Posts Tagged ‘drama’

Ari Aster’s Hereditary, when it came out in 2018, was that unusual thing: a film which clearly announced the arrival of a major talent despite being rather divisive. Many legitimate critics loved it. We (your correspondent, Former Next Desk Colleague, and Olinka) thought it was fairly risible once the credits had finished rolling, but we were all duly impressed by the queasy atmosphere Aster managed to generate. 2019’s Midsommar was genuinely accomplished – Olinka, who is equally passionate about horror movies and psychotherapy, particularly enjoyed it. I haven’t caught up with her for a bit but I imagine she will flip her chips when she eventually sees Aster’s latest film, Beau is Afraid.

The film opens with Beau himself being born (at least, I assume it’s him), which Aster naturally presents as a nightmarishly traumatic experience. (Tone is thus established.) Beau grows up to be Joaquin Phoenix, and a rather nervous and fragile individual. We see him visiting his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson), getting a new prescription, and going back to his apartment. Everything seems calculated to create maximum disquiet and unease, from the violent squalor of the neighbourhood to the fact the building is infested with venomous spiders.

Beau is supposed to be about to visit his mother (Patti LuPone), a successful businesswoman, but a series of bizarre events – basically, his keys mysteriously vanish – force him to cancel the trip. From here, things spiral increasingly out of control, involving mobs of aggressive homeless people, and Beau discovering an urgent family situation he needs to travel to address. Naturally, he ends up running out into the street naked and being hit by a truck.

You know, when I do this capsule synopsis thing, what I’m basically trying is to give you a sense of the initial conditions of the film and then a general sense of where the story ends up going. With Beau is Afraid this is tricky, because this is not a film which sticks to a conventional narrative structure and never goes in the direction you expect it to. There’s something almost (and I hesitate to say this) Kubrickian about the way the film takes the form a number of different episodes, each of them quite different, with no particular connection beyond the fact that they happen to Beau and feature a distinctively grotesque sense of humour. It’s like a very unsettling vision-quest, perhaps, a stream of consciousness journey into everything going on in Beau’s head. The only obvious thing I can compare it to is Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, though it is slightly more measured in its madness, probably conserving its stamina for a truly heroic three-hour run-time.

I’m sure I saw an interview with Ari Aster where he said that, after Midsommar, he would have said everything he wanted to say in the horror genre. This may still be the case, and Beau is Afraid is not genuinely intended as an actual horror film. Or maybe he’s just changed his mind. Certainly he has described the new film as a ‘nightmare comedy’ (also as ‘a Jewish Lord of the Rings‘) and it is shot through with that sense of humour I mentioned up the page – black and twisted though it certainly is. But on the other hand, it’s not what you’d call comfortable viewing – it finds your psychic pressure points and kneads at them relentlessly, and at one point there’s an appearance by a psychosexual monster sufficiently gobsmacking it would even give David Cronenberg pause (probably). You can see why it’s been released as counter-programming to Fast X and The Little Mermaid; what’s genuinely surprising is the fact that anyone honestly thought enough people would want to watch a film this extreme to make a $35 million dollar budget viable.

What makes the film particularly confounding is the fact that it’s very difficult to work out on what level it’s supposed to be functioning. Parts of it are relatively naturalistic, parts seem to be set in a sort of version of the ‘real world’ where certain elements have been heightened for dramatic or comic effect, other parts are so fantastical or surreal that – one assumes – at these points the film has to be operating on some sort of symbolic or allegorical level. And it slips back and forth between these modes without fanfare or signposting. You’re expecting some kind of conclusion where everything resets back to a recognisable analogue of the ordinary, naturalistic world. But it never comes, and after a few final swerves through the realms of melodrama, horror and surreal fantasy the film reaches an end. Perhaps the bizarre wrong-footing-ness of the conclusion is part of the intended effect.

However, this is one of those films which isn’t about what you take away; it’s about the experience of watching it – upsetting, visceral, moving, blackly comic. Most of this comes from a typically committed and intense performance from Joaquin Phoenix, who is on-screen for practically the whole three hours non-stop; the film has come out at the wrong time of year and looks likely to lose money, but this aside it’s the kind of performance that gets award attention. Having already made the comic book movie respectable in terms of being award-worthy, could Phoenix do the same for the horror film?

That said, it is Ari Aster who displays once again an almost casual mastery of composition, sound, and general mise-en-scene. ‘I can’t believe the imagination some people have,’ murmured the only other visible audience member at the screening I attended, as we both sat in the theatre trying to process the experience of the preceding three hours. I’m still not entirely sure of what Beau is Afraid is actually supposed to be about – an exercise in experimental surrealism? A depiction of a mind in crisis as seen from the inside? The answer is not clear, and to be honest the film is almost overwhelming – the sheer length and strangeness of it becomes alienating and exhausting some time before the end. It’s a fascinating experience but also a gruelling and possibly disturbing one. It may indeed be a masterpiece, but I don’t feel qualified to say so with certainty. But it’s definitely a tour de force for both director and star.

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If you talk about British film studios specialising in horror movies from the 60s and 70s, the first name that gets mentioned is invariably that of Hammer; the second is Milton Subotsky’s Amicus (usually on the strength of its portmanteau horrors); and a solid third place usually goes to Tigon Films, if only for Witchfinder General and The Blood on Satan’s Claw. Tigon is the British horror company for cool kids, for whom Hammer is just a bit too mainstream. One potential problem for the easily confused is the existence of another outfit called Tyburn Films, who were operating about the same time as Tigon and making similar sorts of movies, such as The Ghoul and Legend of the Werewolf. And you don’t even have to be that easily confused to confuse Tyburn Films with Tyburn Entertainment, who a few years earlier made what looks very much like a classic British 60s horror film, Doctor Faustus.

Put it this way, it’s a costume drama with a very distinguished lead actor, about a man who gets mixed up in black magic: of course it looks like a classic British 60s horror film. When it turned up on TV a little while ago it was billed as a horror movie; it’s a little tricky to think of what other category it would reasonably go into.

Richard Burton, who also co-directs with Nevill Coghill, plays Faustus, who at the start of the story has just received his doctorate from a German university. Despite his reasonably advanced years, post-graduate study beckons, but what to focus on? What could prove rewarding enough? Motivated, it would seem, primarily by a desire to hang out with naked women, Doctor Faustus opts for the little-known post-graduate qualification in advanced satanism and summons up the Devil’s sidekick Mephistopheles to make the necessary arrangements.

