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Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

It’s the time of year when cinemas are usually packed to overflowing with happy crowds settling down to watch epic sword-swinging fantasy adventures with a distinctly Japanese influence. This sort of thing is a licence to print money, apparently, and so I was somewhat surprised to find myself entirely alone in a theatre watching Takashi Miike’s Blade of the Immortal, which is surely the highest-profile film currently fitting that description.

(Well, not entirely alone, as I had taken along my Japanese cultural advisor, who is currently interning on this blog’s staff. Probably just as well she’s not actually on the payroll, as her contributions to the evening mainly consisted of shouting ‘This is ridiculous!’ at regular intervals and claiming that Ken Watanabe is in Blade of the Immortal when he is truth completely absent from proceedings. But I digress.)

Although it is actually based on a manga by Hiroaki Samura, Blade of the Immortal clearly owes rather a lot to the long tradition of Japanese samurai movies, rather in the same vein as Miike’s 2010 film Thirteen Assassins. And if I say that this is a vein which has most likely been recently slashed open and is currently spraying blood everywhere, you may get an inkling of the general tone and content of the new movie.

Hana Sugisaka plays Rin, the plucky daughter of Asano, a noted fencing teacher, in Shogunate-period Japan. However, her parents are killed by Anotsu (Sota Fukushi), leader of the ruthlessly ambitious Ikko-ryu society. Being a dutiful daughter, she swears vengeance on Anotsu and his men, which is a fairly big thing to take on given they are all highly-trained killers and she is only a teenage girl. She encounters the ancient crone Yaobikuni, who advises her to hire a bodyguard, and recommends a man in the area who, she is told, will never die…

This turns out to be Manji (J-pop idol Takuya Kimura), once a noble samurai warrior, now an aimless drifter, thanks to having life-preserving ‘bloodworms’ implanted in him by Yaobikuni fifty years earlier. In addition to stopping him from ageing, the worms also give him the kind of regenerative powers only usually possessed by Hugh Jackman. Tired of his eternal existence and deeply cynical about the world, can Rin persuade Manji to help her in her quest for vengeance? And can even Manji’s supernatural combat prowess help them overcome the many enemies standing in their way?

Well, Blade of the Immortal may not be the biggest or most original movie of the year, but it’s in with a very good chance of being the most extravagantly violent. This is made very clear from the absolute start of the film – the very first sound you hear is that of a sword going through someone, and this is followed by a lengthy sequence in which Manji slaughters a vast mob of deserving opponents, getting royally carved up and losing an eye and an arm in the process (the subtitles helpfully provide ‘Ouch’ at this point).

As I say, it sets the tone, and much of the rest of the film consists of either intricately-choregraphed duels between Manji and the various elite swordsmen of the Ikko-ryu (conveniently, their code of honour means they refuse to all gang up on him), or equally intricately-choreographed massed battles in which Manji and one or two other characters take on literal armies single-handed (the enemy commander is a little slow off the mark, waiting for the first two or three hundred guys to be hacked down before bringing up the muskets). If you’re looking for a film which tension in the climactic duel partly comes from wondering whether anyone involved will be able to keep their footing in the lake of gore where it’s taking place, Blade of the Immortal is the one for you.

There is actually quite a clever and inventive script in the middle of all this, which does all sorts of interesting things – there are some musings as to the meaning of existence, a meditation on the futility of revenge, and the way in which the relationship between Manji and Rin is developed is also impeccable. The various references to classic Japanese action movies are also nicely done – it almost goes without saying that Kimura is giving us his take on the classic Toshiro Mifune ‘scruffy samurai’ character. However, I have to say that all this is just really very high quality dressing on a film which is primarily about people trying to chop each other up with swords, axes, pole-arms, knives on chains, and so on, and so on.

And I can’t help thinking that, as such, there’s a fundamental problem with the film: it’s established early on that Manji is almost literally invincible, due to his immortality, and the question is one of how you make the film interesting and dramatically viable when your main protagonist can only ever be inconvenienced, not actually threatened. The film has a decent go at tackling this, including various grotesque fighters with supernatural abilities of their own amongst the Ikko-ryu, and this makes things interesting for a bit – there’s a battle between Manji and another immortal which is more like an update on the sequence with the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail than anything from Highlander – but I’m not sure they ever quite solve the problem.

In the end, I did enjoy Blade of the Immortal, even though it is much more thoroughly absurd and superficial than any of the Kurosawa movies which it clearly owes a debt to. But I enjoyed it much more as a spectacle, for its lavish and extravagant bizarreness and violence, than as an actual drama or action movie. It is well-made, well-directed, mostly well-acted and a lot of fun to watch – but, it would appear, just a little bit too way out there for the more refined audiences in my neck of the woods. Fair enough: this is one of those movies that will either be your cup of tea or it won’t, but if it is, you’re going to have a really good time with it.

