Posts Tagged ‘drama’

There’s a school of thought which suggests that the western genre was essentially a wholesome, thoughtful and sincere vehicle for examining the nature of the American national psyche, until Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood came along and perverted it into something cynical, nihilistic and obsessed with hollow slaughter. I think this is overly simplistic: darkness crept into the West years before the spaghetti western came into vogue, allowed in by some of the genre’s most celebrated home-grown exponents.

John Ford’s 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance opens with Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) arriving by train in the town of Shinbone, presumably some time around the turn of the century (the film is deliberately coy about the times and places involved, for this is in a sense the story of the entirety of the American frontier). Stoddard is one of America’s leading politicians and a very significant figure; his unexpected arrival causes a stir. What has brought him back to the town where he first became famous?

Journalists gather, but Stoddard and Hallie are more interested in catching up with old acquaintances: retired marshal Link Appleyard (Andy Devine) and lowly ranch-hand Pompey (Woody Strode) chief amongst them. There is an air of inescapable melancholy and regret in the air, of things long-buried being uncovered, all connected to the reason for the Stoddards’ visit: to attend the funeral of washed-up town drunk Tom Doniphon (who, when he eventually appears in the flashback which makes up the bulk of the film, is played by John Wayne). But why?

Stoddard, with the air of a man finally getting something off his chest, tells the tale. The scene changes to many years earlier: Stoddard is travelling to Shinbone by stagecoach, a freshly-qualified lawyer. However, the coach is ambushed by the notorious local bandit Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and his men, and Stoddard is badly beaten when he resists. What’s left of him is hauled into town by Doniphon and his servant Pompey, and he’s taken in by the family running the local saloon. He’s nursed back to health by their daughter, Hallie, which Doniphon is a bit disgruntled about (he has plans of the marryin’ kind which involve her).

Stoddard is determined to see Valance brought to justice, which Doniphon roundly ridicules him for: law books mean nothing here, compared to the authority of a gun barrel. If Stoddard wants to stop Valance, he’s going to have to kill him, law or no law. Stoddard is appalled by the prospect (to say nothing of the fact he’s useless with a gun). Meanwhile, tensions are growing between Doniphon and the lawyer, as Stoddard grows closer to Hallie, teaching her to read and write in his capacity as the town’s new schoolteacher.

The lack of law and order in Shinbone is partly due to the territory not having been given statehood yet, which Stoddard and the town dignitaries would like to see happen – but the powerful local cattle barons want to see things stay as they are, and retain Valance to ensure this happens. Stoddard finds himself inevitably heading for a confrontation with the gunman – but, even with Doniphon’s tuition, can he possibly have a chance?

There’s certainly more of a drama than a traditional western about The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and perhaps a fair bit of a romance, too: a big portion of the plot revolves around the love triangle between Doniphon, Hallie and Stoddard. The fashion in which this resolves is one of the bittersweet elements which runs through the movie; there is something profoundly melancholy and wistful about the framing scenes that bookend it. The Stoddards reflect on the changes that the railroad and modern technology have brought to the town, rather ambivalently. ‘The desert’s still the same,’ offers Appleyard, rather dismally.

Perhaps, then, this is the story of how the west was lost – or, at least, tamed, if that isn’t the same thing. It’s about the creation of civilisation and society about of anarchy, on one level, a place where men like Stoddard can prosper, but not – it’s implied – ones like Tom Doniphon or Liberty Valance himself.  What’s telling is that it’s suggested that Doniphon has much more more in common with Valance than with Stoddard – neither man has much time for rules or finer points of behaviour, being ferocious individualists, and if Doniphon is a ‘better’ man than Valance, that’s simply due to his essential character rather than any kind of sense of moral obligation.

That this is put across so effectively is mainly due to Ford’s casting, which is both brilliant and obvious: Wayne is playing his usual monolithic rugged individualist, verging on self-parody by this point: by his own admission, a very tough, unreconstructed alpha male. You can’t imagine him playing Stoddard any more than James Stewart playing Doniphon: like Hitchcock and many other directors, Ford recognised Stewart’s genius for playing flawed, human heroes, and that’s what he does here. (We should probably note the irony that in real life, Stewart was a decorated war veteran, while Wayne was acutely self-conscious about his own lack of military service.) In many ways the film is much more about the conflict between Doniphon and Stoddard than either man’s clash with Valance himself (and, as noted, Doniphon and Valance are in many respects mirrors of each other).