You know the sort of thing: bargain away your soul, sign a contract in your own blood, enjoy youth, wealth, and the life of Riley for a few years and then get dragged off to Hell for eternity when your time is up. It doesn’t sound like a particularly good deal to me, but then I’m sure life was different in medieval Germany and one shouldn’t necessarily rush to judgement. The first part of the film concerns Faustus deciding to take up his new hobby and getting acquainted with Mephistopheles (Andreas Teuber); most of the rest of it is about him enjoying his new powers in various ways and experiencing the odd qualm as the due date on his soul draws closer.

If you think this sounds like a slightly odd plot for a film, you would be right: for this is not so much a film per se as a filmed performance of an adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s play about the Faust legend. Describing it as very, very stagey therefore almost becomes redundant – it really is like watching someone performing Elizabethan drama on the set of a very low-budget Vincent Price film. Quite long stints of it are just comprised of Richard Burton shouting things in Latin.

It’s a bizarre beast, and that impression is only added to by the other major quirk of its production – apart from Burton himself, all the other speaking roles are taken by members of the Oxford University Dramatic Society, based out of Queen’s College (apparently Burton put on the show with these guys shortly before). Most of these people did not go on to great acting careers: if you cheeck out the film’s Wiki page, most of the cast are much more prominent for their academic work (Teuber, for instance, went on to be a professor of Philosophy somewhere in the States). On the other hand, Richard Durden is in it (he’s hardly famous, but he has played bit parts in movies like Scars of Dracula and Batman), and so is Ian Marter (an actor and novelist who died tragically young but is fondly remembered for his association with Dr Who). Even though the cast of this film is essentially just Richard Burton and a gang of amateurs, there’s none of the unevenness you might be expecting – the supporting cast aren’t embarrassing, while Burton (who is, after all, largely directing himself)  isn’t particularly great.

It’s not the greatest film if you’re looking for strong independent women: apart from the group nude scenes which are occasionally inserted, it’s largely men only, the only exception being Elizabeth Taylor, who keeps popping up in different guises as the object of Faustus’ desire. Sometimes she is painted green. Sometimes she is painted silver. What is constant is that she never has any dialogue, and what one is inclined to guess is that she is involved mainly as a favour to Burton to make the film more marketable.

Frankly, Doctor Faustus needs all the help it can get in this department, because everything about it screams vanity project. Take away Burton and Taylor’s star power and all you’re left with is a film primarily of interest to fans of amateur productions of 16th century plays, which is not a particularly significant or sizeable constituency by any stretch of the imagination. This is filmed theatre, and not particularly good theatre – it makes the mistake of trying to tell an obviously theatrical (and thus non-naturalistic) story in the naturalistic mode in which most films operate, with clunky results: at one point Faustus does battle with various worldly kings and only survives due to the immortality granted him by Satan. This is depicted via Burton striding about and declaiming with various obviously fake swords stuck unconvincingly through him. Bits like this are often unintentionally funny; but most of the film is just damned hard work.

It’s hard to imagine anyone other than a theatre student or academic watching this all the way through and finding it a positive and engaging experience. You can sort of imagine how it ended up being made: Richard Burton was often criticised as someone who had the potential to be the Olivier of his generation, but ended up squandering his talent in commercial cinema, and presumably this was his attempt to show that, yes, he really could cut it in a classical theatre production. Maybe as a piece of live theatre this was electrifying stuff, but the filmed version is clunky, slow, and tacky.

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One of the questions you’re left with after watching Chie Hayakawa’s Plan 75 is that of exactly what kind of film this is, because it doesn’t really fit into any obvious category. Is it a socially-conscious drama? A naturalistic piece of dystopian science fiction? A rather unusual horror film? Certainly there are elements of all three going on.

The film is set in Japan in what looks very much like the present day. Japan, as you may know, is blessed with one of the longest life-expectancies in the developed world and afflicted by a problematically-low birth rate; this has created what used to be referred to as a demographic time bomb, as there will eventually be too many elderly people for the younger generation to take care of effectively. The film imagines a situation where this is causing immense social pressures, with spree killings and hate crimes targeting old people becoming a serious issue.

The response of the authorities is Plan 75, a measure deeply rooted in the Japanese traditions of social responsibility and and self-sacrifice. Anyone aged 75 or older can apply to join a scheme where they report to a facility where their life will be quietly and peacefully brought to an end; in return they will receive a grant of about $1000 as a reward, which they can spend on whatever they like (spa days and beauty treatments are mentioned).

Initially the film deals with a number of plotlines in parallel – a Filippino migrant worker (Stefanie Arianne), badly needing money for her child’s medical care, gets a job working at a Plan 75 facility. A young man (Hayato Isomura), whose job is as a junior administrator for the scheme, discovers his estranged uncle has applied to join it. And, most centrally, there is the story of an old but dignified woman, Mishi (Chieko Baisho) – she has no family, and it is getting harder to make ends meet (the implication is that the government is making it harder for older citizens to keep their jobs, presumably to pressure them towards a Plan 75 application). She wants to be a good citizen, naturally, and everyone from the plan whom she speaks to is so friendly and helpful…

The film is shot with an almost documentary-like reserve and lack of sensationalism, but it makes very clear the kind of soft power being wielded by the authorities: Plan 75, they stress, is entirely voluntary and applicants can withdraw from the process at any time. But at the same time, for an older generation which still broadly trusts the authorities, there is an unspoken sense of expectation – given it is supposedly for the good of society, it is surely selfish for an eligible person not to apply for the plan…?

The whole notion of society is at the heart of Plan 75: its nature, its purpose, what is best for it. What’s happening, of course, is that society is being treated as something separate from the people who comprise it – for if anything else were the case, the good of the elderly would be being considered, and the euthanasia of healthy old people can hardly be said to be in their best interests. Or, to put it another way – while the film is initially very detached and non-judgemental, it eventually makes it horribly clear that what Plan 75 is really about is people deemed to have no value being taken somewhere out of the public gaze and quietly gassed to death.

Through some deft slight-of-hand, Hayakawa contrives it so that the moment of realisation that this is what’s happening hits like a hammer. This is a considerable achievement, given the film is up-front about what Plan 75 involves from the start – there’s no ‘Soylent Green is people!’ twist here. The film lays its cards on the table slowly and carefully as the climax approaches – we learn that Plan 75 workers are encouraged to essentially loot the bodies of expired applicants, to reduce the amount of clothing and other personal items to be disposed of (the images of piles of possessions being rummaged through by workers in uniforms has its own historical resonance), while Isomura’s character is perturbed to learn that one of the private sector partners in the running of the scheme is a company specialising in running landfill sites. And for all that the plan is supposedly voluntary, we learn that the staff who interact with applicants are explicitly told to ensure no-one changes their mind.

