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Posts Tagged ‘drama’

One of the things that frequently surprises even people who know me fairly well is the fact that I do love a good musical: as recently noted, the original West Side Story is one of my favourite films, and any musical aimed at a grown-up audience (as opposed to a Disney movie) will get a fairly sympathetic hearing from me.

I think this is because a really successful musical does that thing of transporting you to a wholly different world and state of being better than virtually any other genre of cinema; I go to the movies in the hope of experiencing that kind of moment. I think the natural home of virtually all movies is on the big screen (I would make an exception for something like Downton Abbey, obviously), but especially for musicals.

Nevertheless, the streamers are muscling in on this genre in the same way as virtually all the others – the big N released the slightly mercenary Sunday-school musical A Week Away earlier in the year, and now they have followed this up with a new project directed by no less an eminence than Lin-Manuel Miranda himself – a screen adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s Tick, Tick… Boom!

Larson is probably best-known as the creator of the game-changing late-90s musical Rent, and one rather suspects that the rights can’t have been available or they’d have made a new version of that instead (I didn’t even know they’d made a movie of Rent; I’m pretty sure it never got a wide release in the UK). This is based on an earlier work, or perhaps a couple of earlier works.

The story behind the film is that Larson (played in the film by Andrew Garfield, who I have to say is a bit of a revelation in terms of his singing and dancing ability if nothing else) spent most of the late 1980s trying to drum up interest in a musical he’d written called Superbia – which, given what we see of it in the movie, sounds rather like an episode of Black Mirror with soft rock songs. The film opens in late 1990 with Larson about to turn thirty, still the definition of a struggling artist, seeing his friends doing well in more mainstream careers, and trying to manage a strained relationship with his girlfriend (Alexandra Shipp). Pretty much all that keeps him plugging away in a field swamped with mega-musicals and ‘safe’ productions is the fact that Stephen Sondheim (played by Bradley Whitford but also by Sondheim himself at one point) once said something nice about his work.

But there is a glimmer of hope when Superbia is chosen for a workshop presentation, something Larson is hopeful will lead to the show actually being produced and his talent being recognised. But staging the workshop puts even more pressure on his shoulders, adding to the fact that he is chronically short of money, one of his friends is in hospital with an HIV-related condition, and things in his love life are likewise at a crisis point.

I’d never heard of Tick, Tick… Boom! until very recently; I’d certainly never heard of Superbia. I suspect most people have never heard of Superbia, outside of the world of musical-theatre wonkery anyway, as (spoiler alert) the show has never actually been produced. But the story of how that didn’t happen was used by Larson as material for a one-man show (or ‘rock monologue’), which is how Tick, Tick… Boom! got started (the title alludes to the sense of time running out and the accompanying pressure to succeed that Larson was feeling).

Does this seem a bit convoluted and self-referential? I should say that the film itself is much more straightforward than I’m probably making it sound: it takes the form of a performance of a slightly expanded version of the show (Garfield is supported by Joshua Henry, Vanessa Hudgens, and a band), with extended flashbacks to the events involved.

As a musical, then, it is partially diegetic – many of the songs are performed either at Larson’s live show or the workshop presentation – and I always feel this is a bit of a shame. The ‘an invisible orchestra strikes up’ moment takes a lot of stick, as do various scenes of people breaking out into song and dance in the street, but this is the heart of what musicals about – doing it all diegetically means you’re only a step away from cutting all the songs out entirely, all in the name of realism. In any case, while the movie never quite goes for a full massed dance routine, there are a few more imaginative sequences – the one grabbing all the critical attention comes when Larson is working at his diner one Sunday morning, and the various patrons all start bursting into song.

The gag, if you will, is that everyone in the joint bears a suspicious resemblance to a bona fide Broadway legend – faces in the sequence include Joel Grey, Bebe Neuwirth, and Phylicia Rashad, while Miranda himself plays the chef – while other scenes are equally stuffed with big-name cameos if you know your stuff.

The danger here is that the film will just come across as a piece of musical theatre exclusively about the history of musical theatre. Parallels have been drawn between the careers of Larson and Miranda, both immense talents who created huge hits while still very young (Miranda’s music has an obvious hip hop influence, whereas Larson came from more of a rock background); the appearance of Sondheim as a character also gives a sense of a lineage going back into the golden age of the musical. There is also a sense of deep concern over the health and prospects of the form – one song, ‘Play Game’, features staging which is bitterly satirical about just how difficult it is to mount an original new musical today. It almost feels strange to have made a movie about something which is so fundamentally about a different form of art.

However, the movie remains accessible and effective, mainly because it proves to be about something more basic and human than any particular art-form: Larson’s struggle to succeed and doubts about his own talent. Lots of films pay lip service to the idea of the struggling artist (usually those about the early life of someone who ends up very successful); few of them put meat on the bones of this idea quite as successfully. At what point do you stop banging your head against the wall and give up? Why suffer in poverty trying to make art when you could put your talent to commercial use and make a comfortable living? You come away from the film with a renewed respect for people who labour under these conditions and eventually get their break.

This is still perhaps a bit more arty than most mainstream musicals, and I didn’t really come away whistling any of the tunes. But the backdrop to the film is convincing, the performances are good – very, very good in the case of Andrew Garfield – and Miranda directs with elegance and style. This isn’t the traditional musical blockbuster, but then I don’t suppose it was meant to be. Nevertheless, a well-made and effective movie.

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My last memory of the director Ken Russell, prior to hearing of his death, was of his making some very ungenerous comments about Shaun of the Dead in the year’s end review issue of The Guardian, in what was supposedly a feature where the great and the good talked about their favourite films and books and so on of the year just ending. This struck me as a rather mean thing to do, especially coming from someone whose own films – the ones I’d seen, anyway – often seemed inclined to be tacky and filled with a tendency towards look-at-me provocativeness.

Then again, I’d mostly seen late period Russell – The Lair of the White Worm and Gothic, in particular, though the BBC ran a weekend of programming about censorship in which The Devils got shown, and I watched that then (along with Beat Girl and a few other things, not that it matters). People whose opinions I usually respect like Mark Kermode do have a lot of time for Russell and his films, so I probably need to give him another chance.

Spurring me on in this is the fact I watched his 1975 film Tommy the other day, mainly because it was on Netflix and I fancied a break from horror movies. The number of older films on Netflix seems to have declined in recent years (boo), replaced by those usually-dull bits of product marked with a red N on the choice screen, so one should make the most of them while they’re still there.

I’d actually seen bit of Tommy before, round about the same time as The Devils (Channel 4 did a weekend of programming about glam rock – themed weekends were a bit of a thing back in the mid 1990s) – but my main memories were of two other utterly dreadful movies that also got rolled out, Side by Side and Never Too Old to Rock. (If I ever feel in the need for a spot of psychic self-flagellation I’ll go back and watch some of these films again.) Whether the Who, who made the album the film was based on, actually count as a glam rock band I’m a bit uncertain about, but there is definitely a touch of the theatrical and operatic about the film (not least in the way it is sung-through).

