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Posts Tagged ‘drama’

Imagine my shock: it is, the calendar informs me, September at the moment, and likely to remain so for the rest of the month. So, what better time to absorb and cogitate upon a film so deeply concerned with the month of September that it is, in fact, actually called September?

Reader, I have to inform you that there is a con going on here. September is not about the month of September. It’s not even set in September – at one point towards the end of September, one character says words to the effect of ‘Ooh, and it’s not even September yet’. Is this some dark situationist prank from director Woody Allen? September actually takes place in August. What an outrage, likely to sow confusion and distress amongst film-goers everywhere.

You know, I’m tempted to say ‘…if only September were actually that dramatic’, because while Allen’s 1987 movie is certainly a drama, it’s one of those dramas in which – to the eye of the casual or inattentive viewer, at least – not very much at all happens that you could actually call dramatic. But it is, at least, something of a departure from the norm for a director who occasionally seems to have been intermittently remaking more or less the same film for nearly forty years now.

September takes place in a house in the countryside in a fairly remote part of Vermont – don’t get too excited about this departure from Allen’s normal New York City milieu, the entire movie was shot on a soundstage in, you guessed it, New York – where a woman named Lane (Mia Farrow) is coming to the end of a period of recovery, following an initially-undisclosed personal crisis. Her best friend Stephanie (Dianne West) is there to support her, while also present (if somewhat less supportive) is her mother Diane (Elaine Stritch), a faded Hollywood star, and stepfather Lloyd (Jack Warden). Hanging about the place are Howard (Denholm Elliott), an older man who is a teacher, and Peter (Sam Waterston), an aspiring writer.

It’s a bit hard to describe the premise of September without spoiling the whole plot, because the whole focus of the movie is on initially presenting this group of characters and then gradually uncovering the relationships between them and the events in their pasts which have shaped them as people. It’s also the kind of movie where very quick and allusive references are made to characters’ back-stories right at the start, which are not expanded upon until much later in the story, which demands a certain degree of trust and patience on the part of the viewer. Just what is the scandalous event in Diane and Lane’s past which Lane is so very keen not to see raked over in Diane’s proposed memoirs? What exactly has Lane come to Vermont to get over? You have to wait until well into the movie for these things to be elaborated upon, and even then the most you sometimes get is a strong implication.

In the end this is, at heart, not very much different from many Allen movies, concerning a group of well-off and articulate people operating on a level somewhat removed from quotidian turmoil (Lane is planning on moving back to New York but can’t decide if she wants to be a photographer or an artist), with an underlying theme not exactly calculated to warm the soul. Warden’s character gets a cheery scene where, as a physicist, he announces that the universe ‘doesn’t matter one way or the other. It’s all random, resonating aimlessly out of nothing and eventually vanishing forever. I’m not talking about the world, I’m talking about the universe, all space, all time, just temporary convulsion… I understand it for what it truly is. Haphazard. Morally neutral, and unimaginably violent.’ (On the whole I think I prefer Allen’s one liners.)

On a personal level this basically manifests as a high ambient level of misery and personal unfulfillment amongst all the various characters. Howard is in love with Lane, but can’t bring himself to tell her. Lane is in love with Peter, but has been hurt too many times before to be remotely proactive about it (well, unless you count arranging to go and see Kurosawa’s Ran with him – personally it’s not really my idea of a date movie, but I can well imagine Woody Allen disagreeing). Peter himself has fallen for Stephanie, who is unhappily married but can’t imagine leaving her children. All of these plotlines, along with that of the constant tension between Lane and Diane, work themselves out over the space of a concise 82 minute running time (it does perhaps feel a mite longer while you’re watching it), leaving you with an undeniable sense of a group of people realising that, perhaps, their best years are behind them, with only the autumn of their lives yet to come (hence, I’m guessing, the title of the movie).

And the craftsmanship of the writing and performances is really undeniable – Allen has clearly set out to tell a certain type of story in a particular way, and largely achieved his goal. Although not without a certain degree of struggle. Actors who’ve worked with Allen have occasionally grumbled about the director’s perfectionism and insistence on a contractual clause obliging them to be available for any reshoots he deems to be necessary. There is also the story that, having completed Manhattan, Allen was so unimpressed with the finished movie that he asked the studio for permission to scrap it and make an entirely new film for free. Something similar appears to have happened with September – having completed the film, the director decided that he wasn’t happy with it, so rewrote it, recast some of the parts, and made it all over again. (The Sam Waterston role was originally played by Sam Shepard, which I find a little ironic as I’m always getting those two actors mixed up. Apparently, it was even Christopher Walken playing Peter for a bit, which would have been much less confusing for me.)

