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Posts Tagged ‘drama’

‘Many people lead lives of quiet desperation, but Elton John leads a life of loud desperation’ – if I had said that, I would be somewhat peeved, as it’s a quote that seems to have entered the public consciousness without anyone being able to remember who it was who actually thought it up in the first place. Still, it’s a good line, and that’s the most important thing. Whether or not he agrees with it, Elton himself (he has acquired that odd status of being one of those people recognisable from his first name alone, even though he has thoughtfully given himself three) clearly thinks his life has something to commend it, as he has apparently been trying to get his life-story filmed for nearly twenty years now. Now here it is, in the form of Rocketman, directed by Dexter Fletcher.

One day it may be possible to write about Rocketman without comparing it to Bohemian Rhapsody, but clearly not today. Fletcher wasn’t the credited director on the bemusingly successful Queen bio-pic, but he did finish it off after Bryan Singer was canned, and the subject matter is obviously very similar, too – the life story of a troubled legend of popular music, liberally garnished with hits from the back catalogue. Of course, there are differences as well, the first obvious one being the tone of the film, which opens with Elton (Taron Egerton) arriving unannounced at what seems to be a group therapy session, dressed in an outfit that makes him look like a cross between Mephistopheles and a macaw. Some discussion of Elton’s youth, as Reggie Dwight in the London suburb of Pinner, leads into the first of many full-on musical numbers, staged with verve and imagination.

These continue as Elton/Reggie’s life story unfolds: a musical prodigy troubled by a strained relationship with a cold and distant father, he wins a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, starts playing keyboards in pubs at an improbably early age, and generally establishes himself as a jobbing musician by the late 1960s. The key moment comes when his natural facility with melody is put together with the lyrical talents of Bernie Taupin (a nicely-pitched performance from Jamie Bell, who fully understands his job is to support Egerton without upstaging him). Success comes quickly, with an early appearance in America leading to astronomical record sales, fuelled by a succession of belting tunes.

But is he really happy? With the fame and fortune come a troubled relationship with his lover and manager (Richard Madden), increasing dependence on drink and drugs, and a terrible sense of loneliness and isolation. This is a life story of extraordinary success (350 million records sold), hand in hand with desolating moments of heartbreak (Watford FC losing the 1984 FA Cup Final 2-0 to Everton).

(Funnily enough, Elton’s period of ownership at Watford is one of those interludes in his life that the film skips over entirely. Clearly, he was on board for a film depicting his struggles with addiction, loneliness, self-doubt, and betrayal, not to mention his failed marriage, but some things are clearly just too painful to revisit, even 35 years on.)

Another key difference between this film and that other one is that, of course, Elton John is still with us and has clearly taken a hands-on approach to the movie (he is credited as executive producer and his husband is one of the producers). To some extent this is no bad thing, as it was Elton himself who resisted attempts to overly-sanitise this film, insisting that his life would not get a PG-13 rating. On the other hand, one also kind of gets the sense that there has still been some smoothing over of rough edges – Elton is mostly presented entirely sympathetically, with no mention of the hair transplant, any of his well-known strops directed at fans or passers-by, or the surprising moment in the mid-80s when he phoned up a member of his staff and ordered him to make the weather outside less windy. Likewise, the film omits the 90th birthday party of his mother, which he didn’t go to as the pair had fallen out a few years previously – so his mum hired an impersonator to go and perform there anyway (I don’t know about you, but I think there’s masses of material for a great movie just in that one story).

I suppose much of this is understandable as the film concludes with Elton coming out of rehab at some unspecified point between 1983 (the film concludes with Egerton recreating the video for I’m Still Standing) and 1991 (the closing captions indicate that the star hasn’t had a drink in ’28 years’). One of the problems Rocketman has to contend with is that there isn’t really a moment in Elton’s career that corresponds with Queen’s legendary performance at Live Aid, and so it lacks a natural end point – the only possibility would have been his performance at the funeral in 1997, which would probably have entailed making a film with an entirely different tone. (An uncharitable observer might suggest that one of a number of things that Elton John and Freddie Mercury have in common is that neither of them have released any really noteworthy music since the 1990s, and Freddie has a better excuse for this.)

