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Posts Tagged ‘comedy’

Everyone has their blind spots and I’m afraid that one of mine is the work of David Lynch, pretty much: now that I think about it, it may not so much be the case that I don’t like his films as much as my just not feeling any desire to watch them. Until recently the only ones I’d actually seen were The Elephant Man and Dune; the former is – it seems to me – a classy but essentially conflicted movie, while the latter is a watchable train-wreck of a film. I should say that I started watching Twin Peaks when it first came on in 1990, but I bailed out very early on – a few minutes into the first episode, in fact. I can’t quite remember why – there was a kind of measured intensity to scenes in which virtually nothing seemed to be happening which I found quite uncomfortable to watch.

However, my co-spousal unit is a) very interested in senior citizens and films dealing with them and b) always glad of a break from horror and exploitation movies, so when Lynch’s 1999 film The Straight Story came on the telly not long ago I made a point of recording it for her. This is famously the ‘nice’ David Lynch film – apparently many industry figures were shocked and mystified by the fact that the film was not shocking or mystifying. (This little bit of paradoxy alone is enough to make me well-disposed towards the film.)

Lynch sets out his stall very early on in the film with various sweeping aerial shots of the agricultural heartlands of the United States, golden fields of corn waving in the sun, etc. We are in for some max strength Americana in this movie, clearly, although it takes an unusual form: the form of Iowa-dwelling retired labourer Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth). Straight is, not to put too fine a point on it, knocking on a bit as the film begins, and probably qualifies as a decrepit physical wreck (you know, I say that lovingly, of course, and with a due sense of measured objectivity). After being found sprawled on his kitchen floor he is whisked off to the doctor, who diagnoses joint problems, failing eyesight, and incipient lung disease – and things are likely to get even worse unless Alvin Straight makes some different lifestyle choices.

However, being a rugged American individualist, Alvin is not the kind of man to meekly take advice from a medical professional and goes home to smoke a cigar. Not long after, however, the news arrives that his estranged brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton, who doesn’t actually appear in the movie until the very end) has suffered a stroke. Alvin resolves to visit him, over 200 miles away in Wisconsin, which seems entirely reasonable.

However, as Alvin can’t drive due to his bad eyesight and doesn’t have the money for a bus ticket, he chooses to make the trip on a riding lawnmower, which is perhaps a less reasonable choice. Certainly his daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) reacts with concern as her old pa starts building a trailer to carry all the essentials he will take with him on this epic road trip. You might actually expect any dutiful daughter to say ‘Dad, no, this idea is nuts’ – but Rose is a slightly odd bird herself (the film doesn’t really dig into this, but she has some sort of atypical neurology) and lets him set off. After a false start and a change of mower, the great journey begins in earnest…

Forrest Gump on a tractor’ was the apparently-devastating verdict on The Straight Story, whispered into the ear of the renowned British film critic Mark Kermode by his colleague David Cox. It’s a very good line, and there is an element of truth to it, but I’m not sure it’s the beginning and the end of critical commentary on this film. (It’s also possibly worth noting that Cox made this observation just as the film was starting, making this an example of pre-reviewing a film for comic effect, something I try hard to avoid myself.)

Forrest Gump is another of those films I’ve never really sat down and got to grips with, but at the very least it’s a lavish and earnest attempt to make an insightful journey through the American experience of the latter part of the 20th century. The Straight Story is about a man travelling across country on a lawn mower, filmed in a very straightforward, no-frills sort of way. I suppose, if we accept the proposition that both films are essentially pieces of Americana, and as such primarily concerned with the nature of that great but somewhat fractured nation, then Forrest Gump is loudly and verbosely shouting about what it thinks that nature is. The Straight Story doesn’t shout or gesticulate, it just presents its answer in a slightly oblique and very understated way and leaves it for the viewer to figure out what that answer is.

And what is that answer? Well, if Alvin Straight is some kind of paragon or American folk-hero, we’re back to the archetype of rugged individualism, a man determined to make this trip on his own terms, without asking for help or charity from anyone. But he’s also a decent man, thoughtful (if not especially demonstrative) when it comes to his family and friends and the other people who meets on his journey. They are also routinely kind and considerate people. This is one of those rare films where all the characters are nice people who spend their time being pleasant to one another: the only crises driving the plot are the result of medical problems or lawn mowers breaking down. If nothing else this is a refreshing change of pace.

Nevertheless, at nearly two hours, you do find yourself wishing the lawn mower could go a bit faster well before the end. Saying the film has longeurs may not be entirely accurate or fair, as it seems like it’s deliberately paced the way it is (an alternate view might be that the whole film constitutes a single extended longeur); perhaps this is Lynch’s way of challenging the audience on this occasion. It seems like most of the film’s other quirks happened behind the camera – the film was shot in chronological order, according to the director, who said it was his most experimental film. Nevertheless, he handles the actors and the various scenes well and – once you get into the film’s groove – it’s actually very soothing and involving to watch. The story may be – perhaps inevitably – linear, but the acting is excellent and the cinematography and direction also good. I wouldn’t rush to watch it again, but it’s – how can I avoid the word ‘nice’ again? – a pleasant and worthwhile watch.

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There’s a popular current thesis which suggests that the era of the movie star is coming to an end – ‘movie star’ meaning someone who can ‘open’ a movie, and ‘open’ meaning ‘someone whose mere presence in a film will make people want to go and see it’. No-one like that is coming up through the ranks, the theory goes: good actors and popular performers, maybe, but no-one who is bigger than the film they’re in. We’ve discussed previously the odd case of someone like Chris Hemsworth, whose films are massively popular… as long as he always plays the same character. The character here is the star, not the actor.

With all this going on there is, inevitably, a parallel discussion about who the last great film star standing is. You can make pretty decent cases for people like Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Harrison Ford, but it frequently boils down to one of the two Toms – Hanks or Cruise. It looks very much like Tom Cruise is in the dominant spot at the moment, following the massive (if slightly bewildering) success of Top Gun 2 last year, and the publicity machine already gearing up for the next episode of Mission Impossible. Tom Hanks hasn’t done himself any favours, either, I might suggest, by lending his talents to streamers (Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio and others) – Cruise has remained absolutely faithful to the primacy of the theatrical experience. I’ll admit to being one of those people who in the past has occasionally suggested the Cruiser might be a bit nuts, but you have to admire him for taking a stand like that.

Still, Tom Hanks is still a contender to be reckoned with, in his own field at least. (There seems to be a definite demarcation between the two Toms – Cruise only really does action thrillers these days, while Hanks is rarely to be found outside a good-natured comedy-drama.) He is back on screens in Marc Forster’s A Man Called Otto, which is based on a Swedish movie (and novel) called A Man Called Ove. This isn’t the first Anglophone remake on Hanks’ CV, of course, while Forster’s filmgraphy is sufficiently eclectic (gritty drama, literary adaptations, family-friendly comedy drama, and the profoundly unpopular Bond film Quantum of Solace) for nothing he does to really be much of a surprise any more.

