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Posts Tagged ‘comedy’

What exactly is the appropriate response when you’re sitting down in anticipation of a thoroughly profane and blood-spattered movie, only to find yourself joined in the cinema by a couple who have brought their clearly much-too-young children with them? Should you speak to them? Tell the cinema staff what’s going on? Isn’t it the staff’s responsibility anyway? Is this a mistake? Have they gone to the wrong movie, or snuck in after buying tickets to something more innocuous?

This was the situation I found myself in during the opening moments of Patrick Hughes’ The Hitman’s Bodyguard. Thankfully, I was spared the trouble of, you know, getting off my backside and actually doing something, because a minion appeared and explained the situation to the family and they promptly decamped. Which was a good thing, because I’m not sure I could really have relaxed and enjoyed this film knowing there were minors present. Then again, it has made me wonder about the degree to which one should really relax and enjoy this movie at all.

Hmmm. The movie opens with disgraced Belarussian ex-tyrant Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman, in it for the money) on trial for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court. However there is no hard evidence and witnesses keep turning up dead, so he looks like walking free. Only one man can give the testimony that will put him away – notorious hired killer Darius Kincaid (Samuel L Jackson).

The job of getting Kincaid from Manchester (where he is in the clink) to the Netherlands is given to crack Interpol agent Amelia Roussel (Elodie Yung, currently cornering the market in ass-kicking babe roles), but there is a traitor in her organisation and Kincaid is nearly killed in an intense gun-battle on the streets of Coventry (just another day in Warwickshire, I guess). In order to get him to the court on time and in one piece, Roussel is obliged to call in Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds), a disgraced freelance protection agent – this is slightly complicated by their own history together, and the fact he blames her for the fact he’s disgraced in the first place.

Nevertheless, Bryce and Kincaid set off for the ICC together, quite clearly destined not to get along, as they are polar opposites in virtually every way: the bodyguard is uptight and methodical, his charge relaxed and spontaneous. Dukhovich’s goons are hot on their heels, the authorities can’t be trusted, and Kincaid insists on stopping off in Amsterdam where his wife (Salma Hayek) is incarcerated. No wonder there is very strong language and bloody violence throughout…

Well, it’s extremely clear what kind of movie we’re in for, practically from the word go – an action comedy buddy movie, with the two leads trading heavily on their established screen personae. Ryan Reynolds delivers the usual slightly-narcissistic snarkiness, while Samuel L Jackson basically just does his Samuel L Jackson act – being effortlessly cool and funny, while shouting a lot about, um, melon farmers. Reliable comedic material there, I think you’ll agree, and you can probably imagine the substance of most of the movie. Scathing put-downs! Crackling by-play between the two stars! Hilarious comic chemistry! Truck bombs going off in major European cities! Women and children being cold-bloodedly executed!

…er, what? Well, yes – I think this is where a lot of people are going to find themselves having issues with The Hitman’s Bodyguard, because doing a knockabout action comedy where faceless goons are scythed down like wheat is one thing, but including major terrorist acts and the murder of young children is crossing a line, if you ask me. You simply can’t put that stuff in a comedy film without it seemingly incredibly tasteless. It doesn’t give your movie any more dramatic heft, it just makes all the jokes and so on feel immensely inappropriate. This is non-negotiable. (It doesn’t surprise me to learn that this started life as a straight drama which was rewritten as a comedy in very short order. At least one more rewrite was definitely required.)

And while we’re on the subject, it strikes me as rather off that the film implies that, as recently as 2012, Belarus was a dictatorship where ethnic cleansing was going on. Now, I know that by western standards, Belarus is not a shining example of a free democratic state, but I don’t see how presenting it in this way helps matters much. It treats Belarus like a made-up cartoon nation (Oldman is certainly playing a cartoon bad guy), rather than a real place where people live today. I had the pleasure of getting to know someone from Belarus quite recently, and I would be frankly embarrassed to watch this movie with them.

Ooh, listen to me, I’m on my moral high horse a lot today, aren’t I? I should say that if you can discount the disturbingly tasteless violence and highly dubious geopolitics, The Hitman’s Bodyguard does what you would hope for, in that the action sequences are slick and competent, and the comedy stuff also gets a very satisfactory number of laughs – the flashback to Jackson and Hayek’s first meeting is probably the high point, and it’s a shame that Hayek basically disappears for the final third of the movie. As I say, this was only really a couple more drafts away from being a highly entertaining, essentially inoffensive buddy comedy.

But as things stand, I don’t know. I mean, I enjoyed most of it, and don’t really regret watching it, but it did leave kind of a bad taste in my mouth, not least because at various points it makes a big deal out of issues of morality and guilt, stressing that the moral choices people make are important. Fine in theory, guys, but you made the moral choice of including bombs going off in crowded cities and children being shot dead in your freewheeling comedy film, so what are we supposed to conclude? I’m not sure The Hitman’s Bodyguard even counts as a guilty pleasure, but I’m very glad I wasn’t watching it in the company of some very young children.

