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Posts Tagged ‘drama’

The thing about a big new studio blockbuster coming out is that it does tend to occupy more than the standard number of screens. When that blockbuster is a hefty three hours plus in length (taking trailers and such into account), the opportunities for a good range of other new films to get proper exposure become depressingly limited. Sometimes you just want to enjoy the experience of going to the movies. Sometimes you just have a free afternoon and literally nothing else to do. So you occasionally find yourself watching a movie which you probably wouldn’t have bothered seeing if anything more promising was available. This was how I ended up spending a couple of hours in front of Hany Abu-Assad’s The Mountain Between Us.

Beau ‘He’s not Jeff’ Bridges plays Walter, an ageing ex-fighter jockey and now charter pilot running his business in Utah. Walter lives a happy life with his dog, reminiscing about his experiences in Vietnam and elsewhere. All is well until two strangers, whose commercial flight has been cancelled due to a looming storm, hire Walter to fly them to Denver. Easy peasy for an old hand like Walt! He doesn’t even bother filing a flight plan. Unfortunately, while in the air, Walter suffers an unfortunate cerebral event and the plane crashes in what is apparently called the High Uintas Wilderness, killing Walter stone dead.

Yes, what Walter has never realised is that he is nothing but a plot device character, there to enable the stranding of the actual stars of the movie in the sticky situation they will spend most of the rest of it trying to get out of. They are Ben (Idris Elba), a buttoned-up surgeon rushing off to an operating theatre in Baltimore, and Alex (Kate Winslet), an impulsive photojournalist who is, you guessed it, getting married in the morning. Discovering that Walter has crashed in what appears to be Middle-Earth, or possibly the planet Hoth, is not promising news, nor is the fact that their distress beacon is in another part of the plane which fell off and landed some way away.

Well, Ben wants to stay with the wreckage, citing the dangers of falling off the mountain and being attacked by a mountain lion (for some reason I was surprised to discover mountain lions live on mountains, but I see now that it makes a certain amount of sense), to name but two – the fact Alex has a mildly broken leg is also a consideration. But Alex just can’t bring herself to sit around and starve to death, so when the food starts to run out (the possibility of eating Walter’s corpse is quite properly never even mooted), off she toddles down the mountain, with a reluctant Ben drawn to follow her.

Luckily Idris Elba is clearly unaware of what happens to dudes who hang around with Kate Winslet in a post-disaster-type scenario. Exactly what kind of film is this? Well, partly it is one of those ‘figures in a landscape’ type things, with lots of helicopter shots of people staggering across bleak wastelands and confronting the terrible beauty of nature in all its glory, etc etc – these films tend to be somewhat light on incident and also to go on for a while, and this is all true to some extent of The Mountain Between Us as well. But on the other hand it does have a slightly Titanic-y vibe to it, as the focus is at least as much on their relationship as it is the plight they are in. Not that you are ever allowed to really forget the plight, of course. I suppose if I had to coin a name for this sort of extravaganza it would be either ‘survival romance’ or more likely ‘romantic tragedy’.

As opposed to ‘romantic comedy’, of course. To be honest just a sprinkling of comedy, or even anything of a slightly lighter tone, would have helped this movie a lot, for it feels terribly leaden and heavy-going for much of its length. Elba and Winslet seem quite unaware they are starring in a piece of life-affirming, crowd-pleasing cobblers, and attempt to give serious Proper Actor performances, which are more than the script deserves. I know I’m an indoorsy type – if it wasn’t for cinema trips and the need to work, I expect I’d hardly ever leave the house – but this seemed to me to be a really rather dull film. Oh, look, they’re on top of a mountain. It is snowy. Now they have staggered partway down the mountain. It is still snowy. Now they are in a forest. Is that snow everywhere? I suspect it is. Whatever next?

