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Posts Tagged ‘drama’

Oh, the wonders of the internet age – up until very recently I had no idea that there even was a record for the most on-screen deaths, let alone who actually held the thing. But apparently so – if you trust Wikipedia, at least – and the holder is… we pause for effect… the late John Hurt, apparently. What, really? Not Sean Bean? Not Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee? Apparently so: forty-three on-screen deaths, the last time anyone bothered to check. Does this list include the last film that he made, Eric Styles’ That Good Night? I suspect that revealing the answer would constitute a spoiler, but it would not be entirely inappropriate, given that (as the title suggests) this film is largely about the ultimate moment of mortality.

Hurt plays Ralph Maitland, a brilliant and celebrated novelist and screenwriter resident somewhere very photogenic in the Algarve, with his rather younger wife Anna (the Swedish actress Sofia Helin, whose stellar performances in The Bridge finally seem to be translating into international stardom). Ralph is, not to put too fine a point on it, a crabby old git, whom his wife and housekeeper seem improbably fond of as the film begins. Then, and the lack of subtlety with which this is handled makes one wish the film had been written by an award-winning screen-writer rather than simply being about one, Ralph has a hospital appointment at which bad news is delivered.

Not bothering to tell Anna, Ralph’s reaction is to get in touch with his son Michael (Max Brown), as there are apparently things which must be said. Nevertheless he is rather put out when Michael turns up with his girlfriend Cassie (Erin Richards), with whom he instantly fails to hit it off, jeopardising his opportunity to say his piece. Time is an issue, as Ralph has plans which he plans to implement sooner rather than later.

So, a little background on this slightly obscure film (it had a marginal release even in the local art-houses, and I only caught it at the local classics and catch-up cinema, the Ultimate Picture Palace, where it played on a Saturday night to an audience of about half a dozen). Apparently it started off as a stage play of the same name by NJ Crisp (probably best known as a TV writer), created as a vehicle for Donald Sinden to act in alongside his son. That was back in 1996; quite why it has taken over twenty years for it to reach the screen is probably down to the glacial way in which low-budget film production happens.

Nevertheless, I think this is pertinent, because I get the sense that screenwriter Charles Savage has not adapted Crisp’s play quite as comprehensively as he might. There’s nothing concrete in That Good Night to suggest anything other than a present-day setting, but there’s something about the attitudes and behaviour of the characters that can’t help feeling very, very dated: if the film was set in the seventies, it might be a bit more credible.

The theatrical origins of the piece are never much in doubt, anyway. You can see where they’ve tried to open the story out by including various scenes of people going to the shops and what-have-you, but the majority of it takes place within about twenty feet of John Hurt’s patio, for this is where the meat of the film transpires. Much of this consists of a succession of somewhat contrived scenes in which Ralph and the other characters laboriously articulate their feelings about each other, in the process filling in some of the back-story. Really, the most distinctive thing about these is Hurt’s willingness to go all the way in his portrayal of a misanthropic sod, but even so, I found my credibility detector starting to ping a little: it feels like the script has been written to give the actor a chance to do his stuff, rather than to present a rounded character, and this is surely melodrama rather than drama.

That said, it is of course John Hurt of whom we are speaking, one of those people who always seemed almost incapable of giving a bad performance, and his talent is the firm pillar around which the somewhat rickety edifice of That Good Night has been constructed. This is a star vehicle for Hurt, and he does his very best with some rather suspect material. If this film has any kind of posterity, it will be as his final filmed performance (though not quite his last film to be released, as he has a supporting role in a thriller called Damascus Cover out later this year). Given the fact that this film is about coming to terms with the end of life – that moment when the horizon stops receding, as the film’s most memorable dialogue puts it – and the fact that Hurt himself was terminally ill while making it, it’s almost a surprise the film does not feel more poignant and affecting. But it doesn’t, and if you ask me this is just another sign of weakness in the material.

I could also complain that Sofia Helin doesn’t get the quality of script she deserves, but at least she gets a chance to show her versatility, performing in English and being almost unrecognisable to anyone who only knows her as the socially-challenged but implacable detective from The Bridge (I suspect this may be down to the magic of a mysterious procedure known as ‘acting’). To be honest, though, the only person to come close to challenging Hurt’s domination of the film is Charles Dance (landing the ‘and’ spot in the credits), who turns up as… well, again I probably shouldn’t say, but let’s put it this way – the film features a sort of plot twist, but it’s the kind of plot twist which it’s extremely difficult not to guess. Hurt and Dance get a number of rather windy scenes in which they debate the nature and ethics of euthanasia, particularly as it applies to the terminally ill. Nothing especially bold or thought-provoking is said, and it really is a tribute to the class and charisma of the actors that they are amongst the more engaging parts of the film.

