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Posts Tagged ‘drama’

A boy (Issa Percia) wrapped in the French tricolor flag emerges from an apartment block in present-day Paris. There is a sense of great anticipation in the air as he joins his friends and they excitedly discuss the prospects for the football match they are eagerly anticipating – France is in the world cup final! They travel to the centre of the city and join with huge crowds also following the game and enjoying the occasion. (As ever at these moments, you can’t help but envy the French their national anthem: the UK’s is such an antediluvian dirge.) No spoilers, but France win and the celebrations are unrestrained and wholly joyful, flags and banners waving. It is therefore unsettling and ironic as the title card for Les Miserables, directed by Ladj Ly, appears over these images.

Soon we find ourselves in the company of Stephane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), a policeman newly transferred to Paris from the provinces. Ruiz has been assigned to the Street Crime Unit, a special group concerned with monitoring activity in the underprivileged district of Montfermeil (where Victor Hugo wrote and partly set his famous novel, many years ago). He gets a stern lecture from a senior officer about the importance of teamwork and backing up his immediate superior, Chris (Alexis Mamenti) – also known as Pink Pig – before hitting the streets with him and another colleague, Gwada (Djebril Zonga).

It soon becomes apparent that their patch is a tinder-box just waiting for the spark that will cause a major explosion: the mostly immigrant population are living in poverty, and there are constant tensions between the different ethnic crime gangs and the Muslim brotherhood, who also maintain a significant presence in the area (the film makes it clear without labouring the issue that the cops are more comfortable dealing with the crooks than the brotherhood). Ruiz has clearly not received a plum assignment.

Things get even more awkward: there is an abrasive edge to Ruiz’s relationship with Pink Pig practically from the moment they meet – partly due to Pink Pig bestowing the unwelcome nickname ‘Greaser’ on his new colleague – and this only becomes more pronounced when Ruiz is forced to back his colleague up when he attempts to illegally search a group of teenage girls. One of them attempts to film him as he does so: Pink Pig smashes her phone. He makes his position clear to Ruiz: when it comes to his interactions with the inhabitants of his patch, he is never wrong, and never sorry.

Already the film is immensely resonant with issues that have exercised the world this year, about the intersection of race, social opportunity and police power, and this continues as the plot develops. The team are called in to deal with a petty theft that threatens to flare up into a major clash between two of the local gangs. Whatever else they are, Pink Pig and his team are competent cops and locate the guilty party – the boy from the start of the film. But they find themselves under attack by a gang of children, nerves are stretched too far, and an innocent is badly injured. Rather than helping the wounded party, it’s clear that Pink Pig’s priority is covering up the whole incident. Is Ruiz going to support his superior or do his job?

We still seem to be at a point where the big distributors are being very wary about releasing big films into the multiplexes – at the moment the only major ‘new’ films are Tenet and The New Mutants, with the rest of the screens just showing kids’ movies and the odd oldie, though I note that the third Bill and Ted film is due to come out in the next week or so. If nothing else, one might hope this would create an opening for a film like Les Miserables, which might usually struggle to find an audience. (Although one must accept the possibility that all films are struggling to find an audience at the moment.) This is, regrettably, mainly because it is subtitled, although the general tone and subject matter are also likely to put some people off.

By this I mean that Les Miserables, while functioning superbly as a gripping thriller – something like a Francophone version of Training Day – is also clearly motivated by other concerns than the desire to entertain. If it had been made by certain American studios we’d probably discussing it as what they call ‘social entertainment’ – underpinning a solid narrative is the desire to engage with serious issues.

Initially it seems like this is going to primarily be a film about the abuse of police powers, framed as a conflict between Chris and Ruiz. Both actors give terrific performances, especially Mamenti (who also co-wrote the film) – Pink Pig initially seems like a joker with a slightly nasty edge to him, before he is revealed to be a dangerously arrogant and self-interested loose cannon. But the film is not totally simplistic – we see glimpses of a more rounded character, a capable police officer and family man. It’s suggested the job itself has worn these men down and brutalised them. Bonnard, for his part, puts across his character’s awkwardness and increasing concern extremely well, building up to the inevitable confrontations with his colleagues.

However, as the story develops it becomes clear that there is a wider issue being explored here: the extent to which the young people of Montfermeil have been failed and abandoned by adult authority figures. They are at best ignored by the authorities, allowed to slip through the cracks – at worst, they are exploited and treated as a resource by criminals and the police. Only the Muslim brotherhood genuinely appear to have their best interests at heart (which obviously opens up a whole new can of worms about the nature of multi-culturalism in western society). The climax, when it comes, is explicitly framed as a clash between youth in revolt and the men who have failed them, ending on a finely-achieved moment of ambiguity: a horrendously tense moment is left unresolved, as a quote from Hugo suggests that men are not born bad, but raised badly. It’s an entirely persuasive and affecting conclusion to a film which often feels like an roar of anger, but one which never loses focus or control. This is an excellent piece of cinema.

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In terms of premises for apocalyptic fiction, nuclear holocausts seem to have gone out of fashion in recent years, replaced (perhaps understandably) by climate change, pandemic, and zombie uprisings (now more than ever, an interestingly flexible metaphor). Given there are still the best part of 4,000 active nuclear weapons in the world, we could argue about whether the fact we seem less worried about all going up a mushroom cloud is sensible or not, but one way or another the idea just doesn’t seem to interest creative people any more. Unless they’re working on something which had its origins in the age of atomic angst, such as Craig Zobel’s 2015 film Z for Zachariah. (Zobel isn’t a particularly well-known director; his most recent film, The Hunt, was one of those that had its release clobbered when lockdown closed all the cinemas.)

The film is based on Robert C O’Brien’s posthumous and, it seems to me, quite well-known novel. Margot Robbie plays Anne, a young woman living alone in an isolated valley somewhere in the midwest of America (although the film is an international co-production and was filmed in New Zealand). There has been some kind of nuclear war and the world outside the valley is now irradiated and uninhabitable (quite a few books from years gone by have curious ideas about the spread and effects of nuclear fall-out: see, for instance, Nevil Shute’s On the Beach and its film adaptation). Her family have one-by-one all departed the family farm to go in search of help or other survivors, and – unsurprisingly – not returned.

There are a few scenes of Anne’s solitary and perhaps lonely life in the valley; she is a devout young woman and this seems to be something of a consolation to her. Soon enough, though – perhaps too soon for the success of the film – she finds a stranger has made his way into her world: a man in a radiation suit, named Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor). However, Loomis makes the mistake of swimming in a contaminated pool and falls gravely ill with radiation poisoning. Being a kindly sort, Anne takes him in and nurses him back to health.

Loomis recovers and confirms that the world outside the valley is essentially dead, and that their only hope for the future is to stay where they are and make the best of what resources they have. Things are a little awkward between them, however: Anne is young and not especially well-educated, while the more mature Loomis is a scientist and engineer with a different perspective on the world. When he proposes tearing down the chapel built by Anne’s father to provide raw materials for a building project, this is a source of tension between them. But there are other realities of the two of them living together long-term which he seems, perhaps, a little quicker to grasp than she is…

So far the film has stayed relatively close to O’Brien’s story, although the whole issue of why it’s called Z for Zachariah is skipped over somewhat (Anne’s reading of the Bible has led her to conclude that as the first man in the world was named Adam, so the last man must be called Zachariah): the book revolves around the disintegration of the relationship between Anne and Loomis as his true nature becomes apparent. The pace of the movie has been a little stately and the feel of it slightly theatrical (the actors are given plenty of space and time for their performances, especially Robbie), but this isn’t really a problem.