However, if the film comes pre-loaded with some flaws, it also has some in-built advantages, which it makes full use of, most obviously the Elton John back catalogue. Looking back, I remember always being aware of who Elton was, but not particularly familiar with his music in the way that I was with, say, the Beatles – I recall the first time I properly heard Crocodile Rock and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, which was on a re-run of Elton’s appearance on The Muppet Show – the image of the singer, in a peacock outfit, conducting a chorus of foam-rubber crocs in the ‘la la la la la’ section of the former song is one burned into my memory, and I was sorry not to see it recreated here. However, most of the famous Elton songs turn up here, although the one about the candle is only alluded to, and the ones licensed to Disney are absent as well – but we do get the title song, Crocodile Rock, Tiny Dancer, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Your Song, and many others.

The film hedges its bets by staging some of these as simple recreations of Elton performing them (and it has to be said that Egerton often looks uncannily like the singer when doing so), but in other places opts to go for the full-on musical number approach. Like the opening number, these are mostly extremely well-done, slick and inventive, and because the film isn’t afraid to be a proper musical they can – for example – insert a song like 2001’s I Want Love (all right, maybe I was a bit harsh about Elton’s recent material) into a scene from the 1950s without it feeling too jarring. Egerton does all his own singing and is more than acceptable, just one aspect of a performance which really surprised me – I’ve always tended to think of Egerton as a rotten actor, but this may well be because I have only seen him in films which were a bit suspect (the Kingsman series) or actively rotten themselves (Eddie the Eagle and last year’s Robin Hood). Rocketman indicates there may yet be hope for him.

In the end we really enjoyed Rocketman. It handles the rags section rather better than riches, and loses focus towards the end, and it doesn’t deliver quite the feelgood emotional wallop of Bohemian Rhapsody, but it’s made with skill and creativity. Olinka, who in addition to being a former rock musician is also in training to become a psychotherapist, found it to be a particularly moving and insightful depiction of how none of us really find it easy to escape our origins, no matter how materially successful we may become. Viewed in those terms, the film has surprising depth and emotional heft, as well as delivering some slick and satisfying entertainment, and some really surprising clothes. In the end I would probably say that Elton has earned whatever indulgences the movie permits him, and I have no doubt he would agree with me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘How do you mean?’

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

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

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

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

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Twenty years on from his death, the world seems to be thinking of Stanley Kubrick more than ever: an exhibition is currently running in London of props and personal effects from the Kubrick archives, a few weeks ago A Clockwork Orange enjoyed a re-release, there was a mini-season of his films across various BBC channels… then again, it does seem that Kubrick casts a longer shadow than most, and his films are revived on a regular basis (and quite right too, you might say). This even includes the one major film over which Kubrick did not have complete creative control, with the result that he was so dissatisfied that he effectively disowned it.

I speak, of course, of 1960’s Spartacus, onto which he was brought after the original director, Anthony Mann, was fired after only a week’s filming had been completed. The making of this film seems to have been unusually colourful: the project was initiated by star Kirk Douglas after he failed to win the lead role in Ben-Hur, found itself in a race with a rival Spartacus project involving Yul Brynner, was instrumental in destroying the Hollywood blacklist by crediting screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Douglas recalls being rather disgusted by Kubrick’s eagerness to take the credit for the script), and so on.

This is entirely in keeping with a film which purports to be a retelling of one of the most intriguing stories of antiquity: the Third Servile War, also known as Spartacus’ rebellion against the Roman republic. Little is known of the actual history of these events, the Romans being characteristically reluctant to keep records of an incident they felt to be profoundly embarrassing. Given so little is known, I suppose it is quite impressive that the film manages to get the majority of the facts wrong.

Still, the story remains very roughly accurate in most respects: Kirk Douglas plays Spartacus, a man born into slavery but still possessed of a stubborn and rebellious streak: enough to get him into serious trouble in the mines where he has spent most of his life. He is saved from a death sentence by the gladiatorial entrepreneur Batiatus (Peter Ustinov), who brings him to his school in Capua where a brutal training regime begins. Pretty much the only solace he gets, other than the sense of brotherhood that inevitably develops between the gladiators, is a low-key romance with a slave-girl named Varinia (Jean Simmons).

