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Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

Annette begins with an orchestra and singers preparing to make a recording; instruments are plugged in and tuned, everyone seems to slowly be getting ready for the moment of truth. Observing from the control booth is the director, who looks a lot like Leos Carax (this role is played, in a strikingly well-judged bit of casting, by the director Leos Carax). He asks if it would be possible to start.

And so they begin, singing a song on the topic of starting. Very quickly, however, the key members of the band (the instantly recognisable figures of Ron and Russell Mael, aka Sparks), the backing singers, and so on, all get up and proceed out of the studio into the street. And I do mean proceed: this is a procession in the classic style. The Mael brothers cede their position at the front to Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, and Simon Helberg, but the parade continues out into the streets of Los Angeles, the lyrics addressing the anticipation inherent in beginning-of-movie moments like this, but also including the reasonable request that the audience ‘shut up and sit’. Eventually Driver and Cotillard depart to get into character and things become marginally less odd for a while.

(The closing credits of the film feature another procession by the cast and crew, this time politely wishing the audience a safe trip home after the movie, a thoughtful touch which is rather more endearing than the usual post-credits scene.)

Annette is a musical directed by Leos Carax, based on a story and with songs by Sparks, so this is never what you’d call a conventional movie experience for long. Adam Driver plays Henry McHenry, a misanthropic stand-up comedian not entrely unlike Andrew Clay or Bill Hicks, while Marion Cotillard plays operatic soprano Anne Defrasnoux. Henry and Anne have recently begun a relationship and fallen deeply in love with one another: they sing a song about this, called ‘We Love Each Other So Much’, which – in authentic late-period Sparks style – largely consists of the title repeated over and over again, albeit with the couple in increasingly startling situations as they sing the line.

Soon the news breaks that Anne is pregnant, and the world awaits the birth of the child. (I particularly enjoyed the singing obstetrician and chorus of midwives who appeared at this point to perform a song largely about breathing and pushing.) The baby is named Annette, but her arrival marks a change in the fortunes of the couple: while Anne meets with success after success, Henry finds it hard to maintain his edginess and his career struggles as a result. And so they decide to take Annette with them on a fateful boat trip…

‘Not mainstream’ was my partner’s considered opinion after watching Annette, and this strikes me as a very accurate assessment of the kind of film this is. Of course, few films have the capacity to become beloved crowd-pleasers in quite the same way as a great musical can, but I suspect the relentless weirdness of Annette will prove a bit of a barrier to mainstream success.

It’s not quite the conventional ‘sing a bit, talk for a bit, sing a bit’ musical, for one thing: this is practically sung through, which always produces some slightly odd moments. The effect is something akin to actual opera, with all the strangeness associated with that – Driver, Cotillard and Helberg play the only developed characters, so a lot of the time they are interacting with choruses made up of supporting roles – the audience of Henry’s stand-up show get a song with the lyrics ‘Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha!’, the police interrogate people to music, and so on.

What of Annette herself, you may be wondering? Well, just in case a slightly self-referential rock opera starring people without trained voices and with music by Marc Bolan and Hitler lookalikes isn’t offbeat enough, baby Annette is played by a wooden puppet. It is fair to say this is a slightly creepy wooden puppet (though still not as unsettling as the CGI baby in the last Twilight film). As the film goes on it proves to be the case that there are sound artistic and metaphorical reasons for the baby to be played by a puppet. But this doesn’t make the various scenes of Driver and Cotillard putting the puppet to bed, and so on, any less bizarre.

The baby puppet only really becomes prominent in the later sections of the film, by which point the plot has soared to such heights of extravagant madness that it probably registers less than it would in a film with a more naturalistic plot. Someone is murdered (they keep on singing even as they are being done in), someone comes back as a vengeful ghost, Annette the baby puppet turns out to have a borderline-magical gift which leads to her becoming the subject of much attention, and so on.

I think the non-naturalism of the movie musical is one of its greatest strengths, but there’s non-naturalistic and then there’s Annette. This is one of those rare movies fully in the self-aware, presentational mode, which is open about its own artificiality. Normally this is a recipe for camp, pretentiousness and a rather desperate reliance on irony, but – and this is probably Annette’s greatest achievement – the remarkable thing about this film is that it still packs a significant emotional punch in its key moments. Much credit must go to the actors, particularly Adam Driver (especially since most of the songs seem to be pitched rather higher than he seems comfortable with), but of course the Mael brothers deserve praise for an inventive score which includes some extraordinary pieces of music.

I was hoping to see rather more of Ron and Russell on screen during the film, but apart from the opening and closing sequences they stay behind the scenes, except for a brief cameo as aeroplane pilots. But the film does have the mixture of wit, playfulness, and sincere emotion that is the hallmark of much of Sparks’ music. The central metaphor of the film is an effective one, and if the things it has to say about modern culture are not terribly original, it at least puts them across well.

This is a soaringly weird and often deeply strange film, but also a rather beautiful and affecting one. It’s a coming together of such special and diverse talents that it’s almost certainly a unique, one-off piece of work – not that this shouldn’t instantly be clear to anyone watching it. I doubt there will be a more distinctive film on release this year.

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One of the nice things about Marvel Comics, back in the days of my youth, was how diverse they were. I mean this not in the slightly reductionist modern sense, where it is often just a question of ticking boxes during the scripting and casting stages, but in terms of the tone and subject matter of the comics themselves. When I was about seven my mother bought me a discounted three-pack of different Marvel titles as a holiday treat. One of them was about Spider-Man and Ghost Rider fighting an evil magician in an amusement park; the next was a grandiose underwater piece of high fantasy with Namor the Sub-Mariner; and the third was something rather unexpected, a book entitled (in full) The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu, which seemed to be some sort of spy adventure with a lot of pulp influences and Asian cultural references.

Master of Kung Fu seemed to be happening in its own little world, completely separate to the other Marvel books (though the character ended up fighting the Thing, amongst other superhero characters), but it seems we have now reached the point where Marvel Studios have already made movies about every other character with any kind of traction, and so even outliers like Master of Kung Fu are now getting the big-screen treatment – Eternals, due out in a couple of months, is likewise based on a book not originally intended to share a universe with Spider-Man and all the others. (I once made a joke about Marvel doing movies based on characters like Squirrel-Girl and Brother Voodoo; it now just feels like it’s only a matter of time.)

And so I found myself in the foyer of a bijou cinema in the depths of Somerset, asking for a ticket for the evening showing of Shang-Chi – and until a few years ago I would have never expected to ever be typing that sentence. The full title of the film is Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and the director is Destin Daniel Cretton, who got the job off the back of the (rather good) legal drama Just Mercy.

Our hero is played by Simo Liu, who is an amiable screen presence, and when we first meet him he is living in San Francisco and working as a parking valet along with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina), who is there to do the ironic comedy relief. Neither of them have figured out what to do with their lives yet, but destiny (not to mention Destin) gives them a little push when they are menaced on the bus by a gang of toughs led by a chap named Razor Fist (Florian ‘Big Nasty’ Munteanu). ‘I don’t want any trouble!’ cries Shang-Chi in the time-honoured chop-socky manner, but the bad guys do want trouble, and so it behoves our lad to break out his invincible kung fu skills.

Yes, it seems he is a parking valet with a past: son of Wenwu (Tony Leung), an immortal warlord who is possessor of the ten rings of the title: as well as letting him live for a thousand years, they also make him unstoppable in battle (except when the plot requires it to be otherwise). Shang-Chi was raised by his father’s criminal empire to become the perfect warrior and assassin, but he threw a bit of a teenage strop and ran away to America instead.