Not being all that familiar with Tommy, as noted, I was a bit surprised by how star-studded it turned out to be. For instance, after the faintly confusing opening credits (A Film by Ken Russell – Tommy – by the Who) we initially meet Captain Walker, a heroic RAF bomber pilot, on his honeymoon in the north of England. He and his lovely wife Norah are pictured frolicking energetically in a mountain stream together (to which my reaction was primarily ‘that must have been bloody cold’ – it wouldn’t have left me in the mood, certainly). They are played by Robert Powell and Ann-Margret.

However, tragedy strikes when Walker’s plane is shot down, and his son is seemingly born fatherless (on VE Day no less). But Norah does the best for young Tommy, and while on a trip to a holiday camp she falls in with Frank (Oliver Reed under a resplendent DA hairstyle – come to think of it, he’s in Beat Girl, too), who’s clearly a bit of a dodgy character. Well, Frank and Nora get hitched, and things seem to be looking up for the family.

Until, one night, Captain Walker returns, badly scarred, having survived the plane crash after all. He is understandably put out, firstly to find his wife shacked up with Oliver Reed, and secondly when the couple panic and murder him. Tommy witnesses this, and his mother and stepfather scream at him telling he didn’t see anything, didn’t hear anything, and can’t say anything.

Well, obviously, the shock of this sends Tommy into a sort of catatonic trance where he is almost completely oblivious to the outside world. Various attempts at a cure, including faith healing and psychedelic drugs administered by scary prostitutes, come to nothing, and the grown Tommy (Roger Daltrey) has a generally terrible time with the highly unsuitable babysitters (mostly sadists and child molesters from the look of things) he is left with. But a chance of salvation comes when he discovers an unlikely gift for playing pinball machines…

As you can perhaps already tell, studied naturalism and an entirely coherent plot are not amongst Tommy’s strengths as a film. Much of the story you kind of have to accept, and in the case of some of the closing scenes of the film, actually decide for yourself what’s actually going on. This is not normally the hallmark of a particularly good cinematic experience.

However, Tommy really does work as a film, mainly because of the tag-team combination of Russell’s images and Pete Townshend’s music, which come together to remarkable effect. There’s a pop-art surrealism to the best sequences of the film which is immensely striking and memorable – perhaps the most famous of these is the ‘Pinball Wizard’ scene, in which Elton John’s tremendous performance of a belting song is enhanced by the fact he’s wearing six-foot-tall boots. Even when the music isn’t quite so memorable, Russell can be relied upon to keep things visually interesting. The climax of the film, in which Daltrey swims oceans, scrambles up streams, and finally climbs a mountain, singing most of the way as the almost-devotional anthem ‘Listening to You’ builds around him (and, incidentally, demonstrating that he possesses one of the great rock voices) is another remarkably intense and powerful piece of work.

Set against this I suppose we must acknowledge the film’s occasional excesses and excursions into actual silliness – I’m thinking of the scene in which Ann-Margret rolls around on the floor covered in baked beans and melted chocolate, and the general unravelling of the narrative once Tommy regains his senses and voice: Daltrey takes every opportunity to get his shirt off, while travelling the country by hang-glider preaching his message of enlightenment through sensory deprivation and pinball.

It also does not appear to be the case that the words ‘Good, but take it down a notch or two’ were in Russell’s vocabulary while directing some of the performers. Some of them do indeed turn up and do good, restrained work – Eric Clapton seems rather lugubrious during his solo, while Jack Nicholson turns up and gives an impressive demonstration of how to steal a scene from Oliver Reed – but others, frankly, have all the dials turned up well past 10.  Tina Turner spends most of her screen-time maniacally screeching straight down the camera lens, which is a bit unsettling if you’re not expecting it (and maybe even if you are – it kind of put me in mind of Jennifer Hudson in Cats).

But on the whole it is hugely entertaining, thrilling, visually-interesting stuff. Apparently Russell made a few changes to the storyline implied by the original album, most of which seem quite wise to me, and found a way to make a film about a topic he’d been interested in for a while – spiritual leaders who turn out to be deeply flawed individuals. The film is provocative about religion, to say the least, from very early on – remembrance day crosses are juxtaposed with the cruciform shape of bomber planes and Robert Powell in a crucified pose (which must have been useful practice for him), while there’s another extraordinary sequence (the film is not short of them) set in a church devoted to the worship of Marilyn Monroe.

You couldn’t really say that Tommy doesn’t look a bit dated; it almost seems to have become one of those time capsules of pop culture from a past era – the music is classic rock, and in small ways it did remind me of lots of other films from the mid-seventies like A Clockwork Orange (although the extravagant visual sense also put me in mind of Hellraiser II if I’m honest, and that’s a film from much later). Even some of the costumes are re-used from other films (Richard Lester’s Three Musketeers). But it really does hang together as a whole, as a film with its own distinct identity: grandiose, extravagant and surreal, rather like a feature-length music video, and immensely watchable, witty, and entertaining.

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You can say a lot of things about Ridley Scott, and I certainly have in the past, but one comparison that I never recall being made is between the veteran director and Stanley Kubrick, which is odd when you think about it. Both of them have or had the knack of making films which were (by and large) critically well-received and also financially extremely successful; both produced a number of iconic films, spread across a range of genres. And yet Kubrick’s reputation is that of a visionary artist blessed with the popular touch, while Scott’s is (merely?) as a supremely skilled maker of popular entertainment, who happens to be well-liked by the critics.

Perhaps it’s because Kubrick came from the world of art, while Scott emanated from TV, with particular reference to advertising. Kubrick’s legendary pickiness may have something to do with it, too: as director alone, Scott has knocking on for thirty films on his CV, while his ‘unrealised projects’ list for the 2010s alone has sixty items on it (Kubrick scholars take note: he is apparently developing a biopic of Napoleon). He even seems to be speeding up: my partner and I went to the cinema recently and were treated to trailers for Scott’s next two films at the same time. Then again, it’s been a few years since his last, All the Money in the World. In any case, his new film is The Last Duel.

Ridley Scott got started by… well, actually, he got started as a designer at the BBC, where (the folklore has it) he played a small part in history by managing to dodge out of the job of creating the look of the Daleks in Doctor Who. His actual filmography got underway with The Duellists in 1977, a good-looking (of course!) tale of feuding French soldiers, and so there is perhaps something of a circle being closed with the new film.

The context for the title is that the film concerns the last duel to the death given legal sanction in France; this occurred in 1386. The movie opens with the build-up to the clash, which is a big crowd-puller; the King and Queen are present, and also in the crowd is Ben Affleck, playing a Count. Hostilities are scheduled to break out between veteran warrior Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and captain in the King’s service Jacques le Gris (Adam Driver); taking a natural interest in proceedings is de Carrouges’ wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer).

But why are they fighting? Well, thereby hangs a tale, or perhaps three. The lazy go-to when it comes to describing The Last Duel is that it owes a debt to Kurosawa’s Rashomon, in that the central narrative is told several times, from the points of view of the main participants. This makes for clever storytelling but can easily lend itself to an awkward synopsis.