But all the ends with the visit of the ruthless soldier and politician Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier), who takes a fancy to Varinia and purchases her from Batiatus. He also informs Batiatus that he expects to see gladiators fight to the death for his entertainment and that of his distinguished young companions. Spartacus narrowly avoids death in the ensuing combat, but resentment festers amongst the slaves, and when he learns he is never to see Varinia again, Spartacus snaps and launches a revolt against the masters of the school. Soon all the countryside around Capua is in uproar and the rulers of Rome must decide on their response to the gathering slave army in the countryside…

Over the last fifty or sixty years, Spartacus has become a hardy perennial of the TV schedules, and I have watched the initial hour or so of the movie many, many times. This is mainly because the first act of the movie barely puts a foot wrong in establishing the characters and tone of the movie. The sequence culminating in the arena fight between Douglas and Woody Strode, in particular, is an exemplary demonstration of how to build up to, stage, and choreograph this kind of action set-piece, and a genuine highlight of the film. Of course, it also introduces Olivier as Crassus, thus setting up the much longer middle section of the film.

Once the gladiators actually start revolting, we reach the point at which I usually change the channel, to be honest, because the film undergoes a strange and slightly jarring change of emphasis – Spartacus, previously a taciturn figure who mainly expresses himself through violence, suddenly becomes an idealistic and (relatively) eloquent leader of men, in charge of a multitude of people who are presented in rather trite and sentimental terms – there seem to be a disproportionate number of small moppets, sweet old couples, and amusing dwarves amongst the rebelling slaves. One of Kubrick’s issues with the script was that Spartacus is a dull character without quirks, and he kind of has a point – Douglas relies heavily on his innate charisma, together with a couple of very minor grace-note scenes where he is afflicted with mild self-doubt.

What keeps the film going, apart from its impressive scale, spectacle, and Alex North’s marvellous orchestral score (you can hear echoes of it in many subsequent soundtracks by much more famous composers), is the other strand of the plot at this point, which concerns the political shenanigans in Rome – the viewer is left to pick this up for him or herself, mostly, but basically a class (or caste) struggle is in progress, with the wily old Gracchus (Charles Laughton) on one side, backed up by the massed plebes, set against the more aristocratic (not to mention autocratic) Crassus. Which way Gracchus’ protege Julius Caesar (John Gavin) will jump is not immediately clear (Caesar is a relatively minor character in Spartacus, and not especially sympathetically portrayed). The ace card of this section of the film is the presence of so many great actors – Olivier, Laughton, Ustinov – all apparently intent on outdoing each other. Ustinov and Laughton seem to have worked out they can’t match Olivier for sheer power and presence, as he was pretty much in his prime at this point, but they both milk their roles for all the entertainment value possible, and it was Ustinov who took the Oscar home.

Olivier’s dominance of the film seems quite fitting as one of the things that marks Spartacus out from the majority of sword-and-sandal epics is that it has a genuinely downbeat trajectory and an honestly bleak ending. All of Spartacus’ bold statements about freedom and the right to live as one chooses come to nothing – the rebellion is crushed, with thousands slaughtered by the Roman legions, and all it has achieved is to allow Crassus to orchestrate his rise to unmatched power in what remains of the Republic. There is no choir standing by behind the camera, no hopeful message about the eventual victory of Christianity – this is a rare example of a big Hollywood movie where the bad guy wins. The film works horribly hard to try and give Spartacus the moral victory, and at least Crassus doesn’t get the girl, but neither does he end up dead, on a cross, committing suicide, or driven into exile, which is what happens to the sympathetic characters in this film. (There’s no mention of the grisly fate suffered by the historical Crassus.) The film’s grimness and cynicism do feel authentically Kubrickian.

