Posts Tagged ‘comedy’

Even before I started in on watching the actual episode, I was a bit dubious about Spock Amok, just from the title. If you’re going to do an episode focussing on the most beloved character in Star Trek history, and include a reference to one of the most famous and – yes, for once it is justified – iconic instalments in the entire franchise, you’d better be damn sure you’ve got something special lined up to justify it.

And, while it may perhaps be fairly said that I am a reactionary old pedant with a shrivelled husk where my heart and soul should reside and no appreciation of the nature of the modern world and its culture, I must confess that the actual homage to Amok Time at the start of Spock Amok disarmed me almost completely in its charm and attention to detail. Then again, it is, as noted, iconic and already much-parodied, so there’s really no excuse for not getting it right.

The rest of the episode? Well… not so much, you probably won’t be terribly surprised to discover. This is not based on any deep ideological disagreement with the writers of the episode, or due to an egregious decision to rewrite yet more of the original series’ continuity, but something rather more basic. This is that I generally don’t like funny Star Trek.

(That said, egregious continuity rewrite of the week is that Starfleet are apparently aware that the R’Ongovians are about to go into negotiations with the Romulans. Presumably not those same Romulans that Starfleet had received no information about for nearly a century in the episode Balance of Terror, set only a few years  later… oh, hang on, it is those Romulans. Hmm. That’s a bit awkward, isn’t it? Or it would be if you cared about this stuff.)

Yes, funny Star Trek. I imagine I’m going to be writing the words funny Star Trek a lot in the course of the few paragraphs, potentially to the point where we all get a bit sick of them. So it may well be that I decide to start switching in some other, similar words just to avoid monotony for us all.

Anyway, what’s Spock Amok actually about? Well, it’s a change-of-pace episode where after various death-defiances the various members of the crew get a chance to relax. For SNW-Spock it’s a chance to hang out with his fiancee SNW-T’Pring, while some of the others go off fishing (there is the obligatory silly hat) or catching up with old friends or whatever. Meanwhile, someone in the writer’s room has noticed that SNW-Number One and Lt Khan Jr are not that far away from basically being exactly the same person – fierce, no-nonsense humourless professional – and so naturally they pair them up together for what I suppose we are obliged to call high-jinks. SNW-Pike gets stuck with the job of leading some complex negotiations with the R’Ongovians, a tricky bunch of aliens.

(It seems to be a trope, not just of Trek but other space opera TV series, that the tricky alien diplomatic contact is frequently  used as a plot challenge in one of the more bloody-mindedly light-hearted episodes. Picard got stuck in the middle of wacky holodeck shenanigans while preparing for sensitive negotiations on at least one occasion, while I can even recall a couple of Babylon 5 episodes revolving around aliens with peculiar idiosyncrasies, some of which are probably a bit cringeworthy by modern standards.)

The problem is that none of these subplots is exactly screaming with comic potential – with the possible exception of the main one, I suppose, which concerns Spock and T’Pring having an involuntary body swap as a result of an accident in the ancient Vulcan k’ate-b’ush-run-nin-up-dat-hyl ritual – it’s sort of Freaky Friday on Mount Seleya. It feels like they’re having a go at doing tummy far fleck because tummy far fleck is one of the things that is an integral part of the far fleck – sorry, Star Trek – palette. And I’m not sure that it is.

I’m not going to say ‘it’s all David Gerrold’s fault’ because David Gerrold’s dunny mar shreck script was genuinely amusing and he shouldn’t be held responsible, any more than The Beatles should be held responsible for late Oasis albums. Gerrold wrote The Trouble With Tribbles, which was the first full-blooded attempt at doing Star Trek as a comedy. It’s one of the immortal episodes of the series, but the problem – as recurred, twenty years later, when Star Trek IV was a great success as a comedy-drama and the studio decreed that all subsequent films should be funnied up a bit – was less capable attempts to repeat its success.

It’s a weird thing, but a lot of Star Trek does comic by-play between the various characters extremely well – all the main characters of the original series are well-served with funny lines that they know exactly what to do with, and the same is true for several members of the TNG ensemble. The occasional snappy line in a generally-serious episode or movie is one of the hallmarks of Trek at its best; it’s when the order is given to actually make being funny the raison d’etre of something that it can get a bit punishing for the viewer. Supposedly-amusing musical cues start to insert themselves into the soundtrack, to tell the audience that This Is Funny; characterisation tends to take second place to the rather laborious pursuit of laughs.

This is not a plea for wall to wall grim and serious Star Trek, of course: it’s an essentially optimistic franchise, after all, and it should have a sense of hopefulness and (occasionally) fun about it. If Star Trek seemed capable of consistently doing genuinely funny episodes then perhaps I would feel better disposed towards the idea. But the problem is that most comedy Star Trek is just not very funny. It’s not in the genome of the series, really: it wasn’t intended to be funny.

(Perhaps this is why parody Star Trek is such a consistent source of genuine hilarity in a way that comedy Star Trek itself seldom is. All right, I’m mainly thinking of Galaxy Quest, which probably qualifies as the funniest bit of Star Trek ever made even though it’s not technically Star Trek itself.)

There’s nothing much enormously wrong with any of the plot threads in Spock Amok, even if some of them stretch credulity a bit. It’s just that none of them are actually particularly funny. As usual, wit and subtlety depart the scene at warp speed and the episode seems suddenly to become rather pleased with itself: look at me! I’m trying to be funny! I have genuine range and depth! Trying and succeeding are not, of course, the same thing. Even if Star Trek were a one trick pony (and it isn’t), there’s something to be said for knowing the thing you’re best at and being content to excel at that one thing.

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We have discussed in the past the topic of the Optimum Interval Before Sequel. My personal feeling is that anything less than about two years is too short, while thirty-six years is definitely too long (though Tom Cruise may disagree with me, of course). It’s been six years since the appearance of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2, which isn’t an inordinate gap, but it’s still hard to shake the feeling that this film has somehow missed its moment. There are good reasons for this, of course: Gunn himself got fired after being twitter-mined and went off to make The Suicide Squad for DC’s movie wing before being rehired to make the film after all, and then there was the awkward business of that pandemic which put a cramp in everyone’s style that probably still hasn’t worked itself completely out.

Even so, Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3  has the definite sense of being one last hurrah and a chance to tie up some loose ends before Marvel move on from this particular set of characters: many of the actors have said they probably won’t be reprising their roles, while Gunn himself is off to mastermind the next phase of the rival DC Comics movie franchise (has no-one at Warner Brothers seen Brightburn…?). It certainly doesn’t seem to have any connection to the current meta-plot which Marvel have been quietly inserting into some of their recent movies.