The grimmest thing about the film is not that it is about what’s essentially an extermination programme, but the fact that it makes it seem so plausible and convincing. Plan 75’s training sessions and office politics are distressingly mundane: everyone involved seems to have mastered that variety of tunnel vision where they concentrate on the specifics of their job and manage not to think about what they’re actually doing. (As a former civil servant involved with the rationalisation of senior care services in a major UK county, this brought back some disquieting memories.) The treatment of the elderly is a long-standing concern of Japanese films (Ozu’s Tokyo Story dealt with the theme seventy years ago) but one can imagine similar scenes playing out in Europe or North America very easily.

Euthanasia is the hook for this film, but it felt very much to me like there was a broader question being asked here, one about how we treat the elderly in general. Just because we don’t gas them and stick their ashes in a landfill it doesn’t necessarily make us saints – I couldn’t help but remember the treatment of people in care homes during the pandemic, and the supposed ‘let the bodies pile high’ declaration from one of the UK’s foremost national disgraces. People are not very good at accepting their own mortality, and this seems to extend to a reluctance to acknowledge that everybody, one day, will get old – with luck, anyway – even us.

Ageing populations are a real problem and it’s fair to say that Plan 75 doesn’t have an alternative answer to offer. But it does a tremendous job of suggesting that there is no such thing as ‘voluntary’ euthanasia, and that the introduction of such a scheme, rather than saving society, is almost certain to brutalise it and everyone involved. This is not a cheerful film, as you would expect, but a very well-made and profoundly humane one.

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There sometimes seems to be a logic involved in choosing what non-English language films get shown in UK cinemas, and the logic – I use the word in a broad and semantically non-useful sense – is that, as most non-English language films turn up in art house cinemas, the people who go to see them are the sort of people who only go to see art house films, regardless of what language they happen to be in. So the non-English language films that score a UK release tend to be non-English language art house films.

This isn’t an iron law, by any means, and there are frequent exceptions to it in certain areas: animation, for one, and documentaries for another. But, outside of films showing in multiplexes for non-native speaker residents (Bollywood musicals and Polish rom-coms and thrillers), genuinely commercial foreign films are thin on the ground in this country.

A rare exception to this tendency comes along in the form of Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch’s The Eight Mountains (Le otto montagne in its native Italian). There is perhaps a touch of artiness about this film, but no more than than in some movies by Ridley Scott and other mainstream directors noted for their visual style; you can certainly imagine the dread spectre of the American studio remake hanging over it.

The story opens in the early 1980s, in a small village in the Italian Alps. Pietro, a young lad from Turin, has been brought here by his parents for the summer – well, by his mother, for his father (Filippo Timi) is an intimidatingly fierce workaholic. The onslaught of progress means that the village is slowly dying – there is only one other child there, Bruno. The two boys become good friends in the course of the summer and Bruno accompanies Pietro and his father on various hikes once the older man arrives.

Despite the strength of their friendship, Pietro has mixed feelings when his parents announce a plan for Bruno to come and live with them in Turin (it will help his education and other prospects) – does he fear being displaced in their affections? Does he enjoy being the urban sophisticate? Whatever the reason, the plan comes to nothing, for Bruno’s absent father vetoes the scheme and takes Bruno off with him to become an apprentice bricklayer.

Pietro and Bruno don’t speak again for nearly twenty years, when they are both in their thirties. (Pietro is now played by Luca Marinelli, while Bruno has turned into Alessando Borghi.) Pietro’s father has died, after a long estrangement with his son, but he has expressed a wish that Bruno renovate a lodge or chalet on land he purchased – it turns out that Bruno and Pietro’s father had developed quite a close relationship, something Pietro himself was completely unaware of. Pietro agrees to help Bruno rebuild the lodge; their friendship is reforged.

This is quite a thoughtful, literary film, based on a novel by Paolo Cognetti; you can probably guess this while you’re watching it, considering how much voice-over Marinelli does. I mention this because it’s onee of those films where there doesn’t feel like there’s a great deal of obvious plot – there’s not a big loud inciting incident where terrorists take over the mountain and the two guys have to fight them off, or a beautiful woman arrives whom they both fall jealously in love with. It’s a film about life – people grow older, their situations change, and this places tensions on long-standing relationships as well as – hopefully – allowing them greater insight into who they and the people close to them really are.

This is not to say that this is one of those arty films where nothing very much happens at all for two-and-a-half-hours; the characters undergo transformations and suffer reversals as they age, and it is absolutely not dull. But it’s a film about life – a very appealing and photogenic kind of life, for the most part, but nevertheless dealing with recognisable themes to do with friendship and family. The main characters are male and it is about the way that men behave and relate to one another, particularly their refusal to open up and share their emotions, the way they can seem driven to act in ways that seem foolish and self-destructive. Even so, it’s nice to come across a film which seems to be generally benevolently disposed towards men collectively and likes having them around. The depiction of male friendship is an affecting one and made me think about my own connections to friends both old and new.

The appeal of them is obviously helped by the spectacular scenery on display most of time: mostly the Italian Alps, but there are also some sequences set near the Himalayas. It’s not quite wall-to-wall mountains, but it’s getting there; I would go far as to suggest this is an unusual Italian entry into the venerable bergfilme genre. Bergfilme is usually associated with Germany and films of this type are about characters who gain wisdom and insight from going up mountains, usually having their relationships tested along the way. Well, this certainly qualifies, although being Italian the characters usually stop for a nice long sit down and a bottle of wine on the way. One of the tensions in the film is between Pietro’s lifestyle, which is very modern and sees him moving from job to job and country to country, and that of Bruno, who feels an almost spiritual calling to become a montanaro and live out his whole life up on the same mountain (this is enabled, at least partly, by his opening an artisanal cheese-making business). In the end it boils down to the question of what constitutes a good life – and does such a question even have an answer?

The story remains engaging and moving to the end, and the film never loses its warmth or beauty – but in the end I think it is perhaps less profound and insightful than it would probably like to be. There is perhaps more than a touch of self-satisfied portentousness about some of the voiceover contributions; sometimes it does feel a bit pleased with itself. Well, it is a very good-looking, well-made and likeable film, so I suppose it has grounds for this; it’s nice to see it getting a UK release.