Anyway: de Carrouges and le Gris are initially friends, fighting together for the King of France (Scott retains his ability to put together crunchingly immersive and convincing battle sequences), but then their lives take different paths. De Carrouges, a stubborn, short-tempered man ill-suited to anything but swinging a weapon, finds himself struggling for money and recognition. Le Gris, a sharper and more emollient customer, finds favour with their liege-lord, the Count of Alencon (Affleck), and reaps the rewards of this, including receipt of honours that de Carrouges believes are his by right. De Carrouges, meanwhile, has married a rich man’s daughter (Comer), an intelligent and cultured young woman who naturally catches le Gris’ somewhat peripatetic eye. An encounter occurs between them while de Carrouges is away. But was it consensual, as le Gris insists, or the brutal act of rape that Marguerite declares it to be?

This being one man’s word against another during the late middle ages, the obvious recourse is to fight a duel to the death (the principle being that God will be on the side of whoever’s telling the truth). But are de Carrouges’ motivations quite as noble as he insists they are? His concern for his wife doesn’t quite extend to letting her know that if the duel goes badly for him, she will also be declared a liar and burned at the stake…

You have to look carefully to find a less-than-entirely-successful film on the Ridley Scott CV – the last one, I think, was A Good Year, back in 2006 – but it looks like The Last Duel is tanking badly in cinemas. As long-term readers will know, I’m far from an unconditional fan of Ridley Scott’s films, but this one does not deserve to be a failure. Have events conspired against it, with its target audience still wary of going to the cinema? Probably yes. Was it really a good idea to schedule its release against the latest outings from reliable bankers like James Bond and Michael Myers? Arguably not. But I fear that people in charge of budgets will ignore all this and simply conclude that adult-oriented drama about ‘difficult’ subjects isn’t worth investing big budgets in any more, something which would impoverish our culture still further.

Superficially at least, it’s hard to see why the film should be struggling: it looks fabulous, presenting a wholly convincing (if inevitably grotesque) mediaeval world, filled with life and persuasive detail; the battle sequences and final duel are, as mentioned, tremendous. There are also very able performances from the four leads – apparently Ben Affleck, who co-wrote and produced the film with Damon and Nicole Holofcener, was initially intended to play le Gris, but chose to step back and take the smaller role of the Count, which may have been a smart move – Adam Driver is very good as le Gris, and Affleck gives his best performance in ages as the hedonistic nobleman.

But, on the other hand, it’s a film about a rape with a story structure that sounds suspiciously like something out of an art-house movie. It’s not quite a Rashomon clone, though: the differences between the three accounts of what happens are established solely through editing choices and the addition of different scenes; the dialogue and performances remain almost entirely unchanged. It’s skilfully achieved, with the characters appearing in subtly different lights as a result.

It is still a film about a sexual assault – which, when it comes, is soberly presented but still uncomfortable to watch (as it should be, of course). Here there is an unsettling mixture of unsavoury historical detail and contemporary parallel – the Count counsels le Gris to ‘deny, deny, deny’ the charges against him, while ‘victim-shaming’ is the very mildest way you could describe the way Marguerite is treated, particularly at the trial. On the other hand, it is made clear that rape is considered to be a property offence, with the husband being the wronged party, and the then-current view that rape could not result in pregnancy also becomes an element of the story.

If I had a criticism of The Last Duel it’s that the social commentary is not handled as subtly as it could have been; there is also the fact that the film appears to be playing favourites. The whole subtext of a multiple-perspectives narrative like this one is that truth is an objective and impossibly elusive thing – but one of the testimonies presented here is given privileged status, with the implication being that one of the participants really is telling the truth. It’s hard to see how this kind of editorialising is justified, even if one of the characters has a more natural claim to our sympathies than the other two.

Apart from that, I found this to be an absorbing and satisfying drama, with great production values, strong performances, and fine direction; the lengthy running time floats past. Perhaps its message is that things haven’t changed that much in society in over 600 years; even if they have changed, it’s clearly not enough. Either way, another strong movie from Scott and a reminder that Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are more than just fine actors. Hopefully this movie will eventually get the recognition it deserves.

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One sign of the movie business getting back to normal – the scheduling and releasing wing of it, anyway – is the fact that major releases, like Commander Bond’s latest excursion, are surrounded by a sort of exclusion zone where no sensible person releases another commercially-oriented movie – never mind not releasing in the same week, there were no major films out the week before or the week after. By ‘commercially-oriented’ I of course mean ‘films expecting to draw big audiences’.

Nevertheless, the reason we have the expression counter-programming is because some films are aimed at the kind of niche audience that probably doesn’t want to go and see a big popcorn blockbuster anyway, and will happily trot off to the local arts centre to see something more unconventional. As previously touched upon, The Green Knight has seemingly been designated an art-house movie for these purposes, not running at all in the local multiplex (I can kind of see why you’d make that decision) and joining in it on the fringes, well beyond the mainstream, is Fanny Liatard and Jeremy Trouilh’s Gagarine.

Yes, they are French, yes, this film is subtitled, and – just in case you were wondering – there is an odd blend of non-naturalism and le old Nouvelle Vague about the movie. Even its origins are slightly off-the-wall: the directors have a history as documentarians and were recruited to interview the occupants of Cite Gagarine, a housing project in Paris (basically a tower block to the likes of you and me). The project was being considered for demolition and the architects wanted someone to interview the residents about their experiences. And, as you presumably would if you were a French documentary film maker, this inspired Liatard and Trouilh to make a full-length narrative film about the last days of Gagarine, albeit working from a rather skewed perspective.

The movie opens with archive footage of your actual Yuri Gagarin visiting the project which bore his name, and interviews with some of the crowd that turned up to meet him. A young boy is asked if he’d like to go into space, but he cheerfully admits to doubting he’s good enough – even from a very early age, one absorbs a sense of what one can realistically aspire to do.

Then again, much of the film feels like a retort to this, although not an angry one. The narrative jumps to something not far off the present day, with some fabulous images of the sun rising past the rectilinear bulk of the tower, and a skewed shot of a forest of satellite dishes resembling a radio telescope array: the film may be set in urban Paris, but its heart lies in outer space.

Gagarine is being assessed for demolition, and doing his absolute utmost to make sure it isn’t torn down is Youri (Yuri according to the subtitles on the print I saw), a young man living alone in one of the flats (the fate of his father is never really addressed, but his mother has taken up with a new man who doesn’t want him around). This is a very winning performance from Alseni Bathily, who doesn’t appear to have acted before. Youri is going around replacing all the broken lights and wiring with the help of his best friend, using scrap he’s acquiring courtesy of getting to know Diana, a young woman from the local Roma community (Lyna Khoudri, who has the enviable ability to play a character getting on for half her actual age).

But, of course, slightly quixotic programmes of DIY cut little ice with the people in charge of urban renewal schemes, and the decision is made to demolish the project anyway. The community of Gagarine – and the directors take pains to show it is a community, not just a collection of social problems – begins to dissolve as everyone is relocated.