But now it seems his dad wants a reunion. Wenwu is seeking to gain access to Ta Ro, a magical realm in another dimension filled with fantastic sights and mythical creatures (not to be confused with K’Un-Lun from the Iron Fist TV show, a magical realm in another dimension filled with fantastical sights and mythical creatures, of course, or indeed any of the vaguely similar locales in the other movies), from whence his wife (and our hero’s mum) came from. Wenwu’s children have a role to play in this scheme, but what is it? And why is Wenwu so determined to reach Ta Ro? Could the survival of the universe be in peril, again?

Master of Kung Fu’s nature as a book only tangentially linked to the rest of Marvel’s output was exemplified by the fact it featured characters heavily implied to be the descendants of James Bond and Sherlock Holmes, while Shang-Chi’s original father (dear me, only when writing about comic book universes to you end up using formulations like ‘original father’) was the fiendish Dr Fu Manchu, Sax Rohmer’s diabolical mastermind and racist stereotype as featured in many novels and movies. Then again, at various points Marvel’s sprawling cosmology has included such improbable inhabitants (mostly licensed from other sources) as Godzilla, Dracula, the Transformers, and the black monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey (the monolith’s own comic book series was not a big seller for some reason).

These days, of course, you can’t really do a movie with Fu Manchu as the bad guy, to save nothing of the rights issues involved, and so Shang-Chi’s parentage has been tweaked. This has been quite inventively done: the Ten Rings have been a story element in these films since the very beginning, and Tony Leung’s character seems to be at least in part an attempt to placate that small segment of the Marvel audience annoyed with the presentation of the Mandarin back in Iron Man 3. This is done deftly enough that it shouldn’t feel too weird or fussy to normal people in the audience, but I have to say that some of the links and cameos connecting this movie to the wider Marvel enterprise feel rather gratuitous and contrived this time around.

Nevertheless, it eventually becomes very clear that a Marvel movie is what this is – if I were to be reductionist myself, I would say that it’s clearly trying to emulate the success of Black Panther, although using Chinese culture rather than Afro-futurism as its starting point. I thought this was rather a shame – the first act or so of the film, which actually resembles a genuine kung fu movie, is superbly entertaining, with good jokes and inventive action choreography. However, it slowly transforms into what’s basically just another CGI-based fantasy spectacle, becoming slightly bland and heftless along the way. The issue with traditional Chinese culture is that it’s a real thing, and everyone involved seems to have been very wary of doing anything that might cause offence (they likely had one eye on the potentially vast Asian box office returns too), and the film loses a lot of its wit and pop as a result.

Still, a great deal of goodwill has been built up by this point, and Michelle Yeoh pops up to do some exposition as Shang-Chi’s auntie, so the film remains very watchable till the end. But you can see why the film’s not called Master of Kung Fu – there’s not much sign of that in the closing stages of the film, which I was a bit disappointed by. Master of the CGI Special Effects Budget is a less engaging proposition.

This is a fun film and unlikely to disappoint the legions of devotees Marvel have gathered to their banner over the last decade-and-a-bit; the action and humour are all present and correct, and Tony Leung in particular manages to give the film a bit of gravitas and depth (on one level this is another saga of a dysfunctional Asian family) But on the other hand, one of the main alleged weaknesses of the Marvel films, the fact that they are all ultimately a bit samey, is also arguably on display: no matter how quirkily and originally they start out, everything always concludes with a slightly bloated climax slathered in visual effects. But as long as these films continue to make such immense piles of money, this is unlikely to change. Shang-Chi isn’t as distinctive as it promised to be, but it’s still an engaging piece of entertainment.

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What are we to make of M Night Shyamalan? Does he, in fact, get an unfairly raw deal from critics and commentators, for reasons which may have nothing to do with the quality of his work? (I myself have done jokes about his name in the past, which I am rather uncomfortable about now.) Many of the man’s films have been very successful; there’s a sense in which he rarely repeats himself; and he’s shown a willingness to be creative in his storytelling which a lot of less-mocked directors don’t.

But on the other hand, his work is maddeningly inconsistent, his early reliance on plot twists of variable quality has become the stuff of folklore, and some of the films are just plain bad. (This is before we even get to his insistence on casting himself in his films, often in significant roles he shows no real sign of being able to carry off.) It’s got to the point that with each new Shyamalan release, you wonder which version of the guy will have been responsible – the one who made The Sixth Sense and Split or the perpetrator of After Earth?

Well, he’s back again with the first post-Covid film I’ve seen on the big screen (this may explain some of the film’s formal minimalism), Old. It’s based on a Swiss graphic novel, but – not for the first time with Shyamalan – may strike some viewers as resembling an episode of The Twilight Zone stretched out to feature length.

Gael Garcia Bernal and Vicky Krieps play Guy and Prisca, an outwardly-successful professional couple (he is an actuary, she a museum curator) just beginning a holiday at a luxury resort hotel with their children. But, needless to say, there are soon signs of something strange and unsettling afoot. (Not least the fact that he is Mexican and she is from Luxembourg but their children both speak with neutral American accents.) The smarmy resort manager offers them a chance to go to an exclusive private beach on the other side of the island, and naturally they accept, despite the fact the guy driving the bus is a very bad actor (yes, it’s Shyamalan again).

They find themselves there with a doctor (Rufus Sewell) and his family, and another couple played by Ken Leung and Nikki Amuka-Bird (all those years of playing useless establishment types in dodgy BBC sci-fi have finally paid off). Also on the scene is a rapper (Aaron Pierre).

But is someone watching them from way up on the cliff top? Why are the children suddenly complaining of discomfort? And why does anyone trying to leave the beach seemingly faint? It soon becomes apparent that, due to a freak geological effect (it says here), anyone on the beach ages at the rate of a year every thirty minutes. This could be the holiday of a lifetime… it’s just that the lifetime may be over much sooner than anyone expected.

So, you know, an interesting premise for a movie, if nothing else. I must confess I wrote a little book about the horror genre not long ago (something to do during lockdown) and one of the things I discussed was the nature of those basic, primal fears that everyone shares. I think that deep down, everyone is a bit frightened of senescence, the slow and inevitable physical decline that’s part of the deal that comes with continuing to breathe. But because it’s so incremental and slow, we manage to thrust it from our minds, most of the time at least. Old, in theory at least, should be an interesting vehicle to force us to confront this particular issue.

The only problem is that – how can I put it? – nobody in Old actually gets that old; at least, nobody who wasn’t old to begin with. Primarily this is because Shyamalan clearly feels obliged to keep an eye on the narrative underpinnings of his high-concept story and try to ensure it all stays relatively plausible. Someone asks, quite sensibly, why their hair and nails aren’t growing at an accelerated rate, and the answer is that the acceleration effect only works on living cells. This is bafflegab, really, only there to facilitate the story (the director doesn’t want to mess about with everyone having hair down to their knees and two-foot-long fingernails), but one consequence of the very-quasi-scientific approach Shyamalan takes is that it rules out the use of proper prosthetics and other make-up to give the impression of extreme old age (the extent to which people actually look older is limited).