Elsewhere, the great director handles the toybox of the Hollywood epic with all the skill and elan you might expect, and – perhaps – the lack of ability to generate sincere emotion you might also associate with his work. The climactic battle between the slaves and the legions is stirring stuff, to be sure, and the vista of corpses as far as the eye can see in the aftermath is an uncompromising image, but the defeat of the heroes and the death of all their dreams never quite hits you where you live; the battle is missing the moment where Spartacus realises his army has no chance of victory and we see his reaction to it. It is this and a few other missed beats that keep Spartacus from being a classic of the first rank. Nevertheless, for all of Kubrick’s antipathy towards it, this is a film which most other directors would and should have been very proud of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It’s not unheard of for young actors to achieve a staggering level of success in what’s essentially their first prominent role – this usually happens in adaptations of books aimed at a young-ish audience, or at least with a young-ish protagonist, as these kinds of projects tend to come with a built-in audience and so the studio is a bit more prepared to take a chance on an unknown. The quandary, then, is what a serious-minded young actor, propelled into celebrity at a tender age, supposed to do next? Some of them take the cards they’ve been dealt, cheerfully gun the engine and head right on down Mainstream Highway, but others are clearly afflicted by the need to show they have taste and range and a desire to do artistically significant work. One of the ways you used to be able to do this was by appearing in a Woody Allen film, as Emma Stone and Kristen Stewart both did, but that option is basically off the table now. Stewart also went kind of art-housey in Personal Shopper a few years ago. It’s the kind of deal that works for both the performer and the makers of the film: the performer will hopefully get to show their range and seriousness about their art, while the big name star should help an otherwise uncommercial project attract attention and funding.

You can see the same kind of trade-off at work in Claire Denis’ High Life, which stars Stewart’s one-time co-star (amongst other things, hem-hem) Robert Pattinson. Denis revealed that every time she came to the UK to meet actors, Pattinson would turn up, whether he was invited or not, despite the fact she felt he was too young. Luckily, the march of entropy being what it is, Pattinson eventually stopped being too young, and now here he is, in a film which I can only describe as… you know, it doesn’t really lend itself to a brief description. What I will say is that this is a startlingly and often unpleasantly graphic film, and there may be turns of phrase on the way that will make you go ‘ugh’. Don’t blame me, blame Claire Denis.

The film occurs almost exclusively aboard a rather odd spaceship, which from the outside resembles a 1970s stereo cabinet. The film opens in the ship’s hydroponics section, which of course leads one to wonder about the extent to which this is a knowing homage to Silent Running; this line of thought is rapidly dispelled by the sounds of an infant, who appears to be being raised by computers. It turns out this is because her father (Pattinson) is outside fixing the spaceship. The two of them seem to be quite alone and lead a peaceful life of quiet routine; he seems to be an attentive and caring parent. Every day he has to make a progress report in order for the ship’s computer to keep the life support switched on for another twenty-four hours, which seems like an odd arrangement. Our first clue that even odder things have been going on here comes when Pattinson, wanting to economise on his electric bill, shuts down the ship’s cryogenics unit and dumps the corpses of the rest of the crew out of the airlock.

Needless to say, there are flashbacks to come, and slowly and incrementally the (rather unlikely, if you ask me) story of the ship comes into focus. This is a long-haul mission set to last many years, with a crew composed entirely of death-row convicts launched off into deep space to carry out experiments on using the rotational energy of black holes to solve Earth’s resource problems. Not that anyone on board seems to be thinking much about thermodynamics: everyone, with the possible exception of Pattinson’s character, Monte, seems to have become fixated on rather more basic issues.

Intimate contact between the members of the crew is apparently prohibited, but the builders of the ship have thoughtfully provided a room in which frustrated crew members can masturbate away to their heart’s content (although duff plumbing means there are puddles of all sorts of bodily fluids in the corridor outside). One keen user of this facility is the ship’s doctor (Juliette Binoche); there is a frankly astonishing sequence recording one of her visits to the room, in much more detail than I really needed to see. Apart from this, her main interest is in trying to produce a child through artificial insemination, to which end she is cheerfully manipulating and drugging the other crew members. Tensions inevitably rise between the other crew members, which only Pattinson is partly immune to, mostly because he’s trying to stay abstinent (just for a change). But how long will it be before the mission itself is endangered…?

As you can perhaps see from the poster, High Life has earned itself some glowing reviews and enviable star ratings, many of them from sources not often impressed by SF films. I suspect this is one of those SF films which people who don’t like SF will like. SF films which people who don’t like SF will like tend to fall into two categories: there are the ones which basically use SF props to tell a story lifted wholesale from another genre and reskinned – a lot of mainstream studio SF falls into this category. Then there is the more arty kind of obscure movie, which uses SF themes and imagery to deal with subtle and abstract philosophical and artistic notions.