The premise is fairly simple: Hanks plays a man called Otto Anderson, a recently-widowed engineer living in (I guess) Pennsylvania. ‘Prickly’ doesn’t begin to do justice to Otto; he comes across as an inflexible, unfriendly pain-in-the-neck to anyone who meets him. He castigates the young manager of a hardware store for only selling rope by the yard rather than the foot. His retirement party descends into acrimony when he complaints he feels pushed out of his job by new management. Long-standing feuds with neighbours and the local property development company rumble on.

Otto retires to his home, arranges to have his electricity and telephone disconnected, affixes a hook to his living room ceiling, and prepares to hang himself using the five feet of rope he was attempting to buy earlier, all in a very businesslike manner. However, it is a measure of the man that a display of substandard parallel-parking taking place across the street is enough to make him put this plan on hold and go out to complain. It turns out the offenders are his new neighbours Marisol and Tommy (Mariana Trevino and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and at this point the trajectory of the film becomes very clear indeed: Marisol’s relentless cheery friendliness will somehow find a way through Otto’s crusty carapace (the winsome cuteness of her daughters will also be a factor) and this will prove to be the story of How A Spiky Old Git Rediscovers The Joy Of Living.

It’s the kind of film, aspiring to be heart-warming and life-affirming, which it’s very easy to be cynical about – in fact, when not done well, it’s the sort of thing that often inclines me towards slipping off somewhere and quietly opening a vein. On paper it sort of resembles the TV show One Foot in the Grave, albeit with a substantial dollop of the earnestness and sentimentality you occasionally find in some of Hanks’ less successful projects.

However, Tom Hanks hasn’t managed to maintain his position at the top of the Hollywood system for nearly forty years simply through good fortune – he’s technically a very skilled actor in addition to being a hugely likeable screen presence, and he does have an edge over the other Tom in his willingness to stretch himself – these days, it’s impossible to imagine Cruise appearing in a bonkers ensemble film like Cloud Atlas, or being so prepared to be grotesque and unlikeable as Hanks was in Elvis last year (I tried to think of the previous film I’d seen Hanks in before this one and completely forgot about his turn as the Colonel, eventually settling on A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood from 2020).

Hanks’ performance is this film’s greatest asset, but this is not to say that the rest of it isn’t very capably put together too. It manages to negotiate a tricky path between being an actually quite morbid black comedy – there’s a running gag about Hanks’ various attempts to top himself being interrupted or otherwise going wrong – and something genuinely heart-warming. You’re never in any doubt as to how this is going to play out, but as ever it’s not necessarily the destination but the journey which really counts – the script rarely puts a foot wrong as it introduces the various characters, fills in Otto’s back-story (Rachel Keller plays his late wife, the young Hanks is played – in a remarkable coincidence – by someone named Truman Hanks), and basically charts the reappearance of Otto’s appetite for life.

Parts of it are very funny, while others are intensely moving and poignant (although the film benefits, as any film or TV show does, from the canny deployment of a Kate Bush song on the soundtrack). I saw it with the co-spousal unit and she described it later as ‘a film that will make you feel every emotion’. This is not far from the truth. Maybe there is a tendency towards sentimentality, but then this is part of A Man Called Otto‘s conception, and there is enough darkness, loneliness and grief to compensate for this. Not the biggest film of Hanks’ career, but a good one nevertheless.

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It seems like every big entertainment corporation is permanently on the look-out for the next big property to systematically exploit – not that it hasn’t always been thus, but these days it all seems a lot more premeditated in terms of the branding and forward-planning and so on. Next recipient of this treatment looks likely to be the writer Roald Dahl. To be fair, Dahl’s work has been the subject of numerous adaptations for decades – Walt Disney nearly made a film of his early novel The Gremlins (a word he apparently did a lot to popularise), since when there have been dozens of movies and TV shows. I get the sense the next wave will be a bit more organised and irresistible – or perhaps I’m just reading too much into the fact that The Roald Dahl Story company now has its own animated logo. (I look forward to seeing this at the start of a possible future adaptation of My Uncle Oswald, a quasi-pornographic Dahl novel from 1979 concerning an enterprising scheme to harvest the semen of famous men using an infallible aphrodisiac and some open-minded accomplices.)

This December will see the release of the surely infelicitiously-titled Wonka, a probably inevitable prequel to the films based on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but still providing a cheerful and upbeat presence in UK cinemas is the new version of Matilda, directed by Matthew Warchus. (Strictly speaking, this film is trading under the title of Roald Dahl’s Matilda: the Musical, but, you know, who can be bothered? We all know what I’m talking about.)

This is the tale of Matilda Wormwood (Alisha Weir), whose arrival in the world happens during the opening number: in contrast to the joy experienced by most of the parents in the maternity ward, Matilda’s are filled with profound horror – her father (Stephen Graham) would prefer a boy, while her mother (Andrea Riseborough) would have preferred not have a child at all, the mere fact she is about to give birth being a profound shock to her. This utter disdain extends into Matilda’s childhood, when she is forced to sleep in the attic and generally neglected, her parents even forgetting to send her to school.

The local school board take a dim view of this sort of thing and Matilda ends up being sent to Crunchem Hall, a grim establishment overseen by the imposing figure of Agatha Trunchbull (Emma Thompson), a former champion hammer-thrower whose idea of encouragement is a slogan like ‘None of you are special’ and whose personal motto is ‘Children are maggots’. Matilda, however, has – from somewhere or other – acquired a passionate love of reading and sense of justice, and before long she finds herself heading for a collision with the headmistress. Perhaps the psychic powers she seems to be spontaneously manifesting will come in useful…?

‘It’s a bit like Carrie,’ was how I pitched Matilda to the co-spousal unit when we were thinking about going to see it, a description which I obviously still stand by: young girl from a troubled domestic situation has a hard time at school and takes her telekinetic revenge in the final act. There, of course, the similarities start to dry up, for Roald Dahl and Stephen King, despite their shared success, don’t really have that much in common as stylists. King is always grounding things in the mundane world, while Dahl is revelling gleefully in the grotesque details which have made his books so abidingly popular – it’s an over-the-top, cartoony sort of world his characters generally inhabit.

Of course, this has led to accusations of misogyny, anti-semitism and racism being levelled at his books, but the only one which has an outside chance of sticking to Matilda is the first – Trunchbull is a hideous monster rather than anything recognisable as an actual woman, while Mrs Wormwood is a shrill, parasitic shrew. It must be said that Emma Thompson and Andrea Riseborough nevertheless lean into the repulsive elements of their characters and clearly seem to be having a great time doing so. They’re so awful it’s impossible to think the film is trying to make a serious point, any more than an adaptation of Hansel and Gretel or Snow White.