In the end, of course, Valance is shot and a bright future for the west is assured – but this, like most of the film, is couched in numerous levels of irony and ambiguity. The film does romanticise the old west, but not without qualification; it suggests that the old west, with its heroes in white hats and virtue always naturally triumphant, is a myth, with little grounding in truth – in this respect it to some extent anticipates Unforgiven, and many other revisionist westerns. But it also suggests the myth is a necessary one for America’s sense of itself to endure. In this respect The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a surprisingly dark and complex film – amongst other things, suggesting that dark and ruthless acts, carried out in secret, are necessary for civilisation to thrive – but it is also a touching and surprisingly moving portrait of the central characters and their relationship. A serious film about complicated ideas, and real emotions; one of the great American westerns, I think, and a harbinger of the genre’s future.

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Were you aware they’d done a remake of Point Break? I’m guessing it’s really not a very good movie, seeing as it’s so obscure. When I first became aware of it the other day, my immediate thought was ‘that’s a pretty new movie to be getting a remake’ – but then, of course, I thought about it and realised that Point Break – the Kathryn Bigelow version, that is – is thirty years old this year. Thirty! I can scarcely believe it.

On the other hand, while all great movies have a timeless quality, that doesn’t preclude them from also being essentially of the time they were made, either, and there is something quintessentially early-90s about Point Break: it’s not brash and excessive like an 80s movie, but neither does it have that slightly chilly slickness you get in a lot of films from the following decade. The sense of a changing of the guard is only emphasised by the presence of iconic 80s heart-throb Patrick Swayze (in a very questionable but also authentic hair-style) and also Keanu Reeves, a man for whom the 90s were a defining decade.

The film opens with scenes of Swayze hanging ten and catching waves (etc), and looking majestic doing so, while Reeves struts his stuff on the FBI academy firing range. Keanu is playing football-star-turned-rookie-FBI-agent Johnny (made-up name) Utah, whose first assignment sees him join the bank robbery section in Los Angeles. Utah is a bit buttoned-down, but not yet a fully-fledged pen-pusher like his boss. He is partnered with a world-weary veteran named Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey) who has become a laughing-stock around the office: charged with catching an elite gang of robbers nicknamed the Dead Presidents, Pappas has become convinced that they are surfers, based on their schedule (they’re only active in summer, California’s surf season) and a few shreds of forensic evidence. Someone needs to go undercover on the beach and see what’s going down…

Well, it’s obviously not going to be Busey, so Keanu buys a board and is soon getting surfing lessons from a nice young woman named Tyler (Lori Petty). Through her he has his doors of perception well and truly opened up when he meets top surfer, free spirit, and near-as-dammit spiritual guru Bodhi (Swayze) and his gang of followers. Not only that, his buttons are loosened, his screws are undone and he takes to wandering about inside the FBI building carrying his board. He even turns up late for a raid after some night-surfing (and a spot of the old whoa-ho with Petty) takes the place of the recommended early night. But could Bodhi and his pals be getting up to more than some extreme sports?

It sounds rather generic when you write it down that way, and indeed one of the things that makes Point Break such an intriguing movie is the fact that it has almost exactly the same basic plot trajectory as the original The Fast and the Furious film while still feeling like a stylish and classy film for grown-ups, right down to the central character dynamic. One plot summary I’ve seen of this movie suggests that Keanu finds his mission complicated when he falls in love with Swayze’s ex-girlfriend. The film itself is rather more ambiguous on whom the exact object of Keanu’s affection is, something which Hot Fuzz recognised with typically forensic accuracy when one character summarised a key sequence: ‘Patrick Swayze has just robbed this bank, and Keanu Reeves is chasin’ him through peoples’ gardens, and then he goes to shoot Swayze but he can’t because he loves him so much and he’s firin’ his gun up in the air and he’s like ‘ahhh!” It’s all very subtextual, naturally, but Swayze is very sinewy and macho and Keanu is still at that point where he’s often sort of blankly bovine and – there’s not really another mot juste in this case – pretty.

Nevertheless, Keanu is showing signs of improvement, and this is surely the first film to establish his potential as a genuine action movie star: he runs and fights and chucks himself about with great aplomb. And he always has that same Reevesian charisma – he is a still point of total calm on the screen, which you somehow cannot help but fill with your affection for the lad. At one point in Point Break, the film (which has hitherto been relatively restrained and naturalistic) requires Keanu to hurl himself out of a plane in flight, without a parachute, and apprehend his quarry in free-fall. Even at the height of Bondian absurdity, Roger Moore was excused this sort of thing, but Keanu – well, he doesn’t exactly sell the bit outright, but he makes you indulge the film in it.

Of course, if we’re talking about pretty – and yes, this is a fairly shallow and spurious bit of linking – then we should also mention that Lori Petty is in this movie too. She always struck me as someone extremely smart and watchable, but – on the face of things, at least – the failure of Tank Girl dealt her career as someone who could lead a movie a mortal blow. Here, you just wish she was given a bit more to do than be a plot device: as noted, the central relationship in the movie is between Reeves and Swayze, so she ends up sidelined and barely appears in the third act of the movie.

