pursued by a succession of drones, helicopters and tracker dogs which plays like a conventional thriller and is genuinely gripping and tense (no throat-singers in this bit). Elsewhere, the film offers the possibility that, for all of Halla’s apparent zeal for her cause, this may just be displacement activity to make up for her own loneliness and lack of fulfilment.

None of these things, however, really end up going anywhere – if the film has a theme, message, or underlying moral premise it’s not at all clear what it is, while the various contortions of the plot become increasingly preposterous towards the end of the film. This does not necessarily detract from the charm of the film, which is considerable – it’s well-played, gently funny, and involving. But I do think that most people’s ability to watch it will depend on their tolerance for self-conscious quirkiness, because that, above all else, is what Woman at War has in spades.

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