This is before we get to the romantic element of the plot, which is arguably torpedoed by the palpable lack of chemistry between Elba and Winslet. The moment at which they finally come together feels like some kind of contractual obligation, and occurs under what seem to me to be unlikely circumstances. Then again, perhaps malnutrition, bone fractures, first-stage frostbite and incipient gangrene are what get some people in the mood for a spot of the old rumpy – I don’t judge in these matters. Even so, what ensues is a notable example of a Bad Sex Scene, though this is more down to the director overdoing it than any fault of his stars. At least it’s not too prominent an element of the story, or they might have had to retitle the film The Mounting Between Us.

At first it looks like this movie isn’t going to outstay its welcome and get off the screen after a relatively snappy 100 minutes or so, with the duo staggering back to civilisation in an appropriately overwrought way (yes, they don’t freeze to death; I trust this doesn’t constitute a spoiler). But the thing drags on for a lengthy coda as they go back to their lives, don’t answer each other’s phone calls, and generally obey the plot imperative to resist the inevitable for as long as possible. However, I wasn’t looking impatiently for the moment where they admit their feelings for each other, I was looking impatiently at my watch.

I would imagine that Idris Elba and Kate Winslet are well-established enough as actors for this piece of tosh not to damage their careers significantly. A film which was just a little lighter on its feet would have worked much better. As it is, The Mountain Between Us is competently assembled for most of its duration, but ultimately almost wholly inert as either a drama or a romance. Outdoorsy types might find something to enjoy, I suppose, but there’s not much for the rest of us.

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A venture into a wholly strange and slightly baffling world now, as we launch a new, probably fairly irregular feature, entitled NCJG Goes To Bollywood. Your ability to find proper Bollywood films in the UK is really a bit of a postcode lottery – if you live in a region with a sizeable Asian community, the chances are there will be at least one or two screens at the local multiplex doing a roaring trade in the latest releases (hence their regular presence on the UK box office top ten), but elsewhere the pickings are much slimmer (where I live, you’re more likely to find a Polish movie – Pollywood? – than anything from the subcontinent). I suppose there is always Get Clicks (until they start paying me to endorse them, I’m not using their actual name), but my cursory research suggests most of the Bollywood films available to stream come from the ‘pilloried by the critics’ category.

Let us be thankful, then, for the BFI’s India on Film initiative, which last week brought us Ray’s The Chess Players and this week offers, in a similar vein of cultural outreach, Mani Ratnam’s 1995 film Bombay. My research – once again, pretty cursory – suggests this is considered a bit of a modern classic as far as Indian movies go, with nothing more recent ahead of it in the lists of the best of Bollywood.

Things get underway in rural India as the chunkily moustached Shekhar (Arvind Swamy) returns to visit his family after being away studying journalism in Bombay. His father (Nassar) is a respected man around the village and is on at Shekhar to marry a nice local Hindu girl, so it is a bit awkward when he falls head over heels in love with a local Muslim, Shaila (Manisha Koirala), whose father makes bricks for a living. A couple of banging musical numbers inevitably follow, along with many significant looks between the two, before Shaila gives in to her own heart and the two launch a passionate but also almost entirely chaste love affair.

Naturally, a Hindu-Muslim romance is bound to cause trouble, and when Shekhar approaches Shaila’s dad Bashir (Kitty) to inform her of his marital intentions, Bashir grabs a scimitar and tries to hack him to pieces, which is not the response he was hoping for. Despite the disapproval of both families, Shekhar and Shaila elope to Bombay to begin a new life together. For a while everything seems to be improving, with the two families gradually brought closer together, but as sectarian tensions rise in Bombay, it seems that not even Shekhar and Shaila’s love is safe…

There are obviously many things about a film like Bombay which seem rather strange and alien to a western viewer – cultural things, of course, but also some cinematic conventions. (And the fact that while the film is theoretically subtitled in English, it is a variety of English that seems to have been written with minimal knowledge of the language.) One might even rashly suggest that making a musical romantic drama set against the backdrop of bloody sectarian violence is a bizarre tonal choice, the product of a wholly different perspective. But then if you think about films like West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, and (if we really must) Absolute Beginners, you can see that they use music and dance to address challenging topics in exactly the same way.