Not that the previous meta-plot doesn’t have a beearing on the story, of course. The film opens with the Guardians of the Galaxy settling into their new base, a giant severed bonce floating in deep space (which if nothing else allows Gunn to include the line of dialogue ‘Kill everyone in that dead god’s head!’ at one point). But all is not well, as team leader Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) has gone into a bit of a slump after the love of his life (Zoe Saldana painted green) was killed in her adoptive father’s attempt to reshape the universe, and replaced by a younger version from an alternate timeline with no memory of him or any of the others on the team. Discussions amongst his friends on how to get him perked up again are predictably chaotic and unproductive. (Also back as part of the ensemble are Dave Bautista, Pom Klementieff, Karen Gillan and Vin Diesel – playing, as before, a tree.)

A more serious problem rears its head when the team comes under attack by Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), who in the comics is the perfect synthetic life form with mystical powers, but here is a sort of omnipotent golden cosmic doofus. It turns out he’s here for Rocket, the uplifted raccoon, as he is a servant of Rocket’s original creator. This proves to be the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), who has form in the creation and augmentation of new forms of life. But why does the High Evolutionary want the raccoon back after all this time, and how are the team going to track him down?

So, yes, another movie, another well-nigh omnipotent megalomaniac to contend with. The High Evolutionary’s particular schtick is the creation of servants out of lower forms of life (the character’s debt to The Island of Dr Moreau is perhaps acknowledged in the fact the comic version’s real name is Herbert) and some of the new film’s most memorable sequences are the flashbacks to Rocket’s youth as a lab experiment: some of these are grotesque, bordering on the grisly. Nevertheless, as villains go, he feels like someone we’ve seen before perhaps a few times too often.

On the other hand, some things never get tired, and one of them is Gunn’s talent for adding offbeat black comedy to cosmic superhero fantasy. The Guardians’ inability to actually work together very effectively most of the time is a big component of what makes these films such fun, and the action frequently grinds to a halt while the ensemble bicker at great length about how to operate their space-suit radios or what the proper use for a sofa is. This is the sort of thing which has made these films so beloved, even within the Marvel canon. It’s certainly not Gunn’s mastery of plot structure, although to be fair this one does feel like it’s flailing around less than most of his films: nevertheless, neither of Gunn’s scripts has the same robustness as the one he co-wrote with Nicole Perlman for the first in the series.

If you were to come up to me, grab me firmly by the lapels, and shout in my face that this is just another piece of corporate Marvel product which sticks to the same formula as most of the thirty-one Marvel Studios films which have preceded it to the screen, my response would probably be ‘Please let go of my lapels.’ And then, ‘Well, you may have a point.’ Personally, I don’t necessarily have a problem with a film being formulaic, as long as it’s a good formula, and I happen to enjoy the one that Marvel have cooked up – I know they’ve had a bit of a post-pandemic, post-Endgame wobble, but their films are usually still smart, funny, pleasing to look at and generally well-played and well-directed. Admittedly, some of the new characters they drop in are obscure even to someone with an attic full of comics (Sylvester Stallone has a cameo as someone called Starhawk) and only seem to be present to set up future instalments (Will Poulter gives a fun performance as Adam Warlock, but it doesn’t feel like there’s a burning reason for him to be in the film), but this is par for the course, really.

What does make this film a bit distinctive within the canon, apart from all the space weirdness, is the genuine sense of warmth and camaraderie between the main characters. They are fun to spend time with, as well as inevitably bringing back fond memories of some of the previous films they’ve appeared in. The film does have real heart and soul to it – the tone is a bit darker than in previous episodes, as the Guardians begin to contemplate moving on from their somewhat irresponsible lifestyle and figuring out what their different places in the universe are. Guardians 3 gets much closer to being moving and poignant than I would ever have thought possible, which is a sign of real growth in James Gunn as a writer and director. (Maybe those upcoming DC movies really could be something special.) This is a welcome additional facet to what was already a terrifically entertaining popcorn blockbuster.

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At the end of Nida Manzoor’s Polite Society the story is resolved and the credits start to roll, and this is soundtracked by the irresistible racket of X-Ray Spex’s Identity. You can’t go wrong with a bit of X-Ray Spex, I always feel, but on this occasion the mixture of energy, earnestness, and attitude which epitomises the band in so many ways felt particularly appropriate. Polite Society doesn’t have a particularly punky aesthetic to it, but it does feel cheerfully out-of-control a lot of the time.

This is a Working Title production, a name which has become synonymous with a certain type of slightly formulaic rom-com (as we discussed when a recent Working Title film, What’s Love Got To Do With It?, crossed our path). This is not one of those films, however, although there is obviously a sort of resemblance and it does feature a wedding. We should bear in mind that it was Working Title who got Edgar Wright started as a film director, as this is much more like one of his films than any of Richard Curtis’ most successful projects.

Priya Kansara plays Ria Khan, a British Asian girl of Pakistani heritage whose goal in life is to become a stuntwoman; her role model and the poster on her wall is Eunice Huthart, winner of Gladiators in 1994, stunt double for everyone from Famke Janssen to Angelina Jolie, and latterly a veteran stunt co-ordinator with credits on some huge movies. (Of course I know who Eunice Huthart is; it’s the rest of you who are a bit strange.) Needless to say her strict and traditionalist parents do not approve of this, nor are they very happy about her big sister Lena (Ritu Arya) wanting to be an artist.

However, Lena is reconsidering her artistic career after a bit of a wobble, rather to Ria’s dismay, and things get worse after their mum (Shobu Kapoor, who – here comes another blast from the nineties – played Gita in EastEnders for five years) wangles an invite to the Eid soiree of the very glamorous and wealthy Raheela (Nimra Bucha). Dismay becomes outright horror when Raheela’s handsome, wealthy, geneticist son Salim (Akshay Khanna) takes a shine to Lena and starts courting her very assiduously. Romance, marriage, and a rapid move to Singapore all seem to be on the cards.

But Ria suspects that something else may be afoot here, having come across evidence that Salim and Raheela have an ulterior motive for wanting to find a bride. Quite what that motive is she’s still trying to figure out, but in the meantime the only thing a loving little sister can reasonably be expected to do is try to discover the truth about Salim, spread some dirt, and if necessary actively try to sabotage the relationship. Of course, she could just be upset about potentially losing a sister and imagining it all, but that’s not a possibility she really has time to consider properly in the circumstances.

It feels like there have been quite a few films about the experience of young people from an Islamic Pakistani background trying to negotiate a path between their ancestral culture and the one they’re living in; certainly enough for a few tropes and conventions to develop. A close family, a wider society where everyone takes a close interest in each other’s business; a well-meaning but ineffectual dad, and a panther mum; stricter parenting than the kids would like, and a general sense of ‘if it was good enough for our ancestors it’s good enough for you’. Perhaps it’s not a surprise that so many of these films are rom-coms of one kind or another. Polite Society (this is really a fridge title, by the way) isn’t actually a rom-com, for all that it features a romance and a wedding, but most of the tropes are present and correct.

