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Posts Tagged ‘drama’

I have a confession to make: I sometimes struggle to tell my McDonaghs apart. I like both of the brothers, John and Martin, which is another way of saying I like the great majority of their films, which include Calvary, The Guard, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Seven Psychopaths, War on Everyone, and In Bruges. However – and please imagine blushing sheepishness appearing on the countenance of your correspondent – if you put a gun to my head and asked me to tell you which were made by John and which were made by Martin, I would almost certainly struggle. They’re both fond of casting Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, their films have a tendency to turn into darkly witty black comedies… do you begin to see the problem?

Having said all that, John has a new film out which doesn’t quite fit that description (while Martin’s imminent one, The Banshees of Inisherin, is apparently a black comedy-drama starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, so it’s entirely congruent with the McDonagh intersection zone). John McDonagh’s new film is The Forgiven, based on a novel by Lawrence Osborne, which in turn was apparently based on true events (this seems to be a bit tricky to pin down).

It certainly has a very literary sort of feel about it, although to be honest I was expecting to discover it was an adaptation of a book from the 1930s – many things about this tale of dissolute Europeans taking their leisure in Morocco have a vintage touch to them, from the names and attitudes of many of the characters to the string-backed driving gloves which prominently feature in a few key moments. But no: it is set in the present day, complete with jokes about Twitter and odd pop-cultural references (one of which seems likely to earn the Terry Nation estate a few quid: everything is indeed connected, but it’s sometimes odd to be reminded of the fact).

Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain play David and Jo Henninger, an affluent English couple – he is a doctor, she is a moderately successful children’s author – travelling to Morocco to attend a party being held by their wealthy acquaintance Dickie Galloway (Matt Smith) at his palatial desert home. The fellow guests are artists, writers, nobility, sleekly prosperous Americans, together with a swarm of interchangeably glamorous young women, all waited on by an army of Moroccan servants. It does sound rather like the premise of an Agatha Christie novel – the only element of doubt being, who is going to end up murdered?

The twist proves to be that the Henningers arrive having brought their own dead body with them – on a desert road, just outside the estate, they struck and killed a young Arab man apparently only seeking to sell them a fossilised trilobite. (We see the moments before the accident, but for a long time only hear the Henningers’ account of what actually happened.) Henninger pays a sort of lip-service to remorse, but denies any real culpability, despite having had a few drinks before setting out; Jo seems more genuinely concerned about the loss of a young life.

The couple get on with trying to enjoy their weekend, even though word has got around and David is pelted with stones by the local kids while out riding. Dickie does his best to smooth things along with the local police: the subtext to all of this is that one poor local boy is of very little consequence compared to the convenience of Dickie and his assembled guests. Then the boy’s father (Ismael Kanater) materialises out the desert, stone-faced, implacable, demanding that Henninger do the right thing – if nothing else, accompany the father and the body back to their home village for the funeral. It will mean a trip deep into the desert, in the company of strangers who have every reason to wish him ill…

There is something faintly stylised and self-consciously emblematic about The Forgiven from the start – it’s always clear that this is meant to be more than just a story about a clash between cultures and social strata. This never quite topples over into outright clumsiness, but one might still wish for McDonagh to have exercised a slightly lighter touch in both his writing and direction. For a while it’s not clear what the film is going to be about, beyond a forensic portrait of the filthy rich at play in all their awfulness – David Henninger is a self-justifying racist alcoholic, and many of the others are very nearly as bad. (This is a rare example of a film which has earned an 18 certificate in the UK despite not including graphic violence or sexual content – the reason given is the inclusion of drug abuse, but I suspect some extremely strong language and bigoted attitudes will also have played a part in this.)

But the film proves to be something a bit more thoughtful and humane: Henninger sets off into the desert half-expecting the worst, certainly to have cash extorted out of him. But the experience he has exposes new sides to his character, while at the same time the fun and games at Dickie’s mansion are perhaps showing Jo in a new light. The guests continue to thrash about in a swamp of their own moral turpitude, while deeper issues of moral responsibility, retribution and justice are explored far away.

In the end it’s a relatively simple story, though it doesn’t always feel that way at the time: McDonagh has turned it into a thoughtful, very good-looking film, and something of a rarity these days – a serious drama obviously intended for a grown-up audience. The cast respond to this by contributing a strong set of performances, all showing just how good they can be given the right material. Said Taghmaoui is particularly impressive in a relatively small role as an Arab driver who gradually comes to befriend Fiennes’ character; not being having to play someone who is required to symbolise something probably helps his cause a bit.

Some of the film’s oddities eventually prove somewhat explicable – McDonagh opt to open the film by running virtually the entire set of credits over footage of the Henningers arriving in Morocco, but this is mainly to facilitate the ending of the film through a powerful coup de theatre. Others prove a little harder to decode. But the end result is an impressive drama, more measured and less cheerfully provocative than many of his other films. I’m not sure I’ll be putting The Forgiven on as a piece of entertainment in quite the same way that I do The Guard, but this is still a fine piece of film-making.

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1. A Tour Bus, en route to Cornwall, 2011. Possibly a Thursday.

JIM (James Purefoy) and his fellow singing Cornish fishermen are heading home at the end of a gruelling tour.

JIM: ‘Morning lads. Here we all are again. Seeing as how the last film did so well, they’ve got us all back again to do a follow-up.’

LEADVILLE TREBILCOCK (Dave Johns): ‘What, all of us, Jim?’

JIM: ‘Well, not quite all of us, Leadville (your name is completely ridiculous, by the way), as some of the younger actors from last time round either didn’t want to come back or wanted too much money. So their characters have gone off to Australia for a holiday which will conveniently last for the entire movie.’

FISHERMEN: ‘Arrr.’

JIM’S GHOSTLY DAD: ‘However, I will be appearing in this film, despite my death being a major plot point in the last one. I am proud to say I was both willing and cheap.’

JIM: ‘I’m quite sad about my dead dad, which could well turn out to be a plot point.’

LEADVILLE: ‘I have just outraged a metropolitan female journalist with my rough-hewn but authentic Cornish humour, which may also have some story potential. Let’s see how it turns out.’

SINGING CORNISH FISHERMEN: ‘We’ve made this film with care and skill, though there is a possibility / That you’ll notice problems that we had with cast availability.’

 

2. Record Company Offices, London, which is depicted as just as horrible as in the first one, though I bet the producers still love living there.

The president and various other executives sit around smugly.

PRESIDENT (Ferdy from This Life back in the 90s, but he seems to be turning into Alan Partridge): ‘Well, here we all are, doing our best to represent the metropolitan shallowness and insincerity which is the opposite of what those singing fishermen embody, just like last time.’

RECORD EXECUTIVE: ‘Weren’t you Noel Clarke last time around?’

There is a lengthy and awkward silence.

PRESIDENT: ‘Anyway. This film needs some conflict so I am going to decide that the singing fishermen are a bit of a liability due to their rough-around-the-edges authenticity.’

RECORD EXECUTIVE: ‘Won’t that just turn us into ridiculous stereotypes of mirthless politically correct killjoys out of touch with so-called normal people?’

PRESIDENT: ‘Yes, but it’s in the script.’

 

3. A house in Cornwall.

LEADVILLE: ‘Well, I’ve just been to the toilet during a conference call with hilarious results, not the least of which is that we’ve all had to do media training with an absurd straw-man caricature of a soulless feminist.’