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I must confess that my fondness for the Phoenix, my local art-house cinema, has taken the odd knock over the last few years, mainly because with each new refurbishment (there have been several) it seems to have become more and more bland and corporate and just a little bit less charming. Admittedly, the complete rebuild of the smaller theatre is a vast improvement, but then the big one has also been totally redone and it didn’t really need it. Hey ho; that’s progress, I guess. One reason to still love the place is its habit (on the verge of becoming a tradition) of digging out a classic fantasy or horror movie to inaugurate the start of every Christmas season. Last year it was the wonderfully nasty Blood on Satan’s Claw, and this year it was Neil Jordan’s 1984 film The Company of Wolves, based on a story by Angela Carter.

Looking at this film now inevitably takes one back to a lost age of the British film industry, a time when companies like ITC were cranking out movies like Hawk the Slayer and The Dark Crystal on a fairly regular basis, while the hip young gunslingers at Palace Pictures, who started out by distributing art house movies from abroad, were chancing their arm with projects like Mona Lisa and and Absolute Beginners. The Company of Wolves is an ITC-Palace production, of course.

This is one of those movies which it is rather difficult to give a capsule synopsis for, but let’s have a go anyway. The story opens in what appears to be the real world, with a well-off couple (David Warner and Tusse Silberg) returning home to their rather expansive country home and their two daughters. The elder (Georgia Slowe) is packed off to rouse the younger (Sarah Patterson) from her attic bedroom, but it quickly becomes apparent that there is tension between the sisters. The younger girl continues to sleep, and suddenly the atmosphere darkens, the vista beyond her window becoming that of a dark, fairytale world.

She dreams of her sister becoming lost in the woods, initially encountering giant sized, animated toys, and then – as the forest itself becomes more grotesque and fantastical – a pack of wolves, which pursue and set upon her (this is still a very creepy and effective sequence three decades later). But the dream continues, and makes up the rest of the movie, as she herself appears as a young girl named Rosaleen, along with her parents, and her grandmother (Angela Lansbury, back in the days when she was much less controversial).

What follows is a kind of adult fairytale, very loosely following the plot of Little Red Riding Hood, but with many discursions and embellishments along the way. Quite apart from the main plot (which concerns a wolf menacing the village, and also, not to put too fine a point on it, Rosaleen’s incipient sexual awakening), there are a number of shorter stories woven into the film, usually as tales told by either the grandmother or Rosaleen herself, most of them taking a lupine bent – for example, a young woman marries a ‘travelling man’ (Stephen Rea), who disappears on their wedding night while answering, ha ha, the call of nature (there is a full moon), while a village girl dishonoured by a local aristocrat turns up at his wedding party to exact a startling revenge on the degenerate nobility there. Most of these are not much more than vignettes – one of them, featuring an uncredited Terence Stamp as the Devil, materialising in a white Rolls Royce, is very short indeed – and all of them are rather impressionistic and allusive.

Then again, this is the sort of film where everything seems to allude to something else. There are layers of meaning heaped upon each other as the film goes on, and in a rather ostentatious way. This is not the sort of film where the allusions and symbolism contribute another layer of meaning to the story – this is the sort of film which makes virtually no sense unless you accept that it is intended as a kind of coded parable, to be interpreted as such. At one point Rosaleen, hiding in the forest from an amorous boy, climbs a tree to discover a stork’s nest full of eggs. The eggs all spontaneously hatch out into tiny homunculi. On the face of it this is just weird, but it is clearly a moment of deep importance.

So, to coin a phrase, what is The Company of Wolves really all about? Well, for all that it occasionally resembles a rather superior Hammer horror pastiche, made with 1980s production values, I don’t think I would call this an actual horror movie as such – though, as mentioned, there are plenty of unsettling sequences, gory moments, and bits you wouldn’t necessarily want to show your own granny. It is clearly framed as a combination of fairy story and folktale (hence this revival, as part of a season of films in that kind of vein), and as for its central theme…

Well, to begin with, the stories all have a cautionary bent – not quite Beware of the Dog, but certainly Beware of the Wolf – the wolf in question often having something to do with aggressive male sexuality (I have an essay on the topic of lycanthropy as a metaphor for toxic masculinity in a book coming out next year, but what do you know, The Company of Wolves was there decades ago). All men are beasts, especially ones whose eyebrows meet in the middle (and this film was made years before the Gallagher brothers became famous).  The thing is, though, that as the film progresses, it becomes quite clear that everyone’s a little bit lupine occasionally – it doesn’t shy away from accepting the existence of female desire, nor is it treated as something wrong or shameful.