In the end, though, all the film has to offer on this subject is a sort of nebulous, optimistic sentimentality, which increasingly colours its final scenes. Again, for a film which is clearly trying to hit you where you live, it is curiously affectless and bland. There’s nothing which is outright bad about it (though some of the more melodramatic moments come close), it just never really convinces as a drama. Matters are not really helped by the kind of direction and cinematography that almost puts one in mind of a reasonably classy TV drama, and an intrusive score which adds nothing to the atmosphere of the film and starts to feel like muzak long before the end.

That Good Night does touch on serious and important issues, but that’s all it does – it has no insights to offer, and it never makes you think or really feel anything. If it is worth seeing at all, it is for the performances of a number of very talented actors, but even here it is as a demonstration of their ability to lift a rum script into the realms of watchability. If That Good Night appeared as a Sunday night TV movie, it would pass ninety minutes in an inoffensive manner, but as an actual big-screen experience, it is rather lacking.

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We have reached that point in the year when the cinema release schedule falls into a kind of rhythm – one week, a major studio plops out one of their tent-pole movies of the summer, most likely concerning superheroes, or stellar conflict, or possibly dinosaurs, which then occupies movie-houses soaking up audiences. No-one bothers releasing another major blockbuster the following week, for the potential audience for these things is not unlimited, and this clears the way for films aimed at a different audience.

Although quite what this ‘different audience’ consists of is a little unclear sometimes. The main studio release this week, for example, is Book Club, an alleged comedy in which ‘the lives of four lifelong friends are turned upside down after reading Fifty Shades of Grey, leading them to make a series of outrageous life choices’. I can only assume this constitutes an attempt by stealth to fend off the risk of overpopulation by causing people to violently lose the will to live. (And before you complete the thought: no, absolutely not. I have done my tour of duty in the Fifty Shades trenches – dear lord, I’ve seen things which no-one should ever have to see – and it would take more than that which Diane Keaton and Jane Fonda have got to make me go back.)

So this week I went to see Lucrecia Martel’s Zama, instead. Argentinian movies like this one do not often make an appearance on UK screens, and I can only attribute Zama’s presence at a local cinema to the involvement as producers of Pedro Almodavar and Danny Glover (yes, that Danny Glover; I checked). This is the art-housiest of art-house movies, I would submit, the kind of thing which two or three decades ago would wind up being shown on BBC2 late on a Friday night after Newsnight had finished, to an audience mostly comprised of dedicated culture vultures and teenage boys fervently hoping there would be some good nudity.

Well, there is some good nudity, I suppose, but it’s all handled in a very art-housey way in that no-one makes very much fuss about it. Hardly anyone makes a fuss about anything in Zama; at least, not outwardly. The film’s traumas are mostly kept deeply internalised (though there is one very significant exception to this).

This is the story of Diego de Zama (Daniel Gimenez Gacho), a functionary in a remote South American outpost of the Spanish Empire at some time in the 17th century. We first see Zama standing on the beach, looking out to sea; he has a sword and a rather fabulous hat, and behind him some of the locals are wandering about. Despite the beauty of his posting’s surroundings, Zama is very keen to be elsewhere, and is desperately awaiting news from the King of his transfer.

The news is not forthcoming. Zama finds himself caught up in the petty schemes and politicking of the other colonial masters in his area, none of which really come to much. Zama’s only distraction from his attempts to get away is his libido, which appears to be in something of a state of hyperactivity: in addition to fathering a child with a local girl, he engages in a quietly energetic pursuit of the wife of the local finance minister (Lola Duenas).

Events conspire against him: he ends up brawling with a subordinate over a petty matter, with the deeply ironic result that the other man is sent elsewhere, with Zama left in place. Governors come and go, concerns shift: Zama seems to be stuck there in perpetuity. In the background of all of this is the near-mythical figure of the bandit Vicuna Porto (Matheus Nachtergaele). Zama eventually signs on with a mission to track this man down, in the hope this will earn him the transfer he has for so long been denied, but life away from the outpost can be savage…

As I say, this is art-housey stuff for the most part. The story takes a sort of Heart of Darkness-style turn in its closing stages, as Zama’s inner desolation is finally matched by the circumstances in which he finds himself, but for most of its reasonably substantial running-time (just shy of two hours) this is the kind of film where the fact that not very much is going on is really the point of proceedings. It is about a man feeling becalmed in life, unable to escape his situation: there is an existential dreariness to the whole thing.

