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Posts Tagged ‘drama’

I find myself once again on the threshold of a moment which feels self-indulgent and somewhat pointless, for I am about to devote time and energy to writing about a film which, on average, nobody in the world is likely going to see. What can I say; I like the physical act of going to the cinema, and at the moment the vast majority of films I have either paid to see or would have to be paid to see. So, after a thorough search of the Oxford listings, and having briefly contemplated going to see a revival of The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, I ended up trundling along to the one and only local screening of Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country (NB: title may be ironic).

This is a reasonable example of what I always think of as a Sou’western; which is to say that it does a very good job of having much of the atmosphere and imagery of a Western, but is actually set in Australia. Warwick Thornton is, apparently, a respected Australian film-maker, whose special area of concern is the treatment of the indigenous people of the continent. If this leads you to conclude that there are not a lot of laughs in Sweet Country, you are, as they say, bang on the money.

The film is set in the 1920s, in an outback so vividly presented you can almost taste the dust and smell the sweat. Sam Neill plays Fred Smith, a tolerant and pious landowner, who is asked a favour by his neighbour Harry March (Ewen Leslie). March is a troubled man, very likely suffering from PTSD following his experiences in France with (one presumes) the Anzacs – not that there was much understanding of such things at the time. Living alone is not helping him to cope, and he requests the assistance of Smith’s indigenous farmhand Sam (Hamilton Morris) for a day or so.

Well, let’s just say that March’s casual racism does not get in the way of some bad stuff going down between him and Sam’s wife, although Sam is not aware of this. But she is left in terror of March, which has serious consequences a few days later. Drunk and in pursuit of a young boy he suspects of stealing, an almost-unhinged March resorts to shooting up the cabin that Sam and his wife are in. Fearing for both their lives, Sam grabs a gun and shoots back, killing March.

It’s clearly justified self-defence, but Sam is wise enough to understand that he is very unlikely to get justice from the courts of the whitefella, and he and his wife take flight into the outback. Sure enough, an armed party is soon in pursuit of the duo, led by the local sergeant (Bryan Brown), with Smith along to try and ensure that some semblance of due process is observed…

As I say, you could quite easily rewrite this script so the story was relocated to somewhere in the wide open spaces of America in the late 19th century, instead of the Australian outback fifty years later. (I am aware that saying this will doubtless incense Warwick Thornton. Sorry.) There is the occasional moment which starkly reminds you of the location of the story, however – at one point the posse encounters a group of unwesternised indigenous Australians, who are not pleased to see them, and in a startling moment the film makes graphically clear that boomerangs are not toys or joke weapons. Later on there is a slightly surreal alfresco trial sequence, with most of the participants sitting in deckchairs. In the end, though, it is not really the subject matter of the story that keeps this from being a full-on western (or sou’western), but the way it is handled. It is a western in the same way that You Were Never Really Here is an action thriller: which is to say that it’s not, but it uses the raw material of this kind of story to create a much more considered, thoughtful and frequently non-naturalistic narrative.

The fact that this kind of film is getting any kind of major international release must be at least partly due to the presence in it of Bryan Brown and Sam Neill. Brown is one of those actors you’d probably recognise from somewhere, even if you didn’t remember his name, while it’s not that many years since Sam Neill was heading up genuine first-rank Hollywood blockbusters. These days his star has waned a bit, of course: quite apart from his cameo in The Commuter, we must speak of the last film to which both he and Brown contributed, the unspeakable you-know-what (Brown had a tiny voice part as Mr Rabbit). Both their performances here are sufficiently exemplary for me to be minded to forgive them their role in the lapine calamity, though: this is a solid enough movie, but those moments where it really sparks into life are mostly due to its two big names.

That said, this is a movie which seems to be content to keep its characters at arms’ length, presenting them dispassionately. We are not encouraged to identify with the well-meaning but ineffectual Smith, or the police sergeant. Sam in particular, whom you would most expect to be a sympathetic character, remains essentially inscrutable and enigmatic for most of the movie. The narrative remains engaging, and there is never any doubt as to where the director’s sympathies lie, but the nature of the story means that this is hardly light viewing, nor is it really intended as entertainment.

For the most part the film sticks to the truism that the kind of racist oppression suffered by the indigenous people of Australia debases and degrades the white boss-class as much as their victims (not that this in any way lets them off the hook). But there’s also interesting subtext about a kind of generational dysfunction. The film is filled with adults unwilling or unable to acknowledge their biological children, or at least have a proper parental relationship with them; the result is a kind of pervasive familial angst, born of the casual belief in the inequality of European colonists and indigenous people. It’s very difficult to find signs of optimism anywhere in Sweet Country: ‘What hope has this country got?’ cries a despairing Fred Smith in the closing moments of the film.

On one level Sweet Country is about the relationship between violence and justice, the stuff of many a conventional movie, but the uncompromising starkness of this movie, and its occasional more impressionistic touches – there are brief, soundless flash-backs and flash-forwards scattered throughout it – mean it is much more a piece of political art than something you would ever watch for pleasure. The skill with which it has been made, not to mention the incredible beauty of the Australian landscape, means it is a rewarding film on many levels, but conventionally enjoyable? I would strongly doubt it.