Youri, however, stays put, hiding from the construction workers charged with stripping the place out, and converting his apartment on the top floor into… well, not actually a space capsule, but something which strongly resembles one. More or less his only company is Dali (Finnegan Oldfield), the local drug dealer, who may have his own ideas about what to do with Youri’s hydroponic garden. Romance glimmers with Diana, but it does seem like Youri is staging a full-scale retreat from reality. Can it possibly end well?

Gagarine is a good-looking, vivid, and ambitious film, well-played by the mostly-youthful cast and filled with striking imagery. Much of it is a compassionate and non-judgmental look at the lives of people too-easily dismissed as have-nots, naturalistically and convincingly presented. But of course there’s a whole other thread to this film, which becomes increasingly dominant as it continues, which I suppose you could describe as magic realism (‘Magic realism is Spanish for Fantasy,’ according to the late Gene Wolfe; possibly it’s a cognate in French, too).

Comparisons with High Rise are doubtless lazy and facile, but there is something very Ballardian about the way that the external world and Youri’s cosmic imaginings slowly begin to elide, courtesy of inventive set design and impressive cinematography. There are some wonderful images at the climax of the film, and a strong emotional arc to the story. The only issue – and perhaps this isn’t so much a problem as a convention of this kind of film – is that what exactly’s going on is not entirely clear on a boring old nitty-gritty plot-carpentry kind of level.

But, as I say, this may not have been the primary concern of the film-makers anyway, and the film does show every sign of being rigorously thought-through in terms of theme and imagery. The juxtaposition of Parisian housing projects and slightly retro space travel is not an obvious or especially natural one, but the directors find a rich source of material here, resulting in a film that may occasionally feel strange, but does so in a way which is entirely intentional. ‘The Martian set in a tower block’ is the glib elevator pitch for this film, but that doesn’t do justice to it. It’s true that Gagarine is much stronger on atmosphere and imagery than plot, but these alone are strong enough to make it a rewarding watch.

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If you’re anything like me (which isn’t really a fate I would wish on anybody), there is something of an elephant in the room when it comes to David Lowery’s The Green Knight (currently enjoying a low-profile theatrical run in the UK after having its release cancelled in the summer due to a spike in the virus numbers). You may recall a movie called Gods of Egypt from a few years ago, in which Gerard Butler, Geoffrey Rush, Elodie Yung, and others played the titular pantheon; the movie wasn’t exactly great, but a lot of the stick it drew was because none of the leading cast were actually Egyptian. (The question of ethnicity when applied to deities is an intriguing one, but let’s not get sidetracked.) Ethnically-appropriate casting is, according to a voluble section of society, very important.

So, anyway, back to The Green Knight, a story set in Dark Ages Britain, concerning the hero Gawain (or Gawaine), who according to some versions of the Arthurian legend hails from the Orkneys. And he is played by Dev Patel, because apparently ethnically-appropriate casting is not an issue on this occasion, at least less of an issue than diversity and colour-blind casting.

Well, whatever. If you feel that every film, no matter what its setting and source material, has to represent an idealised version of contemporary society, then that’s a coherent position you’re entitled to take. It just kicks me out of the movie when something like this happens, that’s all. I mean, Armando Ianucci’s David Copperfield film (also with Patel) just about got away with it, mainly through being studiously non-naturalistic throughout, but I don’t think this is an option open to every film.

Anyway. Let’s talk about the movie proper, which opens one Christmas in – not that it matters much – probably the 6th century. Gawain, though kin to King Arthur (an idiosyncratic but memorable performance by Sean Harris), is still something of a young wastrel, spending all his time carousing and disporting with a young prostitute (Alicia Vikander). However, he is summoned to court by the King for the Christmas feast, and Arthur expresses a desire to know him better.

However, the feast interrupted by the coming – it is implied, the summoning – of a stranger, and a very strange stranger he is: a man made of wood. And, no, this wooden presence is not Orlando Bloom, but the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), who has come to play a special Christmas game with the knights of the Round Table – one of them must try to strike him, gaining great renown and glory if he succeeds. But a year hence, the other contestant must seek the Green Knight out and receive in turn whatever wound he inflicted.

Looking to make a name for himself, Gawain volunteers, and after – it is implied – being lent Excalibur by his uncle, arguably gets carried away and ends up beheading the visitor. Decapitating someone at a Christmas party always casts something of a pall, I find, but on this occasion the situation is somewhat saved when the headless body clambers to its feet, picks up the severed bonce and rides away – though not before Gawain is reminded that, one year hence, he is honour-bound to receive payment in kind from the Green Knight…

Anyone’s who’s been keeping up will be aware that I’ve been awaiting this movie somewhat impatiently, filling in the time by watching Excalibur, The Fisher King, and First Knight – my friends and I have been scratching our TTRPG itch with King Arthur Pendragon for the past few months, so it’s all grist to that particular mill. It certainly offers a new and distinctive take on the Arthurian legend, not least in the way it attempts to blend historical grit and uncompromising fantasy – but perhaps that’s not the right word, perhaps mysticism would be better.

This is absolutely not a straight-forward historical adventure, but a disquieting and often spikily strange movie, which makes a point of reminding the audience that this particular tale has been told many times before in different ways. As I’ve suggested in the past, the Arthur legend endures because it is vast and deep enough to accommodate all kinds of interpretations; David Lowery’s version is certainly not going to ‘break’ the myth.

Nevertheless, the film contains an odd mixture of fidelity and innovation, some of it quite self-conscious. The legend surrounding Arthur is pared back – Excalibur, Guinevere and Merlin are all present, but not referred to by name; none of the other famous knights gets anything significant to do. Also present is the figure of Gawain’s mother, who is Orcades (also known as Morgawse) in the legends – Lowery simplifies things by making her a more famous sister of the King, Morgan le Fey (played here by Sarita Choudhury), though again this is not made explicitly clear until the closing credits. One of the innovations is the heavy implication it is Morgan who summons the Green Knight, though her motivations are left for the audience to decide.

Quite a lot of what’s actually going on in The Green Knight – and, as importantly, what it all means – is left for the viewer to work out for themselves. The bulk of the film is concerned with Gawain’s journey to the chapel of the Green Knight, which comprises a series of adventures, some of them unearthly, others mundane, some almost sumptuously surreal in their presentation, and concluding with his stay at the home of a strange unnamed nobleman (Joel Edgerton) and his wife (Vikander again). Everything feels like it’s loaded with significance; the film is obviously heavily symbolic throughout, to the point where the actual plot sometimes feels like an afterthought, but interpreting what it all means is extremely difficult (especially while you’re watching it). This is a film that demands thought and time to fully assimilate.

And this is never less true than at the end, which is the section which has outraged some Arthurian purists. Some have complained the film changes the end of the story; I would just say that the film doesn’t have a conventional ending of any kind (shades of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, another Arthurian outlier, but the actual conclusions are quite different). The director has said a more definite ending was filmed, but the one they eventually went with was a deliberate choice.