The irony is that Zama is desperate to extricate himself from surroundings which, in some ways, border on the idyllic – the film is set amidst magnificently-photographed vistas of stunning natural beauty. The cinematography is beautiful, filling the film with vibrant colour whenever the camera surveys the natural world. It is less generous, however, when Martel surveys the world of the Spanish colonial masters. There is an element of quiet surrealism to this, for instance in the scenes where serious matters of state and trade are discussed with llamas in the background (even indoors), but for the most part the members of the colonial administration are depicted as shabby, rather pathetic figures engaged in a sort of cargo-cult emulation of polite Spanish society – Zama and the others are obliged to put on rather bedraggled courtly wigs while carrying out their official functions, and so on.

There is, as you would expect, a lot of implicit (and not so implicit) criticism of the colonial sensibility here – the fact that Zama has a pretty miserable time throughout certainly suggests the empire is not doing anyone any favours. But on the whole the film functions on a more personal, existential level. It seems that Zama eventually forgets exactly where he wants to get away to, the means becomes an end in itself, one which (it appears) is perpetually denied him.

This is a film of slightly eerie contrasts, of all kinds: occasionally bleak and even rather horrible sequences are punctuated by some rather mellow jazz guitar. The end result is something which washes over you, rather – a subtle movie, obviously well-made, which will probably go down very well with the art-house audience it was made for.

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In my line of work, you may occasionally find yourself having to teach opposites, which is not always as straightforward as you might think. The opposite of ‘long’ is easy; it’s ‘short’. The opposite of ‘difficult’ – well, that’s easy, too. But what about ‘light’? Is it ‘dark’ or ‘heavy’? Or is it both? What about ‘strong’?

Long-term readers may recall my occasional amusement at some of the prefatory guidance provided by the British censor on their certifications, and it seems I am not alone in this. ‘Contains strong sex and sexual content’ ran the blurb ahead of Dominic Cooke’s On Chesil Beach, which I saw a matinee showing of at Oxford’s best-mannered cinema. The audience there looked so respectable and well-brought-up I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if some of them had actually read Ian McEwan’s novella, upon which it is based. Nevertheless, someone at the back said, just a bit too loudly, ‘Strong sex? As opposed to what, weak sex?’

Well, many a true word spoken in attempted jest, for weak sex is in a sense what On Chesil Beach is about, not that it initially shows much sign of this. Perhaps this is really the point. The film opens in 1962, with the arrival on the eponymous UNESCO world heritage site of a young couple, Edward (Billy Howle) and Florence (Saoirse Ronan). They are newlyweds, and both clearly nervous, aware of the significance of their first night together as a married couple, and – outwardly at least – keen to discharge their responsibilities to each other.

Through an extended series of flashbacks, the film sketches in their backgrounds and history – Florence is a musician, from quite a posh background: her mother and father are ferociously Tory and perhaps incline somewhat towards a tough parenting style. Edward, a historian, is from a slightly more humble background, his life somewhat defined by the fact his mother has been prone to rather eccentric behaviour since she was hit in the head by a train. They are clearly utterly in love with one another.

However, this being 1962, with the permissive society still to really get going, Edward and Florence really don’t have much idea about what comes next. From the beginning one is instantly struck by the sense that these are two people playing roles, going through the motions simply because they believe it is what expected of them. It is sort of funny, sort of sad; you really do feel for them. But then it becomes simply rather excruciating to watch two people, at considerable length and in considerable detail, fail to have sex, especially because you can tell this is all they really want to do, and this failure is clearly going to have consequences.

On Chesil Beach starts off by looking like the kind of well-heeled period literary adaptation which we produce on a fairly regular basis here in the UK – the cinematography is beautiful, the recreation of Oxford around 1960 is superbly done. This is initially presented as a kind of halcyon era – there is warm beer and cricket matches, people wandering about on Christchurch Meadow, catching steam trains (when not being hit in the head by them), and so on. And there is the kind of very strong cast you would expect for this kind of film. Saoirse Ronan is the big draw, obviously, but she is matched step for step by Billy Howle, and there is an excellent supporting cast – principally, Anne-Marie Duff, Adrian Scarborough, Emily Watson and Samuel West.

It initially seems like this is to be a forensic, not unsympathetic depiction of the mores of the period, which seems like an unimaginably distant and different one: Florence has no idea who Chuck Berry is, but upon hearing one of his songs on the radio decides it sounds ‘merry’. The class tension between Edward and Florence’s parents, in particular, is also sharply drawn. There are moments of comedy as well as drama, with the two subtly shading into one another – West’s performance as Florence’s absurdly driven father would certainly qualify as a brilliant comic miniature, were it not for the fact that there are definite hints of genuine darkness in his history.