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Heaven knows there are enough reasons to be alarmed by the state of the modern world, but this can manifest in some unexpected ways. ‘This is the death of cinema! We’re talking about a major director, here! Black Panther showing on three screens, and Peter Rabbit! It’s just commercial slop everywhere! Stock, Aitken and Waterman! I don’t believe it!’ cried a friend of mine, the cause of this outrage being the news that Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here was only showing at four Odeons nationwide and that we would have to go slightly further afield to see it than usual. (I hesitate to share more details of his Howard Beale-esque outburst, partly because I am not unsympathetic to the general gist of it, but mainly because he sits next to me at work and is wont to complain if he feels he’s been misrepresented on the blog.)

I have to say that for a film which at least one major cinema chain seems reluctant to touch, You Were Never Really Here attracted a decent crowd to the late-on-a-Friday-afternoon showing that we eventually strolled up to. I must admit to being slightly curious as to whether people had been drawn in because of the ostensible thriller trappings of the film, or Ramsay’s own reputation. She is not, one has to say, the most prolific of film-makers, this being only her fourth full-length movie in nearly twenty years, but she regularly gets acclaimed as one of the best film-makers working in the world today: I had almost forgotten that I saw her second film, Morvern Callar, fifteen years ago, and was rather impressed by it.

The new film stars Joaquin Phoenix as Joe, a private security operative – basically, a mercenary – with a somewhat chequered past. After concluding his current mission, Joe heads home, where he keeps an extremely low profile as he cares for his elderly mother. Soon enough, however, a new assignment comes his way: a senator’s teenage daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) has fallen into the hands of the darkest elements of the underworld, and he is commissioned to retrieve her, ideally with the maximum incidental brutality (Joe is happy to oblige with this).

Initially Joe’s planning and preparation pay off, but very soon the job goes bad on him, and he finds that not only he but those around him are in deadly peril. And beyond even this, he may now be the only one with a chance of saving the girl.

Everyone’s obvious touchstone when it comes to comparing You Were Never Really Here with other things is Taxi Driver, and you can certainly understand why – this is a dark, brutal film, driven along by an exemplary central performance. However, as you may perhaps have been able to tell from the synopsis, there’s also a sense in which – on paper at least – the actual plot of the movie sounds like the stuff of a much more routine thriller – you can imagine Luc Besson doing almost exactly the same story, probably starring Liam Neeson. For all that this is essentially an art-house movie – that’s the kind of release it seems to have received, anyway – the structure of the story is also very conventional; you can imagine all the various screenwriting gurus and writers of craft books like How to Plot Your Movie watching it and nodding approvingly, for only in its closing stages does it really depart from narrative orthodoxy.

However, if we should take only one thing away from You Were Never Really Here, it is that it’s not just about the ingredients, but the delivery – fond as I am of a good solid no-frills thriller, no-one would ever mistake Ramsay’s film for one of those. A few years ago I read a piece discussing the whole subgenre of vigilante movies, suggesting that they basically come in two flavours: one where the use of violence fixes the world, and one where the use of violence is just representative of how irretrievably broken the world is. This is only marginally a vigilante movie, but as such it definitely falls into the latter category – there is nothing thrilling or cathartic about the film’s occasional eruptions of grisly mayhem, and Ramsay does not present them in a remotely glamorous way. As Joe lumbers into action, gripping his weapon of choice (the domestic hammer, usually applied to the skull of anyone who gets in his way), your first instinct is simply to shrink down in your seat and cover your eyes, because you know that the film is not going to shy away from the awful consequences of violence. When Joe is forced to fight for his life against a gunman sent to kill him, around the midpoint of the film, this is not some set-piece demonstration of martial arts, but a blurred and confusing chaos.

It may be off-putting to some, but the film is all obviously the work of the same clear vision – aside from a couple of scenes early on, there is very little in the way of genuine exposition, just a succession of signs and implications as to what is actually happening, and what it all means. This is especially true when it comes to Joe’s own past. The film’s Wikipedia page informs the reader very breezily of who he is and where he comes from (it also fills in a few plot details which are less than clear on-screen) – it may be that the novella by Jonathan Ames, on which the film is based, is more on-the-nose about these things – but in the actual movie, this is all presented as a series of disjointed, almost nightmarish flashbacks, some of them almost subliminal.

Despite all this, you are never really in doubt about what is happening, partly due to Ramsay’s skill, but also thanks to an intensely powerful performance from Joaquin Phoenix as a man who is, not to put too fine a point on it, deeply messed up. Joe is more-or-less sympathetic for much of the movie, but no-one in their right mind would want to be him – and this is made clear by Phoenix’s dead-eyed stare, his aura of defeat, his almost total withdrawal from the normal world of human interaction. Phoenix’s main co-star in this movie is, in an odd way, the actual soundtrack of the film (a brilliant contribution by Jonny Greenwood), and it’s almost as if we are hearing the contents of his head – driving, percussive rock when he is going into action, a more discordant, atonal soundscape when he is at the mercy of his demons.