Most of this is chasing and shooting, which Bigelow handles with her characteristic muscular efficiency: she’s had a distinguished career, but one where good films just haven’t had the success which they deserved, with some quite substantial gaps in her filmography as a result. On one level Point Break feels like it occupies some peculiar narrative space between The Lost Boys and The Fast and the Furious – Patrick Swayze (who surely gives the best performance of his career here) as the somewhat unlikely missing link between Kiefer Sutherland and Vin Diesel – but at the same time the film has a class and a quality which elevates it above the level of simply being a popcorn genre movie. I’m not sure it has any genuine depth to it, but it certainly gives that impression. A great thriller, deserving of its cult status.

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There’s nothing quite like pointlessly diluting your brand, is there, and so we shall take another break from reviewing movies old and new and looking at cult TV shows to examine another obscure play from over forty years ago. Well, maybe this stuff qualifies as cult TV as well, I don’t know – it seems to be a curiously elastic term which expands to cover everything from Supermarket Sweep to The Bridge. Up for consideration this time is a play I mentioned a little while ago when discussing Abigail’s Party: the 1974 production Penda’s Fen, written by David Rudkin and directed by Alan Clarke.

Clarke was an acclaimed and controversial director who is best remembered for a series of political, naturalistic plays concerned with topics such as racism, the death penalty and the situation in Northern Ireland. Penda’s Fen is a wholly different kind of beast, and apparently Clarke himself, who was recruited to the production by Rudkin, never completely understood what it was supposed to be about. Perhaps this explains some of the play’s weirder and more outlandish images. Or perhaps not: the whole thing is like a sort of lyrical fever-dream set in the heart of England.

Penda’s Fen begins with classical music playing over beautiful shots of the English countryside – but then what looks like barbed wire is superimposed on the image and a hand, disfigured with some kind of burn or scar, rises into view to grasp at it. It’s the first of many striking images and, like many of them, the significance of it only becomes clear (or, at least, less obscure) later.

We spend most of the play in the company of Stephen (Spencer Banks), a boy in his late teens who is, shall we say, a lad of strong opinions. His father (John Atkinson) is the local clergyman, so it’s just as well that he is a devout adherent of a certain brand of Christianity; his politics are equally uncompromising and he also seems to be staunchly homophobic. Perhaps unsurprisingly, all this means that he is a bit of a misfit at school, mocked and disparaged by his peers – and his teachers too, to some extent. The scorned do well to look scornful, as Aldous Huxley nearly said, and he is hostile to a local left-wing writer named Arne (played by Ian Hogg from Rockcliffe) when they meet, and Arne shares his belief that a secret military facility has been built somewhere in the vicinity.

It seems that Arne may have a point, when a young man out in the fields is found horribly burnt, and the police and army camp out around his hospital bed. (It looks like Penda’s Fen is about to turn into something resembling Edge of Darkness, but this plot point never actually eems to go anywhere.) The play has a curiously impressionistic quality to it, where it’s often not entirely clear how events are connected, but this seems to be the catalyst for a sort of existential crisis which besets Stephen: he dreams of angels, demons, and an erotic encounter with a male classmate. He discovers not only that his father is responsible for a number of almost-heretical works of theology, but that he himself has been adopted. His sense of his beliefs and himself is deeply shaken as the play continues, where he has more bizarre visions, including an encounter with Edward Elgar and a climactic audience with King Penda, the last pagan ruler of England and a symbol of…

Well, that would almost be telling, wouldn’t it? If you take a long hard look at Penda’s Fen and render it down to its essentials, it is basically just a story of the coming of age of white middle-class boy who learns to look beyond the clear-cut certainties that have previously comprised his beliefs. This is a horribly reductionist view of the play, however, missing out much of what makes it such a startling cultural artifact. It’s obviously the product of a somewhat rarefied intellectual sensibility – there are casual references to etymology, classical music (the dream-Elgar Stephen encounters imparts to him the ‘solution’ to the Enigma Variations), and theology – in 1974 it was apparently perfectly okay for a mainstream TV drama to include lengthy discussions of the nature of the Manichaean heresy.

However, what makes the play so visually striking are the fantasy elements that are perhaps responsible for much of its reputation and the continued interest people have in it. Angels and demons fill the screen, ancient kings manifest from out of thin air, Stephen witnesses a ritual where children are ritually mutilated while their smiling parents look on, the ground cracks open, threatening to engulf the action… much of this is done with a primitiveness that makes it all the more jarring. I should really it make clear that this is not a ‘naturalistic’ fantasy (there’s an awkward oxymoron for you) – it is always quite clear that the play is operating in the realm of symbolism and metaphor, rather than ‘real’ supernatural creatures: lazily putting it into the same category as a play like The Stone Tape would be a mistake.