 

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‘I can’t believe you’ve never seen Being John Malkovich,’ said Bloke From Next Desk.

‘I didn’t say I’d never seen it, I just said I haven’t seen it in a very long time. Fifteen years or so,’ I said.

‘No problem,’ he said (I’m not entirely sure he actually heard me). Within a couple of days he had brought in his copy of the film on DVD for me to watch. He is a thoughtful fellow, even if I find him rather too inclined to be generous towards Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Hey, nobody’s perfect.

So, anyway, Spike Jonze’s 1999 film Being John Malkovich, which reached the UK a short while later, as tended to be standard in those days. I was living in the north of England at the time, many hours from the nearest art-house cinema, and so I could often only listen and sigh as London-based film critics extolled the praises of bold, brilliant, unusual films, that I knew I didn’t have a chance in hell of actually getting to see on the big screen. Ah, my wilderness years; however did I make it through? Being John Malkovich was just one especially notable example of this – there was a distinct buzz about this film, presumably because of both its startling premise and relentless originality.

John Cusack, that dependable and likeable screen presence, is cast rather against type as Craig, a struggling puppeteer who is married to obsessive animal-lover Lottie (Cameron Diaz, who is also cast very much against type). At Lottie’s request, Craig puts his unusual dexterity to use in a steadier job, working as a file clerk for the mysterious LesterCorp. Here he meets and is instantly attracted to the spiky Maxine (Catherine Keener) – she, quite sensibly, wants nothing to do with him.

All this changes when Craig discovers a mysterious blocked-up doorway in the file room. Going through it results in him being sucked down a passage and finding himself in the mind of the distinguished American actor John Malkovich (John Malkovich). For fifteen minutes he gets to experience life as a famous thespian, before he is disgorged onto the side of a road just outside New York.

Craig and Maxine decide to make the most of their discovery, by selling tickets to Malkovich’s mind for $200 each (as you would). Needless to say, there are dozens of interested parties, and it looks like the pair of them have a good thing going – until Lottie discovers that occupying Malkovich allows her to live out her fantasies of being a man, and engages in a relationship with Maxine from within the actor. Malkovich himself becomes suspicious of the odd events happening around him, and decides to find out just what is going on…

These days, you look at Being John Malkovich and think, ‘aha, a Charlie Kaufman movie’, for the writer has gone on to carve out a unique furrow as a purveyor of existential strangeness in wildly original and blackly funny films like Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Anomalisa. It’s almost enough to make you suspect he has some kind of superpower when it comes to persuading A-list actors to appear in very, very strange films.

So it is with this one. If you haven’t seen it, you may be wondering how on Earth the film goes about selling the notion of a metaphysical portal into someone’s mind to the audience – well, it is a ridiculous idea, but Kaufman and Jonze make it work by setting the whole film in a ridiculous world. No-one in the film behaves entirely normally – Craig is forever getting punched in the face for putting on age-inappropriate puppet shows in the street, the LesterCorp receptionist appears to have some kind of bizarre problem with her hearing, and the company itself is on the Seventh-and-a-Half floor of its building, with the result that everyone has to go around stooped over all the time. Given that all the characters accept these various elements without questioning them in the slightest, the existence of the Malkovich portal seems relatively less weird when it first appears.

Not that this makes the presence of John Malkovich himself in the film any less astounding – getting him to participate at all is possibly its greatest achievement. ‘If the film is bad, my name’s not just above the title, it is the title,’ Malkovich reportedly complained to Jonze, ‘and if it’s any good, everyone’s just going to assume I am this character.’ It’s not even as if this is a particularly flattering depiction of Malkovich – there’s a running joke about how he is universally acclaimed as a great thespian, but none of the other characters can actually name any of the films he’s appeared in. The fictional Malkovich takes himself very seriously, too – which presumably the real one doesn’t, or he wouldn’t be anywhere near it (apparently the studio head would have preferred Being Tom Cruise, as well).

If you’re the kind of person who likes to try and guess what the theme of a film is before watching it, you would be forgiven for assuming that this is essentially a comedy about our contemporary obsession with fame – everyone gets their fifteen minutes of Malkovich, after all. And while this is a consistently funny film, if you come to it with the right attitude at least, I don’t think that’s all there is to it. It may sound like a comedy, but it doesn’t behave like one – neither the performances nor the direction do anything to suggest that this is anything other than a straight drama, admittedly one with an outlandish element of fantasy, perhaps even of horror: after all, the plot resolves itself as ultimately being about a secret immortal who has hit upon a method of vastly extending his life by overpowering the free will of unsuspecting victims. Only the deadpan seriousness of the presentation makes it funny (an engaging paradox).