In short, the director can’t find a way to make the process of dying of old age very rapidly into something visually interesting and cinematic. Nevertheless, the structure of this particular kind of film requires a succession of – to put it delicately – striking deaths, along with other arresting goings-on. He just about manages it, but the result is a film supposedly about dying of old age where most of the characters are actually murdered, or drown, or fall to their deaths, or undergo spectacularly nasty demises due to chronic medical conditions running out of control. So it’s arguably a bit of a chiz on that front: the central conceit is fantastical, but the film feels inhibited about really running with that notion.

It does not help much that the script is a lot less clever and subtle than Shyamalan probably thinks it is: virtually the first piece of dialogue we hear is a mother telling her daughter not to be in too big a hurry to grow up, but there’s so much stuff in a similar vein very early on that it topples over from being a neat foreshadowing of the subtext to simply too on-the-nose. And in places it’s vague, too: the children grow from being pre-teens to being on the cusp of middle-age over the course of a day and a night; what’s not at all clear is whether they remain children in adult bodies, or if they mature intellectually and emotionally too. I think the film eventually inclines towards the latter, but why this should be isn’t really addressed.

We must remember Shyamalan was working under sub-optimal conditions with this film and there are still some good things about it: the various transitions between the different actors playing the children as they age are neatly handled (some of the switches in actor are almost imperceptible – The Crown this ain’t), horror fans will enjoy one or two memorably gruesome moments, and the whole thing does eventually hang together on its own terms reasonably well (there’s not so much a twist, more a sort of reveal of what’s been going on). The problem is that those terms, the ones that make it a coherent thriller, are the same ones which undercut the film’s effectiveness as a film about how people deal with the ageing process. For once, a more fantastical approach would probably have resulted in a better film. In the end, Old isn’t one of Shyamalan’s worst films, but it’s just mildly diverting tosh when it could have been something genuinely unsettling and thought-provoking.

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Odd to think that the first of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films will be twenty years old in less than six months (the same is true of the first Harry Potter adaptation, of course). Or, to put it another way, it’s now very nearly equidistant in time between the present moment and the appearance of another great fantasy film of decades past – I speak of John Boorman’s 1981 film Excalibur.

The comparison is a pertinent one as Boorman tried for many years to mount his own adaptation of Lord of the Rings, never quite managing it (given one of his ideas was for the Hobbits to be played by children being dubbed by adults, perhaps it’s just as well). But apparently a lot of the Rings prep work ended up informing Excalibur, and you can perhaps trace a connection between the syncretic Arthurian mythology, built up over a thousand years, and the primal European myths which inspired Tolkien’s legendarium.

Boorman puts his own spin on the Arthurian cycle, as everyone who approaches it ends up doing, focusing the story on the titular blade. The film opens in the Dark Ages (real-world history and geography is more or less elided), with ferocious warlord Uther (Gabriel Byrne) intent on becoming king, assisted – sort of – by the enigmatic, and eccentric, figure of Merlin the Magician (Nicol Williamson). It is Merlin who procures the sword of power for Uther, and Merlin who is most dismayed when Uther seems intent on simply using it to satiate his own lust for power, and other things.

One of the other things is Igraine, wife of the Duke of Cornwall (she is played by another of the numerous Boormans to appear in the film; he is Corin Redgrave). But Uther’s deal with Merlin whereby he can enjoy a night of passion with Igraine (Uther keeps his suit of armour on throughout, surely the hallmark of any sensitive lover) has unexpected consequences: Merlin takes the ensuing child, and while pursuing the magician Uther is ambushed and killed, but not before he can drive Excalibur into a block of stone, from which only the rightful heir can draw it…

This first section of the film unfolds very naturally and satisfyingly; from here on things get a bit choppier, as Boorman has to start picking and choosing which elements of the Arthurian legend to focus on. So we get the sword in the stone, the struggle faced by Arthur (Nigel Terry) as he tries to claim his throne and unite the country, the coming of the invincible Lancelot (Nicholas Clay), the founding of Camelot, Arthur’s marriage to Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi), the treachery of Arthur’s half-sister Morgana (Helen Mirren) and the begetting of Mordred, the Grail Quest, and so on and so on…

Even for a film that’s pushing close to two and a half hours in length, this is a lot to handle, and Boorman omits many of the peripheral elements of the story – the May Babies are omitted, as is the story of Tristram and Isolde, along with that of Balin and the Fisher King, while the importance of Gawain (Liam Neeson) is downplayed, and Galahad is left out entirely (most of his role is given to Perceval, played here by Paul Geoffrey).

Doing the entire Arthurian legend in detail would be an undertaking beyond the scope of any sane movie – you’d be thinking in terms of a series (much as Guy Ritchie recently did), or perhaps a multi-season TV series like a cross between Game of Thrones and The Crown (this is such a patently brilliant and obvious idea I’m surprised no-one’s doing it already). So the flaws in the narrative structure of Excalibur, the jarring shifts in time and space, the odd changes of tone, are to some extent inevitable given the nature of the film.

However, the decision to frame the film almost solely as mythic fantasy is Boorman’s own: there’s relatively little grit or dirt in the world of the film, and not much sign of the common folk, either: on the rare occasions when they do appear, it’s slightly reminiscent of another great Arthurian film of roughly the same period, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. You could definitely argue that the Python film has a greater sense of reality about it than Excalibur; Boorman’s film always looks good, but it’s strangely heftless and is often easy to snigger at (Uther isn’t the only character who spends all his time lumbering around in full armour, even at feasts and weddings) – the balance of otherworldly mysticism and quasi-historical grit was handled much better by the Robin of Sherwood TV show (which possibly shows hints of an Excalibur influence on occasion).

Nevertheless, there’s a huge amount the film gets right, or at least does interestingly: the central thesis of the connection between king, land, and sword is a splendid innovation, and the film handles many of the incidental moments of the story extremely well: Merlin’s mentorship of the boy king, Arthur winning the loyalty of the barons who initially refuse to acknowledge his right to the throne, and so. It is, of course, helped enormously by what history has proven to be a really impressive supporting cast – Helen Mirren doesn’t chew the scenery as Morgana, a young Liam Neeson is sweaty and energetic as Gawain, and there’s a cracking turn from Patrick Stewart as Leodegrance. When this film was made, Stewart was still best-known as an RSC stalwart: he gives his declamatory scenes and sequences where he gets to whack people with a battle-axe the full Shakespearean beans, and you come away wishing he was in the movie more.

Perhaps the fact that it’s mostly the supporting players you think this of is another flaw in the film; Terry, Lunghi and Clay are all right as the central trio, but not exactly captivating. As a result, it’s really Williamson who ends up walking away with the film – given Merlin’s disappearance from the story, this might be a fatal flaw, but Boorman contrives things so he makes a vital contribution in the climax.

In many ways the director makes sensible choices about how to bring the King Arthur story to the screen, and occasionally inspired ones (the Wagner- and Orff-heavy soundtrack, for instance). If he ends up eventually making a film which is at best flawed, that’s because the task itself is an impossible one; ‘flawed’ is still a significant achievement given Excalibur‘s sheer ambition. Nevertheless, this is still the yardstick when it comes to movie treatments of the Arthurian legend, even if it is a bit too hectic and breathless to be much more than an introduction to the cycle.

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A now-obscure movie called The Siege was briefly the focus of some attention back in 1999 when odd behaviour amongst some of its patrons was noted: they would buy a ticket, take their seats, but then walk out as soon as the credits began. The reason? This was before the age of widespread and easy internet and they had just come to watch the trailer for George Lucas’ upcoming stellar conflict movie.