Of course, you could argue there’s a fine line between perfectionism and self-indulgence, and if so then September is surely a rather self-indulgent piece of film-making, with its very stagey style and formalism. Why set out to make a movie which is, to all intents and purposes, just a very thinly disguised stage play? If you’re going to make a movie, then make a movie. On the other hand, if you’re going to make a movie pretty much every year (as Allen has been doing for nearly half a century now), then coming up with new material and new approaches must inevitably become a bit of an issue for you, so you may well end up either repeating yourself endlessly or doing very odd things just because you’ve never done them before. Not for the first time, I find myself wondering if Woody Allen’s enviable work ethic and productivity aren’t partly to blame for the inconsistent quality of his films. September is admirable on its own terms, but I’d struggle to say anything much more positive about it than that.

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Autumn is upon us, schools and universities are back in session, the last of the big summer tentpole movies have been and gone, and in the pause before the onset of serious awards-bait, we have a chance of a slightly more interesting and intelligent type of genre movie. This is also an opportunity for people who get their biggest pay-checks for appearing in movies about killer robots and giant monsters to show that they still have what it takes as credible actors and not just the basis for action figures. Thus, we find Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen appearing in Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River.

Jeremy Renner plays Cory Lambert, a US Fish and Wildlife Service Officer who is also a lethal rifle shot (nice to see that Renner shows no sign of becoming typecast – I can think of at least a dozen movies where he plays a sniper, a special forces operative, an assassin, or something similar). He describes himself as a hunter, but one of the things the film quietly suggests is that the difference between a hunter and a sniper is basically down to where you happen to be pointing your gun. Lambert is on the Wind River Indian Reservation, on the trail of a mountain lion, when he comes across the half-dressed corpse of a young woman, frozen solid inside a snowdrift.

The authorities are summoned, including happened-to-be-in-the-area FBI agent Jane Banner (Olsen) – Banner originally hails from Florida, so the wilds of Wyoming in the depths of winter are not exactly her comfort zone. A medical examination takes place, and many blood-curdling details relating to exactly how one dies of exposure when underdressed in a blizzard are passed on to the audience, but the most significant one is that, although she was attacked, the girl’s cause of death was technically exposure, not actual murder, which means Banner will not be given the full support and resources of the FBI as she works on the case – the local Tribal Police Chief (Graham Greene) is not surprised.

Still, Lambert is willing to pitch in, which is probably just as well, as the answers to the mystery of the girl’s death lie somewhere out in the snowy wilderness. Many grim truths about the inhabitants of Wind River threaten to come to light, provided Lambert and Banner survive to discover them – the land itself here can be as deadly as any criminal…

I really should keep better track of my up-and-coming American writer-directors. All the way through Wind River I found myself thinking that there was something about this film, the strength of the writing and dialogue, the sense of time and place, the elegant unfolding of the plot, which put me rather in mind of Hell or High Water from last year. And, of course, that was another Taylor Sheridan movie – if you want a smart, tough thriller set in the wide-open spaces of the US of Stateside, Sheridan is turning into a very good bet.

Once again, it’s a little tricky to pin down exactly what kind of movie this is – there are elements of the investigative-procedural, of course (visits to the path lab and so on), but also sections with a strong western vibe to them. Renner spends a fair chunk of the film in a cowboy hat, and while he isn’t strictly speaking a lawman, his character is definitely out for justice in a certain very specific way.

Ordinarily, films which give house room to the notion of (for want of a better expression) frontier justice make me rather uncomfortable, as it strikes me as a very dubious message to putting into a piece of entertainment. Wind River manages to get away with it, much to my surprise, probably because it contextualises the idea so thoroughly and seems to be presenting it fairly dispassionately. It’s inevitably a bleak idea, but then this is a largely bleak film. It is, I would say, normal for films in this kind of setting to engage in a little social commentary on the lot of the inhabitants of reservations, and Wind River is no exception – the icy setting reflects the death of hope which has come to afflict so many of the film’s characters, and emphasises that this is a place profoundly different from America’s urban centres – this is a place from which only the strong can emerge unscathed.

To be honest, the murder-mystery element of Wind River’s plot is not particularly complex or challenging, but then the film is about other things – as mentioned, the loss of hope, and the corrosive effects of grief and guilt. The film needs considerable heft for this to work, and gets it mostly from Jeremy Renner, who gives a really impressive performance, achieving that neat trick of revealing everything about a character who really doesn’t speak much or show real emotion in the usual course of events. Olsen is also very good – one hopes she will break out of the genre ghetto at some point. Then again, this is a film with consistently strong performances from a mainly unknown cast (although Jon Bernthal pops up for a brief cameo at a crucial moment).

On the other hand, the film also contains some well-staged action, and what I took away from it was not really much to do with the characters or plot but a general sense of people struggling to find reasons to live – and, of course, the magnificent landscape of Montana in winter.

I suspect I’m making Wind River sound like an incredibly bleak and joyless experience, and while it’s not completely bereft of lighter moments, in general this is a serious and thoughtful film. And while it is true that the film does not shy away from the repugnant nature of some of the crimes involved, I think that’s infinitely preferable to a film in which people are casually blown away by the dozen and sexual assault is treated mainly as a seasoning element to make a film just a little bit more piquant for the jaded viewer.