This is about the limit of the film’s conventionality, though. How to explain what this film is like? Well, let me put it this way – if Shaun of the Dead is what happens when someone rather wittily mashes the classic Working Title rom-com with a George Romero zombipocalypse horror film, Polite Society is probably the end result of a slightly less witty collision between the sort of mixed-heritage comedy drama I’ve been talking about and a kung fu movie made by people who’ve been eating too much cheese. The genre mash-up is not handled with a great deal of finesse; perhaps this is intentional. Lena and Ria will be arguing about the former’s plans for her future, and then suddenly they will start slamming each other into the furniture and drop-kicking each other through closed doors. It’s not as if the fights are somehow fantasy sequences, a metaphorical representation of the emotional conflict going on – they really are laying into each other (though the various cuts and bruises inflicted usually vanish almost at once).

It is, as I say, really odd, and needless to say the tone of the film is wildly all-over-the-place – one minute it’s a quite naturalistic and affecting story about family conflict, the next it turns into a bizarre comedy-thriller about illegal experiments in human cloning, with a potentially challenging fixation on gynaecological matters (possibly no previous Working Title film has featured the word ‘womb’ in its dialogue so frequently).

Now if it were me, the logical way of doing this would be to start in a recognisably ‘normal’ world and gradually introduce the more outlandish elements in the course of the story, sort of incrementally casting loose from reality. But this film just veers back and forth between the two modes, although it naturally gets progressively madder as the story continues.

Does it work? I would struggle to call it completely successful, as baffling and wrong-footing the audience is seldom a great approach to telling a story. The cast attack it with great gusto, and Kansara and Arya are very probably stars in the making, but it’s not quite funny enough to really work as a top-flight comedy. As the climax approaches, however, it does start to hang together a bit more and there are some impressive set pieces here – a traditional Pakistani wedding, with everyone in their elaborate formal attire, suddenly degenerates into an intricately-choreographed mass brawl, while I feel the world has been missing the sight of someone in traditional Pakistani dress performing a spinning aerial reverse kick on someone.

There is clearly great talent and imagination at work here, but normally I would suggest that Nida Manzoor hasn’t quite got Edgar Wright’s talent when it comes to making this sort of thing work. On the other hand, I’m not at all sure that Manzoor hasn’t made exactly the film she wants to, tonal inconsistencies and incongruities and all. Either way, it’s a hard film to actually dislike.

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The one-hit wonder, such an established part of the music business, doesn’t really have a counterpart when it comes to international cinema. I use the word ‘international’ with intention; some individuals have one-off hits and never go on to have substantial careers off the back of them – but countries tend to either have thriving export markets or not. I mean, apart from America, films from Japan, Korea, France, Scandinavia, India and Poland all seem to turn up in UK cinemas (okay, some of them independents and art houses) fairly regularly, but when was the last time a film from (say) Peru or Canada got a wide release?

Normally I would add South Africa to the list of countries who, if they have any kind of domestic film industry, have no joy in persuading the rest of the world to partake of it – but there are always exceptions, which brings us to Jamie Uys’ The Gods Must Be Crazy!, released in its own country in 1984. Uys had a long career as a film director, which seems to have been at least somewhat opportunistic – ‘serious’ films rub shoulders with comedies, and he often appears in the films as an actor. He won a Golden Globe for his 1974 film Animals are Beautiful People (apparently a comedic nature documentary, so not exactly a crowded field) – it was this which gave him the idea for his best-known film.

To be honest, The Gods Must Be Crazy! starts off looking like a nature documentary too, complete with cheery narration by Paddy O’Byrne. A crash-zoom takes us from an animated Earth seen from space to the heart of the Kalahari – which looks like an idyllic wilderness, but is apparently one of the most demanding places to live in the world. The only people who have mastered the art of survival are the Kalahari bushmen, and the film goes on to describe them and their lifestyle in a bit more detail.

The bushmen seem to have a pretty good time of things, as their society is untroubled by such stifling western concepts as laws, guilt, property, or money: everything is taken from nature and held in common by the tribe. However – and here the film touches on something genuinely interesting in a sociological sort of way – this changes when a plane flies over their territory and the pilot casually drops an empty Coca Cola bottle out of the window. The bottle survives the fall intact and is taken by the bushmen to be an artefact sent to them by the gods, for they have never seen anything like it before.

The bottle initially seems to be a genuine blessing, as it proves to have all sorts of uses undreamt of by a soft drink company – but soon trouble is brewing, as its arrival has suddenly transformed the tribe’s world into one of scarcity – everyone wants to use and own the bottle, and soon bickering and unhappiness are spreading amongst the people. The film’s presentation of the concept could be better, but the idea is a persuasive one. Eventually, one of the tribe, a man named Xi (played by N!xau, and that really is his name), decides to resolve the issue by taking the bottle to the edge of the world and throwing it off, thus sending it back to the gods.

The rest of the film is about Xi’s strange odyssey to the edge of the world, and gets progressively less and less interesting. This is because it gradually stops being about Xi and his perspective on the world, and increasingly occupies itself with stories about other characters – a journalist from the big city (Sandra Prinsloo) quits her job to become a school teacher out in the bush, which entails her being collected by an amiable but clumsy biologist (Marius Weyers). Meanwhile, a gang of terrorist guerillas is on the loose, threatening to cause all sorts of havoc.

The film eventually settles down to being a broad and really quite naive farce, albeit with the occasional effective moment. It sometimes resembles an episode of Daktari crossed with The Benny Hill Show: the cartoony slapstick and sight gags are not underplayed, and Uys manages to contrive various scenes with Prinsloo’s character appearing in her underwear. Xi loses his central role, really, becoming just someone that the other characters talk about and try to help – which is understandable, given that N!xau was a genuine San tribesman who had no experience of western culture before making the film (legend has it he simply threw away the money he was given by Uys for appearing in the film, not appreciating it had any value). This does result in a certain unevenness of tone. Xi’s early scenes are all narrated to explain what’s going on (Xi himself speaks Southern !Xun throughout), but this device is dropped once he starts interacting with Meyers and the others.

To be honest, the narrated sequences about bushman life do come across as a bit patronising, at least until the scene switches and the same narrator starts to discuss the peculiarities of life in western society with the same scholarly detachment and the same cheery manner. It seems to me that there was potential here for something genuinely thought-provoking, along the lines of Koyaanisqatsi but with more laughs – but it turns into the knockabout caper described above.

As such it’s an amiable film, a strange mixture of the potentially deep and the determinedly shallow – the low budget shows and it does have a sort of cobbled-together feeling about it. But the central idea – a stranger comes to western society for the first time and we see its oddness through his eyes – is a strong one, and I would be astonished if Paul Hogan didn’t owe his international film career to having seen it at some point: really, the film that most resembles The Gods Must Be Crazy! is Crocodile Dundee, which downplays the sociological angle in favour of a more adroit central comic turn, but sticks to broadly the same premise. It’s an odd film, an okay piece of entertainment, but more really something to watch out of sheer curiosity.