Now we are in the age of widespread and easy internet, trailers are a lot more accessible and subject to much more scrutiny than was the case in years gone by. Back then, much more of the heavy lifting when it came to promotional duties was done by the poster. We have considered in the past some of the more outlandish claims made on the posters of ambitious but low-budget exploitation movies, but few attempt the hard sell quite as ferociously as the advertising for the 1968 movie The Lost Continent:

Blood-beasts, female flesh, torture-pits, giant jaw-snapping molluscs, floating death-ship, helpless beauties, crazed kelp-monsters – sounds like a hell of a movie, doesn’t it? Or possibly just hell, depending on your taste in films. The Lost Continent (NB barely features a continent, and certainly not a lost one) was made by Michael Carreras for Hammer Films. Now, Carreras produced many of the studio’s best and most successful films, and deserves credit for that. However, as a writer and director his track record is rather less stellar, with The Lost Continent (one of two films that he wrote under a pseudonym and directed, the other being Prehistoric Women) a powerful exhibit for the prosecution’s case.

The movie opens with beat combo The Peddlers treating us to the title track, which is heavy on the Hammond organ (this forms a key element of the film’s soundtrack). We find ourselves in a strangely-hued graveyard of ships, aboard one of which a burial-at-sea is just under way: various people, some dressed as Spanish conquistadors, others in modern dress, stand around gravely.

Presiding is Captain Lansen (Eric Porter), a man who is deeply troubled by questions of how he got into this situation (there may not have been much acting required from Porter, to be honest). The film obligingly flashes back to provide some answers: Lansen’s ship, the tramp freighter Corita, is making a swift departure from Freetown in Sierra Leone, trying to dodge the customs launch in the process. Why? Well, Lansen has got sick of being the owner-operator of this leaky old tub and has taken on a lucrative but illegal cargo of highly explosive white phosphorous, with a view to selling it and the ship in Caracas and retiring on the proceeds. His more principled first officer is duly shocked.

When the ship runs into a hurricane and starts taking on water, the rest of the crew demand that Lansen turns back (white phosphorous detonates when wet, apparently), but the passengers are having none of it (the crew includes some fine actors, including Victor Maddern, Michael Ripper and Donald Sumpter, but they don’t get much to do in this film). Despite the contemporary setting, the roots of the story in a 1938 novel by Dennis Wheatley are very obvious here, as there is something rather hokey and dated about all these people sitting around the saloon of a freighter making a transatlantic crossing. Amongst them we meet a boozy con-man (Tony Beckley), a former trophy-wife on the run (Hildegard Knef), an enquiry agent in pursuit of her (Ben Carruthers), a doctor fleeing a scandal (Nigel Stock, who is briefly seen reading the Wheatley novel – about as close as the film gets to genuine wit) and his daughter (Suzanna Leigh), whom he is fiercely protective of for self-interested reasons.

None of this lot want to go back to Africa and so the crew mutiny and depart, taking one of the lifeboats; only a handful stick around, including the steward (Jimmy Hanley) and the chief engineer (James Cossins). We have commented in the past on Cossins’ tendency to be cast as pompous establishment figures; this is about as proletarian as he gets, although as the story goes on the chief engineer proves to be a man with a side-line is fierce theological rigour.

With the ship leaking, the movie attempts a tense sequence with the passengers having to shift all the explosives to somewhere less damp. It is not really very tense, to be honest, and concludes with Lansen deciding they have to abandon ship anyway. So everyone piles into a lifeboat, which is launched into something which is very obviously a medium-sized water tank.

Some occasional rowing (‘It’ll keep you fit!’ growls the captain) and arguing over the rations ensues, with everyone bemoaning their lot and the viewer possibly beginning to wonder when the crazed kelp-monsters, giant jaw-snapping molluscs, and indeed the lost continent itself are actually going to make an appearance in the movie. In the end Tony Beckley can’t take it any more and hurls himself over the side in a drunken stupor; Nigel Stock dives in to save him and is eaten by a rubber shark, but Beckley is retrieved anyway.

The lifeboat becomes entangled in thick sea-weed, which proves to be more serious than it first appears when the weed grapples onto Lansen with its thick, thorny fronds – yes, the crazed kelp-monsters have finally arrived! Another extra is eaten by the weed before the lifeboat bumps into the Corita, which has likewise been snagged by the kelp. Everyone gets back on board, which only leads one to conclude that this whole sequence has just been there to get rid of Nigel Stock.

With Stock out of the way, his daughter reveals he has been repressing her for ages and goes a bit mad as a result of her sudden freedom, chucking herself at Beckley (not keen, racked with guilt following the bit with the shark) and then Carruthers (rather more receptive). The two of them slip out onto the deck to see what happens, but any developments are forestalled by the appearance over the gunwale of a giant octopus, which proceeds to eat Carruthers and cover Leigh in green slime before it can be driven off.

There is a sense of the plot finally getting somewhere, and not before time, as the freighter pitches up in a strange weed-infested realm of wrecked ships, some of them seemingly very ancient, and rocky outcrops. (It’s still not a continent though.) Strange shapes are sighted through the mist, and then contact is made with the locals, as a young woman approaches the ship. She is played by latter-day blues singer Dana Gillespie, and has an impressive set of flotation devices. She also has a set of helium balloons strapped to her shoulders.

(Yeah, I do kind of appreciate that that last attempt at a gag is probably unacceptable in these enlightened days of 2021, and I feel duly apologetic – though clearly not to the point of actually removing it from the review. It’s not as though the film doesn’t go all out to exploit the potential of the stunning Gillespie decolletage: the poor woman is in a shirt open practically to the navel, and most of the publicity photos for this film seem to show her leaning forward while sitting on a giant plastic crab:

My mistake, it’s a giant scorpion, not a crab.)

Gillespie is being chased by Spanish conquistadors working for the Inquisition, with whom there is a brisk scrap. (All the locals wear balloons and snowshoes to let them walk around on the weed.) She reveals they are the descendants of explorers who got stuck here centuries ago and are reigned over by the tyrannical El Supremo, a child ruler under the control of a pointy-hood-wearing maniac. Clearly conflict between the newcomers and the Inquisition is on the cards, but not before they can cram in Jimmy Hanley being throttled by a giant crab and a death-struggle between the crab and a giant sea scorpion (the question of which is the worse prop is also fiercely contested).

The poster catch-line ‘A living hell that time forgot!’ accurately nails The Lost Continent as a precursor to the Trampas movies made by Amicus in the following decade (The Land That Time Forgot, etc) – but while those films occasional attain the level of Good Bad Movie, this one is (to quote the Encyclopedia of Science-Fiction’s review) wholly absurd, even if the art direction is good. The Doug McClure films are unashamed pulp from start to finish: Carreras seems to think this film has an outside chance of functioning as serious drama, hence a lot of very intense scenes as the captain and passengers articulate their various personal issues to each other, usually by monologuing. These would probably feel corny even in a conventional context; surrounded by scenes dealing with killer sea-weed and rampaging invertebrates, they become utterly ridiculous and just as funny as the bad creature effects.

The saving grace of The Lost Continent is that its general badness is still somehow exceeded by its extreme silliness; how anyone involved managed to take any of it seriously is a miracle, but somehow they did and the result is an extraordinary piece of unintentional comedy. Perhaps I’m being unnecessarily harsh to the producer class, but so many producers-turned-directors start off by making this sort of tat: plenty of action and character and colour, but no developing storyline, no connections, just incident after incident. The material here is so bizarre that the film achieves a surreal kind of bad-acid-trip quality; afterwards you can’t quite believe what you’ve been watching. It’s a terrible film, but also enormously entertaining.