JIM: ‘You’ve got a funny idea of what’s hilarious, Leadville. Thank God, however, the film seems to have abandoned the idea of being some kind of culture-war vehicle for an assault on political correctness and wokedom and whatever else the right-wing media will like to keep banging on about in the distant year of 2022.’

LEADVILLE: ‘So what is it going to be about this time?’

JIM: ‘Well, I’ve got a mysterious Irishwoman staying in my B&B who clearly has a bit of a past.’

YOUNG FISHERMAN: ‘I’ve been slung out by my partner over a misunderstanding about something that happened on the tour.’

LEADVILLE: ‘We need to find a replacement for your dead dad in the band, and it looks likely to be a Welsh farmer who you will hate for political reasons the script will avoid going into.’

JIM: ‘I’m still clearly grieving for my dead dad and drinking too much because of it.’

LEADVILLE: ‘It’s a bit all over the place this time around, isn’t it? It almost makes you wish for a trite and hackneyed tale of a metropolitan visitor discovering about The Important Things in Life.’

JIM: ‘What did you say? There’s a lot of stuff in this film I’m struggling to find rhymes for.’

SINGING FISHERMEN: ‘A film without much focus / Will now occur before your eyes. / With Cornish farmers getting stick / Because their trade is subsidised.’

JIM: ‘Also Welsh farmers who happen to live in Cornwall, of course.’

 

4. Another house in Cornwall.

JIM is talking to AUBREY (Imelda May), the mysterious Irishwoman.

JIM: ‘… and so now the film has turned out to be about me having a sort of personal crisis, hitting the bottle, falling out with the band, and neglecting my grand-daughter. If only there was someone around here who could teach me about the pitfalls of fame.’

AUBREY: ‘Well, as it happens, I am actually a reclusive ex-rock star who has been there and done that and has lots of quiet wisdom to share. Also, while I am still young enough to be attractive, I am old enough for the two of us to get it on and it not to seem icky or inappropriate.’

JIM: ‘Oh. Shall we get it on, then?’

AUBREY: ‘May as well.’

SINGING FISHERMEN (over scenic shots of Cornish coastline): ‘Now with her help our good friend Jim will climb back on the wagon / Just as soon as the pair of them are finished with their sha… ring of their emotional baggage.’

 

5. Yet another house in Cornwall.

JIM’S MUM (Maggie Steed): ‘All this emotional growth and late-life romance is all very well but it’s not helping us find a climax for the movie.’

LEADVILLE: ‘I think there was an implied climax in the last scene.’

WELSH FARMER: ‘Well, the band’s been dropped by the label due to Jim’s wild behaviour, will that help?’

JIM’S MUM: ‘Perhaps, if it turns out we can only persuade them to re-sign us by finding a way to play at Glastonbury.’

YOUNG FISHERMAN: ‘And maybe you and Jim’s grand-daughter can have a moment of personal jeopardy which brings everyone together and reminds Jim of what The Important Things in Life are.’

JIM’S MUM: ‘I’m game.’

WELSH FARMER: ‘And how about a trip down to London to sing for the record company executives on an almost wholly spurious pretext?’

LEADVILLE: ‘Sounds like pretty desperate padding to me, but if it’s all we’ve got…’

SINGING FISHERMEN: ‘We’ve got a pretty dodgy script / It’s hardly writ’ by Schiller / There really would be nothing left / If you took out all the filler.’

 

6. Glastonbury festival 2011, though nobody famous is ever visible.

JIM: ‘Well, here we are at the end of the film at last, about to perform at Glastonbury.’

LEADVILLE: ‘How come the film implies we’re performing in the afternoon, when actually we were the first band on in the morning?’

JIM: ‘Oh, I’ve given up worrying about this script, I get the impression the writers did too.’

YOUNG FISHERMAN: ‘So what moral premise and lesson has this film been attempting to impart? Something about the importance of authenticity and old-fashioned values in an over-sophisticated and over-sensitive world dominated by snowflakes?’

JIM: ‘No, thank God, though it seemed like a near thing for a bit.’

WELSH FARMER: ‘Something about the plight of the Cornish economy, particularly the fishing industry?

JIM: ‘Bit too political.’

YOUNG FISHERMAN: ‘Well, how about that you felt really sad when your dad died and struggled to cope, but thanks to your friends and family you eventually got through it?’

JIM: ‘I suppose that’ll have to do.’

LEADVILLE: ‘Pretty slim basis for a movie, though.’

ALL PRESENT: ‘Arrr.’

SINGING FISHERMEN: ‘The last film did extremely well, so they’ve gone and made a sequel / Here’s the main thing we have to tell: the quality is faecal!’

Fisherman’s Friends – One and All (dir. Nick Moorcroft and Meg Leonard) is, at the time of writing, still taking up perfectly good screens in cinemas all over the UK. Don’t go near it, you’ll only encourage them.

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Being an international figure is all very well, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that you’re viewed the same way all over the world. My assumptions on this topic took a well-deserved whacking a few years ago when I was discussing politics with a bunch of NGO officials in the Kyrgyz Republic. Not surprisingly, recent Euro-Asian history came up and the way in which different politicians are viewed – and I mentioned in passing the positive opinion of Mikhail Gorbachev which still prevailed at that point. To my surprise, mention of his name was greeted, if not quite with bared teeth and snarls, certainly a real chilliness. Many citizens of the former USSR, especially those sections which have not prospered, viewed and still view Gorbachev as very nearly a traitor. Nevertheless, he was and remains an iconic figure in recent history and culture, and perhaps it is here we may discover a hint as to what it was that motivated and inspired him.

Very little about Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky IV (originally released in 1985, not long after Gorbachev had come to power) indicates that this was a big-budget prestige project, not least the way that it opens (after a daft moment where US and USSR-themed boxing gloves bang into each other and explode) with a lengthy reprise of the end of Rocky III, wherein Stallone puts the beatdown on Mr T and bonds sweatily with his friend and rival Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers).

Various slightly bemusing scenes of the extended Balboa family at leisure ensue: sentimental not-quite-comedy, mostly focusing on Rocky’s grumpy brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young). The main hook for these moments is Rocky’s birthday present to Paulie: a wobbling, chrome-plated, mantis-headed domestic robot, like something out of a gimmicky sitcom. To say these scenes strike a very peculiar note is an understatement.

Luckily, the main plot is soon in session, with the arrival in the USA of enormous Soviet android Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren, making his American movie debut). Drago’s backers in the Soviet government have sculpted him into an unstoppable pugilistic force and he is here to demonstrate his superiority over the bloated capitalist Americans. (Lundgren doesn’t actually get much dialogue beyond things like ‘You will lose’ and ‘I must break you’; most of the exposition goes to Brigitte Nielsen, who’s playing his wife (but was actually married to Stallone at the time).)

First up into the ring is not Rocky himself, however, but Apollo Creed. I must confess that until very recently I’d never actually seen Rocky IV all the way through – but I had caught the second half on a couple of occasions. I had always dismissed the film as a load of Reaganite nonsense, based on that, but there are actually flickers of a potentially interesting movie at this point. Rocky questions why Apollo, who has long been retired, feels the need to take on Drago in this way, even if the Russian is the pushover Apollo has declared him to be.