Wind River is not a light or frothy film, but it does pretty much everything you would want from a film of this type – the drama and thriller elements complement each other flawlessly, the performances are good, the atmosphere is almost palpable, and the theme of the film is clear without the audience being beaten about the head by it. This is a very fine film.

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It’s not very common for a film to make it all the way into cinemas without me seeing a reasonable amount of publicity for it – if it’s a film that falls within my (fairly undiscriminating) area of interest, anyway. And yet this is what happened with Juan Carlos Medina’s The Limehouse Golem. Two questions obviously leap to mind – why did your correspondent go and see it, based on nothing but a title, a cast list, and a vague capsule description? And is it genuinely receiving some kind of stealth release, or can the producers just not be bothered to pay for an ad campaign?

Second things first – and the honest answer is, I’m not sure. The film had its world premiere nearly a year ago, and while twelve months isn’t an exceptional period of time for a film to sit on the shelf, it doesn’t really indicate a distributor bursting with confidence either. I’ve commented in the past on the fact that trailers tend to appear before a film of the same general kind, and The Limehouse Golem is an extremely tough movie to categorise in some ways – is it a period detective story, a grisly splatter horror movie, or a slightly more niche drama? The other question is a little easier to answer – we’re going through a quiet period release-wise at present, I’m loathe to waste an afternoon off by not going to the cinema, and this looked like it might be agreeably Hammer horror-ish. Which, I have to say, only goes to show…

The movie is based on the book Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, by the noted authority on all things Londonian Peter Ackroyd – which seems to be one of those novels which flaunts its erudition by including all manner of historical figures as characters, some famous, some much more obscure. On some level I suppose this therefore qualifies as another Victoriana mash-up, along the lines of Anno Dracula or Dickensian, but it’s less user-friendly than either of those.

The year is 1880 and Londoners are living in fear as a savage, brutal killer walks amongst them, slaughtering prostitutes, Jews, and whole families, seemingly at will. Installed as the fall guy on this challenging case is police detective Inspector Kildare (Bill Nighy), along with his sidekick PC Flood (Daniel Mays). Kildare’s investigations lead him to the reading room of the British Museum and a list of four men, one of whom must surely be the killer who has been given the nickname of the Limehouse Golem.

However, one of the suspects has recently died in suspicious circumstances, and his widow Elizabeth (Olivia Cooke) is on trial for his murder. Is there a connection? Kildare finds himself obliged to delve into the history of a string of grisly murders, while trying to uncover the truth about Elizabeth and her own unsettling personal history…

I am sure that Peter Ackroyd is a very erudite man. However, the screenplay for this movie was written by Jane Goldman, and while I’m sure she has many fine qualities, erudition and subtlety are not necessarily the ones that immediately leap to mind based on her previous work (Kingsman, The Woman in Black, Kick-Ass). How to best describe The Limehouse Golem? Well, one thing you can say about it is that it is never knowingly under-wrought.

Another is that there is something genuinely refreshing about a film which so comprehensively cuts loose from normal conventions of movie storytelling. There were whole sequences in this film which had me slack-jawed and goggling at the screen, confounded by the sheer audacity and weirdness of the thing. Is it a period procedural about a set of murders clearly intended to suggest the Ripper killings of 1888? Or is it a rather different kind of film about a young woman’s rise from extreme poverty to success in the music halls of Victorian London, and the pressures on her even after becoming a star? The film ping-pongs back and forth between them like a cross between a particularly gory slasher film and an episode of The Good Old Days (younger readers, ask your grandparents).

If this movie were a pudding submitted for the Great British Pudding Showdown, I rather imagine that the first note from the judges would be ‘Easy on the eggs in future’. It opens at such a pitch of near-strangulated tension that it really finds itself with virtually nowhere else to go, and practically the whole film takes place with every element – script, performances, direction – elevated to an extreme level; naturalistic this movie is definitely not. At one point there’s a particularly startling sequence in which Karl Marx – yes, that Karl Marx – dressed up in a top hat and cape, saws the head off a prostitute. And this is not much more startling than most of the rest of the movie, which is stuffed with baroque dialogue, double-entendre-laden musical numbers, dwarfs, transvestitism, kinky sexual practices, severed body parts, and repressed libidos. There also seems to be some sort of LGBT subtext going on here, but as this is the one element of the film not rammed into the audience’s frontal lobes, it’s a little difficult to tell what message it’s trying to communicate beyond the obvious and pedestrian one.

Does it actually work as a movie, though? Well, you can always rely on Bill Nighy to deliver a superb performance, and I’m starting to think the same is also true of Olivia Cooke, who has never failed to impress me in any of the films I’ve seen her in. In terms of simple production values, British companies are simply very good at this kind of late-Victorian period piece. The Limehouse Golem is never less than arresting viewing, and rattles along energetically. But, at the same time, the film is so all over the place that I’m not quite sure what it wants to be or say, and it does feature the kind of plot twist which is simultaneously outrageously unbelievable and rather predictable.