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One of the things that Hollywood writers grumble about and bring up when the Writers’ Guild contemplates strike action is something called the possessive credit: this is when, at the start of a film, it says ‘A Film by…’ and then the director’s name. If you’re talking about a pure piece of auteur cinema, written, directed and otherwise shaped by a single person’s vision, then fair enough – but if the director’s just realising someone else’s script, you can see why the writers might get a bit peeved about their contribution being downplayed in this manner.

Certainly there are occasions when the use of the possessive credit feels – what is the mot juste here? – silly. But directors like to think of themselves as artists and creative visionaries, even when they are making films like Godzilla Vs Kong (which is apparently ‘A film by Adam Wingard’. I’ll be honest and confess I’d never really heard of Wingard before, but apparently he made a name for himself doing visceral micro-budget horror films and things loosely linked to the mumblecore movement (low-fi, low-budget, naturalistic movies). How therefore he ended up in charge of a $200 million franchise movie I am not entirely sure; he must have made a very good pitch.

For anyone who doesn’t follow the meta-plot of Hollywood monster movie franchises as closely as I do (I suppose it’s possible such people do exist), this is a follow-up to both 2017’s Kong: Skull Island and 2019’s Godzilla, King of the Monsters. As the movie gets underway, we learn that giant ape Kong (never actually referred to as King Kong here, in case you were wondering) is essentially being kept in protective custody by monster-wrangling agency Monarch, to stop Godzilla from tracking him down and beating him up (there is bad blood between their families, or something). Deeply concerned for the big guy, and de facto leader of Team K as the movie progresses, is primatologist Ilene (Rebecca Hall), who has a cute deaf-mute adopted daughter who shares a special bond with the ape.

The plot proper kicks off when colossal nuclear dinosaur Godzilla surfaces in the Gulf of Mexico and launches a seemingly unprovoked attack on an industrial facility in Pensacola owned by one of the world’s leading tech companies. The world is shocked by this sudden aggression, but firmly on Team G is Madison Russell (Millie Bobbie Brown, reprising her role from King of the Monsters), who is sure there has to be a reason for the attack and sets out to discover what it is.

Meanwhile, maverick geologist Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgard) is recruited by the owner of the tech company (Demian Bichir, giving an enormous, swaggering, I-am-delighted-by-my-own-evilness performance) to help find a means of fending Godzilla off should he start playing up again. This involves locating a mysterious power source only found at the hollow core of the Earth. The expedition involves going down a very deep hole they have dug in Antarctica, and…

Well, look, here’s the thing. As regular readers will know I am a big fan of Japanese monster movies (and indeed monster movies in general) and happily cut them all kinds of slack as long as they get the good stuff right. And, up to a point, Godzilla Vs Kong delivers the goods in spades: the monster rasslin’ between Kong and Godzilla is as imaginative, violent, and destructive as one could wish for. (Similarities between this film and the jokey King Kong Vs Godzilla are thin on the ground, but both are obliged to address, in different ways, the fact that Godzilla’s atomic breath appears to give him a distinct advantage. Bonus points are also given for there actually being a genuine winner when the two face off in the third act.) Hereabouts we have previously discussed the issue of the aesthetics of giant monster battles, and the slightly tedious tendency of Hollywood movies to set them at night. There’s a touch of that here, but it’s offset by the film’s general use of a garish, neon-saturated colour palette, even if it is a bit video-gamey.

Nevertheless, you can’t just have 113 minutes of monsters fighting each other; there needs to be some kind of connective tissue of plot and structure to give it all a bit of context and significance and, dare I say it, logic. It’s true that this is a film about how the ancient rivalry between an enormous ape and a gargantuan nuclear dinosaur is impacted by the plans of a lunatic billionaire who has decided, for reasons known only to himself, to build a giant cyborg replica of said nuclear dinosaur using body-parts harvested from an alien space dragon, and thus it could be argued that normal standards of credibility and logic are not fully in effect. Even so, much of the plot of the film is nonsensical, reliant on outrageous and absurd plot contrivances and devices. You can see that they’re hoping that if they go really fast and keep hitting you with visual grandeur, lavish CGI and new plot developments, a sort of fridge logic will be in effect and you won’t notice how little of it makes sense. But fridge logic has its limits and even as you’re watching it, you can’t help but notice how under-exposited most of it feels.

But as I say, it does look very pretty, with some impressive new monster designs (including a new version of yet another member of the classic Toho kaiju stable). You have to feel a bit sorry for the actors, though, who join the long and distinguished roll-call of performers who have signed up for a Godzilla or Kong film and found themselves all at sea. Takeshi Shimura, Raymond Burr, Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin, Jean Reno, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins: there is no shame in joining their company, as Skarsgard, Hall, and various other members of the cast do here. Bichir, on the other hand, seems to be trying to win a bet: it’s a big and enjoyable performance, but camp in a way that most of the film seems to be trying to avoid.

In the end, it’s colourful and action-packed and sort of fun, but it’s like drinking a bucket of cola instead of enjoying a balanced meal. I’m rather surprised that the proper critics have gone so easy on Godzilla Vs Kong, admitting to its various flaws but suggesting they don’t matter and may in fact be inherent in this kind of a movie. Obviously, I would disagree: even the critically-mauled King of the Monsters was more coherent and satisfying story-wise. It may just be that the presence of Kong, as opposed to a group of more obscure Japanese monsters like Mothra and Ghidorah, makes the new movie more accessible to a general audience. I didn’t find it as satisfying as either of the films immediately preceding it, but it is entertaining on a superficial level; it’s just a shame they couldn’t have come up with a way of keeping all the monster fights but surrounding them with a plot that actually made sense.

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Every now and then, when I’m about one of my creative endeavours, I’m suddenly struck by a sudden attack of self-doubt and become convinced the thing I’m doing has no value. Nowadays when this happens, I tend to park the thing and either forget about it or think about something else for a bit before returning to it with fresh eyes. In years gone by, though, rather than waste the work I’d already done, I often used to try and turn what I’d been working on into something else that I found myself filled with more enthusiasm about: ghost stories would turn into post-apocalyptic sci-fi, high fantasy would turn into a western or spy story, all with little regard for logic or coherence.

This is all very well when it comes to someone labouring (for want of a better word) in obscurity (this is already the best word), creating solely for their own amusement. It’s a bit more of a surprise when something similar seems to be happening in a reasonably big-budget TV series. Which brings us to Sakho & Mangane. After watching a lot of old TV shows high in comfort-viewing value and The Queen’s Gambit (well, everyone’s been watching it), I decided to strike out in a bold new direction and check out the ‘world drama’ section of one of the big free streamers (rather curiously, there are some TV shows available on Netflix also available for free elsewhere, if you hunt about). Quite why I decided to watch what was billed as a ‘fast-moving African cop show’, I’m not completely sure: simple curiosity, I guess, never having seen a TV series from an African nation before.

Anyway, Sakho & Mangane mostly takes place on the streets of Dakar, where a new special Crime Brigade has been set up. In charge is the no-nonsense Mama Ba (Christiane Dumont), despite the fact that veteran cop Commander Sakho (Issaka Sawadogo) half-expected to get the job. Sakho is very stern and serious all the time, for reasons we will later discover. The new brigade’s first problem is a dead Belgian anthropologist who’s turned up dead on the sacred island of a local tribe of fishermen. The problem (and our first splash of Senegalese colour) is that the fishermen won’t let non-tribe members onto the island to investigate. Luckily, there is a cop from the tribe in the building – but he’s in the cells, as Sakho has just busted his derriere on suspicion of being corrupt. His name is Basile Mangane (Yann Gael), and he is a bit of a rogue.