Apollo’s answer is that he can’t accept the prospect of getting older and becoming less than the man he once was: he talks of the warrior’s code, and the need to keep fighting until you can no longer fight. It’s a strikingly resonant theme, and Weathers’ performance is great – in fact, Carl Weathers is probably the best reason for watching Rocky IV, giving Creed something of the presence and charisma of Muhammad Ali, the man he was based on. Of course, for this to follow the classic story structure that has just been set up, Apollo has to be punished for this flaw in his character, and so – following a tacky spectacle in Las Vegas – he is duly beaten to death in the ring by Drago, eventually dying in Rocky’s arms.

With the death of Apollo, all glimmers of intelligence and thoughtfulness are snuffed out of Rocky IV, and it proceeds to not be the film you’re expecting (in terms of a functioning drama about coming to terms with mortality) and simultaneously be exactly the film you’re expecting (in terms of Reaganite nonsense). For the scenes with Apollo to have any value – and I stress again they contain the best acting and dialogue in the movie – the rest of the film would have to be about Rocky slowly coming to the conclusion that there is another way to live, that he doesn’t have to keep doing what he does, and he is not compelled to go off to Russia and risk brain damage and death in a rematch against Drago.

The film is not nearly so brave or interesting, and instead concerns Rocky going off to Russia to risk brain damage and death in a rematch against Drago (Rocky V indicates that serious brain damage did indeed result, but this has kind of been forgotten about in the subsequent films featuring the character). This is strikingly cack-handed storytelling, and what makes it worse is that most of the rest of the film fails to engage with this story in any meaningful way – there’s the odd sentimental scene between Rocky and the people in his camp, but most of the rest of it is handled by a succession of montage sequences.

The rematch is arranged via a montage (Rocky has to give up his title to go and fight, which you would have thought might merit a scene or two, but no), then Rocky and his team arrive in Russia in another largely dialogue-free sequence. This is soundtracked by another Survivor song with almost exactly the same bassline as ‘Eye of the Tiger’, entitled ‘With a Burning Heart’. You get the impression that the soundtrack songs were bought as a job lot, as not long after there’s a very similar song called ‘Heart’s on Fire’ to accompany the next lengthy montage. Boxing arenas and sinister Soviet labs excepted, Russia is depicted exclusively as snow-covered wasteland in which Rocky must train for the fight (as the Soviets have neglected to provide him with a flight of steps to run up, he makes do by running up a mountain instead). There’s some predictably unsubtle coding going on in this scene: Rocky chopping wood and bench-pressing sleighs is intercut with Drago surrounded by high-tech equipment and a team of scientists, the implication being that Rocky is an authentic, self-made individual, while Drago is just a tool who has been artificially manufactured by the Soviet state (it’s heavily implied he’s on steroids).

And then we’re off for the grand finale, which is Stallone and Lundgren knocking seven bells out of each other at great length in Moscow (on Christmas Day, no less), before an audience of Soviet military officers, proles, and senior party officials – even Gorbachev himself is there (or someone cast for a strong resemblance to him, albeit without the birthmark which seems to have fascinated so many western onlookers). To be fair, the opening section of the final bout is rather excitingly staged – Rocky takes a beating, Drago complains to his handlers it’s like hitting a lump of iron, then our hero finally manages to land a significant punch and the match becomes more level – and then we’re off to Montageland again until the final round.

This is not the kind of film to wrong-foot its audience with a downer ending or anything especially unexpected. Suffice to say it concludes with Stallone draped in the Stars and Stripes, making one of the rambling, borderline unintelligible speeches which punctuate the Rocky series. After concluding that he and Lundgren giving each other blunt-force cranial trauma is at least preferable to nuclear war, he suggests that, ‘If I can change… and you can change… then perhaps everyone can change.’ There is massed applause at this point, with even faux-Gorbachev rising to his feet and clapping. There you go, folks: the seeds of glasnost and perestroika, sown by Sylvester Stallone beating Communism in a boxing match.

Except – it doesn’t hang together. The Russian audience may have changed – by the end of the match they are cheering for Balboa – but Rocky himself hasn’t appreciably changed at all. He’s still a big lunk who finds his fullest means of expression by punching people in the head. There’s nothing to suggest he has learned anything from what happened to Apollo Creed – the very fact he’s there fighting at all suggests exactly the opposite.

The jingoistic Cold War trappings are what make Rocky IV faintly risible to watch nowadays, but what makes it a really flawed and not very good movie are the fact that it fluffs its moral premise and subtext so very badly well before the end. Did Apollo Creed die for nothing? Nearly – but if nothing else his demise inspires Rocky to go and fight Drago. So is this then a movie about personal revenge, rather than standing up for the values of the American system? It really doesn’t work as a coherent, satisfying narrative – or as jingoistic flag-waving nonsense, for that matter.

Possibly this is why Stallone decided to re-edit Rocky IV a couple of years ago. No doubt this was done in the wake of the success of Creed II, a film which is essentially a sequel to this one. Apparently Paulie’s robot disappears entirely, along with most of Brigitte Nielsen’s performance (possibly she got to keep the footage in the divorce), and the focus is entirely on Rocky’s relationship with Apollo. I must confess to a genuine curiosity about the revised version of Rocky IV, quite simply because the really disappointing thing about the original version is not that it is bad, but that it showed signs that it really didn’t need to be.

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Sometimes you come across a movie or TV episode which is very obviously a ripped-from-the-headlines hot take on an issue or event which was topical at the time it was made – but the weird thing is that, when you check, the movie predates the event it seems to be a response to. Starship Troopers is one of the best and most intelligent films about the American response to the September 11th attacks – but it came out nearly four years earlier (something similar is true about a couple of Star Trek episodes about a terrorist attack on Earth).

And the same sort of thing is going on with Alex and David Pastor’s film Carriers, which I came across the other day while browsing one of the major streamers. To be honest, I thought it was another zombie movie, which is kind of the McDonalds’ of horror at the moment, and didn’t realise it wasn’t until some way into the story. It turned out I wasn’t paying a very great deal of attention most of the time I was choosing the movie, to be honest.

We find ourselves in the company of a somewhat mismatched quartet on a rather tense road trip: the de facto leader is Brian (Chris Pine), a jockish loudmouth; accompanying him is his younger brother Danny (Lou Taylor Pucci), and also his girlfriend Bobby (Piper Perabo) and another young woman named Kate (Emily VanCamp), whom Danny sort of vaguely knows. It transpires they are heading to a beach resort the brothers enjoyed visiting as children. This is not for a holiday, but because the world is in the grip of a horrendous respiratory virus, which is hugely contagious and – as far as anyone can tell – 100% lethal.

It does feel rather like a zombie film in its atmosphere: civilisation has broken down and the survivors are understandably wary of going anywhere near one another. When they meet a young man who needs petrol so he can take his daughter to a medical centre, their response is to give him a wide berth – until they need a new ride, at which point they steal his car (he and the kid stay in the back for, you know, plot reasons, though it’s reasonably credibly-scripted). Will everyone make it to sanctuary alive…?

I’d never heard of Carriers before the other night when I watched it, clearly didn’t pay much attention to the on-screen information given about the film, and rapidly, understandably, and entirely erroneously came to the initial conclusion that it was a new movie, part of the first wave of post-Covid horror films. Why understandably? Well, it’s a film where everyone zealously wears PPE when dealing with strangers – the zombie movie dogma of ‘don’t get bitten’ is here replaced by ‘don’t get coughed on’ – as a result of a virus devastating society, the virus apparently having been brought to the US from China (prescient, but on reflection not outstandingly so).