What is a problem is what comes next… or at least, it seems like a problem to me, for (as long-term readers will know) I am of that breed of weird eccentric who turns up for an adaptation of a book expecting it to have essentially the same story as that book. I know, stupid and unreasonable, but there you go. What happens next in the film of Z for Zachariah is that a third character turns up: Caleb, played by Chris Pine (I’m not going to have another go at Chris Pine at this point; his performance here is perfectly acceptable). Caleb is a former coal-miner and comes from a background much more like Anne’s than Loomis does. The two of them have a chemistry perhaps missing between Anne and the older man. Can the three of them find a way of living together amicably…?

Well, look, not to put too fine a point on it, but this is such a fundamental change to the story that it sends the whole thing off into the realms of being an adaptation in name only (adding a third character to a story the sine qua non of which is that it only features two characters will have that effect). You can’t really do a story about a young woman’s relationship with the last man on Earth if there are two last men in it (I was wondering what a better and more accurate name for this might be, which has led me to realise how very few traditional western first names start with a Y). Whatever the merits of this story – and it does hang together as a story solidly enough – it’s not O’Brien’s story. This bears as much resemblance (if not more) to other stories of tricky post-apocalyptic relationships, such as The Quiet Earth and The World, the Flesh and the Devil, as it does to the novel of Z for Zachariah.

(I was so annoyed by this that I tried to track down a copy of a genuine adaptation of the novel, the BBC version from 1984. This relocates the story to Wales but retains the actual narrative. Obviously a product of the same era of nuclear anxiety as films like Threads, what I saw of it seemed bleak and dour, with an equally slow start – although Anne’s family do appear in flashbacks. However, this was a two-hour film and I could only find the first hour online, so I can’t really comment on it any further.)

As a tale of obsession and controlling relationships in a post-apocalyptic setting, the movie is pretty reasonably done, although I did find the studied ambiguity of the conclusion to be a little bit irritating. What keeps it watchable despite the stately pace and the vague sense that you’ve seen similar stories told in fairly similar ways many times before are the performances: Ejiofor is always good, but here he’s in very much a secondary role. The movie is essentially a vehicle for Margot Robbie to show her range and perhaps be a bit less obviously blonde than usual (by which I mean this is a role where she de-glams herself, does a regional accent, and so on).

This isn’t a terrible movie if you like your slow-burning post-apocalyptic melodramas, especially if you like one or more of the actors involved. However, I do think the title is badly misleading and maybe even just there to lure in people familiar with the book. Z for Zachariah is not in any meaningful sense an adaptation of Z for Zachariah, and the fact it’s trying to pass itself off as one just makes me less inclined to recommend it.

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Back a couple of months ago when they first announced the re-opening of the cinemas, the lack of new movies was supposedly going to be made up for by the reappearance of many old classics to lure people back into the habit of going to the flicks. In Oxford at least this never really happened, as most of the cinemas are still shut and will stay that way for nearly another week – the Phoenix showed a revival of Spirited Away (which, to be fair, they seem to do about once a year anyway) and a screening of The Blues Brothers and that’s about it. (Would I have been tempted out by the promised showing of The Empire Strikes Back? We shall never know. I wouldn’t have wagered against it.) Maybe this would have paid dividends, however, as I am pleased to report that this week’s cinema attendance was up from two to five, possibly because the film on offer was another revival, if perhaps not quite a golden oldie: Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception.

Of course, there are revivals and revivals, and it is telling that the spruced up Inception re-release was preceded not just by a short retrospective film concerning it, but a preview piece for Nolan’s latest, Tenet. I am beginning to worry that expectations for Tenet are running impossibly high – even if it weren’t for the fact that the film has taken on a kind of totemic significance as the First Big Post-Lockdown Release, the look and feel of the publicity is leading people to think it is somehow a spiritual successor to Inception itself. Living up to this will be a stern test of even Nolan’s abilities.

I say this mainly because Christopher Nolan is possibly my favourite living film director: no-one currently working in mainstream cinema has the same track record when it comes to making films which are not just technically proficient, but also sophisticated and resonant, taking what look from some angles like glossy genre pictures and turning them into something affecting and mind-expanding (even Dunkirk, which is the first Nolan film I was significantly disappointed by, is still made to the highest of standards).

And (as you may have guessed) Inception is my favourite Nolan film: I saw it on its opening weekend ten years ago, staggering back to my digs in a due state of happy disbelief straight afterwards. I watch it once a year or so, on average: I seem to have ended up with two copies of it on DVD, although I have no real recollection of where the second one came from.

What makes it so special, in my eyes at least? Well, let us consider the situation pertaining at one point towards the end of the film. A group of people are on a plane, sleeping. They are dreaming that they are in a van in the process of crashing off a bridge. Some of the dream-versions of themselves in the van are asleep, dreaming they are in a hotel where gravity has been suspended. The dream-versions of some of the people in the hotel are also asleep, dreaming they are in an Alpine hospital surrounded by a small private army, with whom some of them are doing battle. Others are asleep, and are dreaming they are exploring an infinite, ruined city of the subconscious mind. So, just to recap: they are on a plane dreaming they are in a van dreaming they are in a hotel dreaming they are in a hospital dreaming they are in a ruined city. The miraculous thing about Inception is not merely that this makes sense while you are watching it, but it actually feels entirely logical and even somewhat straightforward.

One element of this film which I feel is too-little commented upon is the playfulness of it – a very deadpan sort of playfulness, admittedly, but even so. The main characters are thieves and con-artists, for the most part, and there’s a sense in which Nolan himself, as writer, is pulling an elaborate con-trick on the audience. A writer I interviewed many years ago suggested to me that writing pure fantasy is essentially cheating at cards to win pretend-money: a pointless exercise. The internal mechanics of Inception are pure fantasy: the story is predicated on the existence of technology allowing people to dream collectively, which is entirely fictitious (and the film naturally just treats it as a fact, not bothering to even suggest how it works). Yet Nolan comes up with underlying concepts and principles for the dream-sharing experience which are so detailed and plausible you buy into them without question, even though this requires the film to teach them to the viewer, in some detail, starting from scratch. Simply as a piece of expository work it is a startling achievement: militarised subconsciousnesses, dream totems, the ‘kick’ used to waken dreamers – all of these are very significant to the plot, and the script elegantly explains how and why without slowing down or seeming unnecessarily convoluted (I’m not going to pretend Inception isn’t convoluted or somewhat demanding for the viewer, but the rewards are more than worth it).

Just conceiving the world of the movie and then communicating it to the audience to tell a story of guys on a mission to break into someone’s subconscious mind and plant an idea there would be a noteworthy achievement, but threaded through this is a much less procedural and genuinely moving story of guilt and grief: main character Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is haunted by the memory of his dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) – but, this being the story that it is, this becomes literally true. In the dream worlds memories and metaphors have genuine power and existence, and the dream motif which dominates the film seems to me to mostly be there to facilitate this metaphorical level to the story – the heist-movie trappings are yet another mask, or con trick.