You can’t fault the film for its entertainment value, or endless inventiveness – as Roger Ebert said at the time, this is one of those incredibly rare films which is as surprising in its last thirty minutes as it is in its first. It is consistently funny, surprising, and… well, I’m not quite sure I’d call it thought-provoking, but it does delight in throwing strange ideas at the audience. The problem is that the price of this is that the film departs from any kind of recognisable dramatic structure – who’s the protagonist? Who’s the antagonist? Just which way is this going to go? Bereft of any of the usual signposts or markers, my memory of this movie after my initial VHS encounter was one of a collection of wildly disparate individual bits rather than a coherent narrative, and I’m not sure meeting it again on DVD has done much to change that impression. A very well-made, very funny film, but a total oddity on nearly every level.

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‘I think the title of this film is very off-putting,’ said a stranger behind me in the cinema queue, speaking to her son.

I turned round and frowned at her. ‘What, you don’t like France?’ I asked. (I can be very socially inappropriate sometimes.)

She did an actual double-take at me. ‘I didn’t mean Dunkirk. I was talking about The Big Sick.’

Ohhhh,’ I said, feigning sudden comprehension. Needless to say, we did not speak again.

Yes, it’s that time of year again, when cinema screens are ram-jammed with coldly calculated kid’s film franchise extensions and noble British tommies shivering on a beach while trying to work out exactly what’s going on with the chronology. You’re really reliant on some high-quality counter-programming cutting through (if you want to have an even vaguely rewarding time at the cinema, anyway), and luckily just this has arrived in the form of Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick.

Or should that really be Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick? It’s hard to think of another recent film which is so obviously personal, for all that it is part of that most peculiar of genres, the romantic comedy.

No, seriously – what is the function of romantic comedies? I get the point of full-on comedies, for they are there to lift your spirits and make you laugh. Dramas are there to engage your intellect and emotions, action movies provide a basic adrenaline thrill, horror movies play with the darker end of the emotion spectrum, and proper science fiction stimulates the intellect.  And so on, and so on. But what’s going on with rom-coms? Who sits down to decide what film to watch and says ‘You know what, I wouldn’t mind feeling a bit more romantic tonight’? Either you’re feeling romantic or you’re not, and if you’re not feeling that way, nothing is less likely to kindle the flame of love than watching two beautiful young people play games for ninety minutes before inevitably ending up together. Part of me suspects this is all about reinforcing social and cultural norms, given that our society is largely glued together by the notion of romantic love, and that going to see a rom-com provides a sense of affirmation, that there is some objective truth to this notion. (Which, you know, there may be.)

Some of this kind of gets obliquely addressed in The Big Sick. Pakistani-American stand-up comic and actor Kumail Nanjiani plays Pakistani-American stand-up comic and actor Kumail Nanjiani (it will be interesting to see if his performance wins any acting awards), who meets therapist-in-training Emily (Zoe Kazan) at one of his gigs. Neither of them is looking for a serious commitment, and yet there is a spark between them, and a relationship develops almost without either of them willing it.

However, in Kumail’s case, the aversion to commitment is basically because his family are still deeply attached to the tradition of arranged marriages, with a seemingly-endless string of unattached Pakistani women happening to drop by at family meals. Kumail doesn’t want to get kicked out of the family for admitting to a relationship with a white non-Muslim girl, and this inevitably causes tension between Emily and him.

And then something happens. Does this constitute a spoiler or not? I can’t remember if it’s in the trailer or not, but it’s in all the promotional material that I’ve seen, and the film is called The Big Sick, after all. Emily is admitted to hospital after what seems to be a bout of flu causes her to faint, and ends up in a coma. Despite their relationship being in limbo, Kumail finds himself hanging around the hospital and bonding with Emily’s parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano).

This is a rom-com, so you probably don’t need me to tell you that this crisis forces Kumail to think hard about what is really important to him – is it keeping his parents happy, even if that means living a lie, or spending his life with Emily? The charm and the achievement of the film, which is the same as that of any watchable romantic comedy, is that you are engaged and entertained even as the story proceeds towards a throroughly predictable conclusion (Nanjiani and the real-life Emily have been married for nearly a decade and co-wrote the script together).

As I get older and become more aware of my neuro-atypicality, trips to watch rom-coms increasingly feel like anthropological expeditions to observe the peculiar behaviour of remote tribespeople, and yet I found The Big Sick to be rather delightful and almost completely winning. Much of the credit for this must go to Nanjiani himself, who gives a brilliant deadpan comedy performance. It probably helped my connection to him that Nanjiani is no stranger to the less-mainstream areas of culture himself, being a noted X Files fan (which resulted in him actually appearing in the good episode of season 10). That said, at various points in the film, Kumail breaks off from watching Night of the Living Dead and The Abominable Dr Phibes to engage in intimate relations, which I can’t imagine ever doing myself, so this is obviously a relative thing. (What kind of person takes a girl home and then suggests they watch an old Vincent Price horror movie together, anyway? Ahem.)