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My recollection of going to the cinema as a child was that I usually had to pester my dad into taking me to anything I wanted to see, which basically consisted of films like Flash Gordon, The Black Hole, The Empire Strikes Back, and Spider-Man: The Dragon’s Challenge (which isn’t even a proper film). The only exceptions to this were when we went to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture one rainy afternoon, and another sunny day when – without, I think, giving my sister and I any clue – he took us both to see Richard Donner’s Superman. This can’t have been 1978, when the film was released; she would have been too young – but it can’t have been much later than that, either.

I suspect the reason for this is that my dad just likes Superman. Not in a serious, collect-the-comics kind of way, he just likes the idea of Superman – and, perhaps to a slightly lesser extent, Batman – probably because these are the superheroes who were in circulation when he was a lad. For him, Superman is the only such character who really matters – and maybe he has a point.

Endless TV showings and a couple of slightly iffy sequels may have made us all a bit too over-familiar with the Superman films made by the Salkind family, of which this is the first. It’s back on the big screen for its 45th anniversary (a slightly odd choice), but only about six people turned up to the only showing at the local independent, which was a bit sad, because it really does reward the big screen experience, not to mention your full attention.

The film itself opens by looking back to 1938, and the first Superman comics, in a black-and-white opening sequence which almost suggests this is going to be an exercise in juvenile nostalgia. But then the camera lifts, soaring into the night sky, as the opening phrases of John Williams’ theme burst onto the soundtrack.

And what a theme it is – one of the greatest pieces of music by one of the greatest composers of our day, with that curious double-hook which ensures that if you ask any group of people to sing the Superman theme, half of them will go ‘dah-diddly-dah, dee-dah-dah’ and the other half ‘dat-dah-dah, dah-dit-dah-dah-dahhh’. No wonder that so many other films and TV shows using Superman have stumped up the money to use this theme: there’s a very real sense in which, in live-action terms at least, Superman isn’t Superman unless he’s being soundtracked by John Williams.

Once the opening credits (slightly mystifying to those uninitiated in the dark arts of contract negotiations: Superman himself is third billed, while most of those listed only contribute cameos) conclude, we find ourselves on the planet Krypton – an austere, crystalline world, with an almost Kubrickian alienness to it. Once a bit of business with three criminals being sentenced is concluded (something that only pays off in the sequel), we are in the company of leading figure Jor-El (Marlon Brando), who is trying to convince his fellow elders that the planet is about to blow up. But no-one listens: perhaps he should have glued himself to something. (The hidebound, almost reactionary nature of Kryptonian society is neatly coded by the fact that nearly everyone has a British accent – amongst the councillors are Harry Andrews and dear old William Russell.) It’s fashionable to mock Brando’s appearance in this film, for which he was paid a stupendous sum and got top billing in exchange for very little screen-time, but I think it’s a very decent turn, verging on the moving in places. He’s certainly central to whole Krypton sequence, which is entirely credible and establishes this movie is not going to be kid’s stuff.

But, inevitably, Krypton blows up, the only survivor being Jor-El’s infant son Kal-El, who is rocketed off to Earth. All this has been happening in the Earth year 1948, apparently, and the tot’s escape craft crashlands in Kansas after a three-year trip. Here we get many vistas of rolling corn and an almost Norman Rockwell sense of benevolent Americana; Glenn Ford contributes his own very effective cameo as the lad’s adoptive father, whose premature death leaves a great impression on him.

Kal-El, who has been given the Earth name of Clark Kent (of course), goes off in search of his destiny and finds it at the north pole, where a handy piece of kit left in the rocket with him instantly builds a cathedral-sized replica of Krypton. He and Brando’s disembodied head go off on a sort of metaphysical trip together for twelve years or so, after which he manages to land a job at a major newspaper despite not appearing to finish High School (presumably Superman’s inviolable principles still permit the odd bit of CV-padding).

Here the tone of the film shifts again, with the same skill and confidence that it has displayed throughout so far. The Salkinds and their writers seem to have figured out how to make a Superman movie that works for a mainstream audience – which doesn’t mean taking the character wholly seriously. One can understand why they apparently spent months in meetings with DC Comics executives discussing ‘the integrity of the character’. Superman himself is never spoofed or mocked in this film, but this next section is essentially written and played as light comedy, which is a brilliant choice. Superman is, in the best possible way, an absurd character, and the film kind of toys with this fact while never losing sight of the fact that he is also a wonderful creation.

So we get to see Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve, of course, of course – in many ways still the only Superman who really matters) arriving in Metropolis to start his new job (Metropolis looks almost exactly like New York City), meet Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) and everyone else, and then soar into action as Superman – rescuing first Lois from a helicopter crash (‘I hope this little incident hasn’t put you off flying,’ deadpans Reeve), then the President from a plane crash, and still finds time to get a cat down out of a tree. It is all so magnificently perfect you want to track down Bryan Singer and Zach Snyder and hit them with bits of wood.

Practically the only misstep the film makes through these opening three movements, to my mind, is the rather unimpressive spoken-word musical item performed by Kidder during her sweepingly romantic flight with the Man of Steel. This is, one suspects, not Leslie Bricusse’s finest hour as a lyricist, and it always makes my teeth itch (not that it doesn’t contain the occasional good line, of course).

But, of course, the film needs to find a moment of real challenge and jeopardy for Superman, and this comes in the final movement of the film, as diabolical genius Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman, really having some fun) sets about a property scam that involves using nuclear missiles to topple half of California into the sea. He also gets his hands on some kryptonite, which only cemented my dad’s belief that Superman, for all his merits, is a flawed creation as you have to keep using kryptonite on him; he has no other weaknesses or limitations. (Which personally I would argue with, but I digress.)

The question, really, is whether the end of Superman lets the movie down – it’s certainly hard to claim it’s one of the strongest parts of the film. Superman stops a flood, prevents a train crash, props up the San Andreas fault from somewhere within the Earth’s crust, and so on, but fails to save Lois’ life. Holding her body in his arms, he screams his loss (a moment strikingly similar to one in the climax of the original Incredible Hulk TV movie, from the previous year), then flies off to…

Well, it’s not entirely clear – either he is flying faster than light and going back in time to change what happened, or somehow rewinding all of history so it never happened in the first place. It’s not entirely a cheat, as in the books Superman was able to travel in time under his own power for quite a while (other weird and obscure powers included having the ability to shoot miniature clones of himself out of his hands and rearrange his own face), and the moment has been foreshadowed throughout the movie, but narratively it begs all sorts of questions, about time paradoxes and more. Beyond that, it may be making an important statement about Superman’s love for Lois, but it’s also clearly implying that Superman is virtually omnipotent and can’t meaningfully be challenged.