And yet there is another level to the movie, too – or perhaps another way of looking at it. For what is going to the cinema at all if not an exercise in collective dreaming? The idea of dream-as-movie is another pervasive one – Nolan uses the standard techique of beginning a scene with two characters already in place to indicate the discontinuities of the dream world. And the dream worlds the characters descend through, getting further away from reality as they go, resemble increasingly outlandish kinds of thriller – initially something quite gritty and urban, then the slick and stylised interior of a hotel where a complex Mission: Impossible-style scam is attempted, and then finally the Bond-like action in and around the Alpine fortress. Is it a coincidence that the next Bond film to be released featured a lengthy sequence in a ruined city bearing a striking resemblance to the subconscious realm of this one? Perhaps a compliment was being returned.

Great script, great direction: superb cast, too, many of them doing what is surely amongst their best work. You watch it now and are suddenly aware that Ellen Page and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, to name but two, seem to have dropped out of sight as far as mainstream cinema is concerned; even Tom Hardy seems to be only doing one film every two or three years, and those mostly blockbusters. (You look at Hardy in this film and realise that he does seem to be doing his audition piece for Bond: he seems either unaware of the fact that he’s not the main character in this movie, or deliberately choosing to ignore it.) I suppose there is still the consolation of Ken Watanabe making Transformers and Godzilla movies in the meantime.

For something to really grab my attention it usually has to be very big or very complicated, or preferably both: Inception meets these criteria, and then some. Every time I watch the movie I see something new, some new angle or connection or little piece of trickery, usually in the least expected of places. Add Hans Zimmer’s score to all the other things I’ve mentioned and – well, I suppose it is theoretically possible that Inception is not the best film of the 21st century so far. But I cannot think of another candidate.

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Anyone taking an interest in the future health of British cinemagoing may be pleased to hear that attendance at the film I ventured out to see this week was double that of the week before: which is to say, there were two of us here. At least I think there were only two: the other person was clearly deeply unsettled by the fact that my allocated seat was potentially within viral-transmission distance of theirs, and withdrew to the darkest corner of the theatre. As I say, I think that’s what happened. Word has reached me that the big mainstream cinemas will be reopening in Oxford in a couple of weeks too (it seems like a line in the sand has been drawn to protect the cinematic release of Tenet), so we shall see how things pan out then.

For now, though, it’s still mostly art-house movies, a few old favourites (no sign of our own dear Queen’s supposedly favourite film, ah-ahh, though apparently that is showing in some places too) and a few films which had their initial release clobbered by the lockdown which have crept back into cinemas for a day or two. I was here to see one of these: Philippa Lowthorpe’s Misbehaviour, which had been out for less than a week in March when all the cinemas closed. (No sign of Military Wives, which I saw the first thirty minutes of before the power failed in the cinema. Oh well: some things are clearly not meant to be, and it wasn’t as if I was enjoying it that much anyway.)

The movie opens with variations on the theme of a wall of men: hundreds of US soldiers serving in Vietnam (it is 1970) express their admiration for the reigning Miss World, who has been brought to see them by legendary comedian Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear), while aspiring university student Sally Alexander (Keira ‘Twice’ Knightley) faces a not entirely sympathetic interview panel. As exercises in setting a tone go, this is not the most understated in history, but the film does improve.

Sally ends up joining a Women’s Liberation group led by a – hippy anarchist? anarcho-syndicalist? drop-out? – named Jo (Jessie Buckley) – the far-left politics of the group are sort of danced around delicately, as they are supposed to be our heroes and thus not too off-putting for the traditionally more middle-of-the-road viewer of feelgood British based-on-fact social entertainment. The Libbers are not pleased that Miss World 1970 will be happening in London itself, and hit upon a scheme of doing more than just picketing the event – they will get inside and disrupt it.

This is one whole strand of the movie. Happening in tandem with it is the story of Miss World 1970, told from the inside: the event is the brainchild of Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans), a businessman and promoter still remembered on British screens courtesy of a perpetual credit on the grammatically-suspect celebrity hoofathon juggernaut Strictly Come Dancing (Morley created the original Come Dancing format). He and his wife Julia (Keeley Hawes) are contending with all manner of criticism, on grounds of both sexism and racism (the anti-apartheid movement have the contest in their sights).

The thing which elevates this strand of the movie far above the level of that with the protestors is that everyone involved seems to have twigged that all you need to do to make it absolutely clear what an indefensibly sexist anachronism Miss World was (and possibly remains: I wouldn’t know, as it’s kind of slipped off the cultural radar in the UK) is to just present the facts in a relatively straightforward way: I say ‘relatively straightforward’ because there is always the possibility of the scriptwriters slipping something in on the sly. But I am assuming it is a matter of historical record that, in order to fend off allegations of racism, the competition included both a Miss South Africa (paler complexion) and a Miss Africa South (not so much), that the contestants were measured and checked for padding ahead of the actual event, that the choreography of the television coverage was quite so reprehensible, and so on. It is ghastly, but you feel you’re being allowed to make your mind up about this for yourself, rather than having someone shout editorial commentary in your ear (which is the case with many of the scenes with the protestors and their encounters with the patriarchy).

The scenes with Sally Alexander, Jo Robinson and the others feel like they’re from a slightly different movie, in that they are clompingly nuance-free and rather simplistic: it’s clear there were political differences amongst the protestors, but these are essentially ignored in the name of an I-expect-it’s-supposed-to-be-life-affirming-and-empowering tale of sisters coming together to stick it to The Man. It feels like lowest-common-denominator film-making, and the strangest thing is that almost seems to be at odds with the other strand of the movie.

This is because, rather than operating in terms of duotone absolutes (beauty contests – BAD! lipstick – BAD! and so on), the behind-the-scenes part of the film does the contestants the great service of not treating them as victims or drones or idiots, but allows them the opportunity to make it clear why they have chosen to take part. Some of them are simply in it for the money, but for others the issues involved are more complex. Here the film starts to deal with the issue of race, and does so with more sophistication than I would have expected – although I detect a certain tentativeness on the part of the script to get into anything too complex and challenging. The best thing in the movie is Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s performance as Jennifer Hosten, the Grenadan entrant, as she provides the sort of depth the film is largely missing.

Of course, what you’re hoping for is the scene where Sally (who thinks the contest is an exploitative outrage and an affront to all women) and Jennifer (who sees it as a chance to raise the profile of and create opportunities for women who aren’t Caucasian) talk the issue over. For a long time it looks like this isn’t going to happen, but the scriptwriters eventually contrive one – however, they basically just skim over the surface of the topic in a couple of minutes, so you’re ultimately left feeling a bit unsatisfied.

It’s a shame, because the film could easily have lost a bunch of other scenes and used the time more effectively. There’s another subplot about Bob Hope flying in to appear at the contest, and to say this is unflattering is to put it rather mildly: he comes across as pompous and sleazy, much more so than Eric Morley himself. Why have they even bothered to make such a fuss about Hope’s fairly small part in this incident? Well, I guess that putting Greg Kinnear and (Academy Award Nominee) Lesley Manville in the publicity will help them flog a film about feminism in the States (Manville plays Hope’s long-suffering wife). Also, the one thing about this incident that everyone remembers is Bob Hope getting flour-bombed on-stage during the protest itself, so it would be odd not to include Hope in the movie in some way.