Then again, this is a film with a strong ensemble performance, from the various members of Kumail and Emily’s extended families (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff play Kumail’s parents), and also the various other up-and-coming comedians Kumail hangs around with. The film never puts a foot wrong when it comes to its frequent shifts in tone, and never feels self-consciously heavy when dealing with ostensibly serious topics like ‘the Pakistani-American experience’ or ‘coping with a loved one in a coma’ (the movie resists making the obvious Smiths reference).

In fact, although on paper the movie looks like an inventive mash-up of the Cross-Cultural Romance (with Various Attendant Issues) and Medical Crisis Romance story-forms, it doesn’t really feel like either of them – it feels heartfelt and genuine rather than forced and formulaic. None of the major characters is wholly flawless or an irredeemably bad person – they’re just recognisable people, with rather messy lives they are doing their best to cope with.

I laughed a lot all the way through The Big Sick (there was also, admittedly, a sharp intake of breath at the point where someone tells Kumail that ‘The X Files is not a good show’) – but it also snuck in some genuinely moving moments, which took me entirely by surprise. Normally I would be inclined to speculate as to extent to which real life has been rewritten to suit the demands of a standard three-act dramatic structure, but the film is so funny, so warm, and so sincerely truthful that I’m inclined to give it a pass on this. This is a charming and immensely likeable film, however you feel about rom-coms in general; highly recommended.

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If you were going to nominate someone as the exemplar of the Great Cult Movie Director, you could do a lot worse than choose John Carpenter, I would suggest. This is not to suggest that Carpenter never had any kind of mainstream career, or indeed commercial success, but if you make a list of all his best films – including, I would suggest, The Thing, Escape from New York, Halloween, The Fog, Assault on Precinct 13, They Live, the list goes on and on – they are all cult favourites. That’s a Moviedrome season right there, in fact, perhaps a little heavy on the SF and horror, but those are the genres in which Carpenter routinely worked his particular magic.

As I’ve said before, the thing about John Carpenter’s career is that you have seven or eight really good years at the start, and then things start to go increasingly wrong as time goes by – of the films mentioned above, only They Live was made after 1982. Were it not for the fact that one of his very best movies, The Thing, came out in that year, you might even suggest that the law of diminishing returns was in effect right from the very start.

Carpenter’s first fully professional movie was the original version of Assault on Precinct 13, in 1976, but two years earlier he managed the notable achievement of getting a project he started as a student film released in theatres. The film in question is Dark Star, which in its final version is basically a combination of SF spoof and stoner comedy.

The film follows the mission of the Earth scoutship Dark Star, on its mission to prepare the galaxy for human colonisation. It does this by blowing up potentially hazardous planets with enormously destructive artificially-intelligent bombs. The mission has been in progress for twenty years (it’s suggested this may be on Earth, with relativistic dilation meaning the crew has experienced much less elapsed time), and time has taken its toll on things – the original commander has been killed in an accident with a faulty chair, leaving the reluctant Doolittle (Brian Narelle) in charge, there have been various other system failures, and the ship’s entire supply of toilet paper has self-destructed.

The wonders of space and the possibilities of the infinite universe no longer hold any appeal for the crew – ‘Don’t give me any of that intelligent life crap, just give me something I can blow up,’ snaps Doolittle, when informed of the possibility of non-human civilisations in their vicinity. Instead the crew bury themselves in obsessive pastimes. Even the alien creature they have brought on board to boost morale has become not much more than an extremely annoying nuisance.

Things start to come to a head when, en route to another bomb delivery, the ship is further damaged and the detonation sequence for one of the AI bombs is started by mistake. The bomb itself does not take kindly to constantly being ordered to power up and then stand down, and decides that it’s not going to be messed about any more like this…

Dark Star was made in the early 70s and eventually released in 1974, following the addition of extra footage to bring it up to feature length. It surely goes without saying that at the time, the SF genre was still overwhelmingly influenced by Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey – most films, whether consciously or not, were either trying to emulate it or reacting against it. Dark Star is obviously in the latter camp, and intentionally so – the film’s poster suggests it is ‘the spaced out odyssey’. Certainly the way in which the main plot (for want of a better word) is resolved by an epistemological discussion between an astronaut and a talking bomb feels very much like a parody of the cerebral concerns shot through the Kubrick film.