This is not an easy film to watch, coming from a very dark place and concluding on, at best, a finely-judged moment of ambiguity. I would honestly struggle to call it art, but it is at the very least a superbly crafted piece of art, that has something to say which it communicates with tremendous skill.

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2017 was a somewhat noteworthy year by recent standards, in that we did not get a single new Woody Allen film at any of the cinemas in Oxford. (Compare this to 2010-11, when Whatever Works, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, and Midnight in Paris all appeared in the space of not much more than a year.) Should we read anything into this?

Well, it doesn’t appear to be the case that Allen’s legendary work ethic is declining, for his next film, A Rainy Day in New York, has already been filmed, and the fact that he can still get financing for his movies indicates they retain an audience. All this is despite the more-miss-than-hit quality of his last few films and an occasional sense that he’s just going through the motions (I’ve commented on a couple of recent projects that they feel like he’s just filmed the first draft he wrote).

If there is a shadow over Woody Allen’s future career (and there are suggestions that Rainy Day may never be completed or released), then it is because of the Unique Moment. Allegations of the most serious kind were made against Allen back in 1992, and in the current climate this alone apparently makes him untouchable by any right-thinking actor: virtually the entire name cast of Rainy Day have been queueing up to announce how much they regret making the movie, and donating their fees to charity. (Given that Allen’s reputation has always enabled him to attract impressive casts to his films, improving their marketability and chances of a wide release, this may prove to be especially significant.)

I don’t usually go about courting controversy, but this strikes me as the whole Me Too juggernaut spinning out of control and potentially crushing an innocent victim. I think it would be grossly unjust for Allen’s career to be terminated off the back of this; he is not Harvey Weinstein, who by all accounts was a serial offender, whose behaviour was apparently an open secret in Hollywood, who has been accused by dozens of victims, and who may yet face criminal proceedings. Obviously there are problematic elements in Allen’s work – he is perhaps just a little too fond of the notion that refined, intellectual men are devastatingly attractive to much younger, beautiful women – but the fact remains that we’re talking about a single allegation, made a quarter of a century ago, which was fully investigated by professionals, whose judgement was that it had no factual basis. I’m all for zero tolerance of people who commit these kinds of crimes, but if we’re going to assume that being accused automatically equates to being guilty, we’re heading to a place I’m not sure we’re going to like.

Oh well. On to Wonder Wheel, Allen’s forty-eighth movie as writer and director (so far as I’ve been able to figure out, anyway), which finds him in serious drama mode – or should that be ‘serious melodrama’ instead? Despite working with Amazon’s movie wing, and apparently contending with a somewhat limited budget, the look and feel of an Allen movie remains unchanged – there’s the same style of opening credits, and the same use of period music (this time it’s ‘Coney Island Washboard’, which is played roughly every ten minutes throughout the film and nearly drove me mad). And there’s the use of a narrator, who on this occasion is Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a character in the film who styles himself as a playwright and storyteller. Mickey is upfront about the fact he likes melodramatic stories and broad-brush characterisation, but I’m never convinced that acknowledging you’re making a melodrama excuses making a melodrama in the first place.

Anyway, this is not really Mickey’s story: that honour falls to Ginny (Kate Winslet), a somewhat frustrated ex-actress working as a waitress in the Coney Island theme park in (we are invited to infer) the early 1950s. Ginny is unhappily married to Humpty (Jim Belushi), who basically looks, talks, and acts like Fred Flintstone, and further stressed out by her young son’s pyromaniac tendencies. Seeking to escape from all this, she has begun an affair with Mickey himself, and dares to dream that they may have a future together.

Things become considerably more complicated with the arrival of Carolina (Juno Temple), Humpty’s estranged daughter from his first marriage. Now fleeing from her mobster husband, Carolina seeks sanctuary with Ginny and Humpty, and, after some initial hostility, is able to win her father over. It just places more strain on Ginny’s domestic situation, though – and when it becomes very apparent that Mickey and Carolina are rather taken with each other, it may be more than Ginny can bear…

The days of Woody Allen’s attempts to pastiche Ingmar Bergman seem to be long since over, and if anything he’s going through a period where, once in a while, he has a go at being Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams. This is certainly one of those, although the great American playwright whose name gets checked in the film is Eugene O’Neill. This is a confined, talky movie, with very much the feel of filmed theatre much of the time – it’s certainly not especially cinematic, and you could imagine it turning up as a TV premiere without it losing much of its impact.