To be perfectly honest, there were rather fewer big musical numbers in Bombay than I was hoping for, and I got the impression the film-makers would like to have included more too: at one point the story just stops and everyone launches into a fairly lavish routine on the thinnest of pretexts, with minimal relevance to the plot, presumably just because that’s what they fancied doing. Elsewhere the songs are incorporated into the story a little more subtly. Before watching this film I was unfamiliar with the Bollywood concept of the ‘item number’, which is a musical interlude featuring stars not appearing elsewhere in the movie, usually included for promotional purposes only. There’s one of those here, a suggestive pop song featuring some belly dancing and MC Hammer-style moves, but it does serve the plot rather neatly – having arrived in Bombay and got wed, Shekhar and Shaila find themselves unable to, ahem, consummate their relationship for several days. When the time comes, proceedings are alluded to by various shots of Shekhar taking off his vest, intercut with the aforementioned suggestive song. The overall effect is rather pleasingly subtle and genuinely mildly erotic.

This is for a given value of subtlety, of course. Bombay is essentially a sentimental melodrama with all of its emotions dialled up to 11 from the start – when Shekhar first catches sight of Shaila (her veil blows out of the way), we get the full slo-mo effect and Indian yodelling on the soundtrack. But you can’t fault the actors’ charisma or commitment – they are an undeniably sweet couple, with Koirala an almost irresistibly winsome screen presence – and, in its early stages at least, the film mixes some genuinely funny lines and business in with the romance subplot. (Shekhar can only speak to Shaila by dressing up as a Muslim woman – fortunately his niqab hides his moustache.)

‘I didn’t come here to be sentimental,’ says one of the characters later on in the film, which is possibly one of the most disingenuous lines in the history of cinema, for you could argue that everyone in Bombay has turned up to be sentimental, most of the time. As long as the film stays light on its feet, though, you kind of indulge it in this. However, the mood grows darker as the film progresses, and real-life events start to impact the narrative. The last third of the film concerns the Bombay riots of late 1992 and early 1993, in which clashes between Hindus and Muslims led to hundreds of deaths. The religious tension which at the start of the film is almost played for laughs – the two fathers can’t have a conversation without one of them reaching for a meat cleaver – becomes deadly serious, and the film basically turns into a deeply heartfelt plea for religious tolerance.

You can’t fault that as a message, I suppose, and given the nature of Bollywood, you shouldn’t be surprised when the film lays it all on a bit thick. But I have to say I found myself shifting in my seat and wanting to glance at my watch as the film approached its end, with many an impassioned speech about all blood being the same colour, and so on (you know, that may have been a song lyric – yes, they have songs in the middle of the rioting).

Bombay is not especially smart, nor is it especially subtle, but I don’t think it was ever intended to be – but I suspect it will stir your emotions and tug at your heartstrings, whatever your background, assuming you surrender to its considerable charms. It’s not as if sentimental melodramas don’t frequently do very well in Anglophone cinema, is it? Anyway: this is a thoroughly enjoyable film for most of its duration, with a worthy message passionately delivered. Probably a very good choice of sampler for the whole Bollywood experience.

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I know it’s not something to really be proud of, but I’m as prone to a touch of the old schadenfreude as the next person. Watching someone spectacularly torch their own career has a strange fascination to it, not to mention a peculiar and terrible beauty. Young movie stars are kept under pretty strict control these days, so they have to be quite determined to really do themselves some damage, career-wise – but someone who managed it was Shia LaBeouf, whose ill-chosen comments on the last Indiana Jones film, while admirably candid, apparently seriously ticked off Steven Spielberg. These days he’s not even allowed to be in the Transformers movies, a franchise so beyond the critical pale that not even I go to see them. A move into performance art has just been bemusing, more than anything else – last year he spent a whole weekend just going up and down in the lift in an office building round the corner from where I work, while a queue of admirers lined up to go up and down once with him. (He should have used the lift where I work: our building has twice as many floors, so everyone would have got a longer ride.)