Anyway, as the film went on I found myself starting to doubt my own judgment: Chris Pine hasn’t starred in a decent live-action movie in five years, but he is still (somewhat bemusingly) a big star, and it seemed unlikely he would turn up in an unheralded low-budget Netflix horror movie – let alone that he would be second-billed to someone largely unknown (Pucci has yet to star in a high-profile mainstream movie). And there was also the fact that Emily VanCamp, who has inevitably acquired a bit of a profile through her association with Marvel, looked suspiciously young. It turned out I was right the second time around – Carriers was shot in 2006 and then sat on the shelf for years until Pine’s rise to prominence in his first Star Trek movie.

Does any of this really matter? Probably not, but – other than a reminder of the kind of oddities up-and-coming actors occasionally appear in – Carriers is an interesting example of the unintentionally predictive horror movie. To be fair, people have been telling stories about apocalyptic pandemics since at least the 1950s, so someone was eventually going to score a near miss,  but even so. This does look very much like a zombie movie which has managed to reduce its budget by taking the actual zombies out, but that at least gives it a point of distinctiveness – it also takes itself quite seriously (perhaps a bit too seriously), feeling like a slightly stagey character piece in parts: the big moments aren’t action sequences but actors emoting very earnestly at one another. No-one, I suspect, was talking about post-horror as a thing in 2006, but this is certainly tending that way (it would make an appropriate companion piece for It Comes at Night).

Nevertheless, the low-budget ultimately doesn’t do the film many favours. As apocalyptic horror stories go, this one is basically from the ‘true nature of the catastrophe’ tradition – by which I mean the really terrible thing that happens is that the main characters’ civilised nature is brutally torn away from them by the necessities of survival: they are obliged to lie, steal, and kill innocent strangers in order to stay alive. The problem with opening this kind of story post-disaster is that we never actually get to see the characters being civilised and so the contrast, and much of the tragedy, is lost. This being the case, the film essentially devolves into a series of downbeat scenes of characters doing rather grim things, without much in the way of context; the pre-existing relationship between the two brothers is likewise not really developed enough for the ending of the film to be effective.

However, some of the details of the post-apocalyptic world are effectively done – abandoned garbage trucks filled with occupied body bags, and so on – and the acting is, on the whole, pretty effective. Pine plays a sort of irresponsible frat-boy, and does it pretty well, but then this is essentially his default performance (or so it seems to me). He still copes with the somewhat theatrical nature of the script as well as any of the others. This isn’t a great film, but nor is it an especially bad one: it’s bleak and heavy without being especially frightening, which may explain why it seems to have languished in obscurity. While it’s probably only marginally successful as a horror movie, as a genre-inflected drama it’s not too bad.

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Dwindling budgets and fragmenting audiences mean that terrestrial UK TV channels play it very safe when it comes to commissioning drama nowadays – prestige costume dramas aside (these are usually co-productions anyway) you’ll struggle to find anything which isn’t a thriller, a cop show, or some sort of relationship-based melodrama. (The BBC soldiers on with Dr Who, though one gets the impression this is more out of a reluctance to let a massive cash cow slip into dormancy than any definite sense of knowing what to do with it as a piece of fantasy drama.)

It was not ever thus, and in the outer reaches of the high-numbered TV channels you occasionally come across a reminder of this. Until it recently vanished from Freeview, Forces TV usually served up a diet of nearly-forgotten ITV and BBC sitcoms, together with marathon showings of CHiPs and Spenser: For Hire, but now and then something more interesting popped up – selected repeats from the original run of Dr Who, Blake’s 7 (honestly, who’s still watching that these days…?), and some genuinely off-the-wall ITV dramas from when the network wasn’t quite so risk averse: they showed the mystical yuppie psycho-fantasy The One Game, and (at least three times) Chimera (directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, perhaps best known for his work on the BBC’s long-running Ghost Story for Christmas strand).

This is a serial I took a particular interest in – possibly you’d call me an early adopter, not a phrase people usually send my way – after seeing the writer, Stephen Gallagher, at a local SF group meeting while the show was still in production (I also interviewed him for a fanzine shortly afterwards, but we’re absolutely not going to go into that in any detail). Due to this the whole family sat down to watch it when it was eventually broadcast in the summer of 1991, leading to a degree of trauma for those less desensitised to such things.

Gallagher is a writer whose career comfortably straddles numerous genres and media – he’s written both novels and TV scripts, ranging from police procedurals to horror and SF (he was involved in the development of what eventually became Farscape), with the occasional genre mash-up. This probably qualifies as one of the latter. It opens with a piece of moderately deft narrative sleight-of-hand, as we meet young nurse Tracy Pickford (Emer Gillespie), who trades in a hectic career in a London A&E department for what seems like a cushier number, working at the Jenner Clinic, a private facility in the Yorkshire Dales doing fertility treatments. This means leaving behind her sometime boyfriend Peter Carson (John Lynch), a fairly feckless individual who spends all his time writing about old movies (yes, I know).

The first episode has a leisurely pace, as we get to see Tracy packing up her life, moving up to Yorkshire, and getting to know her new colleagues. This turns out to be a slow burn, as slowly it becomes apparent that something’s going on at the clinic which Tracy is not privy to. One wing is full of chimps and other lab animals (an odd feature for a fertility clinic). There’s a crisis one night, which concludes with someone or something being dragged back to the clinic in the rear of a minibus and then hit with a cattle-prod; Jenner himself (David Calder, doing another of his smoothly ambiguous establishment figures) alludes to letting Tracy know what the real business of the place is.

And then what’s been a fairly mild mystery, with perhaps a touch of romantic melodrama to it, takes a sharp left turn: the clinic’s chimp keeper is ambushed by the former occupant of one of his cages, his throat slit on camera; the clinic is soon ablaze, Jenner, his staff, and a residential patient ruthlessly hacked down, and Tracy… well, Emer Gillespie discovers she’s not playing Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween but Janet Leigh in Psycho (something about Gillespie clearly made people want to cast her in this kind of role: she meets an equally tragic and arguably even nastier fate in an episode of Ultraviolet from 1998).

When ITV repeated Chimera a year or two later, they carved it down from four 60 minute episodes to a rather briefer duration (one source indicates this was a two-hour TV movie, I seem to remember it being slightly longer and being split across more than one episode). Either way, what’s notable about the repeat is that virtually all of the first episode was cut: it opens with the police and other authorities moving in to deal with the aftermath of the disaster at the clinic, and Carson’s attempts to discover what happened to Tracy and the others.

The slasher movie vibe that concluded episode one continues, modulated into more of a creature-feature feeling – it’s gradually made apparent that the killer is not entirely human, as a local farmer and his wife come across something nasty in their barn and pay a grisly price for the discovery. Mixed in with this is more of a police-procedural, as the cops try to make sense of what’s happened, and the beginnings of a conspiracy thriller: overseeing the authorities’ response is a shadowy figure named Hennessey (Kenneth Cranham), who is one of those sinister, all-powerful civil servants you often find in stories like this one. D-notices are in effect, the police have been taken off the case, and government special forces are monitoring the area, armed to the teeth. (I should say that Chimera isn’t quite the succession of genre-hops I’m probably making it sound like: tonally, everything melds together very agreeably.)