You really can see why Allen still manages to attract good casts to his movies – he writes them big, chunky parts they can really get their teeth into, even if the characters are just a bit hokey sometimes. The main performances here are all very strong – Justin Timberlake has turned into a rather fine actor, doing good work as Mickey, who seems blissfully unaware of his own self-absorbtion and amorality. Juno Temple is also good. Carrying the movie, however, is a tremendous performance from Kate Winslet, who really does run the gamut of emotions in the course of the story and fully wins your sympathy. I can’t remember the last time she was quite so good in anything, and a little surprised that she didn’t receive more recognition for the role. (Dragged over the coals by some for her refusal to condemn Allen, or at least apologise for working with him, Winslet recently attempted to address the issue by saying she ‘bitterly regretted’ working with some unspecified people, a formulation unlikely to entirely please anyone.)

That said, the whole thing is thoroughly earnest, with no particular moments of lightness or comedy in it. And, once again, you can’t help wishing Allen had gone through at least a couple more drafts of the script – ‘I’ve become consumed with jealousy!’ cries Ginny at one point, which is just inexcusably bad dialogue. There is perhaps a flicker of self-awareness later on with the line ‘Spare me all the bad drama!’ – but as this comes near the end of the film, it’s a bit late for that.

Apart from Winslet’s performance, the best thing about Wonder Wheel is the cinematography, which gives the whole thing a warmth and colour and life which is often missing from the script. Odd things occasionally happen here too – a scene will begin drenched in colour, with the characters almost seeming to glow, only for everything to abruptly fade to a much more subdued, naturalistic hue. If there’s an artistic rationale for this, I couldn’t figure it out; maybe they just ran out of money for the digital grade.

This is ultimately much more of a character piece than many recent Woody Allen movies, and this really works in the film’s favour – there’s no sense of a particular theme or message being clumsily rammed across – and the fact that the main relationship is between a (somewhat) older woman and a younger man means that some of the more awkward Allen tropes don’t put in an appearance, either.

It’s really still competent rather than great or inspired film-making, but there are enough good things about Wonder Wheel to make one think that Allen may yet have one really great film left in him. Of course, he is 82 now, and no-one would begrudge him or be especially heartbroken, I expect, were he to announce his retirement. But I think it would still be infinitely preferable if that were a decision he made on his own terms.

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A couple of years ago we trundled off to see the movie Suffragette and had a reasonably good time. This is not a movie notable for its ability to cause mirth in an audience – at least, not before the closing credits, anyway. At this point a sort of roll of honour unfurls, giving the names of various nations and the year in which they finally granted women the right to participate in elections: The United Kingdom, Austria, Germany, and Poland – 1918. Belgium, Sweden, and the Netherlands – 1919. Ecuador, Spain, and Mongolia – 1924. Switzerland – 1971. At which point people generally fell about laughing in the aisles. (Look on the bright side, any Swiss citizens who may be reading this – there’s always Liechtenstein, which didn’t take the plunge until 1984.)

One of my current semi-regular movie-going companions and I sat down to review the listings the other day, in search of our next cinema trip. We’re at one of those slightly annoying points in the year where almost the only things in theatres are films which we’ve already seen at least once, or ones which frankly don’t interest us much. Having disposed of the multiplexes we moved on to the art house, at which point my companion’s eyes lit up a bit at the sight of Petra Volpe’s The Divine Order (Schweizerdeutscher Titel: Die göttliche Ordnung), a movie about the Swiss women’s suffrage movement which had arrived just in time to miss International Women’s Day. Despite apparently being a thundering misogynist, I have the greatest respect and admiration for the feminine world, as befits someone whose mother was a woman. So naturally I readily agreed to accompany my friend to one of the screenings.

Now, with the evening slots at the Phoenix all filled with Lynne Ramsay’s new thriller (expect a review at the end of the week), The Divine Order was only showing in the afternoons when we couldn’t both make it. So we decided to go to the Saturday morning show (going to the cinema before noon was an exciting new experience for my companion). Knowing what a right-on and progressive place Oxford is, I felt strongly that we should probably book our tickets in advance, suspecting that everyone who likewise couldn’t make the weekday matinees would turn up for this one show and it would be packed out, as sometimes happens at the Phoenix.

So it was that we settled happily into our seats in an almost totally empty 164-seat cinema, alone except for someone intent on doing the giant-sized general knowledge crossword in the weekend paper. I suppose I must have overestimated the appeal of a subtitled Swiss-German film about feminism in the 1970s (or maybe Oxford’s liberal credentials are in peril), but what’s the price of a booking fee between friends? In the end, we were actually a little sad that more people hadn’t come to see The Divine Order, because it’s certainly not a film that deserves to languish unwatched.

The movie opens with a reminder of the seismic social and cultural upheavals gripping much of the world in 1971, before making it quite clear that at the time Switzerland remained resolutely ungripped by anything of the sort: life is going on much as it has for decades, which basically means the men going out to work (farming, banking, and making cuckoo clocks, I guess) and the women staying at home, doing the housework, and taking care of the children. In just this situation as the story starts is Nora (Marie Leuenberger), a young housewife who is just beginning to recognise her dissatisfaction and frustration with her lot in life.