(And I can’t really criticise this. Only after watching the film did I remember that, nearly 35 years ago, I was given the assignment of retelling this tale by my English teacher: we were given the premise, and told to continue the story. I couldn’t figure out what to do once Gawain reached the chapel, so I ended the story rather ambiguously at that point (and got a very good mark). Lowery, I hasten to say, takes a slightly different approach (and has likewise got good marks, from the critics).)

The film seems to be about the question of what constitutes a good life, at least in the case of a man like Gawain – wealth, longevity and happiness? Or honour and the fame that comes with it? (Very pertinent questions to a Pendragon game.) Not surprisingly, the film leaves the answer up in the air. One thing that is certain is what a visually impressive film this is, with an equally accomplished soundtrack. It definitely tend towards the arthouse more than the multiplex, and it’s probably easier to admire than genuinely love, but this is still an impressive movie on many levels.

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(Split being, of course, the largest city in Dalmatia, which is (duh) the ancestral home of the Dalmatian dog breed. I’m well aware that, normally, nothing is more guaranteed to kill a decent joke than carefully explaining it, but in this case it’s an extra-subtle one that’s probably going to get overlooked if I don’t.)

The pandemic continues to shake its tail, and as part of the fallout from it all I find myself – temporarily – living with family and thus enjoying less control over the domestic media functions than is usually my wont. So far I have managed to dodge the endless YouTube dog and Minecraft videos which makes up the bulk of my younger relatives’ intake, but when it comes to Family Movie Night – oh yes, this is a thing! – I don’t really get any say in what’s on.

Which is why I ended up watching Craig Gillespie’s Cruella, a film which I experienced no actual desire to see during its theatrical release earlier this year. I know you may be thinking, ‘God, this guy is indolent, if he didn’t want to watch the movie he could have balanced his wobbling carcass on those stumpy legs of his and wobbled off away from a screen for just a few minutes’ – and I take your point. I believe my exact words to my hosts were something to the effect of ‘I’m going to see what this is like but I may slip out of the room if it’s not my kind of thing.’ I mean, I’ve enjoyed Craig Gillespie’s films in the past, and I’m not averse to Emma Stone, but it’s a live action Disney brand extension prequel to a story which I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen or read any of the other versions of.

I suppose we could reflect productively upon the reasons for this current run of villain-centric prequels – I’m thinking of the Maleficent films and Joker in particular – it’s a reasonable way of dodging the problems involved in doing sequels to well-loved tales, or indeed doing yet another remake. Not that they don’t come with their own set of problems, though.

This one kicks off in the early 1950s, with the birth of – well, not actually Cruella de Vil, but a young woman who ends up with the monicker Estella Miller. (Here we reach one of those points where a strictly accurate synopsis necessarily involves spoilers, so forgive me if not all of what follows is actually literally true in the context of the plot.) Despite having an unlikely duotonal trichological complexion, Estella has a relatively normal childhood with her mother (Emily Beecham), although she is a bit of a rebel and obsessed with outrageous fashion choices.

Eventually Estella is kicked out of school and the two of them head off to London, pausing on the way to visit the stately home of famous fashion designer, the Baroness (Emma Thompson). Estella’s mum is basically there to hit her up for some cash – exactly what’s going on is kept deliberately obscure – but it results in Estella being chased by some ferocious Dalmatians (some subtle foreshadowing, this) and her mother falling to her death off a precipitous cliff.

Yeah, it goes dark quite quickly, doesn’t it? But not for long; this kind of occasional veer into really bleak territory followed by an equally rapid course correction back to the realm of family friendliness is something the film does quite often. Anyway, Estella runs off to London, hooks up with a pair of juvenile tearaways, and they all grown up to be Emma Stone, Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser (Fry and Hauser are playing Jasper and Horace, the henchmen from 101 Dalmatians).

Eventually Estella gets the chance to give up her life of crime and join the fashionista establishment, initially at a department store and then as part of a famous London label. But she gets a bit of a shock when she realises that her boss and mentor is the same woman who was responsible for her mother’s death (Emma Thompson is still Emma Thompson). Estella decides that vengeance is really her only option, but to carry it out she must adopt another personality, that of the outrageous and ruthless Cruella – but is this really a new persona, or simply a new name for part of her which has been lurking away all this time…?

Well, as you probably guessed, I made it all the way to the end of Cruella even though it’s well over two hours long and thus overstays what a reasonable welcome would be. This is not because it’s an unqualified triumph of a movie, but it does have points of quality and it’s certainly interesting.

So what can we say about it that is positive? Well, it certainly looks ravishing, mostly being set in a fantasticalised version of London in the 1970s, and the direction is inventive. It shouldn’t do Emma Stone’s career any harm, either: quite apart from being a very capable actress (here she seems to be doing a Helena Bonham Carter impersonation for most of the film), she also has the knack of looking good no matter what colour (or colours) of hair she is issued with. Emma Thompson is also good value, but then that’s like saying the sun comes up in the morning, while Mark Strong (a touch underused, I’d say) does his usual trick of lifting every scene he appears in.

The general tenor of thing is rather like a superhero origin movie if it were written by Roald Dahl – the main character gradually adopts all the key elements of the persona that will make them famous, with various set pieces and reversals along the way, but all with an element of grotesqueness and (as mentioned) occasional excursions into real darkness. It reminded me quite a lot of Joker, more than anything else.

Of course, my problem with Joker was that I couldn’t quite see the point of a film about a villain without a hero; you can’t really make the Joker sympathetic without destroying what the character’s about. And the same is surely true here: Cruella de Vil isn’t quite in the same league when it comes to homicidal animus, but she’s still the bad guy. Is our knowledge of her origins supposed to make her actions more understandable? Are we even supposed to start sympathising with her? If not, then what is the point of the film?

And beyond this, I don’t think the script quite manages to sell the transition from Estella to Cruella completely convincingly – Emma Stone does what she can, but it doesn’t feel like a natural change, being more a series of abrupt shifts in personality and behaviour. Perhaps the problem is that the film still wants to be a relatively light-hearted caper – not a great fit for a story which appears to depict a relatively good-hearted young woman succumbing to her dark side. You don’t get the sense of loss or tragedy that should come with that particular narrative arc.

It’s ultimately quite a superficial film, then, but then the story hardly lends itself to naturalism. The setting in the fashion world of London in the 1970s, with a rebellious young designer making a name for herself, had me thinking this was a movie in some ways riffing on the career of Vivienne Westwood – and while there’s a bit of a punk aesthetic at work, with (probably anachronistically) the Clash and Blondie eventually turning up on the soundtrack, there’s a real mish-mash of things happening here – music from the 60s is mixed in with glam rock, and so on. The real world is carefully kept at arm’s distance, here and in the characterisations.

I would still like to think that, somewhere, somehow, the Mouse House still wants to make films that have some kind of moral premise and storytelling merit to them, rather than just being immense cash-guzzling brand extensions. There are things about Cruella that do have merit to them, particularly the two lead performances and the visual sense of the thing, and it does pass the time quite engagingly. But as far as the rest of it goes – what’s it about? It’s about the early life of Cruella de Vil. But what’s it really about, on a deeper level? I’m really not sure.