Carson, at least, has learned enough to commence his own investigation into whatever Jenner was up to, and – dodging the cops and more shadowy government operatives along the way – finds the trail leads to Liawski, a retired former scientist who was a victim of Jenner’s own ruthless ambition. Jenner was out to push back the boundaries of scientific knowledge, but not out of any reverence for knowledge – he just wanted to become vastly rich off the patents he could register. His objective was the creation of a transgenic hybrid primate, a mixture of human being and ape – the chimera of the title. (When the series was shown in the US, it was inelegantly retitled Monkey Boy.) A flashback shows Jenner casually referring to this as a product, suitable for mass-production; another character comments on how such a creature could be experimented on without there being ethical concerns – they could easily be put to work as an expendable work-force.

Watching the second half of the series again now, it very much feels like something in the shadow of Edge of Darkness – a paranoid conspiracy thriller, albeit with a much more explicit SF-horror edge to it. The investigation into Jenner and his work is very engaging, and it’s a shame this element wasn’t expanded a bit more – one thing about this series, which no doubt explains the decision to cut down the repeat showing, is that it does contain quite a bit of extraneous material.

In the best traditions of miserabilist British SF, everything resolves in a tragic, downbeat climax, followed by a suitably ominous epilogue (suffice to say that the mass-production of ape-men has quietly begun). It’s not so much a cautionary tale, really, as another riff on Frankenstein (complete with a partly-sympathetic ‘monster’), mixed up with some uncompromising criticism of the moral bankruptcy of governments and commercial scientific concerns (Gallagher returned to this theme in his novel Oktober, which he also adapted for TV in the 1990s).

The series has stood the test of time pretty well: perhaps it doesn’t look quite as lavish as it once did (the title sequence resembles someone shining a laser down a plughole, probably because this is what they filmed), but Gallagher’s knack for convincing, drolly humorous dialogue is still in evidence and even the make-up job on Chad the chimera still looks quite impressive (Dougie Mann gives quite an affecting performance as the man-beast). There’s a bit of an issue with one of the lead characters, Alison Wells (Christine Kavanagh) – a member of Jenner’s team, it’s unclear exactly how sympathetic or morally culpable she’s supposed to be – but on the whole the characters in this story are well-written and effectively played.

It also scores quite highly on the ‘hang on, is that…?’ front, for there are various familiar faces popping up in minor roles throughout the show. George Costigan, mainly remembered for sitcoms these days, plays a Yorkshire cop trying to make sense of what’s going on, David Neilson (a Corrie lifer for the last 27 years) plays a farmer who ends up as one of Chad’s victims, Sebastian Shaw (the original face of Anakin Skywalker) plays Liawski, Liza Tarbuck has a small role as a garrulous woman who helps Carson out, and – perhaps most startlingly – Paul O’Grady (credited as Paul Savage) appears as a sign-language interpreter called in to help interrogate the lab chimps.

It’s a well-told tale, about something, and it’s genuinely fascinating to be reminded of a time when mainstream TV drama was permitted to include elements of horror – even slasher movies and creature-features. Watching it again, I was honestly expecting to find myself a bit embarrassed by my original enthusiasm for it, but it still hangs together and looks pretty good doing it. Worth checking out if it crosses your path and mainstream horror is your thing.

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There I was, relaxing in the beer garden of a popular local hostelry with the blog’s Anglo-Iranian Affairs correspondent, one of my wisest advisors. After the usual raking over of old work-related grievances, our attention turned to an imminent cinema trip.

‘This will be the first film we’ve actually seen in Persian,’ said Anglo-Iranian Affairs.

‘Yes. Well, except for that one about two people sitting in a car, which you said didn’t have a story.’

‘Oh, yeah. That one.’

‘Funnily enough,’ I said brightly, ‘the new film we’re going to see is directed by the son of the guy who made that one.’

‘Oh. That doesn’t really inspire much confidence,’ said Anglo-Iranian Affairs, looking a bit wary.

‘Well, the trailer was funny.’

‘What was in the trailer?’

‘Er… mainly just four people sitting in a car. So it should be at least twice as good as the film his dad made.’

Strangely enough, not long after we actually went to see Panah Panahi’s Hit the Road, I came across a piece which cogently argued that the People Sitting in a Car film is a distinctly and innately Iranian cinematic genre, in the same way that the Western is quintessentially American and the Bergfilm is inherently German. It’s quite distinct from the American road movie, which to some extent is all about revelling in the expansiveness and beauty of the wide open spaces of the continental landscape. Rather than being about space, Iranian Sitting in a Car films are all about the possibilities of enclosure – mainly the possibility of being able to make a film in the first place, without the government’s cultural watchdogs knowing what you’re up to. (Any history of modern Iranian cinema would not be complete without various hair-raising accounts of people being obliged to secretly make films in their own front rooms, or smuggle the finished movies out of the country on USB sticks hidden inside cakes, and so on.)

Hit the Road begins innocuously enough, seemingly without any elements that could frighten the horses (or indeed the cultural watchdogs). A family are on a road-trip together in a borrowed car: the father (Hassan Madjooni) has broken his leg and is confined to the back seat, along with his slightly hyper eight-year-old son (Rayan Sarlak). The mother (Pantea Panahiha) is in the passenger seat, constantly fretting, which does not help the mood of their elder son (Amin Simiar), who is doing the driving.

The characters, their relationships, and indeed the situation they are in all emerge gradually and naturally as the film continues. Father seems laid-back enough, though a bit irritated (as are the others) by his precocious younger child; the elder son is quiet and withdrawn; Mother gets more and more stressed about something. She nearly panics when it looks like the car is being followed, and is furious when it turns out her youngest has defied instructions and brought a mobile phone along for the trip. Clearly, whatever the purpose of their trip is, they have reason to be nervous about it. It isn’t until relatively late into the film that the truth finally becomes clear, by which point the film’s implacable shift from comedy into poignant drama and maybe even tragedy is almost complete. At the same time, it’s easy to understand why the Iranian state censors might get a bit prickly about this particular story.

It’s hard to say more without spoiling the film – people talk very casually about spoilers these days, usually referring to particular plot points or other discrete moments. ‘Patrick Stewart has a cameo’ is an example of that sort of spoiler. The thing about a film like Hit the Road is that it is fundamentally about the gradual excavation of layers of family trauma and the relationships that have been impacted by this. The slow and oblique (and, it must be said, far from complete) revelation of what’s actually going on is essential to the conception of the film, and so to casually reveal just where the family is going and why would be to fundamentally change the experience of watching Hit the Road.

I mean, it turns out that Hit the Road is a very politically conscious film, making a powerful (if oblique) criticism of the Iranian regime, but the fact that this element is largely left for the audience to work out for themselves really gives the film much of its power: it’s also a very effective and engaging family drama – the antics of the nameless child serving to lighten what could have been a fairly heavy experience and also provide a contrast which makes the more affecting elements of the story even more powerful.

The child acting is exceptionally good, but then so is all the acting, especially from the parents. (There’s also some impressive lip-synching in the various musical numbers which unexpectedly pop up now and then in the course of the film.) Perhaps there’s some truth to the suggestion that it’s always easier to be impressed by an actor who’s completely unknown to you, but the performances here are utterly persuasive – these do seem like real people, completely plausible and rather endearing.