She’d quite like to go back to work, but her husband (Maximilian Simonischek) needs to give his permission, and he refuses on the grounds this will disrupt their home and make him look bad at his own workplace. This is bad, but others have it much worse: Nora’s niece is sent to a women’s prison, simply for being a bit wayward, mainly because her father has sole legal authority over the family. Another friend loses her home, a pub, due to her husband’s death and the fact that women are not allowed to run businesses (I think; the subtitles were not entirely clear on this). A vote on possibly allowing women the vote is coming up, and simply refusing to support those campaigning for the status quo marks Nora out as a dangerous iconoclast in her village.

Quite unexpectedly, she finds herself the focal point of activism in her area, even its leader, and other women join her in beginning to organise. Needless to say, this causes ructions in the deeply conservative village, where many inhabitants believe the subordinate role of women is the will of God (the divine order referred to in the title). Even members of her own family are violently opposed to the stand she is taking. As the stakes get higher, the pressure becomes immense – can Nora and the others find the strength to stand up for what they believe in?

It’s not that unusual for the Phoenix to be showing a certain type of socially-motivated movie depicting the struggle of women for self-determination in deeply traditionalist societies – back in January they showed In Between, for instance, and in recent years there have also been movies like Wadjda, Mustang, and Sonita. What does make The Divine Order somewhat distinctive is the fact that it is the same kind of story, but set in a recognisably modern European country. On paper it may look like a semi-remake of Suffragette with added fondue, but without that film’s period trappings, it has a bit more punch – even though the overall arc of the story is never in doubt, there are moments which are genuinely shocking.

As I say, you go into this kind of film knowing almost exactly what to expect, and there are no startling surprises in terms of the actual plot. That said, The Divine Order benefits from a very solid screenplay that takes care to work as a genuine piece of drama rather than fierce agitprop – the focus throughout is on Nora and the others as characters, rather than participants in a particular movement. There are some lighter moments, as well, and Volpe orchestrates proceedings with a subtle touch – at one point there’s a slightly odd moment when Nora seems to be equating oppressed women with the fish that live in deep ocean trenches (I’m not sure this metaphor really works, if you follow it through), but the rest of it is admirably understated. The male characters are not quite all caricatured brutes, and in a slightly unexpected choice, one of the main opponents of universal suffrage in the village is a woman herself – a well-judged performance from Therese Affolter.

This is a well-played movie throughout, with Leuenberger well-supported by Rachel Braunschweig, Sibylle Brunner, and Marta Zoffoli. Turning up for a scene-stealing cameo is the wonderful Swedish actress Sofia Helin, who has a whale of a time as a visiting advocate of ‘Yoni Power’ (and if you’re really curious what that is, you can google it for yourself, as no matter how sympathetic I am to the cause of equality, there are some places I’m just not going in a comedy film-review blog).

The Divine Order does a very good job of balancing its different imperatives as both a genuine piece of entertainment, and a film with a particular message to deliver. It’s engaging and ultimately very rewarding, and ultimately the only criticism we could make of the print we saw was that some of the subtitling was rather substandard – ‘I worked in this pub for 0 years’ is the rather unlikely claim made by one of the women at one point, while a later caption announces that following the limited suffrage introduced in 1971, full equality was ‘written into the Swiss constitution in 981’. Maybe the bit of the subtitler’s keyboard with the numbers on it was a bit sticky, or something. I suppose if nothing else this sort of thing only reminds us of what a good job subtitlers usually do.

I expect there are good commercial reasons why The Divine Order has received such a limited release in the UK, but even so, given the Unique Post-Weinstein Moment (not to mention International Women’s Day), I would have thought it was worth at least a little bit of a push. It’s not blazingly original or breathtakingly accomplished, but it tells its story sincerely and well, and we both felt we had benefited from watching it. Worth tracking down if you get the chance.

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I think it makes a certain kind of sense to stick to what you’re good at. If so, then I am surprised there has not been more of an outcry about the British film industry’s enthusiasm for making syrupy-soft allegedly life-affirming comedy dramas aimed at old people, fairly insipid rom-coms, and dour costume dramas, for our record in this area is not much better than that of many other nations. No, what we should be producing more of – and I think a target of two or three a year is not unreasonable – is apocalyptic science fiction films, because there was a time when we led the world in films of this kind (well, good ones, anyway). Nowadays we barely even seem to bother: the last proper one I can think of is 28 Days Later, which is not far off being twenty years old (the boom in zombie movies it kick-started is still going, of course: see what I mean, we’re good at this stuff).

Near the top of any stack of British doomsday films is Val Guest’s 1961 movie The Day the Earth Caught Fire (NB: title may be figurative). It sounds like a rather excitable B-movie made in the wake of The Day the Earth Stood Still – and there are plenty of these, such as the Italian film The Day the Sky Exploded – but, being a British film, it is made with healthy amounts of thought, restraint, and good old-fashioned phlegm.