That said, Dark Star itself turned out to be a hugely influential film in its own right, thanks not just to Carpenter but his main collaborator on the film, Dan O’Bannon (O’Bannon plays the luckless crewman Pinback, in addition to co-writing the script, doing the special effects, and providing various additional voices). If Dark Star ultimately feels like a slightly atypical Carpenter movie – he’s not noted for making flat-out comedies, and it doesn’t have the synth score you’d expect either, but a rather catchy country and western number as its main theme – then it’s almost certainly down to O’Bannon’s contribution.

O’Bannon was hired off the back of Dark Star to do computer animation on George Lucas’ first stellar conflict movie, but rather more significant was another film directly inspired by Dark Star. In the centre of the movie is a long and improbably amusing sequence in which Pinback is tormented by the ship’s alien mascot (the creature is cost-effectively realised using an inflatable beach-ball and a pair of flippers), which lures him down various air and elevator shafts. Audience response was somewhat muted, and it occurred to O’Bannon that there was the basis for a serious film here. Five years later, Alien was released, co-written by O’Bannon, and you can see Dark Star was a huge influence – the shabby, blue-collar astronauts of the Nostromo are a less eccentric version of the Dark Star‘s crew, and the two useless computers in the films could be identical.

Not that it’s only Alien which owes this film a huge debt – any film which suggests space is simply a dull or dangerous place to work is operating in the Dark Star tradition. Is it stretching a point to suggest that the ‘used galaxy’ aesthetic which is so central to the look and feel of Lucas’ stellar conflict films was also taken from this movie? Whatever your thoughts on that, it’s very difficult not to see the long-running sitcom Red Dwarf as simply Dark Star retooled as a TV show – it has bored, slovenly crewmembers, less than helpful AIs, a dead crew member as a key character, and a ridiculous ship’s ‘pet’. It’s not even as if they try that hard to hide it – a red dwarf is a dark star, after all.

For a new viewer today, Dark Star is not quite the polished production one might expect from a contemporary SF movie, simply because it is ultimately a student movie given a cash injection – ‘the world’s most impressive student film… became the world’s least impressive professional film’ O’Bannon somewhat ruefully observed, many years later. It does look primitive, and the fact that none of the performers involved went on to have any real acting career afterwards should tell you something. But the film is still funny and charming, in an offbeat way – almost certainly still worth watching on its own merits, and absolutely worth watching as an enormously influential film in the history of the SF genre.

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I think it was Oscar Wilde who said that to cast one actor as Spider-Man is a sound commercial decision, to cast a second might be seen as a little questionable, but to give three people the part in the space of only about fifteen years is arguably labouring the issue. And yet here we are, with another ingenue web-slinger in the form of Tom Holland, starring in Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: Homecoming. Yup, it’s yet another comic-book movie, but try to keep your fatigue at bay, for this one has a number of points of interest.

The Spider-Man rights are considered to be such a sure-fire guarantee to make money that the $709 million made by The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in 2014 was somehow decided to be a bit of a disappointment. Holder of said rights, Sony, decreed that better must be done, and – in a move that brought wild excitement to many people who should arguably be old enough to know better – re-opened negotiations with Marvel, publisher of the Spider-Man comics and producer of their own series of wildly popular movies. Basically, the deal they cooked up is as follows – Marvel Studios are now making Spider-Man films for Sony, which Sony is financing and distributing. In return for this, and of course various hefty fees, Marvel now get to insert Spider-Man into their own movies, which is indeed what happened with his extended cameo in Civil War last year.

The new movie recaps Spider-Man’s trip to Berlin and shenanigans with the quarrelling Avengers, before moving on to pastures new. Spidey’s alter-ego Peter Parker (Holland) is still very young and keen to impress his mentor in all things superheroic, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) – he chafes against Stark’s insistence that he take things easy and go slow and careful for a while. In short, he is in a big hurry to grow up.

However, staying low to the ground, as it were, brings Spider-Man into contact with someone else very keen to stay off the radar of Iron Man and the other Avengers – Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a former salvage engineer put out of business by Stark and the government, who has taken to scavenging alien materials and other miracle technology and using it to build high-technology super-weapons which he sells on to anyone who has the cast. Toomes has also built himself a set of jet-powered antigravity wings, because, hey, you’ve got to have a gimmick, I guess.

So, if going to your typical American high school, complete with stressful social rituals and ceremonies, wasn’t demanding enough, and trying to meet the exacting standards of billionaire genius playboy philanthropist didn’t make life totally unbearable, Spider-Man now finds himself forced to contend with the winged menace of this high-tech vulture. What’s a boy to do?