If the film does have a message it’s an entirely laudable one – not just about not being horrible to other people, but about standing up for fairness and justice (and, seeing as we’re mentioning these things, the joys of reading, telling stories, and being educated generally). The film manages this in a non-preachy, entirely persuasive way I found wholly admirable; the fact the film is consistently funny and  poignant in the right places doesn’t do it any harm either.

I suspect the main reason I went to see Matilda was because, as the lengthy full title suggests, it’s a musical, and I do like a musical even if it’s a kids’ film. The songs are by Tim Minchin, as I expect is quite well known, and they are uniformly both clever and witty. We went to a singalong showing of the film, something I’m usually wary of doing, but luckily no-one seemed inclined to join in at our screening. The subtitles were actually quite welcome as they helped us to appreciate the finer points of the jokes in the lyrics which might otherwise have got lost. Emma Thompson sings a song about how to be a champion hammer-thrower, which isn’t something you’re going to get in many films, while the terrific ‘Revolting Children’ number is as agreeable an incitement to riot as you’re likely to hear all year. Great singing performances all round, from Weir, Thompson, and Lashana Lynch (who plays a friendly schoolteacher).

I didn’t see the last Chocolate Factory adaptation and the prospect of Timothee Chalamet in a top hat practicing to become Johnny Depp fills me with inertia – in fact it’s probably fair to say I’ve enjoyed Dahl’s work for adults more than his children’s stories (too many Tales of the Unexpected at a tender age, I expect). Nevertheless I had a really good time watching Matilda – the sad bits are really sad, but this is part of the process of earning a proper happy ending, and the funny and uplifting bits do exactly what they need to do. This is a thoroughly enjoyable and well-made film that, I suspect, the whole family can sit down and have a good time with.

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It feels like the world has been in love with Jane Austen for well over a quarter of a century now: at least since the release of the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle-starring adaptation of Pride and Prejudice made by the BBC in 1995. Since then there have been so many versions of the author’s work – which, after all, mainly consists of only six finished novels – that they all start to blur into one, a composite world of cravats, rebuffed proposals, big hats, empire line dresses and very impressive balls. There’s nothing wrong with a milieu with that sort of strong identity, of course, and familiarity is certainly a plus as far as some audiences is concerned – but on the other hand it can all get a bit bland and predictable.

Whit Stillman’s 2016 film Love and Friendship does its best to give the usual style of Austen adaptation a kick up the backside, while still retaining most of the elements which make the genre identifiable. Stillman is perhaps best known as a chronicler of a certain stratum of contemporary society, and as such doing an Austen adaptation might be seen as a bit of a departure for him – but films like Metropolitan do feel like a costume drama, just one set in the present day. Perhaps this is a natural coming together of film-maker and source material. The specific source material, by the way, is a novella named Lady Susan, written by Austen in the 1790s when she was possibly only a teenager – long before the ‘major’ novels.

Stillman himself apparently found the book to be seriously flawed – to the point where he persuaded a publisher to let him write his own novelisation of the film in an attempt to fix some of the errors – and so it seems likely some extensive tweaking of the story has taken place to bring it to the screen. Kate Beckinsale plays Lady Susan, an attractive widow who has the serious problem of not having an income to support herself or her teenage daughter Frederica (an early appearance by Morfydd Clark, who did a sort of Austen double by turning up in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies in the same year). Beautiful, witty, and very, very shrewd, Lady Susan is nevertheless afflicted by the problem of a terrible reputation as a flirt – nobody really wants to have her to stay, due to the wrecking-ball effect she has on relationships in the house, but on the other hand this is pre-Regency England and everyone is much too polite to say a flat ‘no’ without some sort of pretext.

Anyway, after being kicked out of the home of the Manwaring family for getting too familiar with the lord of the manor, Lady Susan moves in with – and excuse me while I check this, for the film is stuffed with Manwarings and DeCourcys and Johnsons and Vernons, most of whom seem to be related somehow and several of whom bear a resemblance to each other (there are even two characters with the same name) – her late husband’s family, where she soon manages to ingratiate herself with – and hang on again – her late husband’s brother-in-law (Xavier Samuel).

All seems well until Frederica turns up, having run away from her boarding school, pursued by the wealthy but moronic Sir James Martin (an excellent comic turn from Tom Bennett). Sir James wants to marry Frederica, which would save the family fortunes, but she wants nothing to do with someone so ‘silly’ – at least, nothing in the nuptual sense. This results in tension between mother and daughter, as you might expect. But Lady Susan is determined to see her daughter make a good marriage – and if she can procure a good one for herself as well, so much the better…

I feel like I have simplified much more than usual in the capsule synopsis department, in case you were wondering. The film really doesn’t compromise when it comes to character and plot – the only concession it makes is to introduce characters through little portrait-like vignettes, with (frequently ironic) captions explaining who they are. The story unfolds through a succession of often quite brief scenes, with complex and allusive dialogue – this is the kind of film where many of the main characters never quite say exactly what they mean – and the end result is that you really have to strap in and pay attention to what’s going on – and I do mean concentrated, sustained attention. A copy of the Cliff’s Notes for the film would be an invaluable benefit and make it much more relaxing to watch.

I’m not really selling this to you, am I? Well, it’s not quite the ordeal I may be implying, for the general thrust of the plot is fairly clear even if some of the decorative curlicues remain a little obscure. It’s an uncompromisingly clever film, and often a very funny one as well, particularly when it comes to some of Lady Susan’s more outrageous pronouncements – she explains her preference not to actually pay the woman who’s effectively her servant, on the grounds this will spoil the bond of friendship between them. She is an awful, awful person, but due to the charm of Beckinsale’s performance you find yourself almost inclined to indulge her in this.

As I said, Stillman has performed surgery on Austen’s original novel and so how much of the film’s acid cynicism was originally there is not immediately obvious (i.e. I can’t be bothered to read the novella myself) – but this is a very atypical Austen adaptation. While certainly comic, you’d be hard-pressed to describe it as a conventional romance – virtue is to some extent rewarded at the end, but so is guile and manipulativeness, and at least one amiable fool is ruthlessly exploited. I think perhaps the sharpness of the blade is truer to Austen than most adaptations, but I wouldn’t presume to call myself an expert.

In any case, the film certainly meets the visual requirements of an Austen movie, with carriages and hats and stately homes and so on, and there is a solid costume-drama cast, too: Chloe Sevigny plays Susan’s American friend, and Stephen Fry her husband (only a brief appearance, though). James Fleet and Gemma Redgrave pop up in supporting roles, as does Justin Edwards (who I mention primarily because he was Gan in Blake’s Junction 7, which we discussed just the other day). Challenging it may be, but I think it’s still claimed a place as one of my favourite Austen adaptations.