Mama Ba decrees that Sakho and Mangane, horribly mismatched though they are, must partner up to solve the case of the dead Belgian. ‘I work alone!’ the duo cry in outraged unison. ‘So do unemployed people!’ responds their boss. And so a fairly convoluted police-procedural gets underway, involving a stolen idol, people-traffickers, a mysterious local gangster named Bukki, and Mangane’s on-and-off relationship with local journalist Antoinette (Fatou-Elise Ba). It’s fairly engaging stuff, helped by the charisma of the two leads.

Fair enough. After an opening two-parter, the third episode goes with another resonant theme, that of European sex tourists (mostly women) visiting Senegal to enjoy themselves with handsome young gigolos. It opens with one of these lads turning up dead on the beach. ‘Looks like a ritual killing, his balls have been cut off,’ announces one of the team (not something you often hear in Midsomer Murders, nor indeed Death in Paradise). Naturally, Mangane has to go undercover as a gigolo, which he is not delighted about. Again, it’s slightly knockabout stuff, but colourful and fun, with the actors clearly growing into their roles – I particularly enjoyed the performance from Christophe Guybet, who plays the team’s perpetually drug-addled pathologist.

Episode four is where things take… a turn. Mangane’s old army mate turns up dead in mysterious cirumstances, leading him to become even more excitable and impulsive than usual. It seems he was working undercover to expose a gangster leading a counterfeiting ring (I think, this episode is not one of the best-scripted). The bad guy is either a midget or a pygmy, but more importantly he claims to have a magic amulet that makes him bulletproof. Just another nutter, right?

Wrong. Come the climax, Mangane unloads into the pint-sized perpetrator, who’s coming at him with a machete, only for it to have no effect. He is only saved when Sakho appears and plugs the villain. What was that all about? Even weirder, an old bloke who’s been turning up occasionally to give Sakho vague, ominous warnings puts in another appearance. ‘You can’t use your powers that way!’ he tells Sakho. What powers? What is going on here?

Now, anyone watching Sakho and Mangane via Netflix will have had a slightly different experience: there, the show is advertised as a story of two mismatched detectives taking on strange forces as the supernatural threatens Dakar – anyone tuning in for that must have found three episodes about dead Belgians and sex tourism rather confusing.

Nevertheless, this is a show which takes one of the hardest and weirdest left-terms mid-season that I’ve ever seen. What was going on behind the scenes on this series? Was this planned all along? Did the people making it get bored of doing a police procedural and decide to have a go at making something more like The X Files instead? It’s baffling and intriguing at the same time.

From this point on, things get progressively more peculiar, as you might have guessed. Episode five is a post-financial-crisis story, with bank executives involved in selling dodgy sub-prime mortgages turning up dead with their faces melted off. Working out the connections and identifying the individual with a motive takes us briefly back into the realms of a detective story, but the killer turns out to be some sort of avenging angel with supernatural powers (Sakho and Mangane face a sticky moment until the big man calls on his ‘special powers’ again).

Episode six throws the format well and truly up in the air, with the entire regular cast reporting for special training at a cinema inside a deserted theme park. But it’s a trap! Bukki (who, it seems, is a close relative of Mama Ba) has managed to get out of prison and unleashes a horde of zombies against our heroes. Sakho is forced to reveal his special abilities to the whole team before the day is saved.

Yeah, it’s about rampaging zombies in a theme park. By this point I was just letting the show sort of wash over me, as there was clearly not much point in trying to anticipate what was coming next. This looks like the kind of episode made in a hurry, as a response to some kind of behind-the-scenes crisis, so different is its structure and style. None of the regular sets appear (and indeed the Crime Brigade’s HQ is blown up while they’re all off fighting the zombies, and is never seen again).

Episode seven finds the Crime Brigade now based out of Mama Ba’s back yard, with a rather peculiar sex attacker on the loose and the team a man down, as Sakho has gone AWOL now everyone knows he is an exorcist or a magician or something. Mangane seems more bothered about finding his former partner than the killer, which gives some of the minor characters a chance to shine; the fact the culprit turns out to be a demonic incubus (or ‘night husband’, as such things are apparently known in Africa) is not really a surprise at this point. (The demon is surprisingly well-realised.) Highlight of the episode, for me, was the scene in which a government minister summons Mama Ba and announces that the Crime Brigade is publicly being shut down – but it will continue as a secret task force fighting paranormal threats! Mama Ba takes this news with surprising stoicism, and does not appear to inform anyone else on her team of this minor change in focus.

By this point I was expecting something pretty spectacular from the last episode, in story terms at least. However, and this may not come as a total shock if you’ve been paying attention so far, iron narrative control and thought-through structure are not amongst Sakho & Mangane‘s most obvious virtues: the last episode is one of the duds of the season, over-preoccupied for most of its length with a sub-Saw plotline: Sakho is held captive and put through various fiendish tortures (some of them supernatural, of course), while the killer sends Mangane all over the city doing various errands for him. By the time we get to the climactic revelations (something to do with an evil cult Sakho would rather cut his ties with, various estranged relatives, and Mangane’s soul), there’s not much time left to sort it all out.

Furthermore, this is the 21st century, and no self-respecting series bothers with closure if there’s the slightest chance of a continuation, so everything ends on a rather confusing cliffhanger, bringing an end to one of the weirdest viewing experiences I’ve had this side of the final episodes of The Prisoner. Was a second season on the cards prior to the pandemic? Is it still a possibility nowadays? Where can this series possibly go next?

I don’t know. The thought of another full season of Sakho & Mangane quite as detached from the anchor of reason as the first one certainly gives me pause. But I suspect that in the end I would feel compelled to give it a look. In a world so often characterised by tedious competency, it’s important to cherish these eruptions of wildly inconsistent madness. Bravo, mon braves.

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As regular readers will probably have gathered, in happier days it was very unusual for a big studio movie with a decent release to pass me by. (Obviously there were always exceptions: I swore off Michael Bay movies nearly fifteen years ago.) Sometimes I look back at a big film that I didn’t see on the big screen, and wonder, what was wrong with this one when it was new? (Especially considering some of the rubbish I’ve gone out of my way to see in the past.)

Hey ho. A few months ago I was on holiday with the family and the late movie on the telly was Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger, which is one of those movies I’d skipped on its release in 2013 – mainly, I seem to recall, due to largely terrible reviews and a general impression that the whole enterprise was somehow laboured and a touch misconceived. Rather to my surprise, it looked, if not great, then certainly intriguingly different, and I decided to check it out on catch-up the next time I had a few hours spare. Naturally, I had forgotten about the Empire of the Mouse’s hawkishness when it comes to exploiting its various properties, and the BBC hadn’t stumped up for the catch-up rights. The modern world being as it is, though, movies seem to come around with the frequency of buses, and it turned up again just the other week.