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There are iron rules of nature which it seems no power in creation can interfere with: it will always rain on a Bank Holiday. No politician will ever admit to a realistic expectation of how they will do at the polls. And, perhaps more agreeably, Jim Broadbent will always be brilliant in anything that he does. In fact, most things are elevated simply by the fact they have Jim Broadbent in them in the first place.

We should bear this in mind as we consider Hettie Macdonald’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. This is Macdonald’s first film made for the cinema, although we should note that over twenty-five years ago a film she made for TV was so well-received it landed a theatrical release. In the meantime she has had a rather good career in quality TV drama and the theatre, directing (amongst other things) one of the Hugo-winning episodes of Dr Who (not a fan). This film started off as a play on Radio 4 before turning into a novel and now a film, all of which have been written by Rachel Joyce (who apparently knew Broadbent back when they were both actors together). So, you know, this isn’t onee of those films which has been just slapped together by first-timers.

Broadbent plays the title role: Harold Fry is a retired brewery manager, living comfortably (if not obviously happily) with his wife Maureen (Penelope Wilton) in South Devon. Harold is the sort of man who puts on a tie and a pullover just to have breakfast; Maureen is desperate to maintain a veneer of uneventful conventionality in all circumstances. So far they seem to be coping with life.

And then Harold receives an unexpected message from a former colleague, one Queenie Hennessy. The news is not good, for Queenie is terminally in a hospice at the other end of the country, up on the Scottish border. Harold does the sort of thing people usually do in this situation – he writes a slightly pusillanimous note of sympathy, fretting slightly about the tone and wording, and then pops off to the shops to post it and buy some milk. But at the shop he hears from the girl on the checkout about how someone else was saved from cancer by the faith and support of their friends and family.

And, we are invited to believe, something clicks in Harold and he resolves to save Queenie’s life by walking to where she is in Berwick-upon-Tweed, starting that very instant and without any supplies or proper training. Maureen is horrified when he rings her up to share the news, though whether this is because it is a fairly major suggestion of dementia, or because it will outrage the neighbours is not quite clear.

Harold pootles steadily northward, gradually wrecking his feet and legs, occasionally stopping for a significant chat with a total stranger. A kindly doctor from eastern Europe (Monika Gossman) gives him first aid and a place to recuperate for a couple of nights. Inevitably he becomes a sort of public figure, an internet sensation that some people are instinctively drawn to. But perhaps all of this is getting in the way of something else, for there is clearly something of deep significance left unresolved in Harold’s life, connected to the son that he and Maureen never really speak of.

So, you know, solid British film industry territory here – biggish star, smallish story, plenty of human interest and nice scenery to look at. Despite this it did rather remind me of one of the most purely American films I’ve seen recently – David Lynch’s The Straight Story, about a slightly cantankerous old man who sets off to visit his sick brother, travelling across the heartlands of America on a motorised lawn mower. British laws are not that big, motorised lawn mowers are much less common here, and so Jim Broadbent has to walk the whole way.

I’m being facetious (just for once) but there is a certain resemblance here, especially in the way that total strangers feel the urge to share their personal secrets, stories and wisdom with Harold Fry (the first of these is played by Claire Rushbrook, which led me to wonder if the whole film was going to be a cavalcade of cameos from familiar faces – it isn’t). This is a more accessible sort of film, in that as it goes on we learn more about Harold Fry and exactly why a man in his seventies would feel compelled to walk five hundred miles to visit a former colleague he clearly hasn’t seen in decades (he doesn’t even seem like much of a Proclaimers fan).

The story is an effective one, and told with grace and restraint, but even so it veers the film off into strikingly dark territory considering this started off looking like a heart-warming story concerning a great British eccentric on a rather Quixotic journey. The film is only a 12A in the UK, but I’d be very wary of watching it with young people – it certainly earns a happy ending, which makes it rather strange that the actual conclusion feels rather muted. There’s no sense of the situation between Harold and Maureen being transformed by his adventures, just a vague sense that now it is over they can return to their routine existence.

Nevertheless, the iron law is still in effect and Jim Broadbent is as brilliant as ever in what is, by his standards, a rather quiet and reactive role – on the surface Fry does seem like a classic Broadbent good-egg character, but as the film continues his demons start to emerge and he becomes more serious and subdued. Penelope Wilton gets a fairly thankless role as the wife whose main job is to disapprove of him, but she does a good job with it.

Even so, the film is perhaps most memorable for its landscapes and scenes of nature; a portrait of Britain in the 2020s which manages to balance sympathy with realism. It has the same restraint here as elsewhere, which is probably for the best – you do get a sense the film is trying to put across a message about the importance of faith, in some sort of non-denominational context. This is the sort of thing that could very easily tilt over into full-blown mawkishness, but the film manages to avoid such a glutinous fate.

In the end it’s a – well, a good film, I suppose, but you do have to buy into the idea of it as some sort of fable or parable, or you may find your disbelief stretched a bit thin. Broadbent is always worth watching, of course, and this is a decent vehicle for his talent. I suppose in the end the word that leaps to mind is worthy: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a worthy outlet for the actor, and a self-consciously worthy piece of film-making in most respects.

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On the long list of things in which I have little to no interest, there are – well, lots of things, obviously, possibly more than on most people’s lists. There’s a whole sport and sports-adjacent area, for one thing – basketball is there, and also athletic footwear. I was forced to play basketball at school for at least a year and the only thing I can remember is breaking a finger, probably, in a botched catch. I do wear athletic shoes, but I’m not dogmatic about brands or anything.

So I am really not the target consumer for Ben Affleck’s Air, which is a film about basketball shoes. I suppose it is a testament to the power of cinema, or possibly my strange and long-standing fixation with Ben Affleck, that I went along anyway, despite the very unpromising subject matter. I suppose the presence of Matt Damon, who has grown into one of the more reliable leading men of the current era, may have had something to do with it too.

Damon plays Sonny Vaccaro, a basketball guru working for the Nike corporation, who make athletic shoes. The film is set in 1984 (cue a great soundtrack of eighties standards), when Nike were selling an awful lot of shoes for running in, but not many shoes for playing basketball in (I wasn’t even aware these were different things, but this is threatening to turn into a litany of ignorance, so I shall just stick to the facts going forward). The whole basketball shoe division is in danger of being wound up unless they can turn things around somehow.