And yet here he is, popping up in Janus Metz Pederson’s Borg vs McEnroe (the movie has a variety of other titles, depending on where you see it; we will return to this). This looks like being a bumper autumn for tennis-based historical drama, but apparently Borg vs McEnroe is struggling at the box office, rather: I can’t say I’m completely surprised. This movie reminds me very much of Ron Howard’s Rush (an account of a different sporting rivalry of yesterday), a rather fine film which did okay money-wise but was hardly a smash hit. This is a film much of which is in Swedish, without a really big star to carry it, or a big name director, and sheer quality just doesn’t guarantee success these days.

The film is set in 1980 and concerns the famous clash in the Wimbledon men’s final, between the Swedish player Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) and the American John McEnroe (LaBeouf). Quite apart from the fact that the two men are both supremely gifted athletes, there is a clash of styles and personalities – Borg is renowned as an iceman, his game characterised by an almost robotic perfectionism, while McEnroe is a much more turbulent, provocative figure, famous for his explosive temper on court. Borg is loved by the crowds; McEnroe routinely booed.

Borg is campaigning for his fifth Wimbledon title on the spin; McEnroe is seeking to establish himself as a major figure in the sport. The pressures on both men are enormous – in private, Borg’s relationship with his coach (Stellan Skarsgard) and fiancee (Tuva Novotny) come under strain, while McEnroe’s fractious relationship with the media is another distraction. But as Wimbledon begins and the two men begin to battle their way through the draw, perhaps each of them sees a little of himself in the other…

I suspect that the one thing you really need to know in order to understand Borg vs McEnroe is the fact that this is a Scandinavian-financed film, known in Sweden simply as Borg. Bearing this in mind, it’s not exactly a surprise that the film is not completely even-handed in its treatment of its two principals. It’s not that McEnroe is smeared or disparaged in any way, more that the focus of the story is much more on the Swede than the American (the sense that this is the authorised biography of Borg only increases when you learn that playing the athlete as a youth is a lad by the name of Leo, ah, Borg – I wonder who his dad might be?).

The film has one of those slightly tricksy constructions where scenes from the ’present day’ of the film (i.e., 1980) are intercut with flashbacks to the youth of the characters – well, the extreme youth of the characters, given they are 24 and 21. There are many more of these for Borg than McEnroe, and – it seemed to me – more of an attempt at psychological insight and a fully-rounded characterisation. We see that McEnroe was clearly pushed to excel by extremely ambitious parents, but not really very much more – whereas in the case of Borg, we see in much more detail his troubled early years in the junior game, his discovery by Lennart Bergelin, and so on.

As a result, the film feels a bit unbalanced, and I have to say that the casting of LaBeouf is arguably a bit of a mistake that does not help matters much. We can skip over the fact he’s a decade older than McEnroe was at the time (the age disparity between Gudnason and Borg is even greater), but it still remains the case that there really isn’t much resemblance between the two of them. McEnroe was and remains a well-known public figure; at the time his various touchline rants at the umpire (’You cannot be serious,’ etc) were hugely famous, the raw material for dozens of jokes, cartoons, and even novelty pop songs. Everyone feels they already know John McEnroe already; bringing him successfully to life on screen would require a more nuanced and powerful performance than LaBeouf provides here. If nothing else, LaBeouf has the same problem that Tom Cruise suffers from these days – his peculiar behaviour away from the camera gets in the way of his work in front of it. He is known as a celebrity rather than an actor, and so when he appears he is only ever really Shia LaBeouf in a wig rather than any version of John McEnroe. (LaBeouf-watchers may be slightly alarmed to hear their man likening himself to the tennis player, saying he feels they are both ’misunderstood’. Hmmm.)