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People who feel it important to ruminate on such matters have suggested that 2023 will be the year in which the so-called ‘streaming wars’ turn nasty – rather than a bounteous wonderland where something for all tastes will be available for a reasonable fee just on Netflix, the suggestion is that we will find ourselves on a battlefield where the big N, Mouseplus, Paramount, Apple, etc, dig in and increasingly pitch for big middle-of-the-road audiences. (It seems to be taken as fact that Netflix’s long-anticipated crackdown on password sharing will come into force some time early in the New Year.)

If things really are this tough, you can see why the news that Netflix apparently spent $469 million on the rights to two sequels to the 2019 comedy-thriller Knives Out variously baffled, startled, and annoyed many of those same ruminators. The first film was good, and (more importantly) very profitable, but even so – over $450 million? (Including $100 million each for writer-director Rian Johnson and star Daniel Craig.) It does seem like mystifying insanity, and very possibly a sign of a profoundly decadent culture.

Still, whatever you make of the background to these films – and it is of course customary to emit a small sigh about the fact that this means that two potentially big and entertaining movies will only be appearing in cinemas for a couple of days each – here is the first of them, Glass Onion. This is very much a further adventure of Craig’s character, detective Benoit Blanc, rather than a sequel to the first film – marketing suggesting the two films share a storyline has apparently mightily annoyed Rian Johnson, but there you go, even $100 million can’t buy you complete creative control these days.

There is a strong element of topical satire to this movie and I expect a lot of fun will be had trying to guess who all the characters are based on. Chief amongst these is filthy rich tech tycoon Miles Bron (Edward Norton), who at the start of the film summons various old cronies to his private Greek island by sending them a large and intricate puzzle box, which contains the invitation. Amongst the recipients are a politician (Kathryn Hahn), a scientist (Leslie Odom Jr), a former model (Kate Hudson), an internet celebrity and men’s rights activist (Dave Bautista), and Bron’s former partner (Janelle Monae) – whom he treated very roughly indeed in some of their former business dealings. Also receiving a box is Blanc himself, who is confined to his bathtub and on the verge of going stir-crazy. (It’s somewhat relevant to the plot that all this is happening during the 2020 lockdown.)

Well, everyone rocks up somewhere beautiful in Greece, accompanied in some cases by hangers-on and so on, and they are welcomed by Bron in several displays of appalling ostentation. Bron reveals his plan for the weekend – they’re going to play a murder-mystery game, in which he will be the victim. But several things end up complicating this, mainly the presence of Blanc himself, who it turns out was never intended to receive an invitation in the first place. Blanc has profound misgivings about the very idea of Bron staging this kind of game with a group of people all of whom have – it turns out – good reason to want him dead. Soon enough the murder-mystery game has been supplanted by a genuine murder, and it’s up to Blanc to work out exactly what’s going on…

Releasing Glass Onion over the holiday period was probably a smart move on the part of the big N, as the piece inevitable recalls one of those lavish all-star Agatha Christie adaptations which comfortably fill up the schedule of a Bank Holiday afternoon – you know the sort of thing, usually starring Albert Finney or Peter Ustinov and with Maggie Smith lurking somewhere in the supporting cast. The resemblance is intentional, of course; this is a Christie pastiche, albeit one thoroughly updated for the era of the Metaverse and coronavirus, and with a rather broader element of comedy to it than the dame was wont to include in her stories.

I can imagine many families settling down to enjoy the film and having a good time doing so, for there is much to entertain here – you can see where the budget went, the ensemble cast are clearly enjoying themselves, and the script is clever and often very funny. (There are also some amusing cameos along the way, although given that some of the celebrity walk-ons have died since shooting was completed, the pleasure of seeing them again is inevitably bittersweet.)

And, you know, it is fun to watch, although I found it less satisfying than Knives Out. Why was this the case? Well, it took me a while to figure it out. I think it’s partly down to the sheer lavish expansiveness of the storyline – this is not a short film, and it’s getting on towards the half-way mark before anyone actually gets murdered (which is surely the whole point of a murder mystery film). I suppose what I’m trying to say is that the core storyline takes its time to unfold, slowing down to facilitate the various jokes and funny hats and comedy turns the film also contains.

I would suggest it’s also the case that while the film itself is undeniably a clever and engaging puzzle-box of a story, the cleverness comes more from how it’s presented than in terms of the plot itself. You expect various twists and turns, red herrings and misdirections, in this kind of story, but the plot here is actually relatively straightforward – that’s almost the point of it, although I’m hesitant to explain too much – the telling of it, however, is greatly complicated by extensive use of flashbacks and repeated scenes. There’s nothing actually wrong with this, of course, and I suppose it is just a matter of taste; I suppose I was just expecting something a little more traditional.

But in the end, this is an entertaining film, even if it does feel like Daniel Craig himself gets rather sidelined as it goes on. It’s another jolly performance, even if he hasn’t quite found a way to stop Blanc from feeling like the Poirot-clone he technically is. As a general rule I’m not the biggest fan of the genre which turns murder into a sort of parlour game, especially when it uses humour to make outrageous characters and plotting more acceptable (and this is that sort of film). But I did find this quite entertaining, if not quite up to the standard of the first one. It will be interesting to see what direction Johnson takes in the third one.

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It would feel a bit inappropriate to be launching into the final season of Blake’s 7 just before Christmas: let’s take a pause and consider… well, what’s actually more or less the last gasp of anything bearing the Blake’s 7 name, to date anyway. The series finished its run in December 1981, enjoyed a repeat in 1983, and then that was it, pretty much, until the VHS releases got under way round about 1990. There were rumours of a full repeat showing in 1994 (this came to nothing) and then two rather peculiar radio plays in the late 1990s, written by Barry Letts (a fine, wise, and multifariously talented man, but one with no track record with this series). Then a repeat of series 1 in 2000, and then… well, silence, pretty much…

Apart from the bizarre appearance in 2005 of Blake’s Junction 7, directed by Ben Gregor, from a script by Tim Plester. I get the sense that this little film (fifteen minutes long) is not much beloved by Blake’s 7 fans, perhaps because they feel it was not as much made for them as aimed in their direction, and is, not to put too fine a point on it, taking the piss out of the series. Mmm, well, maybe.

For rights-related reasons Dudley Simpson’s stirring theme is not heard, but there’s some generic SF-type music playing as a caption reminds us of the premise of the series, more or less: the band of seven rebels on the run from the Federation, their leader lost in action. Mist swirls and out of it steps Avon, looking very much like Mark Heap on this occasion (Heap was a ubiquitous presence in British TV comedy around this time, perhaps most prominently as Brian the artist in Spaced). The replica of Avon’s fourth season costume is actually pretty good.

Avon surveys the scene before him, which is… Newport Pagnell motorway service station, late at night. (I’ve always found motorway services at night rather creepy places, though this may just be because of what happened at the end of Sapphire and Steel.) He joins the others, who are crammed into an old station-wagon which is pulling a caravan. Everyone is hungry; Vila (Martin Freeman) needs to go to the bathroom – so they disembark and go across the bridge to the restaurant.