Standard business practice dictates that Nike finds three or four reasonably prominent players to endorse, the problem being that all the superstars – hang on – someone called Magical Johnson, someone else called Larry Birdy, and so on – are signed to other companies that make athletic shoes: Adidas is the name of one of them, Converse is the name of another. And so, despite the misgivings of his line manager (Jason Bateman) and the founder of the company (Affleck), Vaccaro hits upon a new approach – sign only a single player, but ensure that this is someone who will go on to become one of the greatest basketball players of all time. (This sounds like one of those ‘easier said than done’ business plans to me.)

The player that Vaccaro sets his sights upon is named Michael Jordan. I was a bit confused by this as I thought Michael Jordan was a boxer – or, more accurately, he plays a boxer in the Creed films, when he isn’t playing a supervillain for Marvel Studios. But it turns out there are two Michael Jordans and the film is about the other one. The problem is that this other Michael Jordan is not a fan of Nike and is dead set on signing up with Adidas or Nike. So Vaccaro, in defiance of all normal propriety, goes ahead and visits the Jordan family in person, trying to persuade his steely mother (Viola Davis) that the company has something to offer her son. And it does! By one of those remarkable coincidences you sometimes hear about, Nike’s new shoe is actually called the Air Jordan. It’s like a match made in heaven. (Do you have basketball matches or games? ‘A game made in heaven’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.)

So, yes, another example of the benevolent face of cultural hegemony: you try getting a film about Eric Bristow or Steve Davis released in America. Oh well. At least the good news is that Ben Affleck has long been a very capable film director – I might even suggest he’s become a better director than an actor, but that might sound a bit like faint praise considering how horrible I was about him in films like Jersey Girl – and this is a jolly tale of people taking big risks in pursuit of their dream (which is, of course, a very American thing to do) and becoming quite extraordinarily rich as a result (which is a very, very American thing to do). Affleck turns it into such an engaging story you almost forget it’s just about people trying to advertise an athletics shoe company (the film itself, of course, comprises a fairly substantial advertisement).

He is helped by a snappy script with some very funny lines and good performances from all the leading players. Matt Damon’s thing now is that he’s a sort of charismatic everyman, if that makes sense – his performance here isn’t a million miles away from the one he gave in Ford Vs Ferrari, or whatever we’re going to call it, and indeed this is a broadly quite similar story: how a big and successful company became so big and successful. There’s also a nicely underplayed comic turn from Bateman. Affleck himself – well, films with him and Damon both acting in them seem to have adopted a pattern where Damon plays the lead and gives a fairly earnest, naturalistic performance, allowing Affleck to go rather bigger in a supporting role – in this film he has a rather peculiar demi-perm and turns up for several scenes in purple leggings, quoting Buddhist aphorisms as he does so.

Lest you be wondering, the other Michael Jordan does appear as a character, played by Damian Delano Young. But the piece is artfully directed so that most of the time he is just off-screen, or has his back to the camera: presumably because he is just so very famous, apparently, it would be distracting to see him with someone else’s face. The film focuses much more on his mum, whom Davis portrays with her usual skill and presence. (I should also note the appearance of Gustaf Skarsgard as an Adidas executive – it’s getting so new Skarsgards are coming out of the woodwork at a surprising rate, though on the whole they seem a good-natured bunch.)

Being a British person, managed decline is much more my sort of thing than brilliant and sustained success, especially when it comes to the arena of sport. Air is never particularly deep and does seem to presume that the audience a) knows and b) cares who the other Michael Jordan is; the film-makers probably even expect the viewer to share the view that he is possibly one of the greatest people of all time (yes, even greater than Maurice Flitcroft), not just a tall man who was very good at basketball. (But there you go, our civilisation treats sport like war and war like sport.) It’s still a pacy and engaging and above all else enjoyable film, despite the fact it essentially treats the launch of a new athletic shoe as some kind of epoch-making historical event. If much of that is down to the presence of reliable stars like Affleck and Damon – well, all I can say is that they don’t talk about the magic of the movies for nothing.

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One last piece of oddball Arthuriana to close out this particular thread for the time being – not just something I sought out as part of my general research in this area, but a TV show I would actively have watched regardless of the situation, mainly because I have fond memories of its original broadcast back in the summer of 1988. The show is called The One Game, written by John Brown and directed by Mike Vardy, and it resurfaced last year on Armed Forces TV (of all places) before that channel vanished from the EPG (a real shame as it was something of a treasure-trove for slightly culty shows from the 1980s and 1990s).

The show’s setting is very much of the 1980s and it probably constitutes another entry into the yuppie-in-peril genre which was briefly popular at the time. Our main character is Nick Thorne (Stephen Dillane), a successful entrepreneur with a fairly abrasive personal style. He has made a fortune out of computer games through his company, Sorcerer, even if this has come at the cost of his marriage breaking up. (Playing his ex-wife is Pippa Haywood, who must have been making a ton of residuals from AFTV at one point last year – it was also showing Chimera (where she’s a dodgy geneticist) and The Brittas Empire (where she’s the main character’s wife).)

But trouble is brewing, as a shadowy figure from Nick’s past has resurfaced – his former friend and mentor Magnus (Patrick Malahide). It was Magnus’ genius as a designer of games that got Nick started, but Nick discarded Magnus and his ideals when material success arrived, eventually having him committed. But now he is back, determined to destroy Nick – or at least teach him a lesson. His method of doing this is something called the One Game, a ‘reality game’ a bit like a cross between an escape room and LARPing (a very similar concept shows up in movies like The Game and Game Night – the titles are a bit of a giveaway). Magnus hires someone to hack into Nick’s accounts and steal all his money just before he’s due to pay all the people he licenses games from, leaving him only a few days to complete the game and – in theory – rescue his company…

Just for a bit of variety, there are some other storylines going on as well – for added motivation, Magnus has kidnapped Nick’s ex-wife, so we get to see her various attempts to escape (she also gives Magnus someone to talk to). Meanwhile, Nick’s financial advisor (David Mallinson) is doing his best to put together a rescue package to stop the company going bankrupt, which involves apparoaching combative tycoon Lord Maine (a nice role for the great Andrew Keir), a man who treats business as a substitute for war.