I have to confess I was less than overwhelmed with joy when the news of the Sony-Marvel deal came through – all right, it’s nice to have a version of Spider-Man in the MCU (the shared continuity of the other Marvel Studios films since 2008), but we have had some very good Spider-Man films already in the not too distant past, while there’s still no sign of a decent take on the Fantastic Four or Doctor Doom. Or what about another solo Hulk movie? Or Devil Dinosaur: the Movie? That said, however, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a top piece of entertainment, certainly outclassing the Marc Webb movies, and perhaps rivalling the standards of the best of the Sam Raimi-Tobey Maguire films from a decade and more ago.

The at-a-slight-remove conditions under which the Marvel Studios people are working seem to have paid off, for while this film has a distinctly different look and feel to it, compared to the likes of Doctor Strange and the Avengers movies, this is by no means a bad thing – it has a lightness of touch and sweetness that is totally disarming. Much of it is written and played as pure comedy, and it is consistently very funny indeed, in a disarmingly oddball way.

I was a bit dubious about the fact the film is called Homecoming, mainly because it seemed like it was only there as a crashingly unsubtle way of emphasising the fact that Spider-Man is now back in the MCU along with all the other characters, which at times seemed like the movie’s sole raison d’etre. This shared continuity is rammed down your throat at very regular intervals in the course of proceedings: the very first shot is a picture of the Avengers. The first scene takes place in the shadow of Avengers Tower, and is set shortly after the climactic battle from the first Avengers movie. Scenes from Civil War are restaged, Downey Jr appears in both his Stark and Iron Man guises, Jon Favreau reprises his role as Happy Hogan from the Iron Man films, Chris Evans cameos as Captain America, and another star gets an outrageous fourth billing considering they’re only in the movie for about two minutes. Marvel’s own movies take much less of a broad-brush approach to this sort of thing, but in the end it does kind of work, because a lot of the in-jokes and mickey-taking of the other films is spot on (this extends to some witty choices of voice casting and a brutally funny joke at the expense of the Cult of the Post-Credits Sequence).

One slightly ironic thing about this film that no-one has much commented on is the fact that Michael Keaton’s status as a ‘hot’ actor is largely down to his role in Birdman. Birdman was a film which gave its own sardonic commentary on the phenomenon of serious actors spending all their time in superhero movies, and yet Keaton has used it to get himself to this position, as a serious actor in a superhero movie – and, what’s more, playing the Vulture: someone who is, of course, essentially a… oh, work it out for yourselves.

All that to one side, Keaton is the film’s star turn when it comes to acting performances (although this is a notably well-played film throughout). We are quite a long way down from the pick of Spider-Man’s rogues gallery, and the Vulture suit in this movie is a rather unwieldy piece of design, but Keaton manages to create that rarest of things – not just a great villain in an MCU movie, but a blue-collar supervillain is who both a plausible character and genuinely menacing. You really wish Keaton was in the movie much more – also that the MCU people start to create characters with this sort of presence and depth for their own movies.

I would say that the climax of the movie is arguably a little weak, but in every other respect Homecoming gets the mixture of comedy, pathos, and exhilarating action you’d expect from a Spider-Man film pretty much spot on, with the film’s insertion into the wider Marvel universe a real bonus too. How many movies in a row now, without a serious misstep from Marvel Studios? You would have to be a very brave person to bet on their hot streak ending any time soon.

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I trust I am not revealing too many secrets of the scrivener’s craft if I briefly tweak the curtain aside and reveal that some things are easier to write than others. Give me something truly awful, misconceived, or objectionable to review, and I am as happy as can be; the thing about Hampstead practically wrote itself. Something a bit more indifferent – or, even worse, boring – and it can be quite hard work getting my thoughts in order, or even finding enough to say. Worst of all can be writing about something which seems really good, or which I really like (not always the same thing, of course) – how to avoid just a string of ‘this bit is really good… this bit is also really good… this bit is really good too’?

I mention all this because we are about to look at Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which was for quite a few years my favourite of the series (since displaced by The Wrath of Khan), and which remains to this day not just my father’s favourite Star Trek movie but almost certainly his favourite science-fiction film, full stop (his absolute favourite film of any kind may be The Muppet Christmas Carol, which he will happily sit down to watch on a broiling August afternoon). ‘The one with the whales’ is how it is known in my parents’ house, which is as good a description as any, I suppose.

Nevertheless I feel it is incumbent upon me to look at Star Trek IV with a slightly more objective eye than I have customarily done in the past, hopefully not just to be critical for its own sake, but to see what makes this film so distinctive and a bit of a landmark for the series.

This movie was released in 1986 and, like its predecessor, was directed by Leonard Nimoy. To be honest, it gets off to a slightly rattly start: the action opens a few months after the end of Star Trek III, and finds an alien probe of immense power heading directly for Earth (again), swatting aside all resistance and generally causing consternation and outright panic. On Earth, the Klingon Ambassador is demanding Kirk’s extradition for crimes against the Empire (this is a decent scene, but it doesn’t really have anything to do with the rest of the movie). Kirk (William Shatner) and the rest of the gang are still holed up on Vulcan (or possibly, to judge from the hats, in Tibet) getting ready to fly home in their captured Klingon vessel, because apparently Starfleet can’t send a ship to Vulcan to collect them.