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Frederik Louis Hviid and Anders Olholm (O with a line through it)’s Shorta opens in disquieting and uncompromising style, depicting a young Black man being aggressively restrained by the police. ‘I can’t breathe!’ he repeatedly cries. The fact that this is all happening in Danish makes it slightly less provocative, perhaps, but likely not much. It’s followed by a sequence depicting a heavily-armed police officer aboard a helicopter observing the activities of the inhabitants a bleak-looking housing estate, rather like a soldier observing occupied territory: the tone is definitely more like that of a war movie than a police thriller (which is what this nominally is).

Although we are in Copenhagen, the setting is not explicitly made clear, perhaps intentionally: the implication possibly being that this is a story that could take place in any large western city. The action proper begins a few days later: the youth from the start is in critical care in the hospital and large parts of the city are experiencing elevated levels of tension. It’s in this atmosphere that principled young cop Jens Hoyer (O with a line through it) is assigned to go on patrol with his older colleague Mike Andersen (Jacob Lohmann). Andersen is a hard man, set in his prejudices; he wields his authority like a baton. Initially the two of them struggle to bond.

The events of their patrol lead them into an estate named Svalegarden, home to many immigrant communities – one of the areas they have been advised to steer well clear of. Seemingly on a whim, Andersen stops to make an illegal and demeaning search of a passing Asian teenager, Amos (Tarek Zayat), angering other local youths – Hoyer backs his colleague up nevertheless. But when it looks like Amos has attacked their squad car in response, they arrest him.

Then news comes through that the teenager from the start of the film has died of his injuries and all uniformed police should pull out of the neighbourhood. It’s too late: their car is wrecked and the duo face the challenge of getting out of the ghetto in one piece, dragging their prisoner with them. Only now does it become apparent that the two have been partnered up for a reason: Hoyer was a witness to the events which led to the youth’s death, and Andersen is under orders to ensure his testimony to the upcoming enquiry shows the police in a favourable light, regardless of the truth of the matter…

Shorta, in case you were wondering, is an Arabic word meaning police; the film is also trading in some territories under the title Enforcement (which is a bit fridgey; the cinema I saw it at was using one title on its website and the other at the actual venue, which confused me no end). To be honest, Shorta is a fairly fridgey title too, although I suppose it could be meant ironically – one of the themes of the film is just how short the police fall, in relation to the standards one might expect of them.

In any case, we are in relatively familiar territory here: this is a movie in the time-honoured ‘cops in extremis’ genre, which dates back at least as far as Assault on Precinct 13 and includes more recent high-concept offerings like The Raid. It’s also not the first film to be driven by the clash between a young and relatively idealistic cop and an older one whose effectiveness means the authorities overlook how corrupt he has become (I’m thinking here of films like Training Day, though I suppose the same dynamic is there as far back as Touch of Evil). What adds something to the mix is the level of social awareness in Shorta; the film it most closely resembles is Les Miserables, which came out in the UK last summer.

Shorta has drawn some quite negative notices from some outlets, certainly in America, with critics suggesting it’s a clumsy attempt to comment (or even cash in) on the Black Lives Matter protests of last year. The long lead times of movies leads me to doubt this, to be honest; it also overlooks the fact that immigration and the administration of so-called ‘ghetto’ estates is a live issue in Danish politics.

Nevertheless, the film engages with these issues, even if all it really does is suggest that they are painfully complex and not easily resolvable. The action of the movie comes first, which is as it should be, and this is certainly well-handled, gripping stuff, with the two cops’ plight and their degenerating relationship generating plenty of tension; the bursts of violent action punctuating the movie are convincingly gritty as well as gripping (not a film for dog lovers, I should say).

The first half of the movie barely puts a foot wrong, and I was all set to bemoan the fact that such an effective and engaging thriller was only playing in a small number of art-house theatres, simply because of what Bong Joon-ho has called the ‘one-inch barrier’ of subtitles. But to keep the plot moving, an increasing number of dubious contrivances and coincidences begin to appear, which threaten to tip the movie over into melodramatic territory. Many stories incorporate unlikely events to some degree or other; the question is whether the pay-off they facilitate is sufficient to make the audience give the film a pass on this front.

If Shorta had concluded with an ending that both satisfied and managed to say something insightful and significant about the themes it covers – assimilation, the role of the police in society, the conflict between loyalty and principle, the extent to which enforcers are both brutal and brutalised – then I would happily have agreed that some of the contortions in the script were justified. And the end of the story is effective and reasonably satisfying (though it will hardly count as a spoiler if I suggest it’s not the most optimistic of outcomes) – it’s just not clear what the thesis of the film is, beyond the simple message that policing in these kind of situations is a messy, ugly business, with flawed people on both sides and no happy endings in sight for anyone.

It’s a shame, because Shorta looks very much like a film which wants to be something beyond a simple cop thriller. It is at least a very effective cop thriller, tense, exciting, and well-played by all the leads. But if it has a deeper message then it’s not at all clear what that is. This is still an accomplished and extremely watchable movie, though.

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The musical biography has been around as a movie genre for ages: it’s one of those things that will likely never completely go away, as doing a film about someone famous and popular is at least as good a bet when it comes to luring in an audience as making an adaptation of a well-known book or TV show. Nevertheless, in recent years it does seem to have been enjoying a moment in the sun – the Queen biopic turned out to be quite astonishingly popular, while Rocketman also did rather well (in addition to arguably being a more interesting and creative film).

Actually, Rocketman was a bit of an outlier in a number of ways, not least because Elton John is still alive and well (some might say despite his own best efforts) – most music bios deal with someone who is dead, or at least extremely doddery, presumably because this cuts down on the number of awkward moments when the subject is first shown the movie. The other difference is formal: the key creative decision in what’s settled down as the classic music bio structure is when to start the thing in earnest, and when to finish it. These films usually conclude with the subject experiencing the zenith of their success – for example, the Live Aid moment making up the climax of Bohemian Rhapsody – but, the only comparable performance in Elton John’s career taking place at a royal funeral, they reasonably elected to skip it.

Liesl Tommy’s Respect doesn’t take any chances when sorting out its start and end points. The film, I should make clear, concerns the life – or a relatively brief period in the life – of Aretha Franklin, and opens with some scenes of a very young Franklin being made to sing at parties by her father Clarence (Forest Whitaker). Not much encouragement is needed, of course. The film zips through some other establishing material until it reaches the point at which the child actress can withdraw and Franklin can be played by Jennifer Hudson (I’m going to be a bit ungallant and point out that Hudson is considerably older than Franklin is at the end of the period covered by the movie, let alone the beginning, not that this is especially obvious).

Off she goes to New York as a teenage prodigy to launch her career, but experiences little success until a falling out with her domineering father leads to her taking up with her domineering manager and future spouse Ted White (Marlon Wayans). Given a modicum of control over her own career, Franklin suddenly breaks through with a string of hits, but must contend with various tumultuous personal relationships, not to mention her own demons. Can she bounce back when it matters?