You’re probably thinking that this doesn’t sound especially Arthurian, and on paper it isn’t, but when you actually watch the thing it is clearly part of a lineage of shows camping out on the borderline between realistic drama and fantasy – ‘non-naturalistic drama’ is as good a name as any for this sort of thing, I suppose. The opening credits depict characters and scenes in the style of an illustrated medieval manuscript, while (to quote Wikipedia) ‘Welsh-sounding gibberish’ is sung over the top of it. Many of the various challenges flung into Nick’s path have a partly or wholly medieval feel to them – motorbike jousting, for instance, or broadsword fighting.

However, the main giveaway comes partway through the first episode, where the hacker Magnus has hired decides to increase his profit margin by robbing him at knifepoint. Magnus calmly puts his hands up, wiggles his fingers – and the knife vanishes from his assailant’s hand and appears in his own. (Achieved via a very neat practical effect, in case you were wondering.) This comes just after it is revealed that one of the passwords to get into Nick’s accounts is ‘Wizards’, reversed. Magnus is, it is implied, a genuine wizard; one of his allies is named Fay (played by the very easy on the eye Kate McKenzie).

The makers of the series have confirmed that the starting point for the story was ‘what if King Arthur, having achieved the throne, told Merlin to get lost?’, which is a moderately interesting idea – and why not do it as a story set in the present-day computer games industry? There is potential here for the exploration of some interesting ideas, not least the loss of innocence involved in the games industry becoming more successful and corporate – it’s revealed that, back in the 1970s, a young Nick was running a Friendly Local Games store where everyone sat around reading Tolkien and (probably) playing white-box Dungeons and Dragons – a slight oddity to the series is that actual table-top role-playing games are never referenced, mentioned, or even alluded to, which may be because of the Satanic Panic, but then again may be down to something else entirely.

The problem is that we never get a sense that young, poor Nick was in any way a better man than successful, selfish present-day Nick, nor that the process of losing nearly everything and undergoing the various ordeals of the game does much to help him reform as a character. The show is strong on visual impact and quirkiness but the characterisation is clumsy and sluggish, to say the least. Most of the plot is quite linear – Nick goes through the motions of playing one game after another – but it all gets a bit obscure at the end, when it is revealed Nick didn’t just have Magnus put away, there was an incident with a drowning or a near-drowning which he also needs to take responsibility for…

In the end it comes across not entirely unlike a medieval-themed homage to Theatre of Blood, with Malahide in the Vincent Price role, getting his own back through the different games Nick is forced to play. It doesn’t have that film’s style or sense of humour; it’s all played very seriously indeed. Like I say, it’s all very late-1980s. As an earnest teenager I found it quite captivating (the lack of genuine fantasy shows on TV at the time probably also helped its cause) – coming back to it these days, it’s a marginally competent drama which isn’t nearly as stylish or impactful as it seems to think it is. Some good bits, but probably not enough to be worth watching if you don’t have fond memories from the original broadcast.

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We are in a bleak desert under a clear sky; there are ruins, and what appears to be some scaffolding. Faintly ominous music, with twanging electric guitars, rises; the camera roams around the ruins. The tempo increases as the appearance of a plume of dust heralds the arrival of a battered second-hand bus. People whom we can not unjustifiably describe as a bunch of hippies pile off the bus and start unloading costumes and props, almost instinctively separating into different cliques as they do so; one member of the group (Carl Anderson) watches all of this with mounting unease, eventually walking away from the others entirely. Finally, one man (Ted Neeley) is apparently singled out for the adoration of the others, and dressed in a white robe. The music rises, the overture finishes, and we are watching Norman Jewison’s 1973 adaptation of Lloyd-Webber and Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar.

I must confess to having a long and somewhat peculiar association with this particular show and the movie based on it. I have what you might call a faith-based background, which in my youth extended to amateur theatre, especially at Easter. For some reasons the songs from this particular film were judged especially suitable for incorporation into my local church productions, which is why some of the songs inevitably summon up images in my mind of performances by school caretakers and retired electricians in glued-on beards.

Nevertheless, we still had the soundtrack album in the house and the film itself turned up on TV most years; initially I was rather thrilled by its daring non-naturalism (we shall come back to this), but as the years went by I learned to appreciate the qualities of the songs and the performances. Nowadays it is without a doubt my favourite religiously-themed film, and the only film about the Easter story that I have any real affection for.

Usually I would say that we don’t need to worry too much about doing a synopsis for the story on this occasion… but then again perhaps we do. My understanding is that, while looking around for a new project, Rice and Lloyd-Webber hit upon the idea of doing a show called Judas Iscariot, an attempt to rehabilitate a Biblical figure with something of an image problem. They moved on from this fairly quickly, but you can see the vestiges of the concept in the way the film is structured. Judas (Anderson) gets the opening and closing numbers, after all, and it is these which set out the film’s rules of engagement.

Jesus Christ Superstar is not wholly a religious film, although if you are a person of faith you can certainly view it in that way. Instead, it is much more preoccupied with the personal and the political, as Judas makes clear in the film’s first big song, ‘Heaven On Their Minds’: he is a social activist, a fiercely angry man. He is filled with deep disquiet at the cult of personality he sees springing up around his friend Jesus, concerned at the possibility of reprisals from the local and imperial authorities. But Jesus doesn’t see it quite the same way, to Judas’ frustration and resentment.

If one takes Judas’ worldly perspective and discounts the possibility of Jesus actually being a supernatural figure, then Judas becomes a much more sympathetic figure than is usually the case; he is given a personality and motivations largely missing from Biblical accounts. (Indeed, the film has much in common with the apocryphal Gnostic Gospel according to Judas, which also attempts to set the story straight.) The great success of Jesus Christ Superstar lies in the way it succeeds in bringing to life characters who tend to be rather one-dimensional in most tellings of this story – mainly Jesus and Judas, but to a lesser extent also Mary Magdalene (Yvonne Elliman) and Pontius Pilate (Barry Dennen) – it was Dennen who first interested Jewison in doing a film of this show, after giving him a copy of the original album while they were working together on Fiddler on the Roof.

It’s a very interesting take on the material which synergises extremely well with the non-naturalistic telling of the story. The device of the play-within-the-film is more or less adhered to (although there’s a sequence in which Judas is pursued across the desert by the tanks of the Israeli army, who didn’t appear to be on the bus at the start), and there’s a hip sort of anachronism going on – Roman soldiers wear shiny chrome helmets and carry Uzis, the merchants at the temple are selling cannabis. Then again, the general sensibility of the film is very much of the Age of Aquarius, the songs showing influences ranging from heavy metal to comic ragtime pastiche.