The movie opens at a San Francisco theme park in 1933 (the year is probably a reference to the first appearance of the original Lone Ranger radio show), where a young, Lone Ranger-obsessed lad is startled to come across an extremely elderly Native American featuring in one of the exhibits. The old chap claims to be the one-and-only, original Tonto, sidekick of the Lone Ranger, and goes on to reveal the truth of this legendary figure’s origins…

The bulk of the movie occurs in 1869, with the railroads unfurling and slowly taming the old west. Idealistic young lawyer John Reid (Armie Hammer) is heading back home to see his family for the first time in years – but travelling on the same train is brutal outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), who’s being taken to the gallows. (Also chained up with Cavendish is Tonto (Johnny Depp), who has his own reasons for wanting to stay close to the bad guy.) Cavendish’s gang appear and spring him from the moving train, nearly causing a disastrous accident which Reid and Tonto only manage to avert with the help of Reid’s elder brother (James Badge Dale), a Texas ranger.

Reid Minor is soon deputised by the rangers and a posse sets off in pursuit of Cavendish and his gang – but they are betrayed and ambushed, and all killed, apart from John Reid. Tonto, who has somehow managed to escape from jail, turns up and performs the necessary burial duties – but recognises that Reid’s ordeal has left a spiritual mark upon him. Adopting a mask and various other eccentric accoutrements, Reid assumes the identity of the Lone Ranger, intent on justice for the death of his brother and Cavendish’s many other victims…

The fact that the origins of the Lone Ranger so closely recall those of a superhero shouldn’t really come as a surprise, given the character was a product of the same era of pulp adventure stories which gave the world characters like the Phantom and the Shadow, many of whom were very influential on the first actual comic-book costumed heroes. A mask, a gimmick, and more often than not a sidekick was the formula for this type of character, and the Lone Ranger stories stuck to the formula with great fidelity.

These days, of course, you can’t really do sidekicks, and especially not sidekicks of a non-caucasian ethnic background. Even so, it’s hard to shake the sense that the reason Tonto is promoted to partner and co-lead of the movie is basically because Johnny Depp is playing the part. I suppose it could have been worse – at the time I got the impression that Tonto was actually the main character, a reasonable assumption considering that the Lone Ranger seems in danger of being crowded off his own movie poster by his erstwhile sidekick.

Looking back, I think it was the impression that The Lone Ranger had been rejigged as a star vehicle for Johnny Depp which put me off it: I’m not saying I’ve never enjoyed one of the actor’s performances or movies, but I got tired of the whole quirky-comedy-schtick thing which seems to be his stock-in-trade before the end of the 2000s. (No doubt the actor has bigger issues to worry about these days than the fact I’m not exactly a fan.) Nevertheless, Depp was still a big, bankable star back in 2013, which might lead one to wonder why this movie ended up costing Disney over $200 million.

As so often seems to be the case, the real question is not ‘why did this movie lose $200 million?’ but ‘how is it possible for this movie to expose its makers to that degree of liability?’ – I mean, to lose $200 million means the movie had to cost at least $200 million in the first place (maths isn’t exactly my forte, but the logic here seems sound to me) – and the total production costs for Lone Ranger were apparently closer to $400 million. And why was anyone spending $200 million on a Lone Ranger movie in 2013? It appears to have been a combination of a fumbling attempt to reproduce the success of the Verbinski-Depp Pirates of the Caribbean movies, together with typically risk-averse Hollywood thinking; choosing a title that everybody knows (even if very few people actually care that much about it) rather than taking a chance on something new.

Certainly, as a reasonably-budgeted (say, $130 million) blockbuster this would have done well and probably been a better movie: the version we ended up with certainly looks lavish, and has a couple of enormous set-pieces that Verbinski handles well, but it suffers from a bloated plot and concomitantly extended duration. Furthermore, the film seems to be trying to do all kinds of things, not all of which naturally go well together: the Lone Ranger itself is, obviously, a faintly absurd pulp western premise, but the film seems intent on threading it through a very dark, revisionist and arguably subversive western narrative: the Comanche are the good guys and the US Cavalry the instruments of evil. Then on top of this comes an element of the supernatural, with the suggestion that one of the characters is possessed by an evil spirit, whose presence is disrupting the natural order (there are some carnivorous rabbits at one point, and some very odd behaviour from the Lone Ranger’s horse Silver). And then, of course, they attempt to lighten it all up with the same kind of dead-pan, off-beat comedy that you find in the Pirates movies, together with some whistles and bells with the narrative voice (Tonto is a rather unreliable narrator). It’s a very peculiar concoction.

That said, it’s usually interesting and occasionally funny and even thrilling: the closing sequence, which is of course choreographed to the rousing strains of the last part of the William Tell Overture, is an almost irresistible piece of overblown blockbuster bombast – if the rest of the film had been made to this standard, The Lone Ranger would surely have been a palpable hit. As it is, rather than capping the movie, it just helps to salvage it. This is a shame, because as well as Depp and Hammer (Hammer seems to be one of those actors who has all the essential star attributes except the ability to pick good scripts), there’s an impressive cast here too, even if most of them never need to get out of first gear: Tom Wilkinson, Helena Bonham-Carter, Ruth Wilson, and so on.

But there you go. All the talent in the world isn’t enough to make a great movie if the basic conception of the thing just doesn’t quite hang together, and that’s the case here. The Lone Ranger is by no means a terrible movie, it’s just one that didn’t make enough money. But then it should never have been expected to. That’s Hollywood, I suppose.

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Kornel Mundruczo’s White God, originally released in 2014, opens with a rather lovely aerial shot of a seemingly-deserted city, which I presume is Budapest (this is a Hungarian production). Gradually we become aware of a single moving figure in the great urban expanse – a teenage girl (Zsofia Psotta), riding her bicycle. (There is a trumpet sticking out of her backpack, incongruously enough.)

Questions as to what is going on begin to get an answer very soon, although it is not one of those answers which is particularly helpful: the girl, whom we eventually learn is called Lili, is being chased by dogs. But just one or two dogs. Not even a pack of six or seven or a dozen. Hundreds of dogs of all shapes and sizes are pursuing her through the streets of the apparently empty city.

My default position is to be rather disparaging about films which open with this kind of striking sequence and then jump back to days or weeks earlier to show how we ended up in this situation. With a TV show or a book, where the audience may have come across it by chance and may not be fully committed, fair enough: hook them in. But for a movie? Come on. They’ve already bought their ticket and popcorn and settled in. This kind of tease is surely not necessary.

Except when it’s really well done, of course. The opening of White God (as far as I can tell this is a fridge title, by the way) is certainly well done enough, and, like the rest of the movie, scores impressively high on the ‘well, I’ve never seen anything quite like this before’.

The plot proper begins with Lili’s mother having to go to Australia for her work for three months, obliging Lili to go and live with her cold and distant father, Daniel (Sandor Zsota). This would be awkward enough – Daniel’s flat is so small that the two of them have to share a bedroom – but the situation is exacerbated by the fact that Lili, naturally, insists on bringing her dog Hagen with her (Hagen is played by two other dogs, named Bodie and Luke).

It turns out that the Hungarian government has recently imposed a special tax on non-purebreed dogs (just go with it, I guess), and naturally Hagen is a mongrel. This is the last straw for Daniel, who turns Hagen out of the car on a busy road and drives off.