On the team for this rather unusual episode are Avon, Vila, Jenna, Dayna, Cally, Gan and Orac, a combination which inevitably draws moans from a certain subset of the series’ fans. The film-makers didn’t do their research, apparently, because Jenna, Gan and Dayna were never all in the show at the same time. Personally, I think that some of costumes and props on display in this episode make it very clear that the film-makers did do their research, it’s just that this isn’t intended to fit into the continuity of the series – a fact which one might reasonably infer from the fact that it features the characters visiting Newport Pagnell motorway services.

So, they buy some food; Orac wants a bottle of brown ale. Vila is teased relentlessly by Dayna and Cally. Gan tries to do a crossword (he’s not sure how to spell inhibitor, which I think qualifies as a subtle gag). Meanwhile, in another part of the services, Servalan (Mackenzie Crook) has arrived with the troops, including a guy who looks like Travis (more continuity upheaval!).

Also present in this scene is Simon Farnaby playing the chef – Farnaby has risen to rather greater prominence in recent years due his work as the writer of the Paddington movies, amongst other things. One of those other things is Rogue One (he plays a rebel pilot), which I’ve had described to me as ‘Blake’s 7 in the Star Wars universe’, something which I think is both accurate and funny. So there’s a significant connection there, maybe. But more likely not. (Other folk who achieved this particular double more authentically include Deep Roy and Julian Glover, who were both in real Blake’s 7 and The Empire Strikes Back.)

The climax, such as it is, arrives when Avon bumps into Blake (Johnny Vegas) in the toilets, rather to his embarrassment. Blake asks if he’s seeing anyone and tentatively suggests they stay in touch, but Avon isn’t keen (an interesting take on the subtext of the series). Avon gets back in the car with the others, and it and the caravan blip off into hyperspace.

It does seem very mean-spirited of Blake fandom to have treated this film so coolly, as in some ways it does feel remarkably faithful to the original series: the costumes are convincing replicas, as are the props – if that isn’t the original Orac, it looks very much like it – and, in perhaps the film’s biggest coup casting-wise, Peter Tuddenham reprises his role as Orac, in what was apparently his last engagement before his death. (Some would say that casting two actors – Freeman and Crook – who have gone on to appear in major Hollywood franchises was a big coup, but let’s get our priorities straight.)

On the other hand, it has the Blake’s 7 characters turning up at a motorway service station in the present day, which doesn’t seem to bother any of them; they inevitably appear somewhat absurd as a result. Perhaps this is why the film is unloved – it doesn’t take the series as seriously as the fans do. Even so, apart from the suggestion of a Blake-Avon romance, and the off-the-wall gag of casting Mackenzie Crook as Servalan, there are no actual jokes at the expense of the series itself. Let’s face it, as we have learned over the last nine months, if you really want to ridicule Blake’s 7 you have plenty of potential ammunition at your disposal (hair-dryer spaceships, ludicrous plotting, and so on). Blake’s Junction 7 just settles for the comedy resulting from juxtaposing the fantastical with the mundane. One might reasonably have hoped for it to be rather funnier, given some of the talent involved.

It is probably fair to say that Blake’s Junction 7 scores most highly simply for sheer curiosity value, because once you’ve got past the stunt casting it’s not that entertaining – it’s neither a straight-faced continuation of the series or a merciless take-down of it. It’s somewhere in between; an odd little thing which probably doesn’t warrant in-depth analysis (oops). The fact that people have made something of a small fuss about it just speaks to the modest but distinct place the original series made for itself in British culture.

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Early-to-mid-December for the five years or so prior to the pandemic was always a promising time for documentaries and other films that would usually struggle to get a cinema release: as we have discussed before, no one wants to release a mainstream commercial film around the same time as a colossus from one of the big studios, and so smaller distributors would swarm in and fill the resulting gap in the schedule: nature abhors a vacuum, and so do multiplex chains. These days it doesn’t seem to be happening, however, which may be another fact of the new world order.

Nevertheless, there are still people around who are happy to take advance of the lull in business-as-usual which is preceding the arrival of James Cameron’s watery sequel, although this is perhaps something of a mixed blessing. I’m a fairly easy-going person, but I still can’t stop myself from emitting a groaning snarl (or perhaps a snarling groan) from the very pit of my soul when I sit down in a movie theatre and discover that the film I have paid to see is preceded to the screen by a big red ‘N’. Not that I have anything against Netflix; quite the opposite, in many ways, but that’s kind of the point. Fond though I am of the theatrical experience, it annoys me just a bit to realise I’ve accidentally ended up paying to see a film which is going to be free on my TV a few weeks later. Yes, I know, I should do my research – but the line between due diligence in the research department and actually spoiling a movie for yourself can be a vanishingly thin one sometimes.

Netflix are quite happy to release films into cinemas for periods of time which make a mayfly’s life expectancy seem like a geological age, and presumably don’t care whether or not anyone actually turns out to watch them. This is what makes them unlike a traditional movie studio: they’re not releasing films in cinemas to make money, they’re releasing films in cinemas so that their films play in cinemas, usually just long enough for them to qualify for the major film awards. The money comes afterwards, once the films have won various trophies and hopefully spurred a few people into getting (or reviving) a Netflix account. I suppose it’s a valid enough business model, but it still seems to me like trying to game the system. Whatever you think about it, it’s a tactic that Netflix are obviously very good at, presumably in part because they seem to have that bottomless well of cash to attract big-name and acclaimed film-makers.

Newly on the big red N’s payroll is Noah Baumbach, who these days is as close to being the acceptable replacement for Woody Allen as anyone. His new movie is White Noise, based on an acclaimed (but supposedly unfilmable) 1985 novel by Don DeLillo. The change of sponsor doesn’t seem to have resulted in a very different product to Baumbach’s back catalogue, however – his partner Greta Gerwig appears, as does Adam Driver, and it’s not like he’s suddenly decided to do an action movie or a superhero franchise film.

The movie opens with a scene in which Don Cheadle comes on as an academic who proceeds to give a lecture on the place of the car crash sequence in American popular cinema, urging his audience to appreciate this for the optimistic, positive trope it has become. Contemplation of whether this is all very tongue in cheek, or if the film is just weird, is dispelled, as we are launched into the lives of fellow academic Jack Gladney (Driver) and his wife Babette (Gerwig, almost unrecognisable under a Gorgon-like perm), not to mention their various children. Gladney is a pioneer in the field of Hitler Studies at the local college – ‘I teach Advanced Nazism,’ he tells a new acquaintance, in one of quite a few lines that feels ripped from the pages of a Woody Allen script – while Babette amuses herself as an exercise instructor for local senior citizens. All should be well but for the insidious dread the couple share when it comes to their own creeping mortality. Virtually the only thing they don’t agree about is who should be allowed to die first: and we are clearly intended to appreciate exactly how facile this particular discussion is (it did put me rather in mind of something from a Miranda July film).