Personally, I think the film gets away with it, because two hours of getting virtually everything right means it has generated an enormous reserve of goodwill that a slightly wobbly climax can’t entirely dispel. We live in a world where, obviously, you can barely move for superhero films sometimes, but there is still something special about this one. Perhaps it is because both Superman and the film burst into a world where they are something unique and surprising – the movie is very grounded in reality, apart from the fantasy figure of Superman himself. And yet the film isn’t afraid to treat the Superman story in mythic terms – the story of ‘a perfect man, who came from the sky and did only good’ (and this is before we even get onto the fact that there’s a father somewhere in the heavens who sends his only son to use his miraculous powers to be an example to the human race). It does all of these things and gets them right. It’s tempting to say that this is a template for a different way to do superhero movies, but then it may just be that Superman is special. Whatever the truth, watching this film is a joyous experience even today. DC Comics would kill to make a movie half this good today.

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The thing about some classic stories is that there have been so many film versions of them that we seem to have reached a point of creative saturation with them – there just doesn’t seem to be any desire for new ones. Recent films based on reliable old bankers like Tarzan, Robin Hood and King Arthur haven’t really paid the rent, although of course modern sensibilities are probably a bit uncomfortable with a canon which largely revolves around white male heteronormativity.

In other cases, it’s just the original story which has apparently fallen out of favour – spin-offs and derivative works continue to turn up on a regular basis. There hasn’t been a ‘straight’ movie version of Dracula in thirty years, but since then there’s been a spin-off centred on Van Helsing, an attempt at a revisionist origin story, and various low-budget films that haven’t really made an impression. I was about to suggest this was a recent phenomenon, but then of course, as we have recently seen, people were making films about Dracula’s pet dog as long ago as 1977. So the appearance of a film about Dracula’s helpmeet shouldn’t really come as a surprise.

This is Renfield, directed by Chris McKay (who previously did a rather good film about the Lego version of a different sort of bat man). Renfield, for the uninitiated, is a lunatic in Stoker’s original novel; he falls under Dracula’s sway and starts eating insects and spiders (a sort of cargo-cult version of vampirism). In the movies, when he appears at all, he usually gets amalgamated with either Jonathan Harker or Harker’s boss Hawkins. The Hammer film series largely replaced him with a character called Klove, although another character called Ludwig closely resembles the Stoker version.

As you can perhaps imagine, playing Dracula’s insane sidekick gives a performer a certain latitude when it comes to pitching their performance, and some people have gone howlingly over-the-top as a result. Keeping things a bit more under control in the new film is Nicholas Hoult, who is living in present-day New Orleans. He has been in Dracula’s service for nearly a century (there is an elaborate call-back to the Tod Browning version of Dracula) and is currently helping to nurse the Count back to health, if that’s the right word, following his latest near-demise. Dracula is played (and very much not underplayed) by Nicolas Cage.

The main gag of the new film, which is largely a comedy, is that Renfield has taken to going to a support group for people trapped in abusive or controlling relationships, clearly seeing something of his own situation in their problems. Naturally the other people there don’t realise that much of what he says about his boss having the power of life and death over him is literally true. Dracula, on the other hand, is testy and complains that Renfield isn’t doing enough to help him restore his strength – he just wants to prey on some unsuspecting tourists, or nuns, or a bus full of cheerleaders. Male or female cheerleaders, enquires Renfield delicately. ‘Don’t make this a sexual thing,’ scowls the Count.

Meanwhile, ass-kicking traffic cop Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina) is engaged in a one-woman crusade to bring down the Lobos, a powerful crime family responsible for the death of her father. She eventually ticks them off enough for a hit to be ordered on her while she’s in the same restaurant where Renfield is looking for a snack for his master. The hapless thrall is sufficiently impressed by her steely refusal to be intimidated that he ends up saving her life; she inspires him to try and make a change in his situation and break free from Dracula’s control. The Lobos, meanwhile, are looking for Renfield and end up tracking him back to Dracula’s lair. The Count decides this band of ruthless killers may be his kind of people, and proposes an alliance…

It sounds a fairly straightforward story, but to be honest the film wanders about quite a lot in its midsection before rallying near the end. This is about as short as mainstream films get nowadays, at only 90 minutes or so, which means that it never gets slow or dull but also struggles to develop any of its ideas properly. Not that they are tremendously original: the intersection of traditional vampirism and organised crime isn’t a particularly new plot device, while the familiar-in-therapy conceit is exactly the sort of thing that they’ve been doing on What We Do In The Shadows for years now.

For something being pitched as a comedy, Renfield is never as consistently funny as What We Do In The Shadows (the movie or the first few years of the TV show, anyway). What it ends up as is a sort of knockabout action-oriented splatstick with some extremely gory bits and not much subtlety to a lot of the jokes. It may not help that two of the main performers are Awkwafina and Ben Schwartz, neither of whom are synonymous with delicate understatement; Awkwafina’s performance, I have to say, is very possibly not good enough – though she’s saddled with a character who’s two-dimensional at best.

Nicholas Hoult, on the other hand, is very good, and manages to keep his scenes very watchable as usual. But the film only really comes to life – perhaps I should say rises from the coffin? – when Nicolas Cage is on-screen. This is an archetypal Cage performance, operatically over-the-top by any conventional metric, but also containing real wit and depth. And it must be said that Cage makes a tremendous Dracula – the fact that he sort-of resembles both Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee obviously helps, but he provides the movie with its only real moments of menace. It would be wonderful – though it probably won’t happen – to see him play the character again in a less-comedic context; as it is, Cage’s turn is by far the best reason to see this film.

When Cage isn’t on, the film is a rather confused mixture of action, broad comedy, and gore, with a variable tone that Nicholas Hoult by himself isn’t quite good enough to salvage. The lengthy and elaborate fight sequences feel like they’ve been transplanted in from a different movie; they’re not bad, they just don’t feel like they belong in what started off looking like a fairly witty spoof of Dracula. But by the end this has turned into something more generic and less rewarding. It has funny moments, and it’s usually visually interesting, but less fighting, more Cage, and more ideas would have made for a much better movie.

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‘Oh no! Is that still going?’ cried the woman of a certain age in the next seat, dismayed. This was back in January and we had gone to see A Man Called Otto at the local independent cinema, which was preceded by the trailer for Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley’s Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Amongst Thieves. It was this which so exercised our neighbour. I felt obliged to gently let her know that not only was it still going, but also that Dungeons & Dragons was (and still is) enjoying the biggest boom in its nearly half-century history (hence the release of a new movie).

Admittedly, at the time the game was looking at a potentially disastrous schism between its players and its primary publishers, threatening even a boycott of this movie, but even this was mainly because the popularity of D&D wasn’t necessarily reflected in its profits (which the corporation involved was trying rather clumsily to rectify). This has since all been resolved, in a notable climbdown by the owners, but it still strikes me as rather significant in terms of what it tells us about why D&D is so special.