At the heart of the play is the English countryside, which Rudkin clearly envisions as the heartlands of a kind of principled dissent, home of a spiritual awkward squad including Penda and Edward Elgar, possibly including Jesus as an honorary member and with Stephen as their latest representative. Near the conclusion of the play he laments the fact that he now finds himself questioning his faith, his political beliefs (he can no longer be sure he’s the pure-blooded Englishman he formerly thought), and his sexuality. But Penda’s apparition suggests there is no shame in any of this, that there is merit in being an outsider and a revolutionary. A play which initially looks to be in the lyrical-pastoral mode turns out to be a paean to the radicals and the misfits (not entirely surprisingly given this was initially shown in the Play for Today strand).

Put like that, the message sounds glib, but the play is powerful in both its imagery and performances, striking for its intelligence and willingness to challenge the viewer. It’s one of the most experimental pieces of TV drama I’ve ever seen, but it was clearly made with commitment and skill by Dudkin, Clarke, and the BBC. It would probably be disastrous if something like Penda’s Fen was shown on TV every week. But it must have been wonderful to live at a time when new dramas like this were always a possibility.

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Once more unto the strange demi-monde which constitutes a trip to the cinema these days. The multiplex appear to be doing its best to battle on, showing whatever new films are being released, big-screen favourites (I suspect attendance for the inexplicably popular diversity barn-dance The Greatest Showman may be hit by the fact it gets its UK terrestrial TV premiere this week), and even the odd special event (they’re opening one evening especially to show a new documentary about Gretel Thunderbird). But the signs that something is not quite right are unmissable – normally you hardly ever get out-of-genre trailers ahead of a new film, but there was a real mixed bag this time, including the trailer for Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth’s new weepie twice (once was enough to do the job).

Anyway, this week’s Medal of Valour goes to the makers and releasers of Rose Glass’ Saint Maud – although, if we’re going to be strict about this, the film actually came out a couple of weeks ago, before the local cinemas went back into siege conditions. This is, one suspects, quite a low-budget movie (not that it comes across that way), and so the exposure of the backers should be limited: with a possible American release still to come, one hopes they do okay with it.

Morfydd Clark plays Maud, a young woman working as a nurse in a grim-looking seaside town in England. Before the film even gets going we are treated to a rather ominous tableau involving a corpse, somewhere vaguely medical, and a cockroach, and of course the question is whether this is backstory or a promise of things to come. It is some time before we find out. In the meantime, Maud (who is clearly very devout and much given to prayer) starts her new posting as a palliative carer for a former dancer named Amanda (Jennifer Ehle). Amanda is very ill – ‘you’ll be seeing her soon, I think,’ Maud says to God – and perhaps finding it hard to come to terms with her condition. She is cynical and jaded.

This is not, you would think, a recipe for happy relations with a committed Christian like Maud, but Amanda seems to be fascinated by Maud’s faith and even begins to show signs of having a bit of a spiritual awakening herself. However, as all this is going on, we are learning more about Maud herself: she is prone to strange, rapturous seizures, for one thing. And also, more ominously, it becomes clear that Maud is not her real name, and there is an incident in her past which led to her leaving a job at the hospital.

But all this seems to be behind her now, as she seems to be building such a good relationship with Amanda. Until, that is, her attempts to lead Amanda into a more virtuous way of living, controlling who she sees and what she does, cross the accepted patient-carer boundaries, with eventually regrettable consequences for both of them…

Jennifer Ehle, as you might expect, is very good as Amanda, but this is one of those films which stands or falls by the quality of the lead performance – and it must be said that Morfydd Clark is quite extraordinary here. This is the kind of acting that wins awards when it doesn’t appear in a horror movie, as Clark creates a wholly rounded, completely convincing, deeply alarming characterisation in the course of the movie. You get a complete sense of this person’s personality and how it has been shaped by events in the course of what’s quite a short film (less than an hour and a half); even from the start, when Maud might just seem to be another mousy, slightly prim and repressed young woman, there is a sense that there is something just slightly off about her. She is just a bit too intense and repressed. Naturally, we get to see other sides of her character as her resolution wavers in the course of the film: which just reminded me of something I was once told – it’s all very well letting yourself go once in a while, as long as you can get yourself back again.

But events have left Maud isolated and lonely, with only her faith for consolation and purpose. I can imagine that this is the kind of film that faith groups are likely to complain about, as it isn’t the most flattering depiction of religious belief – in fact, as the film goes on it gives, I imagine, a pretty good impression of what it’s like to be trapped in the mind of someone in the process of going completely insane. It’s an outstanding character study, but throughout the film you’re seeing the world through the eyes of someone profoundly disturbed, and this is quite as uncomfortable as it sounds.