Anyway. I used to be very cool about sports-based movies, feeling that sport had no business muscling in on what’s supposed to be an art form. What I realise now, of course, is that both are in the business of storytelling, and the main appeal of sport is its potential to deliver a totally unpredictable narrative. The match at the end of Borg vs McEnroe is an unpredictable narrative to which the climax is already well-known, which presumably counts as a neatly-squared circle. Both the climax and the rest of the film are very competently assembled, even if the film’s ’inspired by true events’ style is hardly particularly innovative.

I’m just old enough to remember being vaguely aware of the events of this film when they happened, and I’m aware of the significance of the 1980 final. And the least you can say about Borg vs McEnroe is that it is a worthy, entertaining, and surprisingly insightful recreation of these events (it goes without saying, of course, that the 1981 encounter is dismissed in a single caption at the end). Not a perfect movie, but by no means a bad one, either: worth watching even if you’re only marginally a tennis fan.

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Well, let’s boldly launch ourselves into a new occasional feature which I have decided to entitle Flaunt Your Ignorance, in which I go rather off the beaten track of new films of all kinds and old (mostly) genre movies, and plunge into areas of cinema with which I am not nearly as familiar as I occasionally affect to be. I can speak at quite nauseating length about the defining characteristics and charms of the British portmanteau horror movie, as we saw just the other day, but there are great swathes of the cinematic landscape with which I am only very vaguely familiar. Continental European cinema, for instance, is a bit of a closed book to me; as are most Asian films not concerned with martial arts, samurai, or towering monsters. The best I can do is drop the names of directors like Fellini, Yasujiro Ozu, and Satyajit Ray in an attempt to obscure my own lack of knowledge.

I am pretty sure this is just not acceptable. However, with the Phoenix in Oxford being closed for renovation yet again (fingers crossed they finally get the rake in Screen Two right), I have been looking slightly further afield than usual for movies to watch on a weekend afternoon, and it turned out the rather-optimistically-named Ultimate Picture Palace was showing a revival of Ray’s The Chess Players (original title: Shatranj Ke Khilari), from 1977. Now, all I could definitely have told you about Ray’s work prior to this is that he made some films about someone called Apu (perhaps buried somewhere in my subconscious was the fact he claimed E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was ripped-off from one of his unmade scripts), but I did know he is acclaimed as one of the world masters of cinema. So along I went.

The film is set in India in 1856. The Muslim state of Oudh (also known as Awadh) has managed to hang onto its independence, despite the dominance in sub-continental affairs of the British East India Company (at this point in history the British government were effectively sub-contracting the running of much of their empire). However, this is about to change, with the local Resident, General Outram (Richard Attenborough), affecting to be so unimpressed by the devout yet hedonistic king of Oudh, Wajid Ali Shah (Amjad Khan), that he concludes the only responsible thing to do is for the Company to take over the running of the state. Cue much power-politics and many barely-disguised threats of the might of the British army.

Running parallel to all this, on the other hand, is the story of Mir (Saeed Jaffrey) and Mirza (Sanjeev Kumar), two well-off gents who have allowed themselves to become obsessed with playing each other at chess (strictly speaking, shatranj, an ancestral form of the game native to India). The two men play each other all day long, oblivious to everything else around them – Mirza’s wife feels so neglected she hides his chess pieces, while Mir’s spouse encourages his fixation, as it allows her to play about with another man. Neither of them notices the looming political crisis until it is much too late…

Well, here’s the thing: Anglo-Indian relations have left a profound mark on British culture, which is reflected in the fact that we can’t seem to stop making films about the country. Even now, multiplex cinemas are clogged up with Victoria and Abdul, a heartwarming tale of something-or-other which looks from the trailer to be rather like Downton Abbey with added turbans, while earlier this year there was Viceroy’s House, an equally soft-centred take on the partition of India. In recent years there have also been the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films, and of course Slumdog Millionaire. I would suggest that only the last of these offers anything resembling a genuinely Indian perspective, and it’s obviously a very contemporary film. So it’s interesting, to say the least, to see a film from an Indian director about the British occupation of his country.