(Hmmm. I mean, hmmm. In four out of the first five Star Trek movies, the plot is driven by the fact that Starfleet ‘doesn’t have any other ships in the area’. Just how big a fleet is this? Exactly how enormous is Federation territory, if Starfleet is always spread so thin? It compares very oddly with latter episodes of Deep Space 9, admittedly set about a century later, in which dozens of Starfleet ships routinely appear.)

Oh well. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) is almost back to his old self, though perhaps a little flakey (and Harve Bennett, who wrote this section of the film, appears to be under the impression that pure-blood Vulcans don’t have emotions at all, rather than exercising control over them). Nevertheless he decides to go back to Earth with everyone else. Inevitably, news of the probe’s attack on Earth causes a change of plan. (Apparently Leningrad is back on the maps in the late 23rd century – maybe all those complaints that the Federation is a communist superstate are true.) Spock figures out that the alien probe is trying to talk to humpback whales (the Klingon ship’s databanks are remarkably detailed when it comes to Terran marine biology), which were wiped out centuries earlier, and comes up with a somewhat outlandish plan.

You’re proposing that we go backwards in time, find humpback whales, then bring them foward in time, drop ’em off, and hope to Hell they tell this probe what to do with itself! That’s crazy!’ cries Dr McCoy (DeForest Kelley). Nevertheless, that’s what the script has been setting up (in its own, somewhat contrived way) and so back they zap to San Francisco in the mid 1980s. Save the whales – save the planet!

The meat and heart of the film is the visit to the present day by Kirk and the gang. As you might expect, the general tone is rather comic, with various scenes of the Trek regulars being baffled by public transport, profanity, the attitudes of the locals, and so on. The 20th century portion of the film is written by Nicholas Meyer, who had form with this sort of thing, having written Time After Time, another time-travel adventure story set in contemporary San Francisco, a few years earlier.

Apparently the general intention from the start was to ‘do something nice’, and the decision to play much of the film for laughs may well have been influenced by the fact that for part of its development, this film was going to star Eddie Murphy alongside the Star Trek regulars. Quite why this never happened is a little unclear – some sources indicate Murphy wanted to play a Starfleet officer or an alien, others suggest that the studio realised that releasing a Star Trek film and an Eddie Murphy film would be more profitable than a single movie combining of the two brands. In the end the Murphy character ended up being re-gendered and played by Catherine Hicks, who does as well as anyone in the thankless role of Trek movie guest character/love interest.

Much of what goes on is genuinely funny, even today, with everyone involved clearly having a – hmmm – whale of a time (well, George Takei was apparently distraught when an uncooperative child actor meant his big scene in the movie had to be abandoned). The movie continues the trend, which began in the previous film, for Star Trek to now be specifically focused on these seven characters as a group, rather than Kirk and Spock, or the voyages of the Enterprise. And it works well, even if Meyer arguably pushes it in search of the laughs he’s clearly going for. The crew’s familiarity with 20th century idiomatic English is preposterously selective, given that’s basically what they’ve been speaking for the previous three movies and seventy-odd TV episodes – although I suppose most of the jokes are at the expense of the slightly-addled Spock (Chekov is still slightly too much of a dipstick to be credible). The problem, of course, turned out to be that the studio got the impression that cramming jokes into their Star Trek movies was a sure-fire boost for their box office, which would prove to be bad news for Star Treks V and VI.

In the end the film is so good-natured and funny, and its general message about saving the whale so unexceptionable, that it would take a titanic effort of will not to cut the film some slack and enjoy it on its own terms. (Even if the music, by Leonard Rosenman, is not even close to James Horner’s standards.) And there is a pleasing sense of the world returning to its proper state at the ending, with Captain Kirk back on the bridge, his friends around him, new adventures awaiting a new Enterprise.

Of course, new adventures were awaiting a new Enterprise, only not this one, and not for this crew. It was a few weeks before the release of Star Trek IV that Paramount announced the production of what would eventually become Star Trek: The Next Generation, the long-term popularity of the series now seemingly proven (and, apparently, a new crew of unknown actors being a more appealing prospect than the ever-more-expensive Shatner and Nimoy). The next six films in the series would all be released into a world in which Star Trek was back on TV, and perhaps it’s no surprise that they feel less cinematic, more narratively constrained, than the first three or four films in the series. I still feel that II, III, and IV are the highpoint of the Trek movie series, simply because they are Star Trek when it manages to be very true to itself, and yet also truly cinematic. The Voyage Home may be the most indulgent and soft-centred of any of them, but that doesn’t make it any less likeable.