In the end, The Limehouse Golem is really not very much like a Hammer horror film, but neither is it much like anything else I can remember seeing recently, either. There are lots of good things going on here, along with much that is baffling, some that is startling, and a few things that are actively silly. In the end the whole confection is probably a bit too bizarre and phantasmagorical to really succeed as a movie, but you could certainly argue that this is one of those movies where the incidental pleasures of the journey just about make up for the fact that the destination isn’t anything particularly special.

 

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Hmmm: I seem to have run out of Star Trek films to write about. If only there was more Trek of some kind, not necessarily movies, that I could occasionally cast an eye over… wait a minute!

Ah, God bless Netflix. They may not have all the movies (at least they didn’t, last time I checked), but they do have all the TV episodes, which will extend to include Discovery, when it eventually arrives in our quadrant of the galaxy. To be perfectly honest this is (if you’ll pardon the expression) the best of all worlds, from my point of view, as while there are individual episodes of all the Berman-era series that I like very much, the prospect of expending money and space on buying all of them on DVD makes me quail a bit – in the latter couple of shows, certainly, there’s just a bit too much filler I can’t honestly imagine myself watching again more than once, at most.

Still, Next Gen and Deep Space Nine, when they were in their groove, offered up consistently good and interesting stories on pretty much a weekly basis. Picking an episode more-or-less at random, I ended up watching I, Borg, written by Rene Echevarria, one I hadn’t seen since its first BBC transmission back in 1995 (if memory serves, and it usually does). This is from the back end of Next Gen‘s fifth season, when the show was routinely smashing it with great confidence, and while you can perhaps take issue with some elements of the conception of the episode, its execution is strong.

The Enterprise is (for once) doing some exploring in an uncharted system when the ship picks up a signal from a crashed ship on an icy moon. Following the unwritten code of the spaceways, Captain Picard sends down an away team to minister to any survivors who may have come through the crash, but things take a somewhat unexpected turn when the wreck has an ominously cube-shaped aesthetic, and the sole survivor is, indeed, a young Borg drone (Jonathan Del Arco)…

Almost at once, things don’t follow the usual pattern: a sign of the dread the Borg inspire in even our well-adjusted Starfleet heroes. Picard’s initial instinct is to leave the drone to die, on the grounds that it would be insanely dangerous to bring it onto the ship, and pointless to give succour to an implacably deadly enemy of civilisation as they know it. Dr Crusher takes a different view and refuses to leave without at least stabilising the injured Borg. Picard eventually relents and allows the Borg onto the ship, under tight security – but, it is implied, this is because he is already brewing up a plan to use it as a weapon against the Borg Collective as a whole. Infecting the drone with (effectively) malware and then allowing it to rejoin the Collective should result in the disintegration of the Borg hive-mind, and remove the Federation’s single greatest enemy.

It’s interesting that Picard seems to have ginned up this somewhat uncharacteristic plan off his own bat – it’s never explicitly stated that Starfleet Command or anyone at the Federation has signed off on it. Just how much initiative is Picard granted? He is, after all, contemplating instigating genocide. But is it genocide? The Borg are neither a discrete species nor a genuine culture as it is routinely understood. Does this, or their inherent hostility to non-Borg, justify what Picard is planning?

Well, needless to say, some of the crew have doubts, too, especially Crusher and Geordi, who are tasked with studying the drone and preparing the Borg-toppling computer virus. Of necessity kept isolated from the Collective, the drone begins to show signs of emotional distress and other behaviour not usually associated with the Borg, even adopting a personal name, Hugh. In short, the drone is rapidly becoming an individual being. Can Picard’s plan still be justified?

If you’re going to have a serious problem with I, Borg, then it’s probably because this is the episode which starts to dispel the deadly mystique of the Borg as a genuinely terrifying and unstoppable force. This is only the third Borg episode, and prior to this they are notable for the sheer terror they inspire in the regular characters and everyone else in the Federation, and their capacity to wreak utter havoc with less advanced species. This is the episode which begins to humanise them a bit (for want of a better word), indicating that they are not all irretrievably bad or hostile, and opening the door for the eventual appearance of a regular Borg character a few years later. I doubt it would have been possible to maintain the Borg as the implacable menace of their initial appearances over a large number of episodes, but still: perhaps better hardly to use them at all than to water them down as happens from this point on.

By this point in time, Next Gen was usually very much a character-based show – while watching an episode, you can normally say ‘This is a Riker story’ or ‘This is a Worf story’ – and one slightly odd thing about I, Borg is that it’s not immediately clear who the focus is on. In fact, it seems to have something of a split focus, which is quite rare. Much of the story concerns Geordi’s burgeoning friendship with Hugh – well, it kind of makes sense, as Geordi’s best friend is also a synthetic life form, and he’s a bit cybernetic himself – and this proceeds in the kind of way you would expect, though it’s well-played by both performers.