One of the odd things about Respect, considered as an actual bio-pic, is that it almost completely skips the last 46 years of its subject’s life. Did Aretha Franklin really do nothing of particular interest after the age of 30? Even the film suggests not, but it nevertheless wraps up with the gospel concert at New Temple in Los Angeles in 1972 (already the subject of a feature documentary), filling in the rest with the usual slightly gushy captions about Franklin’s achievements (for the film she is always Ms Franklin, of course).

There’s not much actively wrong with Respect that I can actually put my finger on – it looks okay, the acting is fine (apart from those already mentioned, there’s a decent turn from Marc Maron as one of Aretha’s record company bosses), and of course there is a completely banging soundtrack, mostly courtesy of Hudson herself. Now, let’s be honest here: Jennifer Hudson is a very fine singer, especially when she eschews the attention-all-shipping vocal style she deployed in Cats, and which made me want to hide under the seat. But she’s not Aretha Franklin, who was an utterly unique and breath-taking talent. The film closes with footage of the real Aretha performing, close to the end of her career, and its inclusion is possibly a mistake – you suddenly realise just why the various Hudson covers filling the movie have been just a bit unsatisfactory.

Nevertheless, while you may well learn something about Aretha Franklin’s life (or maybe a lot about Aretha Franklin’s life), the movie never quite takes flight and becomes as entertaining as one of her records. I think this is probably due to the stifling sense of reverent solemnity which permeates the film pretty much from beginning to end. It does that bit where the origins of a particular, well-known song are delved into at considerable length (Good Vibrations did this with the Undertones’ Teenage Kicks, Love and Mercy did it with Good Vibrations, and Bohemian Rhapsody did it with – er – Bohemian Rhapsody), and when the title track is finally unleashed in full, it is as irresistibly funky and vibrant and sassy as ever.

But away from the performances, the rest of the film is staid and rather stolid stuff. The director herself comes on in a cameo as a fan who basically tells Aretha what an important and inspirational figure she is – which is fair enough, but we’re told more about Franklin’s importance than actually shown it. Of course, there’s a lot going on here which the film-makers clearly feel obligated to touch on in some way, but duck out of featuring in the film in any detail – the circumstances by which Franklin ended up the mother of two children by the age of fifteen almost feel like they’re skipped over, presumably because they would just send the film off into quite dark and uncomfortable territory. Her early relationship with Martin Luther King is likewise only really mentioned in passing.

So with these key elements of her actual biography kept to a minimum, what kind of portrait of Franklin emerges? I’m sorry to say it’s not a particularly distinctive one. All the texture and possible ambiguity in her life story seems to have been smoothed away so that she can fit the template of the musical biography subject – early years, struggles, breakthrough, success, wobble, bounce-back, triumphant return to even greater success. You may learn stuff about Aretha Franklin’s life, but I doubt there’s much sense of what she was actually like as a person in this movie. It’s not a bad film, and indeed parts of it are very entertaining, but I strongly doubt it does its subject justice.

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Annette begins with an orchestra and singers preparing to make a recording; instruments are plugged in and tuned, everyone seems to slowly be getting ready for the moment of truth. Observing from the control booth is the director, who looks a lot like Leos Carax (this role is played, in a strikingly well-judged bit of casting, by the director Leos Carax). He asks if it would be possible to start.

And so they begin, singing a song on the topic of starting. Very quickly, however, the key members of the band (the instantly recognisable figures of Ron and Russell Mael, aka Sparks), the backing singers, and so on, all get up and proceed out of the studio into the street. And I do mean proceed: this is a procession in the classic style. The Mael brothers cede their position at the front to Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, and Simon Helberg, but the parade continues out into the streets of Los Angeles, the lyrics addressing the anticipation inherent in beginning-of-movie moments like this, but also including the reasonable request that the audience ‘shut up and sit’. Eventually Driver and Cotillard depart to get into character and things become marginally less odd for a while.

(The closing credits of the film feature another procession by the cast and crew, this time politely wishing the audience a safe trip home after the movie, a thoughtful touch which is rather more endearing than the usual post-credits scene.)

Annette is a musical directed by Leos Carax, based on a story and with songs by Sparks, so this is never what you’d call a conventional movie experience for long. Adam Driver plays Henry McHenry, a misanthropic stand-up comedian not entrely unlike Andrew Clay or Bill Hicks, while Marion Cotillard plays operatic soprano Anne Defrasnoux. Henry and Anne have recently begun a relationship and fallen deeply in love with one another: they sing a song about this, called ‘We Love Each Other So Much’, which – in authentic late-period Sparks style – largely consists of the title repeated over and over again, albeit with the couple in increasingly startling situations as they sing the line.

Soon the news breaks that Anne is pregnant, and the world awaits the birth of the child. (I particularly enjoyed the singing obstetrician and chorus of midwives who appeared at this point to perform a song largely about breathing and pushing.) The baby is named Annette, but her arrival marks a change in the fortunes of the couple: while Anne meets with success after success, Henry finds it hard to maintain his edginess and his career struggles as a result. And so they decide to take Annette with them on a fateful boat trip…

‘Not mainstream’ was my partner’s considered opinion after watching Annette, and this strikes me as a very accurate assessment of the kind of film this is. Of course, few films have the capacity to become beloved crowd-pleasers in quite the same way as a great musical can, but I suspect the relentless weirdness of Annette will prove a bit of a barrier to mainstream success.

It’s not quite the conventional ‘sing a bit, talk for a bit, sing a bit’ musical, for one thing: this is practically sung through, which always produces some slightly odd moments. The effect is something akin to actual opera, with all the strangeness associated with that – Driver, Cotillard and Helberg play the only developed characters, so a lot of the time they are interacting with choruses made up of supporting roles – the audience of Henry’s stand-up show get a song with the lyrics ‘Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha!’, the police interrogate people to music, and so on.

What of Annette herself, you may be wondering? Well, just in case a slightly self-referential rock opera starring people without trained voices and with music by Marc Bolan and Hitler lookalikes isn’t offbeat enough, baby Annette is played by a wooden puppet. It is fair to say this is a slightly creepy wooden puppet (though still not as unsettling as the CGI baby in the last Twilight film). As the film goes on it proves to be the case that there are sound artistic and metaphorical reasons for the baby to be played by a puppet. But this doesn’t make the various scenes of Driver and Cotillard putting the puppet to bed, and so on, any less bizarre.

The baby puppet only really becomes prominent in the later sections of the film, by which point the plot has soared to such heights of extravagant madness that it probably registers less than it would in a film with a more naturalistic plot. Someone is murdered (they keep on singing even as they are being done in), someone comes back as a vengeful ghost, Annette the baby puppet turns out to have a borderline-magical gift which leads to her becoming the subject of much attention, and so on.