It does feel like a film made with one eye on an audience outside Iran – the mixture of comedy, drama, and political commentary seems intended to produce a film that will appeal beyond the usual subtitled ghetto (Anglo-Iranian Affairs commented on how many people were at the screening we attended; we ended up in the very front row as all the good seats were gone). References to films by Christopher Nolan and Stanley Kubrick are just the most overt sign that the director has been influenced by popular western cinema.

Nevertheless, this isn’t quite the case of someone making a film in a foreign idiom simply to attract attention from the global critical establishment – there’s something serious and authentic about this film which it shares with the other Iranian films I’ve seen in recent years. And it does feel like a genuine film rather than a piece of agitprop: the story is essentially about Iran today, but it’s still a story for all of that, with well-drawn characters and a definite structure. We were both rather impressed by it. It didn’t turn out to be quite the film we were expecting, but as noted, finding out what kind of film Hit the Road is is part of the pleasure of watching it. Suffice to say it is a quietly very impressive one.

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Making an unexpectedly early appearance this year is Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, a bold attempt to explore some of the more obscure crevices of American popular culture (I jest). Why unexpectedly early? Well, the subject matter (one of the great American icons), the presence of a usually-reliable awards-bait performer like Tom Hanks, and the whopping running-time (the far side of two and a half hours) might reasonably lead one to conclude this is a film destined for a run at the Oscars. But prestige awards-bait movies usually appear no earlier than the Autumn; positioning Elvis as a summer blockbuster is a slightly odd choice.

Not that it isn’t a good time to be releasing a movie about Elvis, an undeniably colossal figure in the history of music, but one who tends to get forgotten about by most people for long stretches of time. As far as the UK goes, I remember there being a bit of a fuss about the tenth anniversary of his passing, a spate of sightings of the King in off-licences and supermarkets a couple of years later, more attention on the twentieth anniversary, and then an unexpected spike in interest when a TV commercial directed by Terry Gilliam powered a remix of A Little Less Conversation to the number one spot a couple of years later.

This is not to say we are not still living in a musical landscape influenced and to some extent defined by Presley’s work, but Elvis’ actual music too often gets absorbed into the greater mass of Elvis the cultural icon – the movies, the jumpsuits, hundreds of impersonators of rather varying quality. Perhaps one of the ideas behind the movie was to chip away at some of the impedimenta and acquaint people with something of Elvis Presley the man.

The central tension in the film comes from the relationship between Elvis (Austin Butler getting his big break) and his long-time manager Colonel Tom Parker (Hanks). The popular consensus about this is that Parker was mainly interested in simply exploiting Elvis for his own financial gain, a grasping parasite who effectively sabotaged Presley’s career and contributed to his premature death. However, the movie opens with an elderly Parker – addressing the audience, in one of those extravagant conceits you tend to get in Baz Luhrmann films – declaring that he has been misrepresented and that he is about to set the story straight.

And so we learn of how Parker, a protean and shady character, a citizen of no country whose name and title are both assumed, chances upon a youthful Presley while looking for a new carnival attraction. Parker sees this ‘wiggling boy’, who blends the music of different cultures so strikingly and has such a profound effect on his audiences, as just the sort of thing he is looking for. Elvis indeed proves to be a sensational success, but this also courts controversy in the segregated and conservative USA of the late 1950s (Luhrmann successfully manages to align Elvis with the progressive politics of the period).

Outrage is averted when Elvis is persuaded to spend two years serving in the US army in Germany, returning as a more clean-cut, less outrageous performer whom Parker succeeds in inserting into a string of profitable but nondescript musicals. These are followed by an attempt to relaunch him – rather against his will – as a family entertainer, which transmogrifies into his famous 1968 comeback special. This, however, merely sets the stage for an extended series of residencies in Las Vegas, with the singer chafing to leave and extend himself but compelled to remain, in no small part due to the personal terms Parker has reached with the casino owners (the line ‘We’re caught in a trap’ echoes plaintively on the soundtrack). The seventies continue… and we all know how this story ends.

Longstanding watchers of Baz Luhrmann films will probably not be surprised to hear of the slight feeling of sensory overload I experienced during the opening sequence of the movie (it was exactly the same during Moulin Rouge, over twenty years ago), but – just as on that occasion – the film eventually settles down, becoming a somewhat more conventional musical bio-pic. (I say somewhat more conventional, as Parker continues to be an abrasive, unreliable narrator – the reason Elvis made all those lousy musicals, he insists, is simply because the audience didn’t want to see anything else.)

Luhrmann is clearly intent on presenting Elvis as a tragic hero, ill-used throughout his adult life, and a performer of real significance – which is presumably why the musicals are zipped through in a matter of moments, while the 1968 comeback special is dwelt on at considerable length. There are moments recalling lots of other films of this ilk, particularly once Elvis’ final, miserable decline sets in.

In many ways the most interesting section of the film comes much earlier, exploring just who Elvis was, what made him so special, and why audiences responded to him in the way they did. It’s hard to quantify a talent as magical as the one Presley had, but the film leans heavily into the idea of him as someone capable of provoking an extraordinary, almost dionysiacal response in a crowd. In one sequence Luhrmann shows the young Elvis running from a brothel where the blues are being played to a marquee hosting a religious revival with a gospel choir in residence: the two kinds of music blend together, with a hint of country, and suddenly the Elvis sound is there, accompanied by images of people in the midst of transcendental moments, both sacred and profane. It’s an almost irresistible and hugely impressive moment.

Austin Butler is really up against it having to play one of the most famous people in history, but acquits himself well in both the musical and the dramatic sequences. Whether Tom Hanks is authentically recreating a very outlandish figure or simply wildly over the top seems to be up for debate, but his performance is big, it’s also consistent, and gives the film a strong centre which it probably needs. I knew the broad strokes of Elvis’ life going into the movie, and found it to be an interesting, entertaining and occasionally moving story; I expect that people less familiar with the singer may emerge with more of a sense of why he was and remains such a huge figure. If the film never quite succeeds in explaining what made Elvis so special, that’s because some things are simply beyond solely rational explanation – but it does a great job of reminding the audience of just how special he was.

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Do foreign language releases end up getting better reviews, on the whole, than your standard Anglophone movies? And if so, why? Well, you could argue that there are fewer seats at the table for subtitled films, so to speak, and it’s natural that only the cream of the crop will manage to rise to the top (I apologise for this metaphor, which seems to have got somewhat out of control on me). Or perhaps your serious critics are just prone to getting their heads turned by exotic foreign beasts.

Whatever the reason, earlier this year the Norwegian rom-com The Worst Person in the World got glowing notices from many critics. You would not expect, perhaps, the Norwegian sensibility to lend itself to frothy amatory misadventures, but it only goes to show the danger of believing in stereotypes. In any case, if you think that everything in Norway is dour and intense, Eskil Vogt’s The Innocents (N-title: De uskyldige) has arrived to confirm you in all of your preconception, not to mention possibly freak you out really badly. Vogt was the co-writer on Worst Person in the World, too, and thus ended up with two films showing at Cannes in the same year: now that’s just showing off.