However, they finally get something concrete to worry about when a petrol tanker crashes into a train carrying chemical waste, producing a vast toxic cloud blanketing much of the state and rolling implacably in their direction. The various Gladneys pile into their station wagon and join the exodus along with the rest of the town. As you can perhaps surmise, there is something a bit tonally odd about White Noise, and this sequence in particular did remind me of a late-70s Spielberg movie, with the minutiae of family life juxtaposed with huge, potentially world-changing events (or maybe I was just thinking of the fake chemical spill which is part of the plot of Close Encounters).

It feels like the onset of the Airborne Toxic Event is the inciting incident for the rest of the film, but it only comprises a relatively small portion of the film: the disaster is resolved and everyone goes back to their business-as-usual, the only difference being that Jack has been exposed to toxic vapour and is told there is a high probability he will die at some indeterminate future time. This is a deliberately absurd and meaningless prognosis – the same could be said for literally any of us – but it doesn’t do Jack’s thanatophobia any good at all. The plot spirals off into an odd realm concerning drug trials and potential marital infidelity and the way in which the supermarket of the 1980s symbolises an intermediate realm between life and death…

I wanted to like it, honest, and some parts of it I really did – there are some very funny moments and sequences and some of the more absurd plot elements are almost Kafkaesque: it turns out the disaster of the toxic cloud is being used by the emergency services as an opportunity to practise their extreme disaster response techniques, in case something serious should happen in future. ‘But something serious is happening now,’ protests a character, when they learn about this. Yes, and it’s a great opportunity to practise, comes the response. But it still feels like a filmed piece of literature, if you know what I mean: it doesn’t have that driving sense of narrative nearly all mainstream films have – this feels much more interested in picking up ideas, playing with them for a bit, and then moving on to something else for a while, perhaps returning to an earlier point of interest later on. There are things which look like jokes, which are delivered as jokes, and meet every criteria for being a joke except for the fact they’re not funny in any intelligible way. (I know it sounds like I’m trying very hard to avoid saying this is essentially a failed comedy, but I’m not sure it’s as simple as that.)

Maybe this really is just a bad movie, but there are very successful moments scattered throughout it and Driver gives a fine performance – probably Gerwig too, though she seems a bit subdued, and possibly overwhelmed by her hair (and maybe the demands of doing the Barbie movie). Baumbach’s orchestration of such a diverse set of elements is probably deserving of much praise, too. But it didn’t quite click with me, or resolve itself into a film with a deeper thesis than ‘people often do weird things to distract themselves from the certainty of their own eventual deaths’.

This is a big, colourful film with some lavish set pieces – some might say extravagantly so, particularly with regard to the closing dance number (set in the supermarket, it is clearly a dance of dearth, given that consumerism is at least as much about not having material things as possessing them). And it may be that this is the kind of film which rewards multiple viewings and some cogitation. But on the basis of just the one watch, this is just an ambitious, oddball project which doesn’t quite come together in the way you’d hope.

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Rudyard Kipling once said that four-fifths of everyone’s work must be bad, with the corollary that the remaining fifth made it all worthwhile. By the time of George Orwell, things appeared to have shifted to the point where he (wearing his book reviewer’s hat) was obliged to conclude that in over ninety percent of cases the only objective conclusion would be that a given book was worthless. Despite all that, this truism is most often ascribed to the American science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon (these days probably best remembered for his Star Trek scripts), who formulated it as ‘ninety percent of everything is crap’.

That seems like a reasonable and perhaps generous assessment, if you ask me, perhaps a little over-charitable when it comes to things like Christmas-themed movies. The sheer quantity of these never fails to astound me: one channel in the UK starts showing them on a daily basis round about the beginning of November, and these days all of the streamers start weighing in with their contributions too – usually inescapably glutinous tales of hard-nosed metropolitan types rediscovering the Important Things in Life, usually in conjunction with a romantic interlude with someone in chunky knitwear. There are some good Christmas movies, of course: the local arthouse is showing Die Hard again, and you’d have to have a heart of stone not to at least give a sympathetic hearing to The Muppet Christmas Carol. (I know it came out in May, but maybe Iron Man Three also qualifies.) But on the whole it seems to be one of those genres which actively discourages innovation.

Well, we must be grateful, I think, for people like the makers of Violent Night, which tries to do something a bit different with the Christmas movie. Directed by Tommy Wirkola, the movie opens with a rather boozy man in a Santa Claus outfit (David Harbour at his most agreeably ursine), sitting in an English pub and bemoaning the materialism and commercialism of the Christmas festival these days. The twist comes when it is revealed that this is not just any shopping centre Santa but the genuine, thousand-year-old article, enjoying a pre-work drink or six. The ensuing warm glow of realisation that there may yet be magic in the world is somewhat compromised when Santa projectile-vomits from his sleigh onto the head of an unsuspecting passer-by.

Meanwhile, over in the Land of Good Old Uncle US of Stateside, little Trudie Lightstone (Leah Brady) is preparing for Christmas with her family, a cartoonishly horrible clan of disgustingly wealthy monsters: her parents are somewhat estranged and what she really wants is for them to get back together. The family are too busy buttering up hag-like matriarch Gertrude (Beverly D’Angelo) and jockeying for control of the fortune, however. You might reasonably think they are in line to get what they disturb when their incompetent catering company turns out to be a group of heavily armed thieves looking to break into the family vault for the $300 million of dirty money being held there: the leader of the group, code-named Scrooge (John Leguizamo), is not one of those people inclined to be sentimental during the holidays.

But there is little Trudie to think about, who obviously doesn’t deserve to be shot by a professional criminal. And, of course, there is also Santa, who has dropped in on the Lightstone compound to deliver a gift, eat some cookies, and – most importantly – make liberal inroads into their drinks cabinet. On being apprehended by one of the bad guys, Santa’s first instinct is to zip up the chimney and flee the area, but the goon is unwilling to let this happen, something he briefly lives to regret: never mind delivering presents, Santa discovers a facility for delivering a telling head-butt.

Yes, it turns out that Santa has a bit of a past, and soon his old skills are coming back to him. For Trudie is on his nice list, unlike all the thieves, and perhaps by saving her and the family, Christmas itself can be saved. One thing is certain: the words ‘Santa Claus is coming to town’ have never before been delivered with such an air of baleful menace.

Yes, it’s basically Die Hard, but with Santa as the main character. Either this will seem to you to be an inspired idea, that we should be ashamed that no-one came up with decades ago, or you will be inclined to dismiss it as one of the stupidest, most obnoxious, and possibly even sacrilegious notions ever consigned to the screen (that said, I must reveal that my research has shown up the existence of the 2020 film Fatman, in which Mel Gibson plays a Santa who must contend with a hitman sent after him by someone off his naughty list). Coming across the trailer unexpectedly generally draws cries to the effect of ‘Is this a real movie?!?’ Yes, it is: the question is whether it’s one of those ideas that sounds good on paper but doesn’t actually work as a full-length film.