What’s more interesting, and probably the best element of the episode, is the reaction of not only Picard but also Guinan to the presence of the Borg (Guinan, it’s implied, only hears about the drone’s arrival second or third hand, which leads one to wonder how much the ship’s civilian contingent are aware of the peril Picard routinely takes them into). Usually, Picard is a man of impeccable moral judgement; he always says and does the right thing. Usually, Guinan is carefully non-judgemental, and only offers good advice to the rest of the crew. And yet in this episode, the memory of their experiences with the Borg lead them to behave very differently. Guinan initially criticises the captain for not leaving the Borg to die, and is hostile to Geordi’s suggestion it is changing. Picard’s attitude is very similar, brusquely telling Geordi to ‘unattach’ himself from the drone.

The heart of the episode is a scene in which Picard interrogates Hugh – Hugh recognises Picard as his Borg persona, Locutus, which the captain adopts (rather chillingly). As Locutus, Picard argues in favour of the assimilation of the Enterprise and its crew, and it’s Hugh who rejects this and resists the idea. Hugh’s rejection of the Borg philosophy is what convinces Picard of his individuality, and the wrongness of the virus plan.

Which leads us to the slightly peculiar ending of the episode, in which Hugh goes back to the Borg Collective, mainly to ensure they don’t hunt down and destroy the Enterprise in the course of retrieving him. But Picard has hopes that Hugh’s sense of individuality will cascade throughout the hive-mind and fundamentally affect the nature of the Borg.

Now, I agree that introducing a hostile pathogen into an entity to utterly destroy it is morally questionable, especially when you use an unwitting sentient creature as your vector of infection. However, I’m not at all sure that this suddenly becomes acceptable when your hostile pathogen is an alien pattern of thought – in this case, the liberal humanistic outlook which is at the heart of Trek‘s philosophy. Does Picard honestly think this concept is going to have pleasant effects on the utterly monolithic and hive-minded Borg Collective? He’s basically still carrying out the same plan, it’s just that his weapon is now philosophical rather than technological in nature. The end result will surely be the same. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Star Trek‘s devotion to liberal humanism is so absolute that the writers find it literally inconceivable that it could in any way be considered in a negative light.

Normally, I would tend to agree, but the episode has made such a fuss about the moral basis of Picard’s actions that this does strike me as a little dubious. I suppose you could argue that Picard’s get-out is that he’s only respecting Hugh’s desires as an individual, and the introduction of the lethal individuality-meme into the Collective is happening naturally and incidentally, rather than as a result of premeditated action by the Enterprise crew. But I still think he’s on unusually thin ice, morally speaking. As I say, an episode with some pleasingly complex and thought-provoking stuff going on under the surface, from a series near the top of its game.

 

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New Arnold Schwarzenegger movie? Yes please! New Arnold Schwarzenegger movie about a zombipocalypse? You betcha! New Arnold Schwarzenegger movie about a zombipocalypse in which Arnie plays a guilt-consumed father struggling to come to terms with the imminent death of his beloved daughter? Um, well, hang on a minute…

For once, I don’t think my thought processes are too divergent from those of the average person, or at least the average person who is still prepared to entertain the notion of watching a new Schwarzenegger movie. Let’s face it, there are not as many of us around as there used to be, for Arnie’s career has been in a state of – let’s be kind – managed decline ever since his political interlude, and arguably for some time before that. I think I may have said this before, but the old quote about the star still being the same size, but the films having got a lot smaller, was never more apropos than when discussing the world’s most famous former Austrian.

So Arnie presumably finds himself in a bit of a bind when it comes to choosing projects. Pushing 70, does he keep plugging away in the kind of testosterone-drizzled all-action fare that was his forte back in the 1980s and early 90s? This stuff was never less than mildly risible even when he was in his prime, and all the more preposterous now he’s of pensionable age. Or does he take a crack at more experimental, unexpected types of movie, even if they’re not necessarily going to draw in his target audience?

This is the conundrum of Henry Hobson’s Maggie (released in 2015), which appears to be aimed at people who like touching, slightly sentimental family dramas, but feel they just don’t include enough visceral zombie horror. (And die-hard Arnie fans.) I suspect this is not the largest target audience in the history of cinema.

Hey ho. The big man plays Wade Vogel, a farmer somewhere in the Midwest, who like everyone else is struggling with the outbreak of a virus that turns people into cannibalistic zombies. (This is referred to as the necro-ambulism virus, and I honestly can’t decide whether this is sufficiently clever or just the film not trying hard enough.) How did this start and get so widespread? As usual, it is deftly skipped over: this movie is all about Arnold, not r-Nought (a little joke there for people with a background in mathematical virus-modelling; you’re welcome). The world is not quite in Dawn of the Dead territory yet, but things are looking bleak.

This may have something to do with the response of the authorities, which if you ask me lacks a certain something when it comes to rigour. Once you get bitten by a zombie, it takes a number of weeks for the virus to fully take hold, during which time people are allowed to take their loved ones home and spend time with them. Eventually they are expected to drop them off at a government Quarantine centre (which is basically a euphemistically-named extermination camp for zombies). Not surprisingly, people are forever leaving it too late or refusing to give up their sort-of dead, which is why there are always zombies wandering out of the woods or appearing unexpectedly in public bathrooms.