As you may recall, when the theatrical run of Misbehaviour was originally curtailed or delayed or suspended, I passed a quiet evening by watching Carry On Girls, another British movie inspired by the same events. That turned out to be a much grislier experience than I recalled, so the bar for Misbehaviour was lowered a bit. In the end – well, I turned up to the movie expecting to be preached at, and for some of the time I was. However, the behind-the-scenes bits of the film are interesting and occasionally thought-provoking, with an impressive performance from Mbathu-Raw and a fun comic turn from Rhys Ifans (in places it’s almost as if he’s trying to do Sid James, only in the wrong movie). There is enough of a glimmer of recognition that some of the issues involved here are not as simple as they first appear for the film to ultimately be fairly satisfying, even though it’s still very patchy.

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One fine day in the summer of 1995, I finished my university finals. Nearly everyone went off to get wrecked in celebration, but not I: even back then I find that I was dabbling with the abstemiousness which has now become my standard operating procedure, while other habits and tendencies were beginning to manifest themselves: I left my peers in the bar that lunchtime and went off to the cheapest of Hull city centre’s three cinemas, which was a place that gave one the chance to catch up on films that had come out a few months earlier at the now-unbelievable price of only ¬£1.50 a ticket. So, you may be wondering, what did I see? Well, I caught the afternoon showing of Leon. And then, feeling almost dizzy with the heady knowledge I would never have to answer an essay question on epistemology again, I saw the teatime show of Interview with the Vampire. And finally, with the words ‘what the hell!’ distinctly resonating in my brain, I saw the movie version of Stargate in the evening.

My main recollection of that day is an inexorable decline in the quality of the movies, to be honest: Leon remains a film I really like (I still think it’s far and away Luc Besson’s best work), while I’ve never been able to get on with Stargate in any of its incarnations, to be honest (this despite generally being well-disposed towards Roland Emmerich’s SF movies). But what of Interview with the Vampire, first released in 1994 and directed by Neil Jordan. Well, I tend to like Jordan’s stuff, or perhaps it’s better to say I usually find things to enjoy in his films: I liked the visual style of The Company of Wolves and the sheer bonkersness of Greta, for example.

I have to say, though, that I found Interview with the Vampire to be slimmer pickings than most of his work – which was a surprise to me, as I have been a fan of vampire movies since discovering Hammer horror in 1987, at least. Mind you, I also found Anne Rice’s source novel to be pretty heavy going – I think I originally bought the damn thing second-hand in 1998, bounced off it a couple of times, found another copy in a ‘free books’ box outside the neighbours’ house fifteen years later, and finally ploughed through it then. (A review of the book is here.)

Any version of this story you care to mention concerns the life (brief), death (very brief) and thereafter (extremely lengthy) of a vampire named Louis (played by Bradley Pitt), who is telling his tale to a Studs Terkel-esque writer (Christian Slater). Louis, by his own account, is driven to the verge of suicidal madness by the death of his wife and child in 1790s Louisiana, at which point he crosses the path of a hedonistic vampire named Lestat (Tom Cruise). With Louis’ permission, Lestat brings him over to his side of the street, with the promise of immortality and eternal youth…

Yes, I suppose we’ve all wondered what we would do with such a gift. What Louis mostly does with it is brood and complain, although occasionally he takes a break in order to complain and brood. Apparently he doesn’t like drinking human blood, which leads one to wonder why he agreed to being turned into a vampire in the first place. God knows why Lestat puts up with him (this is not a healthy relationship). Lestat decides that having a child will save their partnership (not the first time someone has made this rather suspect decision) and turns a young plague survivor named Claudia (Kirsten Dunst, in her movie debut), and the three of them pass many years brooding, complaining, and thinning out the local population.

There’s a good deal more in this vein (sorry) but it has to be said that this is not a film with a particularly strong narrative line. The only thing that makes it a conventional narrative (as opposed to just a series of episodic vignettes) is the persistent focus on Louis’ relationship with Lestat. Possibly one of the reasons I’ve never been a particular fan of this film is that it takes all the trappings of a traditional vampire movie but uses them to tell what’s basically a story about a dysfunctional relationship – a bit like the Hunger Games movies, which come on like dystopian SF thrillers but turn out to be something more nuanced and introspective.

The thing that makes Interview with the Vampire rather unusual for a big-budget studio movie is that all those Gothic horror trappings are basically there to hide the basic subtext of the story: which is that of a man forming a relationship with another man, and becoming part of a hidden subculture which more traditional folk sometimes find either alluring or revolting. The main character feels terribly guilty about his new lifestyle. Needless to say both Pitt and Cruise look – how best to put this? Androgynous isn’t quite the right word – somewhat ambiguous in this movie, with lovely flowing long hair and clear complexions. In short, this is surely one of the gayest films to come out of a major studio in the 20th century.

I said something similar in the review of the book, and, as you may have seen, someone took issue with this, suggesting that Rice’s vampires transcend conventional notions of romance and sexuality. Hmmm, well, maybe. The thing is, any sane person writing about vampires is going to use them as a metaphor for something – to do anything else would be to perpetrate vacuous fantasy – and it’s worth mentioning that at one point Rice rejigged the story so that Pitt’s character would be a woman, to be played by Cher. Her reasoning? She assumed that Hollywood would be too homophobic for the story as she wrote it. I’ll just put my case down here, shall I?

The BBC showed Interview with the Vampire the other night, and the following evening their late movie was Behind the Candelabra, which is either one of those coincidences or evidence that someone in scheduling has a sense of humour, for if you do accept that the primary subtext of Jordan’s movie concerns a gay relationship, then the throughlines of both it and the Soderbergh film are strikingly similar, with Louis as the young semi-innocent and Lestat as the preening older man (Lestat does play the piano in a couple of key scenes, as well). Of course, what may keep the film from being wholly embraced by the LGBT community is that one of the main drivers of the plot is that Louis spends most of the movie feeling terribly guilty about being a vampire (i.e. gay) and most of the vampires (i.e. …oh, you get the idea) are nasty, bitter, bitchy types.

None of this is really why I’m not a particular fan of this film – there are lots of different ways of doing vampire movies, from Nosferatu to Near Dark to Captain Kronos, for the vampire metaphor is unusually adaptable. I think it’s mainly just the style of the thing, which feels very much like the work of a novelist rather than a screenwriter: a bit too much reliance on voice-over for exposition, and a fondness for characters telling each other things rather than doing things. All mouth and no trousers, really.

All the moments you remember from the film have much to do with the script: they’re visual rather than narrative. Jordan mounts a very impressive movie with a real sense of style about it, and gets a really good performance out of an eleven-year-old Kirsten Dunst. None of the performances are what you’d call actively bad; Antonio Banderas gets one of his better early English-language roles (now I think of it, it would be fascinating to see Almodovar’s take on this material). Tom Cruise is… well, he’s in his ‘give me an Oscar’ mode, which he is wont to slip into in this kind of prestige production (perhaps we should be grateful he mainly does thrillers these days), and his performance is just pitched a bit too high.

I feel obliged to say, though, that it’s still a damn sight better than the sequel. But if we’re going to look in that direction, it is interesting to note that if What We Do In The Shadows (both movie and TV show) is spoofing anything in particular, it’s this movie (the episodes with the vampire council make this particularly clear). Not many things this year have made me laugh as often or as hard as the What We Do… TV show, so I suppose Interview with the Vampire deserves credit for that. Fairly faint praise, I admit, but sometimes you have to take your damnation wherever you can find it.