I should probably make it clear that I have played D&D, on and off, for something in the region of thirty-seven years. It, and the wider hobby of table-top role-playing games, is something I have always come back to; it has helped me find friends, given me a creative and social outlet matched by nothing else, allowed me to develop the skills I use every day in my job, and quite probably helped keep me sane. Despite all that, I wouldn’t really call myself a D&D fan per se – it’s a solid enough set of game rules, but there are better ones available, and I rarely play it these days. The current boom in D&D is down to many things: name recognition, changes in technology (most of my TTRPG games are played online nowadays), the lockdown, the Stranger Things factor. But I don’t think it’s because it’s the best game of its kind and my indifference may well end up colouring my views on the movie (just so you know).

As we said when we talked about the original D&D movie, it’s an odd thing to adapt into another medium – it’s not like there’s a particular story or set of characters involved. The whole point of D&D is that you get to make up your own stories and characters. So what is it, exactly, that the new film is adapting? (The esteemed games designer Steve Kenson has suggested that the best way of capturing the authentic D&D experience at the cinema would be to stop the film about two-thirds through, at which point everyone present would have to compare diaries and find a date they could all get together to finish it off.) Well, they go for a very generic approach when it comes to the plot and characters, and use one of the major settings (one called the Forgotten Realms, but who exactly has done the forgetting is a bit unclear).

This is basically a cod fantasy setting, which is a bit like late-medieval Europe except that there are monsters and magic and some people have heads like cats or lizards; there is no sense of this place having a history or any principle explaining quite why things are organised as they are – except that it’s presumably cool and operates as a sort of wish-fulfilment exercise for the target audience. There’s something to be said for wish-fulfilment as comfort food for the brain, but I always remember the words of a genre writer I interviewed many years ago, who suggested that novels of complete fantasy were essentially cheating at cards for Monopoly money.

Anyway, it opens with lovable scallywags Edgin (Chris Pine) and Holga (Michelle Rodriguez) busting out of the prison they were sent to when their last job went wrong. As a result, Edgin’s daughter is being looked after by their old acquaintance Forge Fitzwilliam (Hugh Grant) – nearly everyone has names like this – as his wife died several years before the start of the film (a nice easy chunk of back-story). However, it turns out that Forge has betrayed them all, in association with evil – what’s the right word for a female wizard? The thing is that in D&D words like ‘wizard’, ‘sorcerer’, and so on, all have very distinct and specific meanings – Sofina (Daisy Head), risen to a position of local prominence, and is engaged on a lucrative evil scheme.

So they decide to stop him, rescue Pine’s daughter, and resurrect Pine’s dead wife (you can do this in D&D). This involves re-recruiting a semi-competent sorcerer (Justice Smith) and recruiting a competent shape-changing druid (Sophia Lillis) – she happens to have horns coming out of her head, but this is just here as an odd form of fan-service. Rege-Jean Page also pops up as a famous but very literal-minded warrior named Xenk. And there is indeed a dungeon, and more than one dragon, and they press down very firmly on the pedal labelled ‘Romp’…

Close attention has clearly been paid to successful recent comedy-adventure romps, particularly the Guardians of the Galaxy series, as this is tonally quite similar. And some parts of it are certainly successful – there’s some good fight choreography for Rodriguez, Grant does his reliably entertaining tongue-in-cheek villain performance, and there’s an improbably funny sequence about using necromancy to interrogate corpses for information – this even dares to hang a lantern on the strangely specific and arbitrary rules of magic in this world. The rest of it is… well, it moves briskly along, it looks nice, none of it seems likely to outrage or offend the typical sane viewer. But it’s still a map-touring-and-plot-coupon-collecting fantasy adventure in the classic style of the genre. I’m starting to think the success (or otherwise) of this kind of film is really down to the quality of the world – does it feel like a credible, thought-through place that you find yourself caring about?

I’m not all that familiar with the Forgotten Realms’ tabletop incarnation, but the version in the movie just has that arbitrary, slapped-together quality I mentioned earlier, with various factions and whimsical monsters (owl-bears, gelatinous cubes. six-legged tentacled panthers that aren’t where they appear to be). I expect for a lot of people it’s a great place to set a game, but for a more conventional kind of story it doesn’t really feel like anything ultimately matters.

I suspect if it had been a bit less Guardians of the Galaxy and a bit more Monty Python and the Holy Grail – there are certainly twitches in this direction – I would have found it a bit more engaging. But there’s a limit to how much quirkiness you can realistically expect from a big studio movie which is attempting to relaunch a multi-media franchise and also hopefully attract more people to the game itself. Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Amongst Thieves plays things safe and relatively  straight, which may be enough to ensure it finds an audience. But I’m not sure it’s that great an advertisement for the D&D experience; it’s certainly less fun than a good game session.

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As we have established, I love a dinosaur movie, all things being equal – and after watching a vintage dinosaur movie, I often turn to my copy of The Illustrated Dinosaur Movie Guide (Jones, 1993), to see if I agree with it.  Let’s see what it says about My Science Project, written and directed by Jonathan R Betuel in 1985:

Entertaining teen comedy in which likeable student John Stockwell raids an old Air Force base for his end of term science project. But the machine he steals comes from a crashed UFO and pretty soon it has opened up a time warp which could destroy the world. With (blah blah blah…).

I’ll say one thing for Steve Jones, he’s got the art of the concise plot synopsis down pat, hasn’t he? There’s nothing I’d necessarily argue with there except some of the adjectives. However, the joy of having your own blog means you can ramble on for as long as you like.

No film of the modern age is entirely an island – at least, none that immediately occurs to me. The Terminator is just an exceptional example of a kind of punk sci-fi thriller of which there was a whole slew in the early 1980s – the difference is that most people have never seen or even heard of Trancers, Cherry 2000 or Night of the Comet. Something similar is true of the high-school sci-fi comedy genre, which briefly blossomed in the mid-to-late 1980s before equally rapidly fading away. The film of this type that everybody knows is Back to the Future, again because it is so exceptionally well made, though you could certainly suggest that Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure has left its mark on the culture, and I suppose Weird Science has a sort of following. Films like Real Genius and My Science Project really do seem to have slid into oblivion, though.

The film opens in the late 50s with the USAF delivering a crashed flying saucer to a base out in the desert. Eisenhower turns up and orders the thing destroyed, which the air force guys promptly get cracking on. It’s an interesting scene but it somehow seems to be lacking a big gag, image, or punchline; they wheel on a UFO and the US President just to do some exposition, which feels like a bit of a waste. This lack of big beats is a consistent issue throughout the film.

The story jumps forward to 1985, where student Michael Harlan (John Stockwell) needs to pass his high school diploma. (Stockwell also played – snigger – Cougar in the first Top Gun and, and here is something I bet you didn’t know, his niece is Florence of the Machine fame.) To do this he needs a successful science project, and just rebuilding a carburettor won’t cut it, according to his science teacher (Dennis Hopper, who is good value). This is a shame as working on cars is his main interest in life. As if that wasn’t bad enough, his girlfriend dumps him, and there’s trouble at home with his father’s new girlfriend.