The film’s main gimmick, inasmuch as it has one, becomes apparent from the start: in the sequences that frame the story, the black-and-white picture has been tinted ochre, representing the burning heat throughout these scenes. We find journalist Pete Stenning (Edward Judd) wandering through the streets of a near-deserted London: the Thames has virtually dried up in temperatures of over a hundred degrees. Stenning goes into the offices of his newspaper and (his typewriter ink having turned to paste) proceeds to dictate the story of what has befallen the world…

In flashback, we return to more conventional times, with the men (and they are virtually all men) of the press preoccupied with a string of apparently unconnected natural disasters: floods and earthquakes, mostly. Some planes are also reporting navigational problems. Amidst all this news of the Americans and Soviets both having recently tested enormously powerful nuclear weapons at opposite ends of the globe are only a minor item. But all the news seems trivial to Stenning, who is having something of a breakdown – his marriage having ended, he is concerned for the future of his son, and is drinking too much. His job is in peril and it is only the connivance of his friend and colleague Maguire (Leo McKern) that keeps him employed.

The authorities at the air ministry and the meteorological office stonewall any attempts to find out what’s going on, and Stenning’s own enquiries only put him on the wrong side of secretary Jean Craig (Janet Munro). But strange events continue: there is an unheralded, unscheduled lunar eclipse, then a protracted heat-wave. Then a stifling heat-mist blankets much of the world, followed by savage hurricanes and typhoons. Stenning has (almost inevitably) got it together with Jean by this point, and it is from her that he learns the reality of what is really going on – the nuclear tests have toppled the world on its axis, and caused it to shift its orbit, taking it much closer to the sun…

There is a sense in which watching The Day the Earth Caught Fire is like looking back into a very different world, which has now almost vanished. These are the sixties before they really started to swing: the mood is still stolid, post-war, sensible. Most importantly, newspapers are still the dominant media, and most of the film is centred around the offices of Stenning’s rag. Normally when a film focuses on a paper, it’s a fictitious one (unless we’re talking about a based-on-fact movie like The Post); one of the possibly-startling elements of this film is that Stenning works for the Daily Express, an actual newspaper (one guesses that the Express movie critic was rather positive about this film). Even more surprising, the editor of the Express in the film is played (not especially well, it must be said) by Arthur Christiansen, who was the real-world editor of the paper for over twenty years. These days it is customary to dismiss the Daily Express as being one of the more excitably nutty organs of the right-wing media, so there is a degree of cognitive dissonance in seeing its staff portrayed so heroically; a scare story about the Earth falling into the sun would probably qualify as a quite a subdued piece by the paper’s current standards – no doubt it would turn out to be the fault of the EU, or Tony Blair. (An unintentionally funny moment, from a modern perspective, comes when Christiansen declares – even as the fall of civilisation takes a big step closer – ‘We must keep the tone of the paper optimistic!’)

The film is also very much of its time in its concern over the proliferation of nuclear weapons – something it shares with another great British film from about ten years earlier, Seven Days to Noon – but it also seems almost prophetic in the way it depicts wide-scale climate change as a result of human foolishness. Everything is rather exaggerated for dramatic effect, naturally, but many chords are struck – the authorities initially refuse to be pinned down on the exact cause of the punishingly hot weather, and the characters seem almost overwhelmed by the immense implications of what is happening in the film. There is also something chillingly plausible about the various reactions as the situation worsens – there are mentions of black market water dealers, severe rationing, outbreaks of typhus in London, and so on.

It’s all handled in a downbeat, naturalistic style which serves to keep the story unsettlingly credible. However, the script (by Guest and Wolf Mankowitz) isn’t quite wall-to-wall doom and despair – woven in there, alongside the main plotline, is the story of Stenning and Jean’s romance, which is equally plausible and smartly written. Edward Judd gets the ‘introducing’ credit in this film; he gives a great leading man’s performance of the kind he would continue to produce in a number of other British SF and fantasy films in the 1960s. Munro inevitably has a rather more secondary role, but she is also appealing and plausible. Leo McKern is saddled with the gravitas-provision and exposition-delivery character part in this film (the kind of thing someone like Paul Giamatti does nowadays), but also manages to find some interesting stuff to work with there. For modern audiences, there’s also a nice moment when a pre-stardom Michael Caine (aged 27) has an uncredited cameo as a police officer: his face is never clearly seen, but that voice is unmistakable.

This is one of those films which is not especially celebrated nowadays, but which seems to me to cast an extremely long shadow – it certainly anticipates several of the effects-driven SF disaster movies that Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin have been regularly producing for many years now, but I can also discern something of its tone and imagery in many other pieces of British and American SF – not just films, but also TV shows and even comic books. This is a smart, serious film, even if the print in wide circulation via DVDs and so on diffuses Guest’s original, carefully ambiguous ending to create something a little more hopeful. The Day the Earth Caught Fire isn’t about hope; it’s about anger, and fear, but in that very reserved British way. Not just a great British SF film, but a great British film, full stop.

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I do find myself to be somewhat inclined towards a very unbecoming smugness: it is a dreadful flaw in my character, one that I do contend with as the years go by. Is it one of those truisms that a person’s predisposition towards being smug increases in inverse proportion to their actual justification for it? I don’t know: but it is nice, sort of, to occasionally feel pleased with yourself and know you have a very good reason for this.