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Genre’s a funny old thing, especially when you start playing games with it. I used to watch a lot of rather formulaic American TV shows and in some cases the only specific episodes I can remember are the ones which stirred a big dollop of fantasy or horror into an otherwise naturalistic set-up: both CHiPs and Matt Houston did episodes about alien abductions, while there were also episodes of Quantum Leap featuring vampires and the Devil. As we have recently touched upon, British series have sometimes done the same thing – just today they repeated the episode of The Saint with the giant ants in it, while we’ve been talking about those episodes of The Avengers which included things like alien plants and genuine telepathy, rather than the usual tongue-in-cheek whimsy. (I suppose it works the other way too: the various Star Trek series would very occasionally do a show which was SF only in virtue of its setting.)

In conjunction with this, I recently mentioned the Bergerac Christmas special from 1986, which is a) exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about and b) memorable for being properly scary (at least it was when I was not yet in my teens). Bergerac, for those not in the know, was a sort of precursor to modern shows like Death in Paradise and Midsummer Murders, in that it was built around competently-presented detective story plots (with perhaps a touch more action to them than usual), occurring against an attractive, escapist background. To pay for the thing, the BBC went into partnership with an Australian network, and quite possibly the Jersey tourist board too, given this is where the series is largely set.

Our lead character is Jim Bergerac (played by John Nettles), a detective with the (fictitious) Bureau des Etrangers, a usefully vague fictitious branch of the Jersey police. Bergerac has the two essential attributes of a 1980s TV detective, namely a memorable car (a 1947 Triumph roadster, it says here) and a complicated personal life (he is divorced and has a history of alcoholism).

The Christmas show in question is entitled Fires in the Fall, and was written by Chris Boucher (this must have been one of the last things he did on the show before departing to focus on Star Cops, which we have also discussed recently). The tone is quite properly set by a scene in a darkened graveyard and what sounds like a child’s voice chanting a nursery rhyme. Yes, this is going to be a bit spooky. The plot itself gets underway with Bergerac’s father-in-law, local tycoon Charlie Hungerford (Terence Alexander), asking for his help in exposing a man named Raoul Barnaby (Barrie Ingham) whom Charlie believes to be a fake medium (widescale cognitive dissonance ensues for anyone used to John Nettles himself playing a character named Barnaby in Midsummer Murders).

Barnaby has been attempting to insert himself into the good graces of wealthy local widow Roberta Jardine (Margaretta Scott), a friend of Charlie’s, by trying to contact her late husband. Jim and his partner Susan (the great Louise Jameson) duly attend the seance, something Susan is not entirely pleased about following a rather eerie experience at an old house she is involved in selling. Further odd events ensue at the seance, with the voice of a young girl being heard, strange scratches appearing, and a grave in an one of the island’s cemeteries bursting into flame at the same time.

Barnaby appears convinced he has been contacted by the spirit of the girl whose grave was interfered with, and goes to the press with this – a scummy reporter (Paul Brooke) duly appears – which in turn forces Bergerac’s boss to task him with finally closing the case on the girl’s death. Apparently she was the only victim of a spree of arsons back in the 1960s, but what is the connection to the Jardine family? It turns out the cop who was assigned to the case back then retired after it went nowhere – well, not quite ‘retired’, but took a well-paid job with Jardine’s company. There are also some irregularities involved with the firm of undertakers who handled the interment.

Bergerac thinks he’s cracked the case – the arson attacks back in the 1960s were the work of Mrs Jardine’s disturbed son, who is known to have committed suicide. Bergerac thinks he killed himself out of guilt, after being responsible for the girl’s accidental death, and the family covered up the scandal. Now Mrs Jardine’s rapacious niece (Amanda Hillwood) has uncovered the family’s dark secret, and – in partnership with Barnaby, an old associate of hers – is using it to damage her aunt’s mental stability to the point where they can fake her suicide, allowing them to inherit the family fortune.

So far, a satisfying and clever detective story, as smart and cynical as the best of Boucher’s work elsewhere. The supernatural trappings just seem to be set dressing, fun though they are. But what was that scene with the spooky old house all about? Before we even have time to ponder that, things abruptly take a different turn. Mrs Jardine abruptly rumbles Barnaby as a fraud after he affects to receive messages from her dead son. The corrupt copper involved in the cover-up (Ron Pember) and Barnaby himself are found dead in mysterious circumstances, with a black-robed figure seen near them shortly before, both times.

It turns out that the dead son did not in fact die: he was just horribly burned and smuggled off to a Swiss sanatorium by his mother, with the story of his death put about to facilitate the cover-up. Now, it seems, he is back in Jersey, and seeking revenge on the individuals involved in his mother’s murder (quite why he offs the bent copper is a bit of a plot hole). It also seems that he used to live in the spooky old house where Susan had her scary experience at the start…

Cue a rather creepy sequence where Susan is stalked around the old house again by the cowled spectre – all of the set-piece ‘phantom attacks’ are very well directed, with Tom Clegg the gentleman responsible. Perhaps running and screaming is a bit less than Louise Jameson deserves as a performer, but Bergerac was a show with a very large and unwieldy regular cast at this point (there’s Bergerac, his girlfriend, his ex-father-in-law, his ex-wife, his daughter, his boss, his boss’ secretary, two other detectives from the Bureau, and a nightclub owner of his acquaintance) and I suppose this was as elegant a way of incorporating all of them into the plot as any. It’s almost a shame they don’t make more of this horror angle, but the script still manages to bring it into the resolution of the main story: the villain confesses to the murder after glimpsing Nemesis over the shoulder of an oblivious, genially sceptical Bergerac: an almost uncannily creepy moment.

And Boucher still hasn’t quite finished – the final twist of the episode is that the believed-dead son has not snuck back to Jersey, killed his mother’s tormentors and then escaped. According to the Swiss staff, he has been there in the sanatorium all the time. Nettles delivers this information with a completely straight face, in complete contrast to the amused scepticism about the supernatural that’s been going in. It’s very nicely pitched, in fact: it’s up to the viewer to decide whether this a simple case of the Swiss staff getting it wrong, or some sort of psychic projection, or something even stranger and more obscure. Anyone who doesn’t like Christmas ghost stories is afforded just enough wriggle-room to be able to avoid feeling peeved.

At the time this felt like a fun seasonal change of pace, but it seems that Bergerac did its first horror-tinged episode earlier in the same season (I should say that every other episode was shown in 1985) – What Dreams May Come, starring Charles Gray (and very much informed by Gray’s appearance in The Devil Rides Out). The annual excursion into something a bit supernatural became something of a Bergerac tradition (I remember my teenage sister being genuinely scared by 1990’s The Dig, about a Viking burial site with a spectral guardian), but I don’t think any of them were quite as effective as Fires in the Fall (maybe the ninety-minute run-time helps the story and atmosphere develop). No-one, I think, would describe Bergerac as a genuinely classic piece of TV, but this is a solidly entertaining episode.

 

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Been to the cinema much recently? No, me neither: if you’d told me at any point in the last decade or so that there would be a four-and-a-half-month gap between visits to the pictures, I would have concluded that this indicated my leaving the country, going to prison, or having some kind of medical emergency. Nice one me, I suppose, as a medical emergency has indeed been to blame. However, for whatever reason, attempts to drag the country back to something resembling how things used to be have been in progress and this weekend saw the re-opening of the first cinema in Oxford.