Still, questionable though the system is, it’s this that enables the plot of the film to take place. The movie opens with Wade collecting his teenage daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin) from a hospital in the big city – she has been bitten and will soon be on the turn. Nevertheless, Arnie resolves to take her home and care for her for as long as he possibly can. Arnie’s wife, who is Maggie’s stepmother (played by Joely Richardson), has a few misgivings about this, as there are other kids about the farm, but they are packed off to stay with relatives.

Tough times are in prospect for Wade (fairly tough for Maggie, too, now I think about it) – gruesome reminders of people who hung on to their infected loved ones for a little too long are everywhere, the local sheriff is sympathetic but makes it very clear his priority is the safety of the town, and the town doctor seems to base his career around giving spectacularly suspect advice. But, you know, suffering is the basis of drama, or something like that anyway.

Well, if nothing else, Maggie is yet more evidence of the near-infinite flexibility of the classic Romero zombipocalypse set-up: Maggie is a horror movie, but only by default, due to its zombie content (in the same way that any film about aliens is technically on some level science fiction). It really plays much more like some kind of brooding, morbid, atmospheric drama about people struggling to come to terms with the fact of impending mortality. Sure, Arnie takes out a few zombies with an axe, but it’s not like he or anyone else enjoys it – this is absolutely not an action movie.

It’s arguably the precise opposite, as Arnie basically does nothing at all for most of the film. He sits. He broods. He looks mournfully about him. It’s Arnie, Jim, but not as we know him. He may be the top name on the marquee, but this is essentially a character role for Schwarzenegger, a notion which would prompt many people to – oh, I see you’ve already fastened your seatbelt. Well, to be completely fair to the big man, the ride is not too bumpy, for he is required to be withdrawn and introspective rather than too emotional. Hobson directs him sensitively and the end result is really not as bad as you might expect.

Most of the heavy lifting, character-wise, comes from Abigail Breslin, a talented young actress who finds the subtlety and the humanity in a part where it would have been very easy to go rather over the top. Also, she does get to go and do things, like talk to people, hang out with her friends and other incipient-zombies, and so on. On the other hand, this arguably creates a structural problem in the movie, for the focus slowly but definitely shifts from Wade to Maggie as the story progresses. The ground kind of shifts under your feet as you try to work out who your point of identification is supposed to be. I wouldn’t be surprised if the original script had started out being entirely about Maggie, with Wade’s role and character being beefed up when Arnie signed on.

Certainly, for a film which is being marketed on the strength of Schwarzenegger’s involvement, he is not the dominant force of old, and his involvement in the closing stages of the film is almost entirely passive. Still, by this point it has become abundantly clear that this is not your typical Arnie movie.

But is it any good? Well, the average Arnie fan would probably say no, and it has to be said that the film’s effectiveness as a drama is necessarily affected by the presence of a leading actor of such, um, restricted technical ability. But as zombie movies go, this is (literally) a change of pace, the central metaphor and subtext is sound, and the supporting performances are never less than adequate and in some cases rather fine. The reliance on atmosphere and the rather glacial pacing are likely to annoy fans of more kinetic zombie films, though.

I would struggle to say I genuinely liked or enjoyed Maggie, but I can still admire its ambition and various achievements. It sets out to do something different, and it certainly succeeds in that (that said, the general bleak tone, washed-out cinematography, and focus on parental care do rather put one in mind of The Road). My advice would be to treat this as a rather arty horror-drama which happens to have made one extremely odd casting choice, rather than an Arnold Schwarzenegger zombie film.

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Film-making, in the Hollywood mainstream at least, is often a kind of Faustian bargain – on the one hand, you have a writer and/or director, who have a story they really feel has value and deserves to reach the widest possible audience, while on the other there’s the studio who are actually paying for the thing, who want as healthy a return as possible on their investment. Advertising and suchlike tends to focus on the former. Occasionally, though, it’s almost impossible to avoid the impression that a film has only been made for the purposes of raking in the dough.

I think it’s this problem that besets the last couple of ‘original’ Star Trek movies. It would be almost impossible for the makers to argue that these are stories they were burning to tell about these characters, because by this point they’d already made about 180 TV episodes and movies featuring them. It’s not really a cash-in, but it is an example of a reliable product being put out for an established audience. Sound business, probably, but not exactly exciting or likely to thrill mind and spirit in the way that genuine SF is surely supposed to – I think it was Kim Newman who observed that by the late 1990s Star Trek had become the genre equivalent of McDonald’s.

Certainly, the sense of being a movie without a particularly pressing reason to exist is one of the problems afflicting Jonathan Frakes’ Star Trek: Insurrection, originally released in 1998. With the original series crossover movie out of the way, along with the Borg rematch action film, the big question was obviously that of what to do next with the Next Generation crew – and you do get a sense that they never really found a particularly compelling answer to it.