Critics tend to love this latter kind of film, and will happily overlook the fact that the story is ludicrous. This is a film set on a spaceship which looks like a stereo cabinet, crewed by death-row inmates, with puddles of semen all over the floor, and we’re supposed to believe it’s giving us some grand insight into the human condition and ‘what it means to be human’? The most profound insight on offer here is a suggestion of what would happen if someone launched the Big Brother house into deep space, because it’s basically about a bunch of unsympathetic and frankly weird characters who appear to have become totally fixated with sexual matters. I don’t recognise this as ‘what it means to be human’; I only recognise it as what happens when a misanthropic and pretentious film director hooks up with someone from Twilight and gets to work on a script with a suspicious large number of names on it.

I should say that the script starts off being quite weird and only gets worse as the story continues. One character ‘commits suicide by burying himself in the garden’ (that’s from High Life‘s Wikipedia entry). Late-on, there’s a very strange interlude where the spaceship encounters another stereo cabinet, but this one appears to be inhabited solely by stray dogs. What any of it is supposed to signify is very difficult to work out.

As I say, you can see the makers of High Life are not unfamiliar with SF films from years gone by – in addition to Silent Running, you can perhaps discern the influence of films like Moon, Sunshine, and Interstellar. But all of those films seemed to have something to say for themselves about human beings and their place in the universe. The problem with High Life isn’t just that it’s a bleak and dystopian vision of the future, it’s that it seems to have nothing original to say for itself. Yes, human beings can be horrible and repellent, but they’re not necessarily like that, and if you’re going to suggest that the antics of a bunch of people plucked from death row and launched into deep space can offer a real insight into how people in general will behave – well, I’m afraid you’ve lost me.  It may be that this genuinely is a profound and insightful film, but the general tone and atmosphere of it is so repulsive I find it very difficult to look at it objectively. Claire Denis has certainly succeeded in taking the SF movie somewhere new, it’s just not a place there seems much point in visiting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I can honestly say – and I have this in common, I suspect, with a number of friends and acquaintances – that I don’t know quite what shape my life would be, in the absence of the works of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. I probably don’t fully appreciate the scale of their influence, for the same reason that it’s quite hard to accurately gauge the size of an island while you’re living on it. That said, I don’t think I ended up living in Oxford solely because Tolkien resided here for much of his life, even though he has a palpable link with the city (much more so than Jo Rowling, not that this bothers the speciality tour operators and gift shop owners much). Anyway, it seemed entirely fitting to go and see Dome Karukoski’s new film about Tolkien’s early life, entitled (unsurprisingly) Tolkien, in Oxford. Tolkien is such a draw around here that the new film even managed to challenge the Marvel hegemony and land the biggest screen at Oxford’s most distinguished city centre cinema.

The meat of the film gets underway with Tolkien’s youth in the rustic idyll of a place called Sarehole (UK readers, feel free to come up with your own anagrams), but this naturally does not last long. With his widowed mother on her uppers and the family reliant on the charity of the church, it is still a shock when local priest Father Transporter Chief from Star Trek (Colm Meaney) has them all moved to grotty digs in industrial Birmingham.

Still, young JRR (Harry Gilby) soon makes friends with the better-off boys from the prep school he is sent to, and they swear eternal friendship and all the usual sort of thing, forming a club to discuss art and poetry and music and other sorts of culture (suffice to say that Wagner does not prove popular – ‘there’s no need to take six hours to tell a story about a magic ring,’ someone complains, one of the few flashes of genuine wit in the script). However, as the one-day-to-be Prof gets older (transforming into Nicholas Hoult along the way), he finds himself increasingly drawn to his adopted sister Edith (Lily Collins), despite the disapproval of Father Transporter Chief, who thinks he should be focusing on trying to pass the Oxford entrance exam.