Naturally I was there, but I wonder, I wonder. I am as critical as anyone of the efforts of those in power and their media cheerleaders to persuade everyone to resume their old lifestyles, mainly for the benefit of the bottom line and the continuation of the old economic model. People have, perhaps, begun to question what they took for granted, or were told, and even glimpsed another way of living more to their liking. Certainly the virus has shredded our former way of life, and it is foolish to pretend this can quickly or easily be repaired.

Then again, am I not just as worthy of scorn for clinging to the hope that the old model of cinema can be preserved? As you may have surmised, I used to go to the cinema two or three times a week, on average, occasionally far more often than that. Often this wasn’t because I had a burning desire to see a particular film, but I enjoyed following the schedules, finding new and unusual things to write about – even the simple routine of going to the cinema (buying my ticket, taking my seat, waiting for the lights to go down, watching the adverts for the umpteenth time) was something I genuinely took pleasure in. You don’t get any of those things just streaming something.

I hope it’s too early to make predictions, because the signs were not especially positive – although the whole experience was a little surreal, to be honest. It turned out I had forgotten which of my cinema cards was which, for one thing: that would have been unthinkable back in March. (Though looking on the bright side, my membership has been extended until the middle of next year.) There were all the masks and bits of hand sanitising equipment you would have expected, all for the benefit of… well, just me, if we’re honest about this. I had the whole screen to myself. Now, I should say that this was not that unusual even back in the old days, given some of the obscure films I went to see at funny times, and the afternoon showing of a subtitled art-house drama on a sunny August day would likely never pull a big crowd. But even so.

Notably few commercials, and – other than one for vodka – most of these were for either charities or public health agencies. Not many trailers, either – well, one, to be precise, for Tenet (which feels like it is rapidly becoming the last great hope of mainstream cinema for this year). According to the trailer Tenet is (or was) released in July 2020 – but, given the time-mangling nature of the story implied by the trailer, this actually feels oddly appropriate, and it’s far from the only film which had its publicity campaign overtaken by events: all over the city centre one could see buses still decked out in advertising material for movies which were supposed to open in March, and never did: ghosts of a vanished future.

Anyway, I went to the cinema to go to the cinema rather than see any particular film. The one I ended up going to see was Alice Winocour’s Proxima, which had a hopeful, slightly science-fictiony-sounding title – although had I known going in that Winocour also co-wrote the accomplished but slightly heavy Mustang I might have managed my expectations a bit. There you go: always do your research, friends.

Proxima does indeed turn out to be slightly science-fictiony, by which I mean it is a film about space exploration rather than an actual piece of science fiction. Or is it really about something else? Eva Green plays Sarah Loreau, a woman whose lifelong ambition has been to become an astronaut: her daughter (Zelie Boulant-Lemesle) is named Stella and her cat is named Laika, after the Soviet space dog. At the start of the film it looks like her dream has come true, as she is selected for Proxima, a long-duration space mission and a crucial part of the programme which will culminate in putting a person on Mars.

Rather tellingly, the first thing Sarah worries about once she gets this news is sorting out her childcare for while she’s away: Stella will have to go and live with Sarah’s former partner Thomas, an astrophysicist (Lars Eidinger). Then it’s on with the training, and having to sort out some sort of modus vivendi with the American mission commander, Shannon (Matt Dillon), who seems openly dubious about her abilities. As the training regime grows increasingly gruelling, Sarah becomes aware of the strain all of this is placing on her relationship with her daughter and the concerns of her psychiatrist (Sandra Huller).

I know what you’re thinking: Gravity knock-off. Well, I can see where you’re coming from, but no it isn’t, not least because none of the film actually takes place in space – it’s all resolutely earthbound, about the training process rather than the actual mission. A big chunk of it looks like it was shot at Star City in Russia (officially the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre), with some scenes being filmed around the Baikonur space centre. I’m not as much of a space enthusiast as some people whom I know, but even so, the nuts and bolts of the training regime are fascinating and occasionally unexpected, assuming the film isn’t just making things up: trainee astronauts watching upside-down TVs to prepare for work in zero gravity, for instance. I think this naturalistic element of the film will be quite engaging enough to satisfy many viewers.

On the other hand, though, by the end it is quite clear that the movie isn’t really about a woman preparing to go into space: it’s about a mother on that journey. Every element of the story is viewed through the lens of the relationship between Sarah and Stella and Sarah’s attempts to preserve the bond between them. We are invited – maybe even commanded – to sympathise with Sarah and accept that the maternal connection is one which the male-dominated space exploration establishment do not appreciate. At one point Sarah commits a massive breach of mission protocols in order to keep a promise to her daughter, and it is presented as a transcendent moment of togetherness rather than someone being dangerously irresponsible. It doesn’t quite sit well with a film which is implicitly critical of the chauvinist American alpha-jock played by Dillon (when asked how he feels about a French woman joining the crew, his response is that he’s happy, because they’ll have someone around to do all the cooking). Dillon’s character suggests that Sarah’s preoccupation with her daughter makes her a bit of a liability, but the really odd thing is that the film implies he is correct, while simultaneously presenting her as a sympathetic, admirable figure. (Then again I am neither a woman nor a parent, just someone who occasionally enjoys space films: I fully expect other people to have very different takeaways where Proxima is concerned.)

Well, apart from that it is competently written and directed, with a very good performance from Eva Green and solid support from everyone else (Boulant-Lemesle gives an extremely self-assured turn for one so young). As I said, the nitty-gritty of the story is fascinating, I just couldn’t buy into the film’s idealisation of motherhood, or the suggestion that mums who go into space are making some kind of unique sacrifice – plenty of fathers go into space, after all. Is Winocour suggesting they are all distant, cool parents without much of a connection with their kids? Oh well. Not the best film of the year, nor the worst, and so probably the kind of thing we should be hoping for going forward, if we really want to see the restoration of something resembling the old days. That still feels like it’s a long way off, though.

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It was suggested that I come up with some kind of contribution on the topic of ‘public art’ for a forthcoming themed issue of the webzine I contribute to. Once I’d found out what that meant and done some googling, it turned out that there are a few films on this subject, mostly documentaries, but for the most part access to them is restricted, either by geography or a paywall. Maybe this is the future of cinema right here: if, as people are seriously suggesting, physical cinemas will no longer be financially viable in the post-pandemic world, then everything is going to depend on where you live and which streaming services you can afford to subscribe to. At which point I think I will simply just throw in the towel and just stick to watching moronic game shows and TV series from fifty years ago.

Thankfully, that awful day is still a few months away, and in the meantime there are still a few relatively free streamers available: mostly those tied to TV networks, which just means you have to endure them stopping the film now and then while they try to sell you things you can’t really afford any more and never needed in the first place. One of them turned out to be showing The Square, directed by Ruben Ostlund (O with two dots over it), an artist whose career has had some ups and downs: The Square won the top prize at Cannes, but on the other hand his previous film, Force Majeure, suffered the indignity of an American remake starring Will Ferrell. So it goes sometimes.

The Square takes place in and around a Stockholm art museum, curated by the suave and thoughtful Christian (Claes Bang). He is something of a public figure around town, and the museum is hosting a number of prestigious shows and installations, including a man pretending to be an ape (Terry Notary) and the ground-breaking ‘Mirrors and Piles of Gravel’, which is pretty much what it sounds like.