And then – well, it is difficult to say much without spoiling what seems to me to be one of the best films of the year so far. Things do not go according to plan, someone quite possibly overreacts, decisions are made that cannot be unmade. There is a sense in which the film is obviously suggesting that this is all the result of the kind of repressed society where young people are forced to educate themselves in matters amatory, but it never feels like it is pointing a finger or apportioning blame. Everyone is shaped by their background, after all, whether they decide to adopt the role expected of them or rebel against it; no-one is really wholly self-made. And yet the film’s sense of sadness is overwhelming as it progresses; what looks like it may simply be another one of those somewhat bleak films about British people being bad in bed ultimately turns into a crushingly tragic story, made all the more so because there is so little to suggest this as the film begins.

This is a product of the BBC’s film division, and many people might say that one of the distinguishing features of a BBC movie is the fact that it seems very much at home on the small screen – that BBC Films productions are frequently just a bit too genteel and not really cinematic enough to fully satisfy. Well, I would say this one is a bit different – most obviously, it has two marvellous performances from Ronan and Howle, both of whom appear to be carved from solid star quality, but Cooke’s direction has a style and ambition about it which is very much at home on the big screen. The creation of a nostalgic picture-postcard world is finely achieved, as is the moment where our departure from it is signalled by the sudden intrusion into the soundtrack of the growling opening riff from T-Rex’s 20th Century Boy, signalling a jump forward in time of many years. There is also something beautifully simple and symbolic about the closing shot of the film, the camera constantly pulling back to keep the two characters involved at the edges of the screen as they move inexorably away from each other.

As I say, On Chesil Beach is hardly a cheery film, but it is one of the highest quality on pretty much every level. I had heard good things about it, but I did not expect it to move me so profoundly in the way it did. Not the kind of entertainment you walk home from whistling, but there’s a reason why people listen to sad songs, too – this is a deeply humane and beautifully-made film, well worth watching.

 

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I am, as you might have guessed, very familiar with the pre-film rituals of a cinema trip – one buys one’s ticket, one visits the restroom, one takes one’s seat, if there is a substantial wait before the film one might look at an e-reader, one waits patiently through the adverts, one takes note of any forthcoming attractions which are, um, attractive, one greets the eventual arrival of the certification with a degree of relief, and so on. Sometimes, however, it just ain’t so, and one or more elements of this sanctified procession get omitted. This is usually a sign that you are in for a slightly different experience. (We shall not even touch on the phenomena of post-film special events, which in my personal experience have included discussions of the nature of extraterrestrial life, an impromptu gig by one of the world’s greatest ukulele players, and a few drinks with the director of The Wicker Man.)

Suffice to say that the most recent visit dispensed entirely with the adverts (hurrah!), but also the trailers (hurroo), and in their place featured speeches by representatives of the Oxford University Press and a local charity devoted to helping refugees. As you may have guessed, we were not here to see Deadpool 2, but an advance screening of The Breadwinner, directed by Nora Twomey, an animated film about life under the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Yes, yes, I know: it’s a cartoon about the Taliban, so Grave of the Fireflies-esque levels of bleakness and tragedy must surely await, mustn’t they? Well… look, this movie is based on a best-selling book of the same name by Deborah Ellis, and the movie (executive produced by the only Angelina most people can name) was Oscar-nominated earlier this year, so you would hope it to have a certain cachet of quality about it. I think it does; this film isn’t just worthy, it’s worthwhile.

Nevertheless, it does largely take place in Kabul under the Taliban regime, so there are inevitably going to be sad bits. Initially we meet Parvana (Saara Chaudry) and her father Nurullah (Ali Badshah). She is a girl just on the cusp of her teens, he is a former teacher who lost a leg fighting the Russian invasion of their country. (The unutterably sad history of Afghanistan is recapped with exemplary clarity early on in the film.) Under the ferociously chauvinist, anti-intellectual rule of the Taliban, life is hard for the family, who are reduced to selling their possessions in the market in order to get food to survive.

Things get even worse when Nurullah inadvertently offends a member of the Taliban and is dragged off to prison, with the rest of the family having no idea when or even if they will see him again. Parvana, her mother and sister are left without an adult male relative, which basically means they can’t leave the house even to go shopping without risking a punishment beating from the authorities. How are they expected to live?

Well, Parvana has an idea: she cuts her hair, dresses up in her dead brother’s old clothes, and goes out, pretending to be a boy, which allows her to buy supplies and make a little money doing odd jobs. It turns out she is not the only one to have hit upon this idea, and teams up with a friend, Shauzia (Soma Bhatia), who is doing the same thing. Her ambition, though, remains the same – she wants to get her father out of prison, but how can it be done?