The most important thing with a musical, of course, is whether the songs are any good. Well, I think Jesus Christ Superstar has more than its share of bangers, which is all the more impressive considering it is sung-through and the songs have to do most of the storytelling. Carl Anderson is without a doubt the funkiest Iscariot in cinema history, delivering killer performances of his two big numbers, while I think Ted Neeley is just as good as Jesus – I know some people consider him the worst Jesus in cinema history, but I can’t imagine why: his big solo song is probably ‘Gethsemane’, which he absolutely nails. Elsewhere there are songs like ‘Could We Start Again, Please?’, as lovely an expression of regret as one could hope to hear, and ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’, which has a melody so beautiful it travelled back in time from Lloyd-Webber’s mind and ended up in a Mendelsohn concerto.

You might consider all of this a bit irreverent, possibly even inappropriately so. (There’s certainly a line about the Prophet Mohammed in one of the songs it would take a brave man to write nowadays.) Some Christian groups have accused the film of verging on the heretical, given its readiness to challenge the way these characters are traditionally presented, and its ambiguous approach to the more supernatural elements of the story. The film depicts the crucifixion but not the resurrection, and ends with a curiously obscure coda: the cast, back in their original clothing, board the bus to depart – only Dennen, Elliman and Anderson noticing that Neeley has seemingly disappeared. But if nothing else this is true to the apparent conception of the film, which was to make something which, while not an explicitly Christian film, is certainly a sympathetic one. Certainly it has moments which are genuinely poignant and moving, unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a standard Biblical epic.

(Of course, if we’re talking about 1973 films about what is essentially a religious sacrifice, with a strong musical element, then we’re obliged to mention Jesus Christ Superstar in the same breath as The Wicker Man. This really is a sacriligious idea, of course – and yet I don’t think it’s as much of a stretch as it sounds. There’s the music, the ambiguous – or at least unresolved – ending, and a strangely similar moment in which the protagonist receives their role and is garbed as such by the rest of the cast. Of course it could just be me.)

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Opinion is, of course, divided when it comes to the question of what William Shatner’s greatest acting performance is. Some people will tell you it is his well-nigh thirty year stint (on and off) as James Tiberius Kirk, starship commander, debunker of fake deities, deliverer of many a knuckle sandwich, and Don Juan of the Alpha Quadrant. Others will suggest that Shatner’s real magnum opus is the performance he’s been doing since at least the 1970s, as William Shatner, genially quirky self-publicist, self-parodist, and musical innovator. (Plus he did T. J. Hooker for a few years in the 1980s.)

Shatner is such a big personality, and Kirk is such a massive pop-cultural colossus, that it’s easy to forget that he had any kind of significant acting career away from Star Trek (I’m not sure T. J. Hooker meets the notability criterion). But in addition to turning up as the bad guy in episodes of Columbo and Mission Impossible, and doing a couple of Twilight Zone episodes (one very well-remembered), there was a period when William Shatner seemed to be on the verge of genuine movie stardom – this was pre-Trek, of course. Shatner’s in Judgement at Nuremberg, and plays one of the title roles in the well-received Hollywood version of The Brothers Karamazov. (Mind you, he’s also in the Esperanto-language horror movie Incubus, so maybe not.) And he also made a film with Roger Corman, variously called The Intruder, Shame, The Stranger and I Hate Your Guts.

(I’ve been playing with that ChatGPT thing that everyone’s been talking about and asked it to do the research for this review – friends, I have found the Achilles heel of the singularity, and it is Roger Corman-William Shatner movies. First it tried to tell me this was an LGBTQ+ themed film with Shatner as a young man wrestling with his sexuality, and then it suggested he played the Jack Nicholson part in The Terror. Even after I corrected it, it was trying to push a completely wrong plot synopsis on me, including the fact that a key black character was played by a white actress. On this evidence, Judgement Day is still a while off.)

Spanish poster for the film. If I were Bill Shatner I’d probably feel this wasn’t a great likeness.

It’s called The Intruder here in the UK, even if the print they showed last time it turned up on TV had the title I Hate Your Guts in the credits. Directed by Corman from a script by Charles Beaumont, based on his only novel, Shatner plays Adam Cramer, a smooth operator who arrives via bus in the small town of Caxton somewhere in Deep South, USA. Cramer claims to be working in race relations, but it fairly quickly becomes clear that this is in the same sense that the operator of a wrecking ball works in the field of architecture – he is here to foment trouble and create conflict.

This being the early 60s, anti-segregation laws have just come into force meaning that the town’s coloured teenagers can now attend the same high school as their white brethren. No-one seems to like this much, but as it is the law, they are not initially going to cause a stink over it. Until Cramer gets to work, securing the patronage of a local tycoon (Robert Emhardt) and making a rabble-rousing speech (it rather strikes me that some of Cramer’s lines here have more recently resurfaced in the rhetoric of a recently-indicted old man with a big house in Florida – if this is evidence of The Intruder being at all prescient or tapping into universal truths about human nature, it doesn’t make the film any easier to watch).

Soon the local black church has been bombed and the pastor killed, and the local newspaper editor (Frank Maxwell) beaten and maimed after he overcomes his instinctive dislike of the idea of racial mixing and realises the alternative inevitably leads somewhere far worse. Cramer starts working on his big play – a false accusation of rape against a black teenager (Charles Barnes), which will inevitably lead to his lynching by an angry mob…

That’s the thing about Roger Corman – the guy may have his name on a lot of films with names like Swamp Women and Attack of the Crab Monsters, but given half a chance there’s an intelligence and even a social conscience which  there he is more than happy to give expression to in some fairly unlikely places. The Intruder is perhaps one of the purest examples of this, as while it’s certainly a proficiently-made movie, it’s virtually all medicine with not much sign of any sugar. You have to give Corman some credit for wanting to make a movie about the civil rights struggle, especially considering he and his brother part-funded it themselves, but this is really quite heavy-going stuff, melodramatic and obvious. Shades of grey are thin on the ground and the black characters are generally saintly and thinly-written; the only interesting characters are Adam Cramer and the editor.