Or at a least a half-decent reason. Unexpected delights are pretty rare when it comes to the Academy Awards (unexpected anythings are unusual in Oscars territory), but the nomination of Greta Gerwig for best director and best screenplay certainly qualifies. Gerwig has been on my own personal one-to-watch list for years now – mainly as an actress, but given she co-wrote two of the films she has starred in, her move into – how best to put it? – full-blown auteuseship is only the next logical step.

The film in question is Lady Bird, and it is not a political biography, nor a badly punctuated tale of children’s books or obscure superheroines. Saoirse Ronan plays the title role of Christine McPherson, a seventeen-year-old girl growing up somewhat restlessly in Sacramento, back in 2002. Not caring much for her given name, she has decided she wants to be known as ‘Lady Bird’, just one of many things which her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalfe) finds rather exasperating. (Her father (Tracy Letts) is much more laid back about everything.)

The family is just about surviving, although times are tough, and Lady Bird’s determination to apply to (expensive) colleges on the east coast is another cause of friction between her and her mother – not that these are ever in short supply, it would seem: money, her behaviour around the house, her schoolwork, her general attitude…

Over the course of a year, the film follows Lady Bird as she embarks upon a brief theatrical career, launches into a number of possibly unwise romances, attempts to become one of the cool kids at school, and so on. Will she ever reach some kind of understanding with her mother? Is her life ever going to be less sucky and embarrassing?

Well, everyone goes through the same milestone moments in their life, and for some of us, another one has just arrived: this is the first film I’m aware of which treats the early years of the 21st century as the subject of genuine nostalgia. Greta Gerwig has said that Lady Bird is not specifically an autobiographical story, but it’s hard not to see how her own experiences haven’t informed this story, considering that she herself was graduating a Catholic high school in Sacramento at just about the same time this film is set. The noughties nostalgia is handled with a light touch, anyway – it’s certainly not the sine qua non of the movie.

I have seen criticism of Lady Bird suggesting this is just another by-the-numbers high school coming of age movie, with nothing new to offer an audience – well, I’m not sure how it compares to a lot of high school coming of age movies, as this is not a genre of which I regularly partake, but surely the point of this kind of movie is that it deals with universal rites of passage, those elements of growing up which are common to nearly everyone. Part of the charm of this genre is recognising things from one’s own experience, and I have to say I did find Lady Bird to be an extremely endearing film, regardless of how far divorced it is from my own experiences.

The film captures the essence of life as a teenager with great accuracy and skill – the soaring ups, the crushing downs, the unexpected pleasures and disappointments, the little moments of transition – and, particularly, the unintentional self-centred cruelty of which young people are particularly capable, along with their generosity and other virtues. You completely understand why Marion finds her daughter to be such a pain in the neck, yet at the same time Lady Bird never becomes actually unsympathetic.

For a film like this to focus primarily on the mother-daughter relationship is obviously kind of unusual, and this is another thing to make the film distinctive and (in its own subtle way) very much a film of our time. To this we can add a further innovation – if the film has an analogue from previous generations, it might well be Howard Deutsch’s 1986 movie Pretty in Pink, which likewise dealt with themes of popularity, class, and coming of each. However, the key difference here is that that Lady Bird’s realisation of herself as a person does not primarily revolve around getting a great boyfriend, which is the focus of Deutsch’s film. Instead, relationships with family and friends are presented as being of equal significance and value, especially that with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein). It’s probably overstating things to say that this alone marks the film out as one about the female experience which has actually been written and directed by a woman, but it still seems to me to be significant.

Saoirse Ronan has been building a formidable reputation as a young actor of considerable ability for many years now – in a further sign of sensible career management, she appears to have gotten all the dodgy fantasy blockbusters out of the way already – and Lady Bird should do nothing but add to this, as she is effortlessly convincing when playing someone still in their teens. She is well supported by the rest of the cast, especially Metcalfe and Letts – Gerwig shows every sign of having cast the film with enormous shrewdness, considering it features two young actors (Lucas Hedges and Timothee Chalamet) who have appeared in other highly-acclaimed films recently.

As I say, Lady Bird feels very much like a film of the current moment, for all that it has a recent-past setting. For all that, it does not feel like an especially angry or openly political one, as throughout it is warm, charming, and often extremely funny. It would be great for such a positive and tender film to do really well at the Academy Awards this year; we can only hope the voters there are as won over as everyone else has been.

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One of the more ignoble moments of my teaching career came a few years ago when an interesting young woman attempted to strangle me in the middle of a spoken skills lesson. (Relax, I survived.) The casus belli for this particular outbreak of classroom strife was my decision to share with the students my belief that ice dancing is not, when you come down to it, really a proper sport, primarily because it is not objectively scored. (It turned out she had been a fairly serious competitor in this particular discipline in her younger years.) What can I say – never afraid to court controversies on the big issues of the day, that’s me.