Harlan ends up recruiting his bookish classmate Ellie (Danielle von Zerneck) to help him find something to impress his teachers – she thinks they are on an actual date, he does not. They end up nicking a weird piece of electronic gadgetry from an abandoned bunker on a local air force base. This turns out to be the engine from the UFO, of course. Well, maybe engine isn’t quite the right word, as it seems to function by sucking the energy out of anything close to it, whether that’s a car battery or the local power grid, and then using it to open a portal to the space-time continuum.

Harlan and his friend Vince (Fisher Stevens, possibly still best known for playing a comedy racial stereotype in Short Circuit out in the wider 80s sci-fi comedy genre) play around with the thing and find themselves inadvertently transported two hours into the future. Science teacher Hopper is shown the gizmo, gets carried away, and promptly finds himself zapped to parts unknown. The gizmo gets switched on and off a few times (probably once too many, as the film feels a bit slow and repetitive in the middle) before a swirling vortex opens over the high school, in which Ellie has become stuck with an obnoxious classmate. Harlan and Vince find themselves obliged to go inside and unplug the vortex before something really bad happens.

You know, on paper ‘high schoolers find an alien device which opens a rift in the space-time continuum’ isn’t that much less promising a premise than ‘high schoolers use obscure means to create the perfect synthetic woman’, ‘high schoolers use time machine to get famous historical figures to help them graduate’ or even ‘high schooler uses time machine to accidentally go back and stop his own parents from meeting’. It’s got potential; the issue is one of how you realise it, and here is where My Science Project really falls down.

The main problem is that it’s simply not very funny – I can’t remember a single decent joke in it – and on top of that, it’s very slow in getting going. It feels like the film should really be about the characters going into the temporally-scrambled school to shut down the gizmo and rescue Ellie, but this doesn’t happen until the third act, possibly for budgetary reasons, possibly because they just couldn’t think of much material for this part – there are fights with mutants, cavemen and an okay dinosaur puppet, but not much in the way of plot. Most of the film is thus busily setting up a climax which isn’t really worth the wait, and it becomes very dependent on the charms of the young cast to stay interesting – and while they’re good, they’re not that good.

The best of the high-school sci-fi films work because they are both genuinely funny and genuinely clever in the way they employ the ideas they have co-opted. Back to the Future is loaded with witty and creative little elaborations on its main idea, developing it in all sorts of unexpected and satisfying ways. Bill and Ted does something similar, although to a lesser extent. The problem with My Science Project is that the basic premise of the film – high-schoolers use a UFO gizmo to tear a hole in space-time – also serves pretty well as its plot synopsis. There is occasionally something worth seeing in this film, but not often; it’s the kind of movie which is mainly valuable in reminding you just how good other, similar films really are.

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There is no clearer evidence that the cinematic seasons have changed than the fact that theatres are playing host to a film like Cocaine Bear. Anything with a name like Cocaine Bear is obviously never going to win an award (at least, not the kind of reward you’d actually want to win), which is why it’s not coming out in the winter. On the other hand, it’s never going to make a billion dollars, either, which is why it’s not coming out in the summer. So films like Cocaine Bear come out in the spring and autumn, and – with luck – do okay for themselves there.

Or so the received wisdom has it. The director of Cocaine Bear, Elizabeth Banks, was most recently in charge of the ‘weaponised feminism’ remake of Charlie’s Angels, which did not do very well in an admittedly crowded pre-Christmas market. I have come to have a certain respect for Banks, who tends to turn up attached to unexpectedly interesting or subversive films more often than you might expect, but the Charlie’s Angels movie was simply not very good. But what are the chances of a film with a title like Cocaine Bear being any better? One thing is fairly certain: there’s not going to be much weaponised feminism on the agenda this time around.

Never before have the words ‘Based on true events, but certain characters and situations have been fictionalised’ constituted such a massive understatement as they do on this occasion. The facts of the matter are this: in 1985, an ex-lawyer turned drug smuggler named Andrew Thornton died in a parachuting accident after dumping a significant quantity of cocaine out of his plane over Georgia. Several months later, the body of a black bear was found in the Chattahoochee National Forest, apparently having overdosed on the abandoned drugs.

Pretty slim pickings there for all but the most inventive documentary film-maker, you might have thought, but the film makes the reasonable extrapolation that, somewhere along the line, the coked-up bear might have gone on a gory rampage and killed half a dozen or so people unlucky enough to cross its path. At a stroke the story is transformed from niche piece of bizarre Americana to a functional horror movie, something along the lines of Grizzly (or possibly Winnie-the-Pooh) meets Scarface, albeit still with that bizarre Americana element attached to it.

One slightly odd creative choice is that we don’t actually see the bear eat the cocaine. We see Thornton himself (Matthew Rhys) throwing brick after brick of the stuff from his plane (it may just be me not paying attention, but the film doesn’t completely explain why he’s doing this in the first place) and then failing to parachute successfully from it, and we see a couple of European tourists coming across the bear acting rather erratically. I suppose this is just so the film can get to the good stuff more quickly. This duly happens: the bear pursues the tourists and the body-parts begin to fly. (As you can see, Cocaine Bear is quite assiduous in sticking to most of the traditional horror movie conventions: in this case, some early gore.)

It soon becomes apparent that this isn’t just a horror movie about an animal with a substance abuse problem, it’s the work of people who appreciate just what an offbeat premise that is and take it about as seriously as it deserves. And so a diverse group of characters yomp off into the woods, little suspecting they are in for a big surprise: a couple of tweenies who are acting out, pursued by the mother of one of them (Keri Russell); a veteran cop (Isiah Whitlock Jr); a park ranger (Margo Martindale) and a wildlife activist (Jesse Tyler Ferguson); and a drug dealer (O’Shea Jackson Jr) in search of the actual cocaine, accompanied by the unwilling son (Alden Ehrenreich) of his boss (Ray Liotta). Most of these characters have weird preoccupations that have nothing to do with the usual horror movie concerns – unlikely crushes, misspelt tattoos, dog adoption crises, and so on – which just adds to the sense this is on some level a parody, or one of those relentlessly ironic films like Snakes on a Plane or Hobo with a Shotgun.

To be honest, it probably is that sort of a film, but made with unusual proficiency – it has the same sort of ‘this is horrible, why am I laughing?’ effect as many early projects by James Gunn, someone whom Elizabeth Banks has worked with several times in the past (I should say that Gunn wasn’t involved personally). Also with their names on the credits are Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, well-known for the Lego movies and getting fired half-way through making the Han Solo spin-off film (maybe they brought Ehrenreich along with them). The result is a film which is slick, confident, and often very funny.