The first thing to say about watching The Chess Players on the big screen is that allowances had to be made: the film is forty years old, it seemed rather like the print we were watching hailed from the late 1970s, too: it was grainy and scratched, with weirdly tinted sections and a slightly crackly soundtrack. It was rather curious to watch a film made in the old Academy aspect ratio, too. The danger, of course, is that all this stuff just gets in the way of the film.

However, this does not quite happen. This is quite a leisurely and thoughtful film, by modern standards anyway, but never too dry or heavy to be watchable. Ray balances the two elements of the storyline well, so that any contrasts of tone are minimal – the story of Mir and Mirza is often played as a gentle comedy, to begin with at least, while the storyline about Oudram and the King is much more serious, and even somewhat tragic. Richard Attenborough, who you might expect to be at least a little out of his comfort zone, is quite as good as you might expect as one of the British imperialists who seems to genuinely believe in the morality of taking over other countries for their own good. Some of the king’s scenes, in which he bewails his lot and (almost literally) beats his breast about his misfortunes, go on a bit, but there is also some singing and dancing here, and no-one does a musical interlude quite like Indian film-makers do.

It’s also notable that the political storyline features a British officer who has learned to speak fluent Urdu and is clearly well-versed in local arts and poetry – it’s also implied he is considered a little suspect for being rather too fond of the local culture, and not loyal enough to the Company. The Chess Players is not soft on the British, being quite clear about the unprincipled avarice which led to imperial dominance in India, but it reserves most of its criticism for the local nobility who sat back and let it happen. This is the central metaphor and irony of the film – Mir and Mirza aspire to be great generals and tacticians, but are so consumed by this that they end up being worse than useless in the actual political struggle going on around them. British control of India, the film seems to suggest, was to at least some extent a shameful self-inflicted wound. (The film concludes symbolically, with Mir and Mirza abandoning shatranj in favour of traditional European chess, in which – of course – the queen is dominant.)

It’s hard to imagine a film by a British director based around such a message, but then it’s almost impossible to imagine a British director making a film about the circumstances in which we ended up running India: it’s one of those things that mainstream culture in the UK is almost too ashamed to talk about. This is an interesting and quietly entertaining take on the topic, and one I’m glad I saw, even if it isn’t your stereotypical Bollywood movie. Hmm: I should think about seeing one of those as well, I suppose…

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And now for a little unfinished business. As frequent visitors may have noticed, I spent a few weeks earlier this year watching and writing about the BBC TV show Doomwatch, which ran on BBC1 from 1970 to 1972. It has never been repeated, despite its enormous success and popularity at the time, and received only a very limited VHS release in the 1990s. As someone interested in TV science fiction and fantasy, though, I was always vaguely aware of the Doomwatch name, enough to make a point of taping and watching the movie based on the show when it turned up on TV – I’m not sure when this actually happened, at some time in the late 1980s I suppose – the main UK commercial network had just gone 24-hour, turning the wee small hours of the night into a treasure trove of obscure genre movies rolled out just to fill holes in the schedule. (What bliss it was, etc.) In any case, the big-screen version of Doomwatch was my first point of contact with the series.

Peter Sasdy’s film was released in March 1972, during the gap between the second and third series of the TV show – it features the second-series line-up of characters (Ridge is still a member of Doomwatch at this point, as is Chantry), although features is the operative word – the main actors of the TV show are billed as ‘also starring’, with the lead roles taken by Ian Bannen (a very capable character actor) and Judy Geeson (a quietly prolific actress whose most memorable big-screen role was perhaps her gob-smacking appearance in Inseminoid).

Bannen plays Dr Del Shaw, a member of Doomwatch’s big-screen-only division, who at the start of the film is packed off by Quist to the remote island of Balfe. The exact location of Balfe is left obscure, but, as we shall see, the temptation to assume it is somewhere off the Scottish coast becomes almost irresistible given how the film plays out. There has been an oil-tanker spill in the region and Doomwatch is checking out what effect this has had on the local ecology (the opening credits indicate that Doomwatch exists mainly as an anti-pollution agency, which is a bit of a simplification of the rationale given on TV, but I suppose it would work to bring new audiences up to speed).