All is well in Christian’s world until he sees a young woman begging for help while he is on the way to work one morning: naturally, his decent and humane instincts lead to him being dragged into a scene with her, her violent ex, and another stranger. Everything seems to resolve itself quite peacefully, but then he is horrified to discover it was all a set up and he has been mugged.

This preys rather on Christian’s mind, as you might expect, and somewhat takes his mind off preparations for a new installation called ‘The Square’, which apparently symbolises compassion and shared humanity. Then, one of his staff is able to trace the location of the stolen phone to a nearby tower block, and rather than face a confrontation, Christian decides to send a letter demanding the return of his property to every single flat.

You know this is not going to end well, but exactly how it all goes wrong is not quite so easy to guess. The general thesis of the film is much easier to discern, though, as it’s not presented with particular subtlety: one scene shows a charity worker in a busy street asking the passers-by to ‘Save a human life’, the irony being that she herself seems completely oblivious to the plight of the various homeless people around her. Most of the film is a series of extended riffs on the same idea: characters make a big deal about how decent, humane, refined and liberal they are, but then their actual behaviour suggests they are rather more petty and self-serving.

There are also a number of pretty good gags about the absurdity of the contemporary art and culture world: at one point part of one of the piles of gravel is accidentally hoovered up, forcing Christian to get some fresh gravel and recreate the pile using old photos as a model. (The Duchampian question of what this says about the nature of art is left implicit.) The hip young social media gurus the gallery hires to drum up publicity for The Square come up with a video which is ridiculously offensive and inappropriate, but still somehow entirely credible.

Elsewhere the film perhaps acts as a reminder that satire and comedy are not always the same thing. In one of the film’s big set pieces (and the one depicted in most of the publicity), the artist pretending to be an ape runs amok at a dinner, which is initially greeted with indulgent laughter from the attendees, but eventually results in an angry mob delivering a beating. It’s oddly uncomfortable and unsettling to watch, as are the various scenes where Christian is given a hard time by a young boy who is suffering as a result of his non-confrontational approach to dealing with the muggers.

In the end, if this is a comedy, then it is a comedy of manners and social awkwardness, although one taking place in a milieu that was unfamiliar to me, at least: there’s a scene in which Christian and Anne (Elizabeth Moss), a journalist he hooks up with, have a protracted row over who should be allowed to dispose of the used contraceptive. Another depicts a visiting artist (Dominic West) attempting to give an interview in front of an audience which contains a man with Tourette’s syndrome: it’s all very low-key and naturalistic, but still somehow squirm-inducing. (Apparently this is one of several sequences in the film based on real events; another touch of verisimilitude which led to problems is that The Square is ascribed to real-life artist Lola Arias – there was a dispute over whether she actually gave her permission to be used.)

You know, reading all this back I’m making The Square sound like a solid, thoughtful, intelligent film, a worthy Palm D’Or winner. Maybe it is – Bang’s performance is a fine one (he has since become rather better known in the UK after appearing in the BBC’s Dracula), and it is clearly not one of those films which has just been slapped together. However, as with Force Majeure, I found a lot of it to be so understated, deadpan and slow that I wasn’t sure what to make of it. The problem is compounded here by the fact The Square is nearly two and a half hours long. I’m not saying it sprawls, but I did find it very hard work and in the end watched it, effectively, as a mini-series of three episodes, which isn’t something I normally consider doing. After all that, would I recommend it? I’m not sure. It almost seems more interested in its own austere and careful style than in actually making its points effectively and entertainingly. It actually comes across as slightly pretentious, which for a film aspiring to satirise pretentiousness is not a good look. It’s okay, but I would be wary of giving a more enthusiastic endorsement.

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Well, how’s about this for a coincidence: we go from one film about a man stuck on a remote island with slightly crazy host and some unfriendly half-human half-animal creatures, to – well, another one, albeit of rather different feel and tone. I refer to another fairly obscure genre movie currently hosted by Get Clicks, which so far as I can tell didn’t get any kind of cinema release in the UK, despite the fact this is a Franco-Spanish movie made in English solely to improve its international chances. The name of the movie is Cold Skin, made in 2017 by Xavier Gens, and based on a novel by Albert Sanchez Pinol (though owing a debt elsewhere as we shall soon see).

We are on a ship heading somewhere remote, in Autumn 1914, and a young man (David Oakes) is off to take up a posting as a sort of meteorological clerk on a bleak island somewhere. Could it be that he is running away from the war consuming Europe? This certainly seems to be the implication. Already everything has got very Thoughtful and Significant. Soon enough the ship reaches its destination, but of the man our chap is replacing there is no sign. Despite the fact that the island is a thousand miles from nowhere, it still has a lighthouse on it (the script has a brave stab at explaining this rather obvious plot contrivance) and it turns out the lighthouse keeper, Gruner (Ray Stevenson), is a dissolute old grump unable to satisfactorily explain what happened to the previous weatherman.

Nevertheless, they still drop our chap off and sail away, leaving him with his anemometers and the notes left behind by his predecessor, which include some alarming anatomical sketches and the declaration ‘DARWIN WAS WRONG!’ which is never a good sign if you’re a character in this sort of movie. Before very long at all, dark shapes are slobbering around outside the shack and webbed hands are creeping in under the door – the fish-men have landed, and they are not friendly!

Now, I have to say that at this point I was not unimpressed with the movie, but it did seem to me something had gone badly wrong with the pacing of it: we were less than twenty minutes into a film lasting an hour and three quarters, and we had already reached the monster-menace-jeopardy stage. How on Earth were they planning to sustain it for another ninety minutes?

But no: the film goes off in a slightly different direction. Our chap realises he won’t survive alone and prevails upon Gruner to let him live in the much better-fortified lighthouse with him. The young, sensitive idealist and the bitter old misanthrope are thus thrown together in a nightly battle for survival with the swarms of (badly-nicknamed) ‘toads’ seemingly intent on tearing them to pieces. Things are complicated by the presence of a female fish-person whom they have, shall we say, a similar yet different interest in (let’s just say that everyone gets lonely sooner or later).

Cold Skin would normally seem like a very weird film, but nowadays it at least has the advantage of not feeling quite as aggressively strange as The Lighthouse, a film with which it shares a number of superficial similarities: both films are largely two-handers, largely set in lighthouses, largely about the effects of isolation (literal and emotional), and so on. There’s also the fact that both films are conducting respectful raids on H.P. Lovecraft – in Cold Skin‘s case, this is not just in terms of substance (angry fish-men on the prowl) but also some of the dialogue: ‘What we know is a small island in the vast ocean of what we don’t!’ cries our hero. Compare and contrast with ‘We live on a small island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity’ (that’s from the opening of Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu, by the way).

Well, you know, I love a bit of Lovecraftiana, especially if it’s engaging with the author’s deeper themes and not just sticking a CGI version of Cthulhu in at the end as a sort of Easter egg. Unfortunately, Cold Skin is… actually, I’m not sure what it is. It certainly feels like an attempt at a more commercial movie than The Lighthouse – it has a lot more action in it, and it’s not made in black and white using an ancient aspect ratio – and initially it seems like there may be some kind of metaphor going on for the first world war, with the endless, brutalising battle between the two men and the fish-creatures. But in the end it turned out to be less bleak and existentially dismal than I was hoping for, and the film turns out to be about the horribleness of people much more than the horribleness of a dispassionate mechanistic cosmos.