There is obviously a sense in which The Breadwinner is beyond reproach, dealing as it does with issues of women’s rights, literacy and education – films dealing with this sort of material are pretty much assured of a good response, as I discovered when I saw a slightly suspect documentary on the Afghan rapper Sonita Alizadeh at the same cinema a while back. And there is certainly a lot to praise about the film – the animation is appealing and capably done, especially in the fantasy sequences which punctuate the film. There are no big-name voices in the cast, but the acting is also well done.

Yet I feel I have to say that while The Breadwinner is obviously a good film, and commendable in terms of its message, I don’t think it is a great one – I can completely understand why Coco got the nod at Oscar time. Why is this? Well, first of all, although the story is engaging enough, it never completely grips or feels like it is driving forward in any particular direction. The film finishes around the time of (we are invited to infer) the American-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, but while the conclusion is reasonably upbeat, there is no real sense of closure or finality to the events. In a similar vein, the film features a story-within-the-story device, as Parvana relates a fairytale to her baby brother and various other characters. It’s a highlight of the film, with a slightly different style of animation, but in the end exactly how this second story relates to the main one is unclear – if it is as laden with symbolism as it seems, it’s very hard to work out how the symbolism actually works.

And also – and I admit this is an odd thing, especially to say about an animation which has clearly been made with at least half an eye on a young audience – I just found that it wasn’t nearly as gruelling to watch as I expected it to be, and I was sort of disappointed by this. It’s a film about life under the Taliban, one of the most brutal and illiberal regimes the world has known in recent years, so I half-wanted the film to make me sad, and angry, and outraged, before leaving me feeling a bit uplifted and affirmed in my bien-pensant values. So, in a strange way, the fact that it ended up just being a very nice film was somehow disappointing.

So, anyway, there’s very little wrong with The Breadwinner, and I think it should provide an entertaining and improving experience for any young people (maybe even not so young) of your acquaintance. But I doubt it will really stir the emotions, one way or the other. There are probably very good reasons for this; it’s just a question of whether you feel some real-life horrors should be presented honestly, even to a younger audience. Nevertheless, a thoroughly commendable movie.

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A quarter of a century ago my then girlfriend and I decided to go and spend our Saturday night watching Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard, mainly because it seemed like the kind of thing couples were doing at the time. This was certainly the case at the Odeon in Hull, as the first time we turned up the screening had sold out before we arrived, and we ended up going to see Lord Attenborough’s Chaplin instead (which, truth be told, may well be a better movie, if less mechanically romantic). However, we were young and bloody-minded, and neither of us had yet figured out that the whole traditional relationship thing was possibly not for us, so we went back the following weekend and saw the Saturday matinee.

There’s a bit half-way through The Bodyguard where Costner takes Houston out for the night and, in an unusually interesting move for a Kevin Costner character, takes her to see a black-and-white Japanese movie from 1961, the title of which is not given on-screen. Hence it was that I was the only person in the theatre laughing at the meta-gag of characters in a movie called The Bodyguard going to see another (much better) movie also called The Bodyguard – or, in the original Japanese, Yojimbo.

Yeah, I may have been going to see Whitney Houston movies in my late teens, but my fate was probably already sealed by that point, for I had spent much of my middle teens watching movies like Yojimbo, directed by (of course) Akira Kurosawa. Or perhaps this is less of a surprise than I am insinuating, for it’s not as though we’re discussing some art-house obscurity – in terms of general fame and influence, this is surely one of the most significant Japanese movies of all time, with only Seven Samurai and the original Godzilla ahead of it.

Yojimbo stars that most celebrated of Japanese actors, Toshiro Mifune, in an iconic role as a nameless, drifting samurai swordsman. As the film opens he is wandering aimlessly through the desolate Japanese countryside in the middle of the 19th century (it’s a little startling to consider the film was set only a century or so in the past when it was released). However, he comes upon a small town paralysed by a power struggle between two rival gangs. Partly motivated by some vague moral instinct, and partly (it seems) to amuse himself, the swordsman decides to ‘save’ the town by orchestrating the destruction of both gangs and their leaders. The local innkeeper (Eijiro Tono), the closest thing he has to a confidante in town, immediately concludes he is a madman only intent on causing chaos and destruction.