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Where there is a big loud blockbuster, occupying the sides of every bus for miles around, intent on owning the nation’s cinemas for a weekend, there’s always the chance for counter-programming, too, and one could surely expect the new Transformers (described by Bradshaw in The Guardian the other day as ‘a machine for turning your brain into soup’) to be countered by something a little more mellow, thoughtful, and humane. What has actually emerged to hoover up the money of cinemagoers not keen to spend two hours recreating the experience of sitting in a tumble drier being pushed down a hill by an angry mob is Joel Hopkins’ Hampstead, a golden-years romantic-comedy-drama starring Diane Keaton and Brendan Gleeson. I get the impression expectations for this film are quite high, for it has won the coveted main screen at Oxford city centre’s nicer cinema, which I don’t feel I get to sit in nearly often enough.

In this movie, which (needless to say, I hope) is set in the London borough of Hampstead, Diane Keaton plays Emily, a woman whose husband has died fairly recently, leaving her with some financial concerns. (She still lives in an enormous apartment block with its own concierge, of course, like most people in London.) Her friends and family are all urging her to move on with her life, and her accountant keeps macking on her in a way which I’m guessing is meant to be pathetic-funny but actually just comes across as rather repulsive. Anyway, Emily’s life changes when she bumps into Donald (Gleason), a sort of human womble living rough in a secluded part of Hampstead Heath, in a shack he built himself many years earlier. The area is due to be redeveloped and Donald is about to be evicted, and as Emily finds herself increasingly drawn to him, she resolves to help him fight to keep his home. But can people from two such different worlds truly find happiness together? Especially when it turns out that Emily’s closest friends are deeply involved in the redevelopment project which looks set to evict Donald from the home he loves…

Look, Diane Keaton was in Annie Hall and Sleeper and The Godfather, there’s no excuse for not liking her as an actress. Brendan Gleeson was in In Bruges and Calvary and The Guard, in addition to all those supporting parts in blockbusters, so the same applies to him. I think I would give any film starring Brendan Gleeson a chance, in fact. Or so I kept reminding myself while I was watching Hampstead and trying to stop myself jumping from the cinema balcony in an attempt to escape from the movie.

What is it about this film which makes it quite so exceptionable? Is it the soft-focus depiction of homelessness in modern London? The disparity between the living standards and housing of the wealthy and the poor in the city’s more prosperous parts has become a bit of an issue in the last couple of weeks, as you may have noticed on the news. Perhaps it is partly to blame. Is it the crushing obviousness of pretty much every line of the script and the direction-of-travel of the movie? I think we are getting a bit closer, there, to be honest. Emily needs to learn the life lesson that She Has Potential As A Human Being (and also that all her so-called friends are grotesque shallow comic harpies). Donald has to learn the life lesson that Being A Reclusive Curmudgeonly Hermit is not good and you must Connect With People And Find Love. The manner in which these two character arcs unfold and interact contains fewer surprises than a dot-to-dot book assembled by someone unable to count above three. Overall, such is the sense of dramatic tension and potential for excitement in this movie that you can cut the atmosphere with a rolling pin.

You can see what the makers of this film had in mind when they were putting it together – one of those romcoms set in an absurdly photogenic London with an imported American star and a local leading man, with the formula modulated somewhat to appeal to older audiences in the same way that (for example) Man Up was tweaked to seem slightly more edgy. However, what they’ve ended up with in this case feels rather like a lobotomised mash-up of The Lady in the Van and an early draft of Notting Hill before Richard Curtis had put any of the jokes in. It is of course physically impossible for performers of the stature of Diane Keaton and Brendan Gleeson to be completely bad for 104 minutes, and each of them manages to bring moments of power and life to the very thin characters they are obliged to play here. Employing Brendan Gleeson, in particular, in a film quite as lightweight and disposable as this one is a bit like buying an armoured car to do the school run in. But there are some talented people in the supporting cast as well, and they make virtually no impression (at least, not in a good way).

Is it even worth mentioning that this movie is supposedly based on a true story? ‘Inspired by the life of Harry Hallowes,’ squeak the closing credits – useful words, ‘inspired by’, for they give you so much latitude to invent new characters, change the ending, insert whatever Moral Premise you believe will play best with your target demographic – the film really does feel exactly that calculated, and as a result whatever emotions it manages to generate feel cold and glutinous – it’s a bit like being swamped by a wave of chilled treacle.

In the end I suspect the main problem with Hampstead is that it’s a smug film that still manages to feel hollow and manipulative, as well as being a drama without any surprises, a comedy with barely any decent jokes, and a romance with no sense of passion or even much emotion to it. I am sorely tempted to recommend you go to see Transformers 5 instead. This film will eat your soul.

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