I think the non-naturalism of the movie musical is one of its greatest strengths, but there’s non-naturalistic and then there’s Annette. This is one of those rare movies fully in the self-aware, presentational mode, which is open about its own artificiality. Normally this is a recipe for camp, pretentiousness and a rather desperate reliance on irony, but – and this is probably Annette’s greatest achievement – the remarkable thing about this film is that it still packs a significant emotional punch in its key moments. Much credit must go to the actors, particularly Adam Driver (especially since most of the songs seem to be pitched rather higher than he seems comfortable with), but of course the Mael brothers deserve praise for an inventive score which includes some extraordinary pieces of music.

I was hoping to see rather more of Ron and Russell on screen during the film, but apart from the opening and closing sequences they stay behind the scenes, except for a brief cameo as aeroplane pilots. But the film does have the mixture of wit, playfulness, and sincere emotion that is the hallmark of much of Sparks’ music. The central metaphor of the film is an effective one, and if the things it has to say about modern culture are not terribly original, it at least puts them across well.

This is a soaringly weird and often deeply strange film, but also a rather beautiful and affecting one. It’s a coming together of such special and diverse talents that it’s almost certainly a unique, one-off piece of work – not that this shouldn’t instantly be clear to anyone watching it. I doubt there will be a more distinctive film on release this year.

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The day before my sister turned 21 I travelled down to visit her and, as we had a bit of free time, decided to rent a video before going out for the evening (this sort of indicates how old my sister is, but I’m sure she’ll be fine with that). After the usual wrangling and discussions over what to see (what used to happen in video rental stores now happens while looking at the front end of Netflix or Mouse+, that’s progress for you) we ended up watching The Meaning of Life, which – of course – also included the supporting feature, The Crimson Permanent Assurance. I remember enjoying this enormously and commenting to my sibling on how very Terry Gilliamish it was.

She is less versed in the ways of film (and, indeed, Python) than me, and admitted that she didn’t actually know what that meant. I, on the other hand, will happily turn up to see anything made by Gilliam, always assuming it gets a proper cinema release wherever I’m living at the time. (This is quite a big qualification as I don’t recall Tideland or Zero Theorem showing up at all, while The Man Who Killed Don Quixote only scraped a small release in an independent cinema.) And generally I have a pretty good time, and occasionally a great one.

The only Gilliam film I didn’t get the first time I saw it was The Fisher King, his 1991 film. This is arguably a bit of an outlier in the Gilliam canon anyway, as it was a film he made as a deliberate change of pace after some stressful experiences in the 1980s – he is even on record as having said he didn’t want to make another ‘Terry Gilliam film’ while shooting it. He was much more of a directorial gun for hire on this movie, as opposed to the auteurial role he usually plays.

The movie takes place in New York City in the present day (which is to say, in the late 80s and early 90s) and the protagonist is one Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges), a radio ‘shock jock’ and provocateur. In true late 80s style Jack is callous, materialistic and self-obsessed, and believes his career is about to really start going places. He is correct – but not the places he is hoping for. An unstable listener takes one of Jack’s rants rather too seriously and is spurred to commit a spree killing in which several people die.

Several years on Jack is at a low ebb: his broadcasting career is over and he is working as a clerk in the video store of his girlfriend Anne (Mercedes Ruehl) – it is perhaps not entirely surprising that posters advertising Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen are prominently displayed around the place. Anne clearly adores him, but he is too drunk to notice this most of the time.

While contemplating suicide one night, he is set upon by thugs who believe he is homeless, but rescued by Parry (Robin Williams), an actual homeless person who believes himself to be a knight of the Round Table on a quest to retrieve the Holy Grail. (The Holy Grail is in the library of a wealthy architect on the Upper East Side, naturally.)

Jack’s initial gratitude and bemusement become something more significant when he learns that Parry used to be a successful and happily-married historian until he was widowed in the spree killing Jack was partially responsible for. He feels a sudden responsibility towards Parry, and perhaps the need to redeem himself. Maybe getting Parry together with the woman he is infatuated with (Amanda Plummer) could be a start…?

So, yes, this is the third sort-of Arthurian movie we’ve talked about in the last couple of months. Why should this be? Well, I’m still a bit peeved about The Green Knight having its release postponed, and these other films are filling the gap until (we may hope) it eventually appears. Also, my friends and I are playing King Arthur Pendragon at the moment, so anything with a whiff of Camelot about it is grist to my mill.

The Fisher King sounds like the name of a grand fantasy movie – at least, it does if you know your Arthuriana. The thing is – and I think this may be why I didn’t really take to it on my first viewing – it’s not actually a fantasy film in the traditional sense at all. The only thing epic about it is the length (which is arguably a little bit excessive). The Fisher King legend as related here does not bear much resemblance to the one traditionally associated with the Arthur cycle, and even then it is mainly just a metaphor for the central relationship in the film (it’s not even immediately apparent who is playing the role of the Fisher King in the story).

Instead, this is almost more like a slightly hard-edged Woody Allen comedy-drama about the lives and loves of various New Yorkers (albeit of a lower social stratum than usual), with occasional contributions to the art direction by Hieronymus Bosch. Gilliam seems to have been born several centuries too late and appears to gravitate towards mediaevally-inclined projects – he was the knight with the rubber chicken in Python, co-directed Holy Grail, did Jabberwocky on his own and creates some magnificent knights in this film and his version of Don Quixote – the fire-breathing Red Knight which pursues Parry (a metaphor for the real world, with all the pain and sorrow that involves) is one of Gilliam’s finest bits of conjuring.

If you approach The Fisher King fully cognisant of the fact that it’s only tangentially about the legend in question and more a piece of magic realism than full-on fantasy, I think the film is rather winning, and very worthwhile. It is humane, thoughtful, and quite happy not just to broach the topic of homelessness in the US, but to present homeless characters as sympathetic and intelligent people. The relationships between the four main characters are convincing and, without exception, extremely well played – Robin Williams gets top billing, but Jeff Bridges is at least as good in what’s arguably the central role, while Mercedes Ruehl deserved all the awards she won for a properly layered and utterly convincing performance as his girlfriend.

It’s a little odd to watch a Terry Gilliam film which is basically people just walking around and talking to each other, but the maestro finds plenty of opportunities to bring some visual distinctiveness to the film – quite apart from the Red Knight, there’s the lovely scene in which the crowd in Grand Central Station all start waltzing as Parry stumbles after the woman he’s fallen for. Given the slightly frenetic grimness which occasionally popped up in Gilliam’s films from the 1980s, it’s rather lovely that this one is so genuinely charming and romantic; it suggests he has a range as a director which he has never really got to fully explore (it’s perhaps slightly facile to make comparisons between Terry Gilliam and Orson Welles, but I think there are certainly parallels).

As I said, the film is probably about twenty minutes too long, considering the slightness of the story, but apart from the slightly languid pacing this is a really well-made, thoughtful film for adults. Before watching it recently, it was never really one of my favourite Gilliam films, simply because it doesn’t have that obvious Gilliamishness which is so obvious in The Crimson Permanent Assurance and his earlier feature films. However, it turns out that Terry Gilliam is still a great director even when he isn’t trying that hard to be Terry Gilliam.

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