Well… I think it does, but it’s certainly not one for everybody: the traditional Christmassy elements of goodwill and redemption are there, sort of, but mixed in with them is a graphically-violent action movie and a bracingly horrible black comedy, too – the movie circles between them somewhat erratically. The idea of Santa beating people up and slaughtering bad guys by the dozen runs out of steam a little, for all the film’s inventiveness when it comes to deploying the trappings of the season as implements of destruction – tinsel used as a garrotte, pointy Christmas decorations being rammed where they really don’t belong, and so on – and it wanders off and starts riffing on Home Alone, too. (The moment, seemingly promised by the trailer, where someone opens up on Santa’s sleigh with an anti-aircraft gun, is not here, but will no doubt turn up if there’s a sequel.)

I laughed a lot all the way through, not that I’m necessarily proud of that: the action choreography is nicely done, the jokes generally land, and the actors mostly pitch their performances just right. If the film has a more serious subtext – and I’m inclined to suspect this may not be intentional – it’s a reminder that, beneath the Dickensian, Coca Colarised version of Christmas and Santa which gets rammed down our throats every twelve months or so, there’s a much older, earthier, and more primal celebration, and it’s this more savage and brutal version of Santa that the main character finds himself reverting to. (The real-life gentleman whose remains are entombed in the Italian city of Bari, and who was the real Saint Nick, doesn’t get much of a look-in.)

The film even attempts the challenging trick of working on multiple levels simultaneously – the concluding battle to the death between Santa and Scrooge is so blatantly symbolic it’s obviously intended as spoof, and yet it still has a functioning sort of allegorical power. Several other moments manage the same thing: there is, as Spinal Tap famously observed, a fine line between stupid and clever, and Violent Night manages to straddle it reasonably comfortably.

Maybe Violent Night does work better as a trailer than a two-hour movie, but then it is a particularly winning trailer. Anyway, I thought the movie was a lot of fun, in its bracingly horrible way. Bonus points for having a very accurate title; further bonus points for having Slade’s Merry Christmas Everyone on the soundtrack (song and film share a sort of lairy exuberance that makes them a very good fit for each other). It’s a little difficult to imagine it gaining admission to the canon of authentic Christmas classics, but – and, given Harbour’s involvement, no pun intended – stranger things have happened.

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I don’t usually like to get all navel-gazery, but when it comes to one of these things, I like to stick to a certain minimum level of quantity (quality, as regular readers will know, is another matter entirely). I’m aware you’re giving up some of your precious and limited lifetime to read and assimilate my thoughts (or, and all choices are equally valid, try to make sense of the pun in the title, skim the first paragraph, look at the picture and then leave) and I feel obliged to provide a certain degree of heft. Only in exceptional circumstances, these days, does anything of less than 1000 words get released here – the only exception I can think of is the showy-offy review for Victoria, which (for formal reasons) largely took the form of a single 600-word sentence.

This time, though… I’m not sure if I can find a grand of words to write about Drew Cullingham’s Shed of the Dead, to be honest. ‘Steer clear’ repeated five hundred times? It would have a certain bravura directness to it. Yes, this is not so much a review as a caution, for Shed of the Dead rests comfortably near the very bottom of the list of films I would willingly watch again. (The fact the film was shot in 2015 but didn’t get anything like a release until 2019 should tell you something, possibly that it’s not just the film that should have been shot.)

This is, as you’ve probably guessed, yet another addition to the glut of zombie films we have been bombarded with for twenty years now (if Danny Boyle ever does get back to the project which kick-started all of this, he’ll probably be able to accurately call it 28 Years Later). There is a bit more going on here, though, as we shall see – more proving to be less, on this occasion.

Spencer Brown plays Trevor, an everyman protagonist who is clearly meant to be a loveable loser. The loveable part they struggle with, but the fact he is a loser is coded by the fact that he is unemployed and spends most of his time in an allotment shed painting wargames figures (I imagine Games Workshop’s lawyers were swooping around this project on their winged fell beasts, sniffing for possible IP infringement, but the film-makers weren’t that dumb). When not doing this, he’s round at the house of his slovenly mate Graham (Ewen MacIntosh), actually playing wargames. Both of them are apparently emotionally retarded and incapable of engaging with the real world in any meaningful sense.

Well, where do you start here? Full disclosure: yes, I don’t just get obsessional about cult movies, I play Call of Cthulhu, and I play wargames too (though not as often as I’d really like to). Does this surprise you? Please refresh your memory as to what this blog is actually called. While it’s true that many people who enjoy RPGs and wargaming are living their lives some distance from what the consensus agrees to be the mainstream, they are still mostly nice, intelligent, well-adjusted people, albeit with occasionally questionable political views (hello there, Jock, if you’re reading this). So on one level this movie does seem to me to be an extended act of defamation.

Anyway, as the allotment is a mess, the other users attempt to get Trevor evicted. Their spokesman is a Canadian emigre named Mr Parsons. Why is he Canadian? Mainly because they wanted Kane Hodder to play the part. Kane Hodder, for the uninitiated, played Jason Voorhees in several instalments of Friday the 13th, in addition to a huge number of other culty roles. This is in-jokey stunt casting, and not the last instance of it in Shed of the Dead: other cult actors who turn up in small roles are William Moseley and Michael Berryman. Trevor is unhappy about this and in the ensuing argument Parsons falls onto a rake and brains himself. Trevor hides the corpse in his shed.

Meanwhile, of course, the dead are rising, and this extends to Parson’s corpse – which leads to a lengthy death-struggle in the confines of the shed itself. Trevor eventually finds himself holed-up in the home of his estranged wife (Lauren Socha) and her friend (Emily Booth). Can they survive the unfolding zombie apocalypse, and will you actually care?

Well, the answer to the second part of that question is ‘almost certainly not’. Just getting to the end of the film was a challenge, but you need to put yourself through the fire sometimes, right? It’s not just a cheap, unfunny, lazy film, it’s… well, come to think of it, calling it a cheap, unfunny, lazy film is probably accurate enough. What makes it particularly egregious is the fact it is cynically angling to cash in on the success of a much better film – 2004’s Shaun of the Dead, obviously. Wikipedia lists Shed of the Dead as an actual remake of Shaun of the Dead, and while Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg would probably be within rights to seek legal advice if the makers of Shed described it as such, you can see the similarities.

Apart from the total lack of anything resembling functional jokes, the difference is in the way the characters are depicted without any sympathy or warmth: none of them have any redeeming features, with the two female characters especially problematic – they are essentially sex objects, although Socha’s character also has a streak of vicious shrewishness in her. It all put me horribly in mind of… well, it’s not so much a remake of Shaun of the Dead as a mash-up of Shaun of the Dead with the horrendous Sex Lives of the Potato Men, widely considered one of the worst films ever made. Shed of the Dead would probably be challenging it for that position, if it were more widely known.