Well, to cut a fairly long movie short, there is Oxford, potential failure, heartbreak, philology, and then the looming spectre of the First World War. It’s all enough to give a man the idea for a best-selling (and that’s putting it mildly) series of books…

I don’t mean to be harsh to what is an undeniably pleasant and apparently well-meaning movie, but Tolkien is basically a con trick, trying to fool you into thinking things are in it which are simply not present. As everyone involved has taken great pains to point out, they don’t have the rights to any of Tolkien’s fiction – his most famous books were brought to the screen a few years ago, as you may possibly have noticed it – and so the film can only allude to them. (They don’t even appear to have the rights to quote from Tolkien’s gravestone, the text of which is referred to but not in any detail.) So much of the film consists of subtle little hints and references intended to put you in mind of something Peter Jackson did on a rather bigger budget in New Zealand, without actually being a direct steal.

The other problem is one common to many biopics operating in this particular sphere of the arts, which is how you make the life of a writer remotely cinematic. Writers tend not to have very interesting lives (well, except for maybe Hemingway and Steinbeck); the life of Tolkien, the part for which he is remembered, with him actually putting in the hours and writing out The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and so on, was that of a middle-aged university don sitting in his study every night for years and years. How are you supposed to turn that into a film with any kind of commercial prospects?

Karukowski’s answer to this is to put together a fairly predictable coming-of-age storyline which mostly feels like off-cuts from Dead Poets Society seasoned with a sort of lament-for-doomed-youth vibe, as the bold and bright (and mostly very rich) young lads grow up together before marching off to the trenches. Intercut with this is a conventional romance-against-the-odds plot as Tolkien must overcome his own limited prospects, not to mention Father Transporter Chief’s resistance, and win the woman he truly loves.

You may be thinking ‘this all sounds very generic’ and you would be right. Karukowski’s cunning way of giving all this Added Tolkien Value is load the film with sly little references, mostly to the Jackson films: we see Tolkien the boy playing in a landscape intended to suggest the Shire, and when the family move to Birmingham, it is a dark, hellish vision of looming towers, belching smoke and spouting flame (not sure the Birmingham Tourist Board are going to be wild about the suggestion their city is effectively twinned with either Barad-dur or Isengard). Young Tolkien can’t see a tree outside the window without being inspired to start drawing Ents, and – in the film’s biggest set piece – the feverish young officer witnesses the battle of the Somme and has a vision of dragons and wraiths devastating the British army. All the while on the soundtrack, Thomas Newman is trying to sound as much like Howard Shore as possible without actually being sued. As someone else has said, it is a bit like Shakespeare in Love but without the jokes; if this film were true, it’s not really surprising that Tolkien wrote all those books, it must have been essential therapy for him.

But it’s not true, and it does Tolkien the disservice of suggesting his whole life was essentially preparation for the moment he sat down and wrote the word ‘Hobbit’ for the first time. So much of what made Tolkien such an extraordinary man is entirely absent from the film – his extraordinary facility for language is touched upon, but many telling facts are omitted, perhaps for fear they would make him seem a bit weird: the fact he claimed to recognise archaic Anglo-Saxon upon first encountering it, his habit of referring to the Norman conquest as a relatively recent event, and so on. I’ve seen it suggested that Tolkien felt the Norman conquest essentially destroyed native Anglo-Saxon culture, and that his works were an attempt to provide a substitute for this – ‘how one man, in his lifetime, did the work of nations,’ to paraphrase a quote off the back of my copy of The Silmarillion.

There are moments in the film which do fumble their way towards a more authentic notion of JRR Tolkien – there’s quite a long scene discussing his belief that the words cellar door are the most euphonious sound in the English language, and quite a long section where he and his mentor (Derek Jacobi) discuss trees, which Tolkien loved. They lift the film, but also suggest the possibilities of a much more interesting, but probably more cerebral and less commercial one, which this definitely isn’t: Tolkien is basically the romantic lead throughout, albeit one whose walls appear to be covered with pictures from Peter Jackson’s art department.

That said, the film is as well-mounted as you would expect, in the usual British hats-and-fags way, and it has to be said that Nicholas Hoult does the very best he can with a somewhat unrewarding part. The film clearly admires Tolkien and wants to be respectful towards him, but too often it makes the easy and obvious choices. The result is a good-looking but ultimately rather simplistic film that sometimes seems to be more interested in Tolkien’s books (or, even worse, their film adaptations) than the man himself.

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