This is a film which is strong on atmosphere – brooding and oppressive, as you might have guessed – with lots of rumbling cello on the soundtrack (Adam Janota Bzowski did the music). It’s such a long, slow burn that for a while I wondered if this was going to turn out  be another of those post-horror movies we’ve been having recently. In the en d I would say not: the scares and the blood eventually arrive, to shocking effect. The film deploys its small number of digital effects cannily, to produce a genuinely otherworldly effect when they appear. There’s one particular shot at the end of the film which is so unexpected as to be almost breathtaking, almost leading the viewer to reconsider all they’ve seen – but the volta to this, when it comes, hits like a hammer.

Saint Maud isn’t a popcorn horror movie by any stretch of the imagination, but something much darker and more intense, and I can imagine some people will wonder how I can find this kind of film actually enjoyable – it’s the kind of film you emerge from shaken and rattled and glad to get back into the light. The answer is simple that’s it’s supremely well-made, especially considering this is Rose Glass’ first film as writer and director, and there’s always pleasure to be gained from craft and artistry. It’s the most impressive debut I can remember seeing in a long time, and one that makes her someone to watch out for (at least if cinema survives the current crisis). This is one hell of a movie.

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The Joker is about as naturalistic and ‘serious’ as fifth season Avengers gets, which isn’t really surprising considering this is Brian Clemens largely reusing one of his scripts from season three – almost on a shot-for-shot basis at some points. This happens right from the start of the episode, where we see someone mutiliating a magazine photo of Mrs Peel with a large pair of scissors. I said ”Brr!’ when this happened to Honor Blackman at the start of Don’t Look Behind You, and I’m going to say it again now: Brr!

The intro scene takes an unexpected turn as Steed tumbles down the stairs on the way to answer the door to Emma, badly hobbling himself and preventing him from giving her the lift she has come to ask for: she has been invited out to a remote country house for the weekend, by one of Europe’s leading bridge players (she has recently contributed an article on how to use mathematics to win at bridge, which doesn’t sound like a terribly Emmaish thing to do, but we must roll with with). So she goes off by herself, leaving Steed at home to take a phone call warning him of the escape of an old adversary from a German prison (in a display of rather un-Germanic inefficiency, the authorities there have taken two weeks to tell Steed’s superiors) – Max Prendergast (Peter Jeffrey), a man with an axe to grind against both Steed and Mrs Peel (and a rather peculiar name for someone who’s supposed to be German). It turns out that our heroes were doing what sounds like some fairly serious spying in Berlin when they captured Prendergast, a man dealing in human lives – once again, does this seem especially likely, given they’ve spent most of this series contending with homicidal pussy-cats and fraudulent invisible men in the Home Counties? Oh well: one supposes that the script demands it.

You could probably have a decent stab at writing the rest of the episode yourself. Emma has, of course, been lured out to the spooky old house by Prendergast, so he can take his revenge on her (he is a loony of the obsessive stripe), but as there is quite a lot of episode to get through before that point, his young minions are required to keep Emma occupied until then: the plan appears to be to make her anxious and off-balance, although I would have thought that Sally Nesbitt and Ronald Lacey acting weird and creepy (and, given this is Ronald Lacey, one of them is very creepy indeed) would have been more likely to tip her off to something being amiss. Nevertheless, a typically strong performance from Diana Rigg sells the idea that Mrs Peel is increasingly on edge as the episode proceeds, and Jeffrey is also good as the villain.

Needless to say we are back in holiday episode territory again (it’s only been a few weeks since the last one, come to think of it) and so there is limited participation from Patrick Macnee, as you might expect. Nevertheless one notes that in his holiday episodes he still gets to save the day at the end, while in Diana Rigg’s holiday shows Steed inevitably turns up at the end to save her. People would complain about that nowadays. Then again, Brian Clemens seems to have been drawn to doing this kind of fem jeop psycho-thriller now and then (see And Soon the Darkness, virtually the first thing he did after The Avengers finished), and it’s not really a form that meshes well with dominant female characters (though Diana Rigg naturally does her damnedest). I think I got this particular joke the first time round, anyway.

You would have thought, with both stars having had at least one holiday episode in the recent past, they would both be fully present and correct for the next episode, Philip Levene’s Who’s Who? But no: apparently the writer was handed the unenviable task of writing an episode with reduced participation for both Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg, as the former had another break booked and – well, the story goes that Diana Rigg was in the process of leaving, meaning she couldn’t be in every scene either (I find this a bit dubious, given there was a two month production break after this episode, followed by another half-dozen before the end of the season – my money’s on her RSC commitments being a factor). So how do you write an episode of The Avengers without either of the stars being fully available?