The year is 2375 and the Enterprise is being kept very busy with diplomatic and courier assignments – enough to make Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) lament the loss of their role as explorers (not that they ever seemed to do much of that, even in the TV show). However, a crisis demands his attention when Data (Brent Spiner), who has been assigned to a joint mission with a dubious gang of aliens called the So’na, seemingly goes rogue and starts attacking Federation personnel and their allies.

Investigating, Picard and the others discover a remote, secluded planet, inhabited by the thoroughly peaceful and decent Ba’ku people, who have rejected most of the trappings of technological civilisation. Everyone there is living the rustic idyll, and living it for a very long time, because the unique properties of the planet’s rings vastly boost physical wellbeing and longevity (something which begins to have odd effects on several members of Picard’s staff, too). The So’na have persuaded the Federation to assist them in exploiting this effect for the benefit of the wider galaxy, even if this means forcibly moving the Ba’ku without their consent and rendering their planet a lifeless cinder. Picard, being Picard, naturally has strong views about this sort of thing, but finds himself at odds with Starfleet Command, and compelled by his conscience to take up arms against his own people…

Well, not exactly: people who are allies of his own people, maybe, and allies who are established from the very start to be a very shady bunch. As insurrections go, the insurrection in Star Trek: Insurrection is not the most shocking insurrection in the history of insurrections, and it’s fairly clear the film’s only called Star Trek: Insurrection because Paramount wasn’t keen on titles like Star Trek: Stardust, Star Trek: Forever and Star Trek: Apostasy.

Actually, you can see where the blundering paw of studio interference has had an effect on this movie in a number of places – Paramount’s instinct with the Trek movies, following Star Trek IV at least, always seemed to be to go light whenever possible, in the hope of attracting a wider audience. So it is here, as Picard and the others do all kinds of unexpected and often slightly cringeworthy things: Data turns into an inflatable lifejacket. Riker and Troi hop in the hot tub together so she can shave off his beard. Troi and Dr Crusher discuss their resurgent ‘boobs’ (cringey this may be, but it’s also the only significant contribution Gates McFadden gets to make to the movie). Picard puts a beaded seat cover on his head, sings a Gilbert and Sullivan number, and dances the mambo across his quarters (not all at the same time, thank God). Some of this verges on the silly.

It’s a particular problem because you can see that the script (by Michael Piller, in many ways the principal architect of Star Trek storytelling in the 1990s and early 2000s) is trying to strike a much more thoughtful and mature tone. Of course, the film is ultimately once again about allowing Patrick Stewart to employ his massive gravitas (and, by extension, Picard’s colossal moral authority) by planting himself like a tree in the path of incipient injustice and doing what’s right, and Stewart (naturally) makes it work; he always does. But the film’s mechanism for facilitating this is to present a tarnished, compromised Federation, far from the utopian state it had traditionally been presented as for much of Trek prior to this point.

This is an interesting idea and does allow the film to plug into some of what had been going on in other bits of the franchise in the preceding couple of years – following various maulings in the war with the Dominion in DS9, and the Borg invasion in the previous movie, it’s kind of logical for the Federation to be on the back foot and losing touch with its ideals (apparently, the suggestion is that this movie is set concurrently with the final episode of DS9, hence the mention of peace negotiations with the Dominion – Worf just turns up like he never left, of course).

And it is nice to have another Trek movie focusing a little more on big moral themes and philosophical ideas, because this is a crucial element of the TV show that often never makes it into the movies in one piece. There isn’t the greatest of depth to it on this occasion – the Ba’ku are blandly, tediously nice, while the So’na are very obviously bad guys – but at least it’s there.

In fact, the film seems to have made a real effort to be thoroughgoingly nice in pretty much every department. Jonathan Frakes works very hard to fill the opening sequence with lyrical, pastoral imagery, which works well, but it establishes a tone which really lingers throughout the film. Even once Picard launches his ‘insurrection’, everything remains surprisingly mild and good-natured, there isn’t a sharp edge or genuinely tough decision in sight.

Still, it is solidly plotted and structured, and the inevitable action-movie climax is competently assembled (Piller takes no chances and makes sure the script favours Picard, Data, and Worf, the most popular characters). The thing is that, by the end, we are really back where we started, nothing has really changed (except maybe that we have become reacquainted with Riker’s chin): no-one has had a life-altering experience, everyone is ready for next week’s episode. You would have to be hyper-critical to say that Star Trek: Insurrection is an actively bad movie, but it’s not really stretching things too much to say that it frequently doesn’t feel much like an actual movie at all.

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‘I think the title of this film is very off-putting,’ said a stranger behind me in the cinema queue, speaking to her son.

I turned round and frowned at her. ‘What, you don’t like France?’ I asked. (I can be very socially inappropriate sometimes.)

She did an actual double-take at me. ‘I didn’t mean Dunkirk. I was talking about The Big Sick.’

Ohhhh,’ I said, feigning sudden comprehension. Needless to say, we did not speak again.