One inevitably what wonders what a Jewish actor like William Shatner made of playing a character who’s a borderline Nazi here – at one point we see him driving along in a convertible surrounded by men in Klan hoods. Nevertheless, it’s a charismatic and convincing performance, almost completely unlike Kirk but still extremely Shatnerish somehow. The movie was written by Beaumont during the same period he was a prolific contributor to The Twilight Zone (Beaumont also appears in the film, as the high school principal), and it initially looks like it’s going to be one of those stories about a mysterious stranger who eventually turns out to be Satan or Hitler’s ghost or someone like that. That would have worked reasonably well in this kind of story, especially given the heavy-handed treatment it gets here – but Adam Cramer turns out to be all too human and flawed, ultimately undone by his own personality flaws. It’s not tremendously satisfying, but you can see why they might want to keep the film more grounded.

And in the end it’s a worthy film, certainly with its heart in the right place, and deserving of some credit simply for that. The weird thing is that its attempts to address this topic head-on, in a relatively hard-hitting way, make it distinctly uncomfortable to watch now: the ceaseless use of various racial epithets never quite stops being uncomfortable, and probably explains why the film scores an 18 certificate under the current UK system even though it contains little explicit violence or sex. But it is, in every sense, heavy – it doesn’t feel intended to entertain at all, merely to preach to and even hector the viewer. Shatner is pretty good, and Roger Corman does his usual capable job as director, but this is mainly a curiosity watch.

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Sometimes it rather feels as if one of the main consequences of the pandemic, in cultural terms, has been to knock the film release schedule back a few years, so we’re currently encountering a slew of sequels that it feels have perhaps missed their natural moment – there’s another John Wick imminent, for instance, a Mission Impossible, and a further episode of Transformers on the way. And currently there’s Creed III, directed by and starring Michael B Jordan. Anyone watching Creed II back at the end of 2018 would probably have felt there was a good chance of another sequel – if there’s one thing you can be sure of about a film in the Rocky franchise, it’s that a sequel is probably going to happen  – but if you’d told them it would take nearly five years to arrive, this would have been more of a surprise.

The present-day section of the film opens with second-generation boxing legend Adonis Creed (Jordan) flattening an old enemy from the original film before retiring with dignity and many of his brain cells still intact. Having gracefully transitioned into the fight promotion game and spending more time with his family, he is therefore a little surprised to find himself approached one day by a figure from his past – Dame Anderson (middle name Judith, I fervently hope), who many years earlier was his room-mate when they were in care together, and was a talented boxer who was one of Creed’s early trainers (they make a big fuss about Dame being older than Creed, but Jonathan Majors, who plays him, is three years younger than Jordan).

Flashbacks gradually reveal that the youthful Creed got into a fight with a man who abused him, and the escalation of this – I’m being a bit vague to avoid accusations of spoilers – resulted in Dame going to prison for nearly two decades while Adonis got off scot free. Now Creed has immense prestige and material success, while Dame has nothing but a ferocious ambition to prove himself a great fighter. In short, Dame resents Creed for supposedly stealing his life, and will do anything to get what he believes he deserves. This being a Rocky film, it can end only one way – but while Dame certainly has the eye of the tiger, has Creed sold all his passion for glory?

Well, I say it’s a Rocky film, but Sylvester Stallone is notably absent from the screen (he’s still credited as a producer and for originating the series’ characters). Could it be that Rocky has actually died between movies? There’s nothing to indicate an answer one way or another, beyond the simple and surprising fact of his absence throughout. I suppose the film works well enough without him, but if Creed III doesn’t feel quite as resonant as the previous episodes it’s probably because it’s less connected to the original run of films. This doesn’t mean it’s a radical departure, inasmuch as the plot eventually resolves in the time-honoured fashion of someone knocking someone else out in the twelfth round of the climactic boxing match.

Is this is flaw or a genre convention? It’s a valid question, I think – most genre films are predictable, after all, but almost every Rocky and Creed film resolves in exactly the same way – two guys in a boxing ring pummelling away at each other. You don’t just know who’s going to win, you also have a very good idea of exactly how they’re going to do it. (NB Yes, I know that Rocky doesn’t technically win in Rocky or Rocky VI, but the point still stands if you swap in ‘does unexpectedly well’.) As ever, it’s about how they manage it, and director Jordan comes up with an interestingly arty method of dodging the usual mid-bout montage sequence – he’s helped by the fact that the story and performances are sufficiently engaging to involve you in what’s going on regardless of whether or not it’s a bit predictable.

The deeper issue with these films is that, whatever their moral premise and the character development of their protagonist, they are obliged to resolve via the protagonist beating someone repeatedly about the head and body. This was my issue with Rocky IV, which we talked about a few months ago – to begin with it looks like the film will be about having enough wisdom and self-knowledge to walk away from a pointless fight, before actually turning out to be about a sort of man’s-gotta-do-what-a-man’s-gotta-do reflexive machismo, concluding with a pointless fight (or what would be a pointless fight if it didn’t mark the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Maybe).

With Creed III the underpinnings of the plot are murkier : the initiator for the story is Creed’s sense of obligation towards Anderson, a need to make things right. And this seems like the right thing to do – it absolutely looks like Creed does owe him some kind of restitution. So all the trouble that ensues basically comes from the hero trying to do the right thing. Is the lesson he’s supposed to learn in the course of the film that doing the right thing is a mistake? It’s a tricky problem which the film attempts to get around by making Dame a compelling, complex antagonist and someone who is clearly ungrateful for the help he’s offered – which works, but only up to a point.

The film’s ace card is Jonathan Majors, anyway, who comes strikingly close to bulldozing Michael B Jordan off the screen. From the moment he comes on, you’re never in doubt that this is guy who is just not right somehow – he’s broken somewhere inside, and while there may occasionally be a smile on his face he is dead behind the eyes. There’s something of Mike Tyson in Majors’ portrayal, but the actor finds a way of turning him into a real person rather than just a cartoon villain. He’s certainly the most memorable franchise villain since Dolph Lundgren, and perhaps the best-performed of them all.

The rest of the film is competent and polished enough, if perhaps a bit too programmatic in places (all of Creed’s problems and heartbreaks come to a head around the two-thirds point with almost metronomic precision). The supporting performances are fine, with a few old faces from previous entries showing up (one notes that Florian Munteanu has dropped his ‘Big Nasty’ nickname – pity). There is perhaps one crucial bit of exposition which rattles past a bit too swiftly (the audience is required to recognise a photo of a character whom we’ve only seen fleetingly in one prior scene), but by this point the general arc of the storyline is not in any real doubt either way. It’s a solid and enjoyable film, even if it doesn’t have quite the same punch as the previous one. There may be a few more movies yet to come in this series.

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