The episode opens with yet another bowler-hatted spy being lured to his death by two agents for the Other Side, Basil (Freddie Jones, the only credited actor to have no other association with the series) and Lola (Patricia Haines, fourth of four appearances). They then proceed to pose the body in a sufficiently outlandish manner as to ensure that Steed and Mrs Peel are assigned to investigate (the first sign of a tweak to the usual format). Why? Well, clues have been planted to lure our heroes to a stilt manufacturer where they can be bopped on the head and taken prisoner: a mad scientist in their employ has built a machine that can swap people’s minds, and the plan is to put Basil and Lola in Steed and Emma’s bodies so they can wreak havok within the intelligence system.

The first stage of this goes swimmingly, and newly ensconced in their unaccustomed embodiment, Basil and Lola set about thinning the ranks of British agents – the episode attempts to offset the rather high bodycount by giving all the spies silly floral codenames like Tulip and Poppy (Philip Levene himself turns up in a small role as agent Daffodil). It’s up to Steed and Mrs Peel to escape their captors and save the day, hampered as they are by the facts that none of their allies will believe what’s happened, and that they’re being played by different actors…

It occurred to me for the first time today that this is another episode which anticipates The Prisoner, in that the unavailability of a key cast member necessitated the recasting of a major role and the writing of a script about mind-transference, in the episode Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling (a fairly duff title, I’ve always felt: the working title, Face Unknown was much better). As usual with The Prisoner, they played it fairly straight, but Who’s Who? is much more tongue-in-cheek: the commercial breaks are followed by a helpful continuity announcement to mitigate the confusion for anyone tuning in late, although the announcer himself does get rather befuddled as the episode progresses.

It’s fun stuff and the awkward situation the episode was conceived in isn’t really apparent. Plus, the episode offers two great opportunities: a chance for the regulars to have fun playing the villains, and a unique opportunity – until the movie came along, anyway – to see Steed and Mrs Peel played by different actors. Well, Diana Rigg tones down her natural imperious magnificence while she’s playing Lola, and the odd thing about Macnee’s performance as Basil is that it’s not a million miles away from the way he used to play the character in the videotaped episodes – cooler, more calculating, less charming (I’m not the first person to comment on this). On the other hand, Patricia Haines does a decent job as Emma. Most impressive, though, is Freddie Jones’ take on Steed: he was a magnificent character actor who delivered many brilliant performances in the course of his career (Hammer horror movies, The Elephant Man, David Lynch’s Dune, the Gandalf-analogue in Krull), and this episode suggests he could have carried a series, too. It’s a terrific, plausible turn (well, plausible in the circumstances) that’s the highlight of an entertaining episode that solves a serious problem with wit and imagination.

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We had no internet back in the mid 1980s, you will be shocked to hear, and so many of the things that happened there had to go on in other venues, albeit at a slightly slower pace. The slightly-too-intense discussion of topics of marginal interest to most people, for instance, was mostly relocated to the letters pages of magazines aimed at niche audiences. I was, you may also be shocked to hear, a bit too young to fully grasp all the ins and outs of the debates that raged across these well-thumbed pages, but one allusion that stayed with me came as part of an argument about excessive naturalism in British sci-fi TV: it suggested an upcoming scene would depict one character showing another his flashy new ray gun, but admitting that it wasn’t actually any good for zapping people with.

I didn’t get the allusion at the time, but the fact it was written and published indicates more than one person thought that many would, which tells you something about the cultural impact of its source: which is the play Abigail’s Party, originally broadcast on TV in November 1977 as part of the BBC’s Play for Today strand. One of the great things about life in the seventies, I expect, was the fact that there were only three TV channels (two BBC and the commercial ITV network), and so you could put on serious single plays every week and still be guaranteed a decent-sized audience (whereas the multi-channel world where ratings are god has resulted in the thin gruel of celebrity-led documentaries, reality shows, and lifestyle programming which makes up the majority of BBC 1’s primetime output these days).

Play for Today has a possibly undeserved reputation for being the home of dour, realist, lefty slice-of-life agitprop – this is the strand that produced the charming SF romance The Flipside of Dominick Hyde, the disturbing morality play Brimstone and Treacle, and the very nearly indescribable Penda’s Fen – but it is true that lefty troublemakers turned beloved national treasures Ken Loach and Mike Leigh both did early work in this strand. Abigail’s Party was derived from a stage play which opened earlier in 1977, directed by Leigh. It’s one of the most famous products of the Renowned Mike Leigh Near-Mystical Semi-Improvisatory Method, and for this reason it’s a rare example of a play without a conventional author – Leigh is credited as deviser and director.