Arriving on Balfe, Shaw sets about obtaining his biological samples, but soon comes to suspect that not all is well on the island – most outsiders are unwelcome and resented, almost violently (although, for plot reasons, this does not extend to their schoolteacher, who is played by Geeson). Shaw finds himself shadowed by a gun-toting islander throughout his sample-collecting excursions. Many of the islanders have a short fuse, to say the least, if not an actual tendency towards savage brutality. Shaw comes across a body in a shallow grave, but when he returns it has mysteriously vanished. What is going on on Balfe, and has it got anything to do with the oil spill he has been sent to investigate?

Peter Sasdy is probably best known as a director of genre and especially horror films – he did a couple of rather good movies for Hammer, Taste the Blood of Dracula and Countess Dracula – although his career effectively ended when he won a Razzie for a more conventional drama, The Lonely Lady. In a similar vein, the big-screen Doomwatch was made by Tigon, a production company best-known these days for making two classic folk-horror films, Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw. So perhaps it’s not entirely surprising that, in some ways, Doomwatch’s big-screen incarnation feels like more of a horror movie than the TV version usually did (the US title of this movie was Island of the Ghouls, which is punchy if not especially accurate).

What is perhaps a bit unexpected is the way in which Doomwatch anticipates or mirrors another classic folk-horror film. Look at it this way – an outsider arrives on a remote island, intent on investigating. The locals clearly have a secret which they are very reluctant to share with him. The local schoolteacher provides some intriguing clues. The body of a child disappears in mysterious circumstances. Now, all this happens in the early part of the film, and it’s not as if Ian Bannen is seized by the locals in order to be sacrificed as a way of lifting the curse on the community, but there is a sense in which Doomwatch feels like a weird pre-echo of many elements of The Wicker Man (I should mention that this film was released six months before The Wicker Man went into production, not that I’ve ever seen any suggestion it was an influence on Robin Hardy or Anthony Shaffer). And you could equally well argue that the premise of the movie – something in the sea near a remote coastal community is causing deformities which lead to many members of the community being hidden from outsiders – has something of the atmosphere and tone of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth.

Sasdy conjures up a reasonably effective atmosphere of mystery and menace during this opening movement of the film, culminating in an attack on Shaw by one of the island’s more brutish and deformed inhabitants. However, at this point the story turns into a science-procedural thriller of a kind which would be quite familiar to viewers of the Doomwatch TV show. There’s a rational scientific explanation for everything Shaw and the others encounter, and the only evil involved is that of greedy people trying to cut corners and disregard the danger to the environment. At least Quist and Ridge get more to do in this part of the film, including some scenes with George Sanders (listed, as was common in low-budget British films of this period, as a ‘guest star’).

(I do wonder what 1972 audiences would have made of a movie based on TV’s Doomwatch in which the actual stars of the TV show play such very peripheral roles. I imagine I would have felt a bit cheated. It is a slightly odd creative choice, and an unexpected one given the storyline for the film came from Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, creators of the TV show. Perhaps it was simply the case that the stars of the TV show were busy actually making the TV show when the movie was in production; I don’t know.)

In the end, the least you can say is that big-screen Doomwatch is recognisably the same beast as small-screen Doomwatch, with all the positives and negatives that this implies. It’s a fairly intelligent film that clearly cares about the issues with which it is dealing (primarily, damage to the environment from big business) – one might expect no less from a script by Clive Exton, a very capable screen-writer. And many of the themes of the movie are reminiscent of ones touched on in the TV show – the effects of pollution on communities being the main one. On the other hand, there is a problem when what starts off looking like a certain type of horror movie ends up as something rather different – you’re braced for a particular kind of climax, which never really comes. Ultimately, this is more of a drama than anything else – and a somewhat peculiar one, if you’re unaware of the conventions of the TV show which spawned it. But the Doomwatch film stands up well as an adjunct to the TV show, even if not as a movie in its own right.

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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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