I seem to find myself having the same discussion every four years during the world’s premier festival of gravity-dependent sport, a.k.a. the Winter Olympics. Now, it’s not like I’m a particular fan of even the aestival outbreak of this particular event – while the rest of the population of the UK was entranced by the opening ceremony of the London Games, I was locked away in a room by myself watching Gamera the Invincible over the internet – but I generally find myself particularly unmoved by the snowy version, partly due to the arbitrary oddness of many of the events, but also because so much of it is, let’s face it, subjectively scored.

Perhaps it is the very realisation of the dubious nature of their activities that has left so many winter sports athletes prone to outbreaks of sudden, savage violence. Or maybe not. Certainly concerning itself with an act of violence, not to mention figure skating, is Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya, which is almost certainly the best Winter Olympics-related movie ever made.

Like many people I was vaguely aware of the scandal at the 1994 Winter Olympics concerning the rivalry between the skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan and startling way in which it developed: in the USA, however, Harding became hugely infamous, one of the most recognisable and widely-hated figures in the country. Gillespie’s film does not so much attempt to rehabilitate her reputation as tell her story with a minimum of bias.

Of course, this is quite difficult as relations between all the key players in the story are adversarial, to say the least, and their various accounts of what happens differ when it comes to some of the essential facts. The film cheerfully embraces this – this is a pretty cheerful film all round, when you consider it – and ploughs into the morass of trying to establish just who knew what and when, regardless.

Harding is mostly played by the Australian actress (and now, I note, film producer) Margot Robbie (Kerrigan, played by Caitlin Carver, is a fairly minor character). Robbie seems to have figured out that your best chance of winning an Oscar (and thus progressing to a properly lucrative role in a superhero franchise) is to take on a role which requires you to de-prettify yourself. This is certainly one of those – Harding is a girl from, as they say, the wrong side of the tracks, a self-described redneck, described by others as white trash. Her situation is only compounded by the less than maternal influence of her mother (a performance of hag-like monstrosity from Allison Janney), and later an allegedly abusive relationship with her boyfriend-then-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan).

Despite all this, Harding’s genuine ability as a skater, particularly her unique mastery of the apparently-quite-tricky triple-Axel, whatever one of those is, gets her near to the top of the tree in the world of US skating. This is despite the general contempt she received from the skating establishment because of her deportment, styling and background. The decision to bring the Winter Olympics forward to 1994 provides her with an unexpected second chance at a medal, which she embraces.

And here we come to what the film refers to as ‘the incident’ – an assault on Harding’s chief rival Kerrigan, when she was bashed on the kneecap during a training session by a goon in the employ of… well herein lies the tale. Who was responsible? Was this a premeditated attack ordered by members of the Harding camp (effectively Tonya and Jeff)? Or a bit of private initiative on the part of an enterprising associate?

The film ducks out of attempting a definitive answer, quite properly suggesting that we’ll never be completely certain on this one, until someone owns up anyway. Through a neat bit of cinematic ju-jitsu the film exploits the fact it has multiple, equally unreliable narrators to comic effect – ‘This never happened,’ Harding informs the camera during one scene, while we are told that ‘this next part is completely untrue’ by Gillooly shortly afterwards.

Weirdly, the fact that at least some of it must not actually have happened as presented here does not make the narrative of the film at all confused, and the way it manages to keep its feet on the ground as a drama as well as simply a grotesque, absurd black comedy is also quite impressive. It doesn’t shy away from the fact that Harding spent much of her early life in circumstances where domestic violence was a given, and these scenes are (mercifully) not played for laughs. There is even some implied criticism of the skating establishment for its snobbery towards Harding (although given the whole basis of the sport is subjective, it’s not a massive surprise, if you ask me).

Having said all that, events surrounding the attack on Kerrigan is the meat of the film – ‘the part you’ve been waiting for’, in Harding’s words – and this is very much presented as an absurd black comedy, particularly the role of Gillooly and his fantasist buddy Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser). In the end, though, the film remains compassionate towards Harding, and the scenes depicting the fall-out of the incident and its impact on her life are unexpectedly moving.

There is, of course, a degree of technical trickery involved in turning Margot Robbie into an Olympic ice skater – that software which digitally pastes one person’s face onto another person’s body may be banned in some contexts, but not movie theatres – but her performance is very strong throughout. Opposite her is Sebastian Stan, an actor who has appeared in many highly successful movies (principally the Marvel series), but not a genuine star in his own right yet – his performance here should do something to rectify that. Neither of them quite match the astonishing awfulness of Janney’s character, but this really is one of those stranger-than-fiction scenarios. Let’s just say the strength of the performances matches the outlandishness of the characters.

I, Tonya studiously avoids sports movie cliches, but then this is not quite your typical sports movie. It’s about sports, certainly, but the story concerns itself more with other things – it’s a character piece about Harding, but also a film which touches upon issues such as the modern media, American attitudes to class and background, and even – fleetingly – the nature of truth itself. It’s also thoroughly engaging and often very funny. I’m not sure it’s quite politically correct enough to really do well at the Oscars this year, but I enjoyed it a lot – always assuming my subjective opinion is worth anything, of course.

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