Yes, it’s that time of year again, when cinema screens are ram-jammed with coldly calculated kid’s film franchise extensions and noble British tommies shivering on a beach while trying to work out exactly what’s going on with the chronology. You’re really reliant on some high-quality counter-programming cutting through (if you want to have an even vaguely rewarding time at the cinema, anyway), and luckily just this has arrived in the form of Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick.

Or should that really be Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick? It’s hard to think of another recent film which is so obviously personal, for all that it is part of that most peculiar of genres, the romantic comedy.

No, seriously – what is the function of romantic comedies? I get the point of full-on comedies, for they are there to lift your spirits and make you laugh. Dramas are there to engage your intellect and emotions, action movies provide a basic adrenaline thrill, horror movies play with the darker end of the emotion spectrum, and proper science fiction stimulates the intellect.  And so on, and so on. But what’s going on with rom-coms? Who sits down to decide what film to watch and says ‘You know what, I wouldn’t mind feeling a bit more romantic tonight’? Either you’re feeling romantic or you’re not, and if you’re not feeling that way, nothing is less likely to kindle the flame of love than watching two beautiful young people play games for ninety minutes before inevitably ending up together. Part of me suspects this is all about reinforcing social and cultural norms, given that our society is largely glued together by the notion of romantic love, and that going to see a rom-com provides a sense of affirmation, that there is some objective truth to this notion. (Which, you know, there may be.)

Some of this kind of gets obliquely addressed in The Big Sick. Pakistani-American stand-up comic and actor Kumail Nanjiani plays Pakistani-American stand-up comic and actor Kumail Nanjiani (it will be interesting to see if his performance wins any acting awards), who meets therapist-in-training Emily (Zoe Kazan) at one of his gigs. Neither of them is looking for a serious commitment, and yet there is a spark between them, and a relationship develops almost without either of them willing it.

However, in Kumail’s case, the aversion to commitment is basically because his family are still deeply attached to the tradition of arranged marriages, with a seemingly-endless string of unattached Pakistani women happening to drop by at family meals. Kumail doesn’t want to get kicked out of the family for admitting to a relationship with a white non-Muslim girl, and this inevitably causes tension between Emily and him.

And then something happens. Does this constitute a spoiler or not? I can’t remember if it’s in the trailer or not, but it’s in all the promotional material that I’ve seen, and the film is called The Big Sick, after all. Emily is admitted to hospital after what seems to be a bout of flu causes her to faint, and ends up in a coma. Despite their relationship being in limbo, Kumail finds himself hanging around the hospital and bonding with Emily’s parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano).

This is a rom-com, so you probably don’t need me to tell you that this crisis forces Kumail to think hard about what is really important to him – is it keeping his parents happy, even if that means living a lie, or spending his life with Emily? The charm and the achievement of the film, which is the same as that of any watchable romantic comedy, is that you are engaged and entertained even as the story proceeds towards a throroughly predictable conclusion (Nanjiani and the real-life Emily have been married for nearly a decade and co-wrote the script together).

As I get older and become more aware of my neuro-atypicality, trips to watch rom-coms increasingly feel like anthropological expeditions to observe the peculiar behaviour of remote tribespeople, and yet I found The Big Sick to be rather delightful and almost completely winning. Much of the credit for this must go to Nanjiani himself, who gives a brilliant deadpan comedy performance. It probably helped my connection to him that Nanjiani is no stranger to the less-mainstream areas of culture himself, being a noted X Files fan (which resulted in him actually appearing in the good episode of season 10). That said, at various points in the film, Kumail breaks off from watching Night of the Living Dead and The Abominable Dr Phibes to engage in intimate relations, which I can’t imagine ever doing myself, so this is obviously a relative thing. (What kind of person takes a girl home and then suggests they watch an old Vincent Price horror movie together, anyway? Ahem.)

Then again, this is a film with a strong ensemble performance, from the various members of Kumail and Emily’s extended families (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff play Kumail’s parents), and also the various other up-and-coming comedians Kumail hangs around with. The film never puts a foot wrong when it comes to its frequent shifts in tone, and never feels self-consciously heavy when dealing with ostensibly serious topics like ‘the Pakistani-American experience’ or ‘coping with a loved one in a coma’ (the movie resists making the obvious Smiths reference).

In fact, although on paper the movie looks like an inventive mash-up of the Cross-Cultural Romance (with Various Attendant Issues) and Medical Crisis Romance story-forms, it doesn’t really feel like either of them – it feels heartfelt and genuine rather than forced and formulaic. None of the major characters is wholly flawless or an irredeemably bad person – they’re just recognisable people, with rather messy lives they are doing their best to cope with.

I laughed a lot all the way through The Big Sick (there was also, admittedly, a sharp intake of breath at the point where someone tells Kumail that ‘The X Files is not a good show’) – but it also snuck in some genuinely moving moments, which took me entirely by surprise. Normally I would be inclined to speculate as to extent to which real life has been rewritten to suit the demands of a standard three-act dramatic structure, but the film is so funny, so warm, and so sincerely truthful that I’m inclined to give it a pass on this. This is a charming and immensely likeable film, however you feel about rom-coms in general; highly recommended.

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