For a play (or filmed play) which has entered the annals of TV legend and popped up near the top of lists of the best British TV programmes ever… well, retune your expectations to 1977 settings, maybe, as it is basically concerned with five people sitting in the same room. The room is the home of middle-class class couple Beverly (Alison Steadman) and Laurence (Tim Stern); she is a former beautician, he an estate agent. Largely, one suspects, at Beverly’s insistence, they are hosting a drinks party with their new neighbours Angela (Janine Duvitski) and Tony (John Salthouse), along with Sue (Harriet Reynolds), a divorced woman who also lives close by. Whither Abigail? I’m glad you asked: she is Sue’s teenage daughter, who is holding her first proper party concurrently with the events of the play, and one gets the distinct impression that Sue is only here because she has agreed to leave the house during the party and has nowhere else to go.

The decor is hideous and the party itself quite excruciating to watch: Beverly forces drinks on all the guests, shows off the house she seems inordinately proud of – ‘this is our downstairs toilet,’ she informs a guest at one point, clearly believing that having two bogs is a status symbol – and generally belittling Laurence. Laurence spends most of the play getting increasingly stressed. Tony is surly and uncommunicative. Angela seems quite happy to go along with Beverly in a thoughtless sort of way. Sue, whose speech suggests she is from a slightly higher social stratum than the others, mostly just sits there watching the others in a sort of clenched horror, like a human being forced to attend a chimps’ tea party.

On one level the play is really about class and especially social climbing: one of the sociological changes in progress in the UK in the post-war decades, until at least the 1980s, was an expansion in the middle class – or at least a significant blurring of the line between the working and middle classes. Sue shows every sign of being genuinely middle class, maybe even upper middle class; the others are a few rungs below her. (Yes, foreign readers, these things really do make a difference in Britain, even today.) Beverly and Laurence both seem to be ferocious social climbers, although for them this takes the form of acquiring all the trappings of the middle class, regardless of whether they completely understand them – hence Laurence’s purchase of a set of leather-bound Shakespeare volumes, just for appearance’s sake (they are, he admits, ‘no good for reading’) and Beverly’s desire to appear sophisticated by buying tacky ‘erotic’ prints. One of the drivers of the play, though, is that they don’t really agree as to what form this advancement should take – for Beverly it is aesthetic, all about appearing to do the right thing, while Laurence aspires to appear intellectual – buying Shakespeare and ‘classical’ music by James Galway.

This is a comedy, and a rather dark one, and it’s hard to completely disagree with the playwright Dennis Potter, who reviewed it on its original broadcast and found it to be one long protracted jeer at an entire class of people. The play is certainly still funny – and cringeworthy – but if Leigh and the actors are attempting to make a wider point beyond the suggestion that people who don’t know their social station will end up looking stupid and crass, it’s hard to see what it is.

There is something else going on here, though, for this is a play about characters as well as ideas. Alison Steadman’s turn as the overbearing, awful Beverly effectively launched her career as a major actress – it is really a grotesque performance, but a brilliantly-sustained one and not without nuance. She dominates the party and the play, a study in self-satisfaction, ego, and casual cruelty. What did surprise me about Abigail’s Party is the sustained note of nastiness throughout it, and also an undertone of barely-controlled repressed violence: Beverly is passive-aggressively horrible to everyone but Tony, whom she flirts with outrageously, while the characters jokily talk about rape and domestic violence. You almost get the sense the evening can end in only two possible ways: either in a fistfight or wife-swapping. The fact that it does neither is a bit of a left turn that sends the play off on a different trajectory, perhaps attempting to inject a bit of pathos that for me didn’t quite work.

Apparently Abigail’s Party is the one item on Mike Leigh’s CV that he’s embarrassed about, feeling that while the play itself is fine, the conversion from stage to TV was ‘appalling’. I don’t think it’s as bad as all that, by any means – although it obviously struggles to meet the expectations generated by its reputation and place in the culture. The characters are well-drawn, the acting is excellent, and the depiction of a certain section of society is almost forensic. It’s still enjoyable today, as well as – perhaps – an interesting piece of cultural history, and a reminder of just how hideous everything looked in the 1970s.


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Sometimes you find yourself basically on your own in a holiday cottage in Hampshire, pondering the fact that the movie from the House of Mouse you caught five interesting minutes of a couple of nights before is not available to watch on the BBC catch-up service, due to them pushing their own streaming service with the usual ruthless implacability. And at moments like this, you ponder the essentially venal and unsatisfactory nature of much of western civilisation, before perhaps turning to the ancient cultures of the east in search of deeper wisdom and insight. In my case this usually translates into watching an obscure kung fu movie on a different streaming site.

On the most recent occasion, the film I wound up watching was My Beloved Bodyguard, a 2016 film starring and directed by the legendary Sammo Hung (the movie is also known simply as The Bodyguard, but that just puts me in mind of the 1993 Costner-Houston movie). The film eschews the usual glittering locales common to martial arts films for a small town in that obscure corner of the world where the Chinese, Russian and North Korean borders practically rub together. It is here that Ding (Hung), also known as Fat Ding or Old Ding for reasons you may be able to guess, has chosen to retire following a distinguished career as a civil servant in Beijing. Happy for many years, he is now estranged from his daughter (his only living relative) and leads a quiet and perhaps quite lonely life.