In any case, his plan hits a number of snags, firstly when the local government inspector pays a visit (causing the gangsters to arrange a hasty truce so as not to attract the attention of the authorities), and later when the temporary cessation in hostilities looks like becoming a more long-term pause. Most serious of all is the appearance of the brother of one of the gangsters, Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai, who may perhaps have wanted a word with whoever did his picture on the poster), who has been spending some time on the other side of the Pacific and returned with a classic souvenir of American culture: a handgun…

(Rather appropriately, given there are some allusions in the subtitles to Unosuke apparently meaning rabbit in Japanese, there is a danger of going down a bit of a rabbit hole here about just when Yojimbo is set and exactly what kind of heat the gangster is packing. People who know more about such things than me (not a small group, by the way) have pronounced that the weapon in question is a Smith & Wesson Model 2: however, this only went into production in 1876, ten years after the Meiji restoration. Wikipedia suggests an 1860 setting, based on the introductory captions of the first American dub of the film; the implication certainly seems to be that it takes place in the last years of the Shogunate. The gun is totemic, anyway. (I believe this is what is known as a digression.))

Some people who are really refined in their tastes complain that Kurosawa’s fame as a director is mainly due to his willingness to make films in, for want of a better word, an occidental idiom (I am avoiding the word ‘western’ as it is likely to confuse the issue), and that he is not as properly Japanese a film-maker as, say, Yasujiro Ozu (whose films were not released internationally as they were ‘too Japanese’). Maybe they have a point – for many people, Yojimbo is most recognisable as the source material of A Fistful of Dollars, the Sergio Leone movie which launched the spaghetti western craze and the career of Clint Eastwood (it also spawned a not terribly good 1996 Bruce Willis movie, Last Man Standing). However, what’s considerably less well-known is that Kurosawa admitted the plot of the movie is drawn from a story by Dashiell Hammett, so the American flavour is baked into Yojimbo. The presence of Nakadai’s character is surely an acknowledgement of this – this isn’t just a movie which inspired westerns, on some level it was conceived of as a western.

Of course, it is many other things as well: it starts off as a very black comedy, and perhaps also a wry comment on some of Kurosawa’s earlier movies. Mifune’s character is not a noble, heroic figure from the same mould as Kambei (of Seven Samurai), but a scruffy cynic who initially seems to be interfering in the affairs of the town for rather dubious motives (he vaguely comments that it would be good to get rid of the gangsters, but also notes that it’s his job to be paid for killing). It’s only the fact that he seems to have some kind of integrity, and of course the fact that he is played by Mifune, who is always ferociously cool, that marks him out as in any way better than the venal, morally bankrupt people running the town. Only Unosuke seems in any way similar to him; this is why the gunslinger is really the swordsman’s main antagonist in this movie.

However, as the story progresses it seems that the swordsman becomes aware that this is not just game: innocent people are caught up in the struggle between the gangsters. And it is here that Mifune, perhaps inevitably, reveals that there is a well-hidden core of decency to his character. He professes to hate pathetic people, but it is his decision to help a young family that almost causes his downfall, and his inability to abandon an ally which provokes the climactic battle of the film. And even here he unexpectedly reveals the capacity for mercy, sparing the life of a young man with romantic delusions he briefly encountered at the start of the film. There is no honour or glory in death, the film suggests, there is just death, and it hurts. Even when all is said and done, the swordsman’s mask slips back into place – ‘Now we’ll have some peace and quiet around here,’ he observes, deadpan, at the end of the film, having just single-handedly slaughtered most of the town’s remaining population.

Performance-wise, this is Mifune’s film from start to finish, and he effortlessly dominates it (with Kurosawa’s connivance, naturally). Even the great Takashi Shimura does not make much of an impression as a lovelorn sake brewer in league with one of the gangs – only Nakadai comes close to challenging Mifune, which is surely as it should be. Most of the time Mifune is only competing for attention against Kurosawa’s typically energetic camerawork and editing, and Masaru Sato’s striking, angular score. The music is kind of jaunty and chaotic, as befits a film about a off-kilter, chaotic world.

You can see why Yojimbo was such a big hit that it led to a sequel and numerous remakes, official and otherwise. On one level it is a superbly made piece of entertainment, with moments of comedy, pathos, and action, with a very satisfying structure to the story. But there are also glimpses of more serious issues here, commentary on the state of the world and the people in it. If it seems to be just as cynical as its anti-hero about the characters – well, just as he reveals an unexpected soft streak, so the film treats its characters as flawed human beings, not one-dimensional cartoons. I imagine this is one of those movies that will be around for as long as our culture endures.

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Oh, my stars and garters, there really is no escape at the moment – not content with having released a movie that has made $700 million at the box office in rather less than a week, it even seems like the people at Marvel are sneaking out other movies which sound kind of like they could be one of theirs. We went through a brief period of this sort of thing in 2o14, with the release of Fury and Nightcrawler, and now it seems to be happening again with the appearance of Michael Pearce’s Beast.  Just to reiterate: this is not a Marvel Studios or X-Men-related film, but something rather more modest; in fact, as a low-budget British movie from a first-time director and featuring no-one with much of a track record when it comes to the big screen, it probably qualifies as a piece of counter-programming, aimed at people who honestly couldn’t give a stuff where the Soul Stone happens to be lurking. Nevertheless, this is a superior movie and a worthy recipient of your attention.