What it isn’t, and this is not that unusual in this sort of territory, is particularly scary. There’s a certain amount of tension early on as the bear lurks around off-screen, but once the film starts picking up momentum it seems much more interested in inventive and extravagant gore – I believe the name for this sort of thing is ‘splatstick’.

Nevertheless, it always feels like a really odd little film – comprehensively odd, odd in all kinds of strange ways. Even some of the production details are weird – apparently it was filmed on location in Ireland, which you would never guess from looking at it. There’s something quite weird about the fact that Ray Liotta makes the first of his posthumous appearances in a film as nutty as this one, even though he’s playing an extremely Ray Liotta-ish character. I suppose the oddest thing about it is that it is such a intentional piece of junk cinema, given all the talent and skill involved in making it. I’m not going to get too exercised about that, as cinema needs quality junk as much as it does films from any other genre, nor am I going to echo the sentiments of the person (I forget who) who got quite irate about a film in such obviously poor taste (let’s not forget, an actual bear did die of a drugs overdose). Of course it’s in poor taste; that’s kind of the point.

In the end, it’s a spring genre movie, and a reasonably good one; we laughed a lot at it, though it’s true that we mainly went to see it because Creed III wasn’t out till the following week. It’s about as good as you could expect a film called Cocaine Bear about a bear with a drugs habit on a homicidal rampage to realistically be, and if that has the air of faint praise about it – well, that probably goes with the territory too.

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Normally I stick fairly closely to the idea that films should be able to stand on their own two feet, as it were, and you should be able to enjoy them with a minimum of background knowledge. I might even argue that a film which doesn’t meet this criterion has somehow failed, always provided we could grant a waiver to franchise films which continue a narrative.

Then again, it doesn’t do to be too dogmatic. The BAFTAs earned a few merit stars from me when this year’s nominees were announced, mainly because they apparently ‘snubbed’ the Avatar sequel by hardly nominating it for anything. (By this metric, those BAFTA people snub hundreds of films every year – how are they even still employed?) Now I find myself having to contemplate taking those stars off them again, as they similarly managed to avoid shortlisting Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans for most of the awards (in contrast, it’s up for seven Oscars).

This is a strange example of a film which only acquires its full power and resonance if you’re aware of the circumstances of its making. On the face of it, it is a humane and warm family drama set in the middle years of the 20th century, primarily focussing on Sammy Fabelman (mostly Gabriel LaBelle). The film opens with his first ever trip to a movie theatre in December 1952, to see The Greatest Show on Earth, which results in a rather traumatic experience due to a sequence depicting a train crash. His father Burt (Paul Dano) is sympathetic but simply thinks the lad is too sensitive; his mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams), perhaps understanding him a little better, helps him to get to grips with his anxiety by recreating the crash with toy trains and – crucially – filming it. Very soon Sammy is disrupting the household making DIY horror movies with his sisters.

Time passes and Burt’s success as a computer engineer leads to a move to Phoenix, Arizona, for the family – also coming along is Uncle Bennie (Seth Rogen), Burt’s best friend and colleague. Sammy keeps making his films, despite his father’s doubts about whether this is a worthwhile way for the boy to pass his time. But a brief visit from the family’s Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch) sees the question of Sammy’s future laid out in no uncertain terms: Sammy dearly loves his family, but he loves making films even more, even if the tension between these two things will cause him no end of personal trauma…

And then, fifteen years later, Sammy Fabelman makes a film about a shark and cinema is changed forever.

Well, no he doesn’t, at least not in the film, but in real life he did – I’d be very interested to show this film to someone with no particular advance knowledge of it or what it’s about, and perhaps very little interest in modern culture at all (I’m tempted to say my parents might be very good guinea pigs), and see if they were able to figure out what the film is really about. Which is, of course, the formative years and family life of Steven Spielberg. The Fabelmans is essentially a film à clef about Spielberg’s own life, with some of the character names not even changed (there really was an Uncle Boris, for example).

Why is Spielberg making the film now? Well, apparently, he was concerned that his parents might interpret his depiction of their marriage as being in some way critical of them, and didn’t want to make the film while they were still around (despite them nagging him to). Spielberg’s father Arnold passed away (at 103!) in 2020, which coincided with that period of time when we were all perhaps assessing what was really important in our lives. And so here we are.

‘Is it very sentimental?’ was Former Next Desk Colleague Now Manager’s question when I mentioned I’d seen the film, referring of course to the received wisdom that all of Spielberg’s films are oppressively schmaltzy. Personally I’d say there’s a thin line between being sincerely emotional and actually sentimental, which Spielberg generally manages to negotiate with considerable skill. What I will say about The Fabelmans is that it does feel born of love, and a sincere recollection of youth (which is not the same thing as simple nostalgia).

Life is complicated; the relationship between Burt, Mitzi and Bennie especially so. Spielberg was famously close to his mother in later life, bringing her along to the premieres of his movies and so on, but he is admirably even-handed here: the fictionalised version of his father is a decent, kind, dedicated, devoted man – just not one with art in his soul. The tragedy presented by the film is that of two very good people who just aren’t quite capable of being happy together. In the film, Sammy realises this while making a home movie about his family – a powerful representation of how art can be a path to truth, as well as escape.

The two themes of the movie – Sammy’s love of film-making deepens even as his parents’ relationship runs aground – are deftly interwoven, and Spielberg’s Jewish identity is also explored, in scenes which range from comic to being quite difficult to watch. This is, to coin a phrase, another one of those films which will make you feel every emotion, thanks to performances, direction and script – it is uniformly well-played, and Spielberg works his usual invisible magic.

Spielberg himself apparently doesn’t like being too self-referential – this is supposedly due to the bad notices received by 1941, which opens with a Jaws in-joke – which may explain why most of the film is played fairly straight, without allusions to his body of work. (There’s much more riffing on Spielberg’s back catalogue in Stranger Things and the 2011 movie Super 8, which includes its own homage to The Greatest Show on Earth‘s train wreck.) Nevertheless, little things do start to creep in as the movie goes on – after an awkward moment with a peer, Sammy promises he will never use it as material for a future film project, while after an encounter with ‘the greatest film-maker in the world’ (a somewhat unexpected appearance by David Lynch, of all people, though not playing himself), Spielberg’s own direction abruptly changes to incorporate some of the secrets of good technique imparted to him.

The issue with any film of this type is when to stop the story, and the end point Spielberg and co-writer Tony Kushner settle on does seem to have been chosen mainly because it’s a great scene rather than because it adds much to the themes of the film. Certainly Spielberg’s debt to Rod Serling, who approved him for his first directorial job in TV, isn’t really touched upon – but you have to stop somewhere. The Fabelmans finishes on an appropriately upbeat note, as befits what’s ultimately a joyful coming-of-age story. Perhaps it is a bit self-indulgent, but as we’re talking about Steven Spielberg, one of the architects of modern popular cinema and one of its greatest exponents, we probably owe him that indulgence. At any rate, this is a very well-made and moving film which I really enjoyed.

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