So far, so very much like a whole load of weepy melodramas about dogs and their young owners – but even up to this point, the film has had a bleak, hard edge to it, suggesting things may take a slightly different path. So it proves, as the narrative splits – one strand follows Lili’s attempts to find Hagen, rebelling against her father and getting into trouble as she does so. This isn’t a barrel of laughs, but it’s still lighter than the travails of Hagen, who is variously hunted and exploited by the human beings he encounters, eventually being sold to a man who trains him to take part in dog-fighting bouts. (There is a degree of grisliness involved, but the film almost goes out of its way to indicate no animals were harmed, etc.) Hagen ends up being grabbed and taken to the pound, but there’s only so much that a dog can take before he snaps…

As readers of long standing will know, I usually avoid lazy ‘this film is like X meets Y’ formulations, but the temptation to describe White God as ‘Lassie meets Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ is irresistible (obviously). Soon enough Hagen is leading a horde of warrior mongrels into the city, intent on a terrible revenge against human civilisation…

Well, as I said: the film does score highly on the ‘not seen this in a movie before’ front, and the storytelling is very well done, considering that quite long stretches of the film feature no dialogue whatsoever. The radical shifts in the narrative – from girl-and-her-dog melodrama, to the bleak and naturalistic mid-section, to the slightly surreal fantasy-horror of the closing stages – are very adroitly handled as well. Nor should one overlook the contribution made by the two lead actors – Zsofia Psotta in particular gives an impressively self-possessed performance.

The truth is, while novelty isn’t everything when it comes to a story, genuine novelty can take you a surprisingly long way. I can understand why the makers of the film decided to open with the flash-forward to the third act: seeing how we get from an ordinary, rather downbeat domestic drama to one of the more surreal movie apocalypses of recent years is the film’s main point of traction.

That said, once the doggie apocalypse gets going, there’s an element of slightly self-conscious weirdness to the film that stops it from being completely successful and immersive as either a drama or a piece of horror – perhaps it’s there all along, albeit as manneredness rather than weirdness. Possibly even the writers and director are aware that suggesting a canine rebellion could put a whole city into lockdown and lead to the army being called out.

Beyond that, I’m also slightly curious as to what the moral premise of the movie is. There’s clearly some kind of subtext about animal rights going on – Daniel appears to be some kind of quality control inspector at an abattoir, and we get to see various scenes showing what goes on there (knives and bone saws are prominent). Clearly, if everyone had been nicer to Hagen from the start, things would have worked out differently – but is the subtext and fundamental message of the film really just ‘be nicer to dogs’? I rather think it might be, in which case we kind of have to conclude that White God is ultimately quite facile.

But, as noted, for all that it may be a slightly odd and simplistic fable, White God is well directed and performed, with sterling work in particular from the animal trainers. It’s certainly worth watching simply for its sheer ‘you what…?’ value.

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Ultraviolet‘s fourth episode is entitled Mea Culpa, which would probably qualify as another fridge episode-name – were it not for the fact that there was a movie a few years ago entitled Mea Maxima Culpa, which it shares a few thematic elements with. The thing about this episode is that it really is trying very hard to be a proper serious drama for adults, rather than a campy bit of genre-based fun. This is always true of Ultraviolet, of course, but perhaps on this occasion they go over the top in the whole dour-and-gritty department.

The story opens at a school where a priest attempts to speak to a boy in his early teens named Gary (Robert Stuart). The lad is reluctant to speak to the older man, and when the priest refuses to take no for an answer, stabs him repeatedly with a craft knife. The priest dies of his injuries, Gary goes on the run. For some reason – and the episode really fudges this a bit too much – the inquisition are called in, as such a savage assault on a religious figure might be connected to the opposition’s activities. Even Mike is openly dubious of their getting involved in what looks like a job for the conventional police.

However, inquiries at the school reveal a suspicious degree of heliophobia amongst the boys, and Angie discovers they show a marked aversion to religious artifacts as well. Mike still thinks this might be symptomatic of something like meningitis, with the aversion to religion more closely linked to the dead man in particular. There’s also the question of how all the boys managed to pick up a Code Five infection given there’s no sign any of them have been bitten.

Meanwhile, Gary is in hiding in the local park, where he encounters a man named Colin (Rupert Procter). Here the episode starts heading into what seems to me to be quite dodgy territory: Colin is presented as pretty much the stereotype of the seedy gay man, cruising public lavatories, and so on. Anyway, Colin takes Gary back to his place, but before anything else can occur, Gary is attacked by Colin’s dog and badly injured. Colin dumps Gary at the local hospital and runs for it. Mike, on the other hand, who’s become rather appalled by the draconian measures employed by the team when there’s very little evidence of opposition involvement (all the children have been brought in for testing), has discovered evidence that the priest who was murdered was a paedophile.

(Round about this point, the A-plot is gently paused and we catch up on what’s going on with Kirsty and the journalist she has teamed up with – he has been digging a bit too deeply and got himself turned by the opposition – and Pearse and his mysterious ailment. Angie’s diagnosis is lymphoma, which is not good news for the team’s top man.)

Everything changes when it turns out that Gary indeed has a form of meningitis – but one which has been engineered to carry a version of Code Five infection, rendering the carrier heliophobic, hostile to religious symbols, and highly suggestible (by the opposition, anyway). This same virus is spreading through the school. The spectre of an epidemic of a disease which could render huge swathes of the population vulnerable to control by the opposition qualifies as a nightmare scenario for the team, but where has it come from?

Well, Vaughan and Mike track down Colin, and Vaughan – in a display of barely disguised homophobia – proceeds to beat the information they need out of him, while Mike looks on uncomfortably. Gary, Colin reveals, showed signs of having been groomed before, but not by the priest. All the evidence points to a man named Oliver – a recluse suffering from a genetic condition called xenoderma pigmentosum, which means he can never leave his home during daylight…

Vaughan Rice conducts an interrogation.

In many ways, this episode shares all the strengths of the rest of the series: it’s slick, well-played, and cleverly plotted with an inventive new take on the traditional lore (it turns out the opposition are indeed experimenting with producing mass infections without having to bite everyone individually, but one of their test subjects is refusing to socially distance himself). There are a couple of places where the plotting could be tighter, but this is only a minor concern. My issue with it is really that it just seems to be in rather dubious taste.

I’m not saying that paedophilia – even paedophilia involving the Catholic Church – is something that should be off-limits for drama. But if you’re going to use it as a plot element in a fantasy drama – and, when it comes down to it, Ultraviolet is ultimately a fantasy drama, an entertainment – you need to be justified in doing so. The problem is that the story doesn’t contain a metaphor for child abuse, or anything similar. It just seems to be there because including it makes the series look properly grown-up and dark.

I’m not sure this is enough, and there are other ways in which the episode doesn’t really distinguish itself in handling its subject matter: Colin, in particular, is a homophobic stereotype, and I don’t think the episode does anything like enough to clarify that not all gay men are paedophiles. The scene where Colin is beaten into helping the team is uncomfortable to watch – it really does add to the impression that the team are not terribly nice people. On the other hand, this may have been intentional: the suggestion seems to be that what they’ve all been through has left them damaged and callous. What new-recruit Mike’s excuse is, is another matter: Jack Davenport is always reasonably watchable, but Mike often comes across as glum and a bit moody. He certainly doesn’t seem to be enjoying the new job, referring to Pearse as the witchfinder-general and openly questioning his judgement. He’s even upset when he’s let off after accidentally shooting someone he thought was one of the opposition – Vaughan Rice, on the other hand, is more worried by the fact that Mike put two bullets into the guy and still managed to miss the heart.

As I said, this is a strong episode in lots of ways, sharing all the series’ usual virtues. But the nature of the story and the tone of it both leave me uneasy, despite all of that. It feels exploitative of real-world issues in a way that the previous episode wasn’t – and quite crassly exploitative, too. Worth watching, nevertheless, if only because the ongoing story elements do move on somewhat in the course of it – but I do think it’s problematic in many ways.

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