It’s never really made explicitly clear, but Beast is set on Jersey, one of the islands in the English channel. (One notes that the French release of this movie is under the title Jersey Affair, which is arguably misleading in quite a different manner, suggesting something flippantly romantic.)  The focus of the story is Moll (Jessie Buckley), a young woman from a well-off background who has, shall we say, a somewhat troubled history. Her situation is not helped by her demanding family, especially her domineering and manipulative mother (Geraldine James). After she finds herself upstaged by her sister-in-law at her own birthday party, it all gets a bit too much for Moll and she goes off on a bit of a bender. This shows every sign of going badly wrong for her until she is saved by a gun-toting stranger (Johnny Flynn). He is Pascal, a charismatic rogue and a bit of an outsider; if they had tracks in Jersey, he would be from the wrong side of them.

There is instant chemistry between Moll and Pascal, and her family’s attempts to keep them apart are counterproductive. Soon they are a couple. However, before long there is a cloud looming over the relationship – the island has been troubled by a string of abductions and murders, and a family friend – perhaps motivated by his own feelings where Moll is concerned – lets her know that Pascal has a dark past, and is in fact a suspect in the latest killing. All this seems to do, however, is force Moll to confront the darkness in her own personal history which she has tried to forget. Now she has questions to confront, though: is Pascal the killer? And, honestly, does she really care either way?

Well, as you may have gathered, the tone and substance of Beast has rather more in common with Cracker than Bergerac; indeed, I think it is fair to say that while the film starts off looking like a fairly bleak drama, it soon develops into a highly engrossing thriller, and by its conclusion has actually started to resemble a psychological horror movie. The closing sequences in particular feature some events and imagery which people turning up to enjoy a nicely overwrought romantic drama with a picturesque backdrop could well find a bit too much to cope with. My instinctive point of reference is to compare it to a Lynn Ramsay movie, but it is not quite so impressionistic in its assembly: nevertheless, the fusion of cinematic artistry and narrative strength is highly impressive for the most part.

This is not to say that the film ever completely loses the depth and strength of characterisation established in its early scenes. I was not at all aware of Jessie Buckley prior to this movie, and was startled to learn that much of her background is in musical theatre: this is a proper movie acting performance, naturalistic but compelling. For the film to function you really have to understand why Moll, basically, makes a succession of questionable – if not outright bad – choices, and thanks to Buckley you do, and it is completely plausible. The movie takes its time to get going, building the oppressive details of Moll’s life – taken for granted and disregarded, squashed by their middle-class respectability, you can see why she feels the need to go a little crazy sometimes, and why such a bold act of rebelliousness – which is what her relationship with Pascal starts out as – holds such appeal for her.

The drama is consistently impressive throughout but the thriller element is perhaps a little more mixed in its execution. The serial killer plotline is partly notable for the way in which the protagonist of the film essentially becomes that much-demonised figure, the girlfriend or wife of a suspected murderer. We have all seen how such people get treated by the media, and Moll remains sympathetic enough throughout the movie for the scenes of her harassment by the press and treatment by the police to be slightly uncomfortable viewing.

There’s also a terrifically tense and uneasy interrogation scene in which Moll is questioned by the senior detective on the case – a well-played cameo by Olwen Fouere. Once again, you know that wise choices are probably not going to be high on the agenda here, but you can’t help hoping otherwise.

Later on, though, the psycho-horror component of the story comes more to the fore, and the way in which the thriller element is resolved would probably be unsatisfactory if this was at the core of the film. The least you can say is that the film keeps you guessing as to how things are going to play out right until the final scenes. By this point the film has, to some extent, left conventional reality behind, but it has carried the audience with it all the way, and the conclusion, if not comfortable viewing, is both memorable and satisfying.

Fine cinematography and assured editing just add to the quality of Beast, which is one of the most impressive debuts I can remember seeing. One can only hope that it finds the audience it deserves and that everyone involved is likewise rewarded. Well worth seeking out.

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It seems that, in the UK at least, Swedish culture is enjoying a moment in the sun right now: not only is a new series of the brilliant thriller The Bridge imminent, but there was also the recent news that melancholic power-pop royalty Abba have been back in the studio after 35 years, which may or may not have something to do with the imminent release of the sequel to Mamma Mia!. (Although I have to say that none of my Swedish friends actually seem to like Abba. This may be why they don’t actually live in Sweden any more, now I think on it.) Adding to this general sense of festen is a series of films celebrating the career of one of Sweden’s most renowned directors, Ingmar Bergman.