The only excitement comes when some gangsters carry out a brutal stabbing outside Ding’s humble home. Being a good citizen, Ding calls the cops and attempts to identify the guilty party – but at the ID parade he is suddenly hesitant and uncertain. His memory is starting to go! A trip to the doctor (whose name Ding struggles to remember) confirms that he is showing symptoms of early-stage senile dementia.

We then get quite a lot of Ding trying to come to terms with this, not to mention fending off the romantic attentions of his busybody neighbour (Li Qinqin). But for most of the next forty minutes or so it is mainly about his friendship with Cherry (Jacqueline Chan), the young and endearing (if she isn’t, it’s not for want of the movie trying) daughter of local lowlife Ji (Andy Lau). She keeps clambering in through his window. They go fishing together. She puts on his old bemedalled uniform jacket. It is clearly meant to be quite charming.

Meanwhile Ji has gotten into debt with Choi, the gangster whom Ding failed to recognise at the ID parade (he is played by Feng Jiayi) and is packed off over the border to steal some jewellry from the Russian Mafia in Vladivostok. Ji double-crosses Choi and runs off with the loot, however, thus putting Cherry in the firing line of not one but two sets of vengeful gangsters, with only a morbidly obese old man with incipient senility to defend her. She’s in trouble, right?

Well, maybe not, considering this is Sammo Hung, a martial arts legend (he plays Bruce Lee’s opponent in the opening scene of Enter the Dragon, and the rest of his career is equally distinguished) for whom morbid obesity has been a selling point for decades (you may recall his US TV show Martial Law, which one reviewer summarised as ‘fat Eskimo cop somersaulting onto bad guys in Los Angeles’, only partly inaccurately). My Beloved Bodyguard may well be sincerely trying to highlight the issue of the plight of elderly people suffering from dementia in China, but I suspect what most of the audience is waiting for is the moment when swaggering bad guys push Ding too far and he cuts loose with the kung fu (he wasn’t just a civil servant, he was a decorated member of an elite security agency and a martial arts champion). To this extent the film is essentially the Chinese equivalent of one of those ‘bus pass badass’ movies that have started to appear over here, starring people like Liam Neeson, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger – although Jackie Chan’s The Foreigner is perhaps a more pertinent example.

Well, the moment eventually arrives, and not before time, no doubt causing a cry of ‘Hurray!’ from many viewers. Possibly followed very shortly by cries of ‘Eeeegh!’ and ‘Oooh!’ from watchers lulled by the slow-motion gentleness of the plot with Ding and Cherry and not expecting the hair-raisingly graphic violence which ensues. Here’s the thing: Hung was in his early sixties when he made the film and clearly can’t move the way he used to, and so the fight scenes have to get their impact in some other way. So Ding doesn’t just slap people about and kick them in the head until they fall over: serious, important bones and joints are snapped, crunched, and shattered, with a helpful CGI effect highlighting just which bits of the skeleton just broke (at one point Hung flops onto a major bad guy paunch-first, pulverising his spine). Coupled to this are numerous stabbings and throat-slittings.

I mean, this would probably all be par for the course in a Tony Jaa or Iko Uwais film, but it’s tonally wildly at odds with all the preceding business with Fat Old Ding befriending the little girl almost despite himself. It’s as if there are two totally different sensibilities at work in this film – one trying to make a gentle, family-oriented drama, the other a brutal gangland action film. Either of these would have been fine, but they just don’t work together. Late on, the film experiments with what looks very much like a third style, of more tongue-in-cheek action-comedy – an injured bad guy tries to hobble away to freedom, with Ding shuffling implacably after him, resulting in possibly the lowest-speed foot chase in action movie history – which feels much more like the kind of film this perhaps should have been. But it’s not much and it comes very late.

The tonal mismatch is probably My Beloved Bodyguard‘s biggest problem, but the film is oddly plotted overall – major characters disappear without explanation for long stretches of the film, the way the story is set up and the principals introduced likewise somehow feels a little incorrect, and so on. No matter how good the acting is – and Hung, Lau, Chan and the others generally give decent performances, while there are cameos from a plethora of big name martial arts stars and directors, mostly knocking on a bit – the story remains slow and a bit underpowered, with most of the action confined to the last half hour. I sat down to watch this film mostly because of my fondness for Sammo Hung as a director and performer, and he does enough to carry the film – as both a drama and an action piece – for me not to regret that choice. Others may find they have a different feeling come the end of a movie which is many things, just not the ones you’re probably hoping for, nor ones which naturally go together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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