The film’s highminded seriousness is impressive, and the performances from the two men are impressive – as is that of Aura Garrido as the fish-girl, I suppose, but I did spend a lot of time wondering where her prosthetics ended and her body-paint began – but in the end the movie still feels slow and heavy and rather portentous (I was looking at my watch long before the end). It’s likewise an impressively polished production, but then I really think I need to stop commenting on things like that – these days it’s an exceptional movie that looks primitive and rough around the edges.

I ended up not liking Cold Skin nearly as much as I wanted to. It’s a decent film, made well, clearly with serious intentions – but it doesn’t really grip, it doesn’t seem to have anything unexpected to say for itself, and in the end its one of those films that seems happy to raid from Lovecraft on a superficial level but not really engage with his ideas in a deeper way. It passed the time reasonably and was occasionally not uninteresting, but I would struggle to give it a stronger recommendation than that.

 

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There have been many pleasing acts of generosity from entertainment providers during the current situation, one of which has been the decision by the BBC to provide a stack of classic RKO movies to stream, most of them slightly in advance of their being shown over the coming few weeks (I note that The Magnificent Ambersons and King Kong are both on in the afternoons this week). One of these is possibly the most celebrated movie RKO ever made, Orson Welles’ 1941 film Citizen Kane.

Citizen Kane is the Citizen Kane of mainstream movie-making, which isn’t actually very informative except to suggest just what kind of status this film possesses in our culture. For decades it was virtually a shoo-in whenever they held a poll to decide the greatest movie ever made – and of course the problem with this is that it can raise expectations to an unreasonably high level. I first saw the film when it was shown on TV for its fiftieth anniversary, and I was left distinctly underwhelmed by it, and cheerfully nodded along with a short film made by Robert Kee suggesting it is in fact greatly overrated.

Watching it again now… I have moderated my opinion of it rather, possibly due to the fact I have done a lot of reading about Orson Welles and his career in the last few years and better understand the extraordinary background to this film – how a radio and theatre actor and director, still only in his mid-twenties, was assiduously courted by Hollywood and offered an unprecedented deal, how Kane only came about when an adaptation of Heart of Darkness proved unworkable, how the production ran into serious trouble when the media mogul William Randolph Hurst (not unreasonably) concluded it was based on his own life, and so on. That said, for many people it is still probably just the film with the sledge.

Citizen Kane opens with a trip through the grounds of the decaying palace of Xanadu, luxurious home of Kane himself (Welles). But the zoo, the tennis courts and the swimming pool have fallen into disrepair, as has Kane himself. He is the first character we see, and the first thing we see him do is utter his last word – famously, ‘Rosebud’ – and then die of old age.

But who was this Kane guy anyway? Welles obligingly provides a faux-newsreel obituary to the great man, establishing his wealth and late-life eccentricity, the issues in his personal life, and the fact he was viewed with suspicion by both the boss-class and the workers. An imposing, contradictory figure – not good enough, decide the editorial team putting the obituary together. They need to find an angle on Kane, to figure out just who he really was. Maybe ‘Rosebud’ holds the key? A reporter (William Alland) is charged with interviewing key figures from Kane’s life to try to discover just who the man really was…

The bulk of the film, therefore, depicts Kane’s life, displayed as a series of flashbacks: born to poor parents in Colorado, he was taken from them and essentially raised by the bank, inheriting a vast fortune at the age of twenty-five. He uses this to build up a vast media empire of newspapers, magazines, and later radio networks; marries, although the relationship stagnates and fails; and his nascent political career is permanently halted when his affair with a singer is discovered. From here it is all downhill for Kane, and he becomes increasingly isolated from those he was once close to.

As far as the story is concerned, the striking thing about it nowadays is how resonant it all feels (up to a point at least). Kane is motivated, the film suggests, by the desire to be loved: not in a close, intimate sense, for he seems very limited in his ability to give genuine affection himself, but in the sense of being adored by all around him. This seems to underpin all he does. He is also not above using his media power to manipulate events in his favour – Hearst’s supposed quote of ‘You provide the pictures, I’ll provide the war’ is slightly modified and put into Kane’s mouth. Can you say fake news? Finally, there is his attempt to run for office, which hits a serious snag in the form of a sex scandal.

Even Kane, of course, can’t brazen his way through this, which is where the film takes a different track to reality – though, if we’re going to talk about Citizen Kane as some kind of weird non-prediction of the rise of Donald Trump, it’s worth mentioning that Kane’s papers attribute his defeat to fraud at the polls, which is an excuse we may well be hearing before the end of the year, who can tell. Citizen Kane is, apparently, Trump’s favourite film, but – with uncanny predictability – his take on the film is utterly at odds with the consenus: he finds Kane to be a tragic figure, isolated by his great wealth, undone by poor choices of sexual partner. In short, Trump is a lot more sympathetic towards Kane than Orson Welles ever was, which probably tells you everything you need to know.

The film is really about a man who chooses the love of power over the power of love – although Welles does open the door a crack to finding some pathos for Kane, with the final suggestion that it was childhood trauma which turns him into the emotionally stunted monster he eventually becomes – and while it is solid, it is not especially innovative or thought-provoking. The film’s reputation rests not on the story itself, but how it is told – Citizen Kane does have its own visual style, or perhaps I should say an array of visual and storytelling techniques – use of handheld cameras, extended flashbacks, innovative cuts and fades, unusual compositions, and extensive use of deep focus.

There is a sense in which Welles is clearly writing the book on cinematic storytelling which everyone else has been dipping into ever since; the film is stuffed with casual bits of brilliance such as the breakfast montage. The consistent invention of the film is daunting, but as one looks at it more closely one does almost get the sense that Welles is often just showing off – the shot where the camera appears to pass through a neon sign and a pane of glass is justly famous, but it gets repeated twice more. And I do think there is something in one of Kee’s main criticisms – that the techniques and devices employed by Welles don’t always serve the story. There’s another famous shot of Kane walking between a pair of mirrors, and his reflections dwindle off to infinity – and it looks great, but how is it helping to tell the story at that moment?

Given the fact that we barely see Kane himself through our own eyes, but overwhelmingly through the recollections of others, you might expect Welles to make the most of this and exploit the possibilities implicit in the use of multiple perspectives – Kane’s ex-wife is hardly going to remember him in the same way as a devoted, long-serving employee, for example. But this doesn’t seem to happen – Kane is Kane, consistently portrayed by Welles throughout the film.

Then again, I suppose the director would have said that this is a character study, not a film about the unknowability of character. The concluding irony of Kane is that the journalists conclude there isn’t a single easy key to understanding a man’s life and personality, after which the film suggests that the exact opposite may be true. Perhaps this simplistic approach to psychology is another reason to be more critical of the film.

One could never say that Citizen Kane is not a landmark, classic film, though: ascertaining the extent of its impact on modern film is a bit like trying to map the coastline of the UK without leaving Northampton city centre – Orson Welles marked out much of the territory people have been using ever since. That Hollywood was never again able to really make full use of his faculties was surely a tragedy for them both, but this film alone means that Welles is assured of immortality for as long as the medium persists.

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