The participation of Booth is interesting, as she was for quite a few years the face of the largely-gone-but-not-entirely-forgotten Horror Channel in the UK. There was a degree of thrashing around for content on the old Horror Channel, during the twelve hours or so every day when it was actually allowed to show modern horror movies; some really dodgy films turned up in the small hours of the night just to keep the channel on the air. Emily Booth’s presence here seems to be a tacit acknowledgement that an obscure cable channel at 2am on a Wednesday morning is the natural home for a film like Shed of the Dead.  It really doesn’t deserve any better. Steer clear.

(What do you know, 1100 words. Who’d’ve thought it?)

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Stephen Frears’ The Lost King appears to have an opening title sequence and score which is a homage to Psycho: this is by no means an untouched well when it comes to people making reference and paying tribute, of course, but it does seem a bit unusual given what we are supposedly dealing with here is a true-story comedy-drama about events in fairly recent history (although the whole question of what actually constitutes recent history is one of the issues raised in passing by the film itself). The film is, in some ways, a follow-up to the very well-received and accomplished Philomena from 2013 – Frears directed that one too, and it likewise had a script and lead performance from Steve Coogan (whose production company is behind it). One might be forgiven for having reasonably high expectations, especially given the appearance in the lead role of Sally Hawkins, a very able and accomplished actress.

Hawkins plays Phillippa Langley, who as the film opens is an unfulfilled office worker in Edinburgh – the fact that wherever she goes she passes some feature or other of outstanding natural or architectural beauty doesn’t seem to cheer her up much, which only goes to suggest that a) familiarity breeds content and b) Screen Scotland’s support for the production was not entirely string-free. She is separated from her husband (Coogan), though their relationship is amicable, and suffers occasionally with ME – which her boss seems to use as a pretext to promote younger and blonder co-workers over her.

Things change when she is obliged to take one of her sons to see Shakespeare’s Richard III. Being (it is not-very-subtly suggested) something of a put-upon figure, she finds herself empathising with Richard himself rather more than she expected, and she gets quite vocal about the fallacy in the automatic assumption that anybody with a physical deformity must also somehow be morally lacking too (a perfectly sound and reasonable position, but presented here in a very on-point and slightly hectoring way which feels extremely 2022).

Anyway, she ends up joining the local branch of the Richard the Third Society and, after expressing a desire to visit his grave and pay her respects, is surprised to learn that no-one knows where it is. She sets out to rectify this, doing her own research into everything involved, even at the expense of some of her other obligations. If this seems to you like a sudden and rather niche interest for a character to develop – I’m struggling not to use the word obsession – then I entirely agree with you; the script does its best to sell the idea, not least by having an apparition of Richard (played by Harry Lloyd) occasionally appear to Langley for chats and moral support.

The quest eventually involves a trip down to Leicester, which looks like the likely area. Langley’s investigations eventually lead her to a car park, where (it is suggested) she is seized by an almost clairvoyant sense that this is where the king is buried. Would it be appropriate in the circumstances to suggest she has a sudden hunch? Maybe not. (Perhaps you are already getting a sense of some of the reasons why I had issues with the script of this film.) Of course, persuading others of this is not that easy (and understandably so, you might say), and the rest of the film deals with her struggles with the archaeological and academic establishment, leading up to the tense moment where the car park is finally excavated, and…

Well, spoilers, obviously, unless you were watching TV a few years ago when the re-burial of King Richard III’s remains was extensively covered (it wasn’t quite as grand an affair as the more recent royal funeral, but on the other hand the queues were a lot less punishing). There’s no doubt that the story of the discovery of Richard III’s grave more than five hundred years after his death is a remarkable one and worthy of the big-screen treatment. Worthy of this kind of treatment? Well, this I am not so sure of.

There is of course a profound irony at work here. The Ricardians, to give them their proper title, have long been of the opinion that Richard III wasn’t the monster of popular repute: Shakespeare’s persuasive characterisation of him as a machiavellian supervillain was done at the behest of the ruling Tudors, the theory goes, who had a vested interest in denigrating the man the founder of their dynasty had overthrown. Fair enough. If you’re going to do a story based on actual events, especially quite recent ones, then you have an obligation to get your facts straight.

Quite how this squares with a film which may yet be the subject of legal action on the grounds of its own historical inaccuracy is a little unclear, but there’s obviously scope here for schadenfreude (if you’re anything like me, at least). You can see how it suits the film’s narrative thrust and moral premise for Phillippa Langley to be presented as a determined underdog-like figure, battling a dismissive establishment in the name of something she truly believes in – but it’s also entirely understandable that the representative of Leicester University depicted here as a slimy self-serving politician who’s prejudiced against the disabled should feel the need to explore the possibility of suing the film-makers for defamation of character.

I don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong, though I will say that I lived in Leicester for three months last year and the bus service is excellent. I am inclined to doubt the version of events as presented in the film, though, and not just the scene in which Steve Coogan goes to watch Skyfall at the cinema several months before the film was actually released. The film would have you believe that Phillippa Langley went to watch a production of Richard III and a couple of weeks later was solving a historical mystery which had baffled the world for centuries. Even if it were true, it would have to be presented a lot more convincingly than it is here.

There’s also a kind of anti-intellectualism implicit in the film; Langley’s attraction to the Richard case is presented in largely sentimental terms, and at several points her intuition comes into conflict with the more rational approach of the archaeologists and academics (mostly men) she is regularly locking horns with. Naturally she is proved right, of course. To be fair, Langley herself has spoken of having a strange feeling upon visiting the car park for the first time, but, you know, we’re getting a bit anecdotal at this point. The film notably fails to mention that the car park in question had been identified as a possible site of Richard’s grave as far back as the mid-1970s: once again, historical fact comes off worst in any conflict with the story they actually want to tell.

The actors, who apart from Hawkins and Coogan are mostly people you will recognise from other low-budget British movies and telly programmes (James Fleet, Amanda Abbington, Mark Addy), do the best they can with the material, though Coogan the script-writer fails to find much for Coogan the actor to get his teeth into – perhaps he’s there on screen just as a face to guarantee funding for the film? He gets the odd funny line – ‘Boys! Your mum’s found Richard the Third!’ he cries to his children at one point – but this isn’t nearly as good a vehicle for him as Philomena was. You equally get a strong sense of Hawkins repeatedly bashing into the limitations of a rather thinly characterised protagonist.

I suspect the movie of the court case provoked by The Lost King (should there ever be one) may well turn out to be rather more interesting than The Lost King itself, which is fairly undistinguished in every department despite the talent involved. There is certainly a fascinating story to be told here, but not like this. Its own lack of self-awareness is probably the most interesting thing about it.

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