Most of these have been on at funny times or have clashed with meetings of my Dungeons and Dragons group (oh yes, I live the life), but I was able to make a showing of Bergman’s celebrated 1957 film Smultronstället, better known by its English title Wild Strawberries, and apparently known specifically to the ticketeer at Oxford’s Ultimate Picture Palace as Old Dude on a Road Trip – one wonders how he refers to The Seventh Seal (ticketeer in question also welcomed me into the cinema with a hearty cry of ‘It’s Bergman time!!!’).

Well, quibble one might, but Old Dude on a Road Trip is a fairly accurate description of Wild Strawberries, from a certain point of view at least. The story concerns Professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström), an elderly doctor about to celebrate fifty years in the profession. A ceremony in his honour has been laid on at his alma mater in Lund, and all the plans for his trip down from Stockholm have been made. However, as the ceremony draws close, Borg finds himself beset by unsettling dreams and decides to do something a bit different. Much to the displeasure of his housekeeper, he decides to drive down to Lund. Along for the ride is his daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin, whom I suspect is everyone’s idea of what a Swedish movie star looks like).

They pause along the way at Borg’s old family home, and he finds himself lost in a reverie as he remembers – or fantasises about – his youth and cousins. The stop also results in Borg and Marianne picking up some hitch-hikers, who are practically beatniks by the standards of 1950s Sweden (they are still incredibly wholesome and well-mannered for the most part). Further stops along the way prompt the professor to reconsider his principles and the course his life has taken; some curious characters are encountered along the way. (The appearance of one of these, a petrol attendant played by Max von Sydow, was greeted with an audible sigh of appreciation by at least part of the audience, presumably because it was a relief, amongst all the subtitled Swedish and discussions of metaphysics, to see someone out of The Force Wakes Up.)

Well, I hope it doesn’t constitute a spoiler if I say that by the end of the film Professor Borg has come to a new and deeper understanding of himself and the course of his life, although quite how this has come to pass remains slightly obscure. The whole story is executed with an almost absurd lightness of touch, completely devoid of the big, histrionic Moments of Character Transformation you will likely find in an Anglophone treatment of a story of this kind. The initial dream sequence sums this up: nothing overtly unusual or disturbing occurs at first, but there is a tiny incremental accumulation of sound and image until suddenly you find yourself deeply unsettled by what is on the screen. Nothing much seems to be happening: but you do get the sense that Bergman is working the script and the screen for all they are worth in every moment of the film.

This may explain why Sjöström, who at first glance spends much of the film wandering about looking distracted, apparently found it such a gruelling experience that he was on occasion to be found beating his head against the wall between takes. Certainly the actor gives a brilliant, terrifically understated performance as the initially stubborn and misanthropic old man; you never notice him acting. He is also notably well-supported by Thulin, Bibi Andersson, and Gunnar Sjöberg.

Andersson and Sjöberg both play dual roles as the film progresses – one in the ‘reality’ of the story and the other in the fantasies which come increasingly to preoccupy Borg. There’s some symbolism going on here with the doubling: Andersson is playing Borg’s first love, who eventually forsakes him for his brother, and also a young hitch-hiker of whom he becomes perhaps just a bit too fond (both characters have the same name). Sjöberg, on the other hand, plays darker, more downbeat figures, symbols not of love but of cynicism and failure. It is he who presides over another disquieting dream sequence in which Borg must endure a nightmarish, unfair examination: watching the ominous mood Bergman evokes here you are definitely reminded that this is the man who eventually inspired Wes Craven to make Last House on the Left.

But what does it all mean? Life, death, age, youth, guilt, sin, acceptance, denial, they are all in the mix which Bergman so deftly whips up. There is a touch of existential misery as the film goes on, but also perhaps some self-aware humour as well: at one point a debate over the existence or otherwise of God is resolved by a fistfight in a pub car park. One of the most obvious of Bergman’s disciples in English-language cinema is Woody Allen, and being rather more familiar with Allen’s canon than Bergman’s there are many weird pre-echoes here, in the bold internalism of this film, in the wise old man’s fascination with a much younger woman, in the sense that while nothing much seems to be happening, in fact everything is happening. In the end, though, while you could never call this film a comedy, it resolves itself with an enormous sense of compassion and warmth towards its characters – Borg is perhaps not quite redeemed, but certainly he finds a sense of contentment he is initially lacking. In this sense the film is indeed about a road trip, but it’s trip from a state of simple existence to one of genuine living, and one depicted with undeniable artistry and skill.

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