The film opens with a young girl, Ida (Rakel Lenora Flottum – O with a line through it) moving into a new apartment building with her parents and sister – her sister, Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) is autistic, and demands a lot of attention from their parents. The film is quite clear that Ida’s response to this is an unthinking, petty viciousness; the first sign that this is not a film which will send you whistling from the auditorium.

The estate on which the girls now live is actually a really nice one, and their new apartment is also rather lovely – must be that Scandi genius for interior design, I suppose. The only downside is that they have arrived at the beginning of the summer holidays, and nearly everyone is away, leaving it deserted and rather eerie. While out playing, Ida makes friends with another resident, a young lad named Benjamin (Sam Ashraf). Benjamin casually shows her a trick he’s somehow learned how to do – she drops a discarded bottle-cap, which rather than falling straight to the ground whizzes off at an angle. Meanwhile, another girl on the estate, Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), discovers she has a strange connection with Anna – she can understand what the other girl is thinking, and even has a kind of clairvoyance where she is concerned.

It’s all very underplayed and a bit Stephen King, in an austere sort of way: there’s never any hint of an explanation as to why this particular group of children should have developed what are essentially psychic powers, it’s just essential to the premise of the film. Vogt treats it very casually and matter-of-factly, and yet at the same time something undeniably and horribly ominous is bubbling under the surface.

The children continue to play together as their powers burgeon, and Anna begins to make a seemingly-miraculous recovery from her condition, astonishing her parents. But these are still very young children, not yet possessing the maturity or self-control to understand the consequences of their actions. This is not an idealised depiction of childhood – Benjamin and Ida both have a penchant for cruelty, often aganst animals, which certainly earns this film a strong trigger warning for anyone troubled by such things. And when the children fall out, the consequences for them and the other people on the estate border on the nightmarish…

For the most part – there are a handful of really nasty moments – The Innocents is rather restrained, resembling some kind of social-realist drama more than anything else. And yet while watching it, I was most strongly reminded of some of the early horror movies made by David Cronenberg – the relentless pursuit of its theme, and the cool, detached attitude of the direction. It’s this, perhaps, which makes the film so tense and uncomfortable to watch. Nothing is sugar-coated, and the gaze of the camera is seldom diverted.

It soon becomes apparent that the title of the film is ironic, or at least not as straightforward as it first appears. Are the children really the innocents of the title? It depends. We are used to using innocent in the legal sense, which is to say not responsible for a particular crime or immoral act. But it seems to me that Vogt is suggesting another meaning: these children are innocent in the sense that they are not yet fully cognisant of the nature of good and evil. They are not yet truly moral agents as the film begins: they acquire that agency as the story unfolds, and they choose how to use their uncanny abilities.

In line with this notion, the film is notably non-judgmental even as the actions of the children become more extreme – one of them shows definite signs of going to the dark side – and what started out as a playground spat shows every indication of becoming a battle to the death. Where does someone’s character come from? The film makes no very great innovation when it suggests that one should ultimately blame the parents – children who are given love and attention and discipline ultimately develop a sense of moral responsibility; those who are indulged and ignored become a hazard to themselves and others.

It’s ultimately a rather conservative subtext for a movie, but it’s a coherent one and it certainly doesn’t feel trite or hackneyed in context. The rest of the film is quite unsettling and tense enough, anyway; I spent quite a lot of it hunched down in my seat with my fingers half over my eyes. This is mostly down to Vogt’s script and direction, but the acting from the children is impeccable, with a really remarkable performance from Ramstad. This is both a slow-burning thriller and a proper horror movie, and a profoundly disturbing and unsettling one at that. But it’s a horror movie dealing with serious ideas about childhood and morality, rather than rote scares and casual gore: fans of the more thoughtful end of the genre should certainly seek this film out, but everyone else might find it a bit too much to cope with.

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Waiting thirty-six years to do a sequel is fairly ridiculous – if the gap before Downton Abbey 3 is that long, it will be coming out in 2058 – but then again fairly ridiculous things do seem to be the wheelhouse of Tom Cruise these days. To be fair to the makers of Top Gun: Maverick, the inordinate delay is not entirely their fault – the film was originally supposed to come out nearly a decade a go, and was delayed by the death of the first film’s director, Tony Scott. (He has been replaced by Joseph Kosinski, who previously worked with Cruise on the good but derivative sci-fi movie Oblivion.) Then it was scheduled to come out in Summer 2019, only to be pushed back a year for technical reasons, and we all know what happened to the slate of releases for Summer 2020.

Hence the fact that the trailer for Top Gun: Maverick feels like it’s been a fixture at my local cinema forever; I’m actually slightly surprised it’s being released at all. Just let the trailer run indefinitely as a tribute to… oh, I don’t know what. It’s not a terrible trailer, after all. Anyone subscribing to the Muppet Theory (i.e. ‘everybody knows the sequel’s never quite as good’) could be forgiven for the odd qualm as the new film taxis into view – as I have previously observed, Top Gun is a bit like Dirty Dancing in that it is undeniably iconic, the subject of immense nostalgia, and not actually much good when you actually sit down and look at it properly.

The new film opens with virtually a carbon-copy reprise of the beginning of the 1986 film – same caption, same footage of planes trundling around on a carrier deck, same austere bonging on the soundtrack. This is a bit of a cheat as the aircraft carrier doesn’t properly feature in the film until well into the second hour. It soon becomes clear that, rather than flying a jet fighter off a warship, these days Tom Cruise has been assigned to Area 51: not because that’s where all the weird alien life forms get sent for examination, but because he’s now a test pilot for the Very Fast Planes Indeed Project. Here he promptly ticks off Admiral Ed Harris for flying one whole Mach faster than he is supposed to.

Harris is duly landed with the thankless task of reprising the scene where he supposedly wants to kick Cruise out of the Navy but ends up sending him on a special prestige assignment instead. This turns out to be teaching at the Top Gun school where most of the original film was set. No-one is pleased to see him there except for the landlady at the local pub, and this is not because Cruise is on the booze but because they have a romantic history together. She is played by Jennifer Connelly, who doesn’t get a lot to do to keep her interested, and the script attempts to finesse the awkward issue of parachuting in a new character with whom Cruise has an established relationship by making her someone who was mentioned but never seen in Top Gun.

Anyway, Cruise is there to train pilots for a suicidal mission to bomb a new uranium enrichment centre in enemy territory, which involves zig-zagging down a valley, flying over a mountain, hitting a thermal exhaust port with a bouncing bomb, etc etc. Being Cruise he accepts this assignment without batting an eyelid, but is finally given pause when he learns that one of his trainees is the now-grown son of his former buddy Goose, whose death provided what little emotional ballast the 1986 film possessed (the gosling is played by Miles Teller, who has been issued with what’s possibly the very same wispy moustache worn by Anthony Edwards wayback in the formerwhen). Can the pilots pull together and reduce the casualty risk from suicidal to merely insanely dangerous? Can Cruise bond with with his buddy’s kid and strike a blow for human pilots in an age of drone warfare? And can the film really get away with never mentioning exactly which country Cruise and the others are bombing?

I mean, really. The first film played a kind of nudge-wink game when it came to who exactly it was that Cruise was shooting down in the climax, but the new film keeps an entirely straight face on the topic, which feels particularly bizarre given a war is now in progress in Europe in which the US is very pointedly not participating. Admittedly, the bad guys are flying Su-57s, which are a primarily Russian jet, but they also have F-14s sitting around the place. Based on the landscape it looks like the Americans are bombing Norway, or possibly New Zealand. It’s undeniably problematic – it clearly wants to be a war film but it doesn’t seem that interested in what the actual war is.

It isn’t quite enough to properly spoil a slick and enjoyable action movie, which is – and this will surprise Muppet Theory adherents, even though the bar on this occasion is very low – appreciably better than the first one. It’s not just a vacuously good-looking film about how fantastic Tom Cruise and the US Navy are; it feels like there are proper stakes, the characters feel actually developed, and there is a genuine moral premise of sorts – the idea that human character and spirit have not yet been eclipsed by technology.

Admittedly, the film doesn’t handle this theme with a great deal of subtlety or nuance – the first two thirds of the film, and the beginning of the final act, are admirably restrained and gritty and everything is quite credible. But then the plot resolves through a sequence of such jaw-dropping silliness it’s hard to believe it hasn’t been edited onto the end of the film by some disgruntled junior producer as a prank. On the other hand it does feature some superb action and one of the best air combat set pieces I’ve ever seen. But it does feel like a film that was heading in a particular, quite sombre but nevertheless satisfying direction has been hijacked and sent somewhere a bit more cheery for the popcorn audience.

So in the end this is just a superior action movie rather than something which actually functions as a credible drama, for all that it is generally well-played and contains unexpected moments of humour and genuine emotion (that said, I found there to be something inescapably awkward about Val Kilmer’s cameo). Nevertheless, as an action movie it is often properly thrilling, which is what you want from this sort of thing, and I imagine it will satisfy fans of the original film and also those of Cruise in general. How the war-film element is handled is a bit problematic, but in other respects this is a fairly impressive piece of machine-tooled entertainment.

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For a film to become a genuine object of nostalgia, one important factor is that – ideally – it shouldn’t have any dodgy sequels dragging down its reputation in a sort of guilt-by-association way (or at least, no high-profile ones). Well, it’s an idea, anyway, and bearing it in mind it will be interesting to see if people’s attitudes to Top Gun change from this point forward. We have discussed in the past the notion of the Optimum Interval Before Sequel; if James Cameron is pushing it with a 13-year gap between the first and second Avatar films, what are we to make of the 36 year wait for a Top Gun film? But perhaps this is a discussion best saved for when that movie is the one in our crosshairs (the blog’s Anglo-Iranian affairs consultant is very keen to see it, hence the fact I’ve finally got around to watching the original).

Top Gun, released in 1986 and directed by Tony Scott, is remembered for many things, including its aerial photography, Tom Cruise’s teeth, Giorgio Moroder’s soundtrack, Tom Cruise’s underpants, the fact the US Navy treated it as the world’s most lavish recruitment video, and – possibly – a profoundly homo-erotic subtext. (It also established Cruise as a major star, if you really care about that sort of thing.) But it seems to be fairly overlooked as the film which really launched Tony Scott’s career as a director – his previous film The Hunger didn’t make much of an impression, and it was this one which paved the way for a successful (if not always critically popular) career turning out (for the most part) good-looking mainstream thrillers. (Scott never had quite the versatility of his brother Ridley.)

Certainly it’s the look of the film that strikes you from the start: jet fighters taxi about in silhouette, surrounded by support crew, the sky is a rich yellow-orange, it’s all very glossy and attractive. We eventually figure out we’re on an American aircraft carrier in the ‘present day’ (i.e. the depths of the Reagan Era) in the Indian Ocean, where those pesky Commies keep flying where they shouldn’t. A tense stand-off ensues between a flight of American jets and some (fictional) MiG-28s; unorthodox flying from pilot Maverick (Cruise) sees them off, but the squadron’s lead flier Cougar is severely rattled by the incident and needs coaxing down out of the sky.

A rather identikit scene follows in which Maverick and his sidekick Goose (Anthony Edwards in a wispy moustache) are dragged over the coals for their undisciplined behaviour by the commander, but, because the premise of the film is predicated on this, he is still obliged to send them off to Top Gun school, where the Navy’s elite fighter pilots receive advanced tuition.

Whatever shortcomings Maverick may have in terms of shortness, he makes up for them with an ego the size of an aircraft carrier, which does not initially endear him to either his classmates at the school (his most prominent rival is Iceman, played by Val Kilmer) or the instructors (the film is given a bit of heft by the presence of Tom Skerritt in a rather more luxuriant moustache and Michael Ironside, who is clean-shaven). Maverick, however, is more concerned with getting in the good books of civilian tutor Charlotte Blackwood (Kelly McGillis), even if she is a little bit older than him (what can I say, maybe Maverick’s former buddy isn’t the only cougar in the film). Can Maverick win the Top Gun prize and convince the Navy, not to mention the rest of the world, as to how brilliant he really is?

Well, yes, of course he can. One interpretation of Top Gun is that it’s essentially the story of a man who begins the film utterly convinced of his own brilliance and ends it with that confirmed and praised by everyone around him. Perhaps I’m just being very British but that kind of character arc is a bit of a hard sell for me: I’d find someone like Maverick very hard work to be around (then again I find quite a lot of people hard work to be around, and I’m sure they’d say the same about me).

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as all that: Maverick doesn’t have it all his own way, and experiences the requisite major wobble at the end of the second act of the film, at which point he duly contends with a bout of self-doubt. What is telling, however, is that he’s never really called upon to reflect on any flaws he may have in his own character – said wobble, even though it the results in the (inevitable and rather predictable) death of Goose, is not his fault; everyone goes out of their way to say as much. Any griping about Maverick could just be sour grapes or jealousy on the part of the gripers; the film is always on his side. The result of this is that some parts of the film feel a bit unpalatable nowadays, due to their boisterous jockishness – the sequence near the start, for instance, when Maverick takes a bet on whether or not he can have sex with McGillis on the premises of the bar where they first meet.

So the story is pretty slim and mostly about how great Tom Cruise (and/or Maverick) is. (The much-discussed gay subtext to Top Gun seems to me to be one of those things which is only there if you look for it: there are a lot of men in towels, and the love interest is called Charlie, but even so – it’s not as if all of the ‘evidence’ really stands up. The scene in which McGillis is supposedly dressed as a man and wearing a baseball cap looks the way it does because this was a reshoot done weeks later and the actress had different hair.) However, one must not underestimate just how appealing the general aesthetics of the film are, nor the fact that there are some decent character turns occurring amongst the supporting cast.

The element of Top Gun which everyone seems to agree about is the aerial photography, which is indeed highly impressive and often quite exciting. Anyone wanting to watch jets going back and forth very fast in the sunlight will have no cause for complaint here. What I would suggest is that Scott and his editors haven’t quite figured out a way to present an actual dogfight in cinematic turns – there are lots of cuts between planes whizzing about in different directions and the heads of the actors in the cockpits, but in order to know what’s actually going on you’re fairly dependent on following the dialogue (and even here it is more a question of tone than detail).

Nevertheless, I can see why this film did so well at the time, although I remain to be convinced that so many years on we really need a sequel to it. For the time being (a period we can now realistically measure in days) it remains a well-liked piece of superficial, cheesy, 80s kitsch, the closest thing to Dirty Dancing it’s acceptable for a man to like. I don’t think it’s a particularly good film, but I did sort of enjoy it.

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