I suspect that one of the reasons the film remains so oblique and obscure in its meaning is because the structure established at the beginning is never really resolved. Normally, when a film opens in the ‘normal world’ and then moves to a dream reality, the conclusion sees the main character waking up and putting the lessons they have learned from the dream into reality – the classic example being, of course, The Wizard of Oz. This does not happen here: the end of the film sees a pack of wolves breaking through the walls of the dream, into the bedroom where the ‘real’ Rosaleen is still sleeping, but then abruptly concludes on an unresolved note of menace. I was not surprised to hear a group of people a couple of rows behind me discussing the film and admitting that they had no idea what the frame story was supposed to mean.

Nevertheless, this is a handsomely mounted and atmospherically directed film, even if the fairy-tale forest is fairly obviously a soundstage somewhere in Shepperton. There is also an undeniable pleasure in seeing people who are undeniably proper star actors (Lansbury, Warner, Rea) rub shoulders with folk you’d more normally see on the telly – Brian Glover is in it (his second British-made werewolf movie of the decade), so is Graham Crowden, so is Jim Carter (uncredited). Sarah Patterson, on the other hand, is so good in what was her movie debut that it’s genuinely surprising she didn’t go on to have a much bigger career. For what was a fairly low-budget movie even in 1984, it looks rather good, although some of the special effects – I’m thinking here particularly of the flayed werewolf transformation – have not aged particularly well.

I have to say I didn’t enjoy seeing The Company of Wolves again quite as much as I did The Blood on Satan’s Claw last year, but that’s probably because the latter is a (no pun intended) full-blooded supernatural horror movie, while the former uses some of the trappings of the genre to explore its own areas of concern. While the results are thought-provoking, it’s also a film where the narrative is there to service the author’s ideas and message. As a result it’s a film which is clearly at least as interested in making you think as it is in entertaining you – not that there isn’t a lot here to entertain, anyway. If nothing else, it’s a reminder of a time when British films were not afraid to be properly ambitious, experimental and imaginative.

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Many questions could reasonably be asked of the film we will shortly be considering, namely Justice League. Given the generally lousy track record of DC movies over the last few years, will it destroy all the precious momentum generated by Wonder Woman and torpedo that movie’s chance of a genuine Oscar run? Why is all the publicity material treating the presence of Superman in this movie as some kind of well-hidden surprise, considering that Henry Cavill (who plays the Kryptonian on the big screen these days) is second-billed in the cast list? Just how much influence did Joss Whedon exert over this film, given that Zach Snyder retains the sole directorial credit? Why, given Snyder’s take on the DC mythology strains so hard to be dark and edgy and ‘realistic’, have they gone with a title as corny-sounding as Justice League in the first place? And why, given it contains a whole bunch of popular and iconic characters, are so many people approaching this movie with a general feeling of ‘Please don’t let it be as bad as I’m afraid of’?

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Hey ho. With Superman still dead (I really don’t think this counts as a spoiler any more), planet Earth has been thrown into something of a state of trauma. Batman (Ben Affleck), however, fears that worse is yet to come, especially when he encounters an alien scout on the prowl in Gotham City, and this impels him to step up his attempts to find more gifted individuals to protect the planet. Chivvying him along in this, somewhat, is Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). On their list of people to see are the Flash (Ezra Miller), who can run at close to the speed of light, Cyborg (Ray Fisher), who is, um, a cyborg, and Aquaman (Jason Momoa). (Just why, in the context of the film, Batman is so keen to recruit someone whose only powers appear to be the ability to swim really fast and an impressive skill at fishing is not really explained.)

Anyway, things get urgent with the ‘awakening’ of an otherworldly cube, immediately followed by the arrival of a dangerous alien warrior in unusual headgear. (At this point I was wondering if Joss Whedon had done any actual work on this movie to earn his writer’s credit, or whether it was just there to acknowledge how much of his script for The Avengers was being ripped off here.) The newcomer is Steppenwolf, voiced by Ciaran Hinds, who has come in search of a set of plot coupons that will allow him to recreate Earth in the image of his apocalyptic homeworld. Can our disparate bunch of heroes unite to stop him?

All right, so there are (as usual) some baffling creative decisions on display here – not the least of which is the decision to keep Superman’s presence in the film out of all the publicity. And there are some aspects of the plot which just plain don’t make any sense whatsoever. That said, I can only assume the decision not to give Whedon a full co-director’s credit must be down to some complicated technical criterion, for his influence on the movie is clear. Apparently one of his decisions was to cut the thing down from nearly three hours to only two; once, the temptation would have been to say he’d only gone a third of the way to fixing this movie, but no longer, for this is a big improvement on Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, even if it doesn’t match the standard of Wonder Woman.

Full disclosure time: I’m probably more a fan of the DC characters and mythology than Marvel’s universe (not that it wouldn’t be a close-run thing if I were forced to choose). So there’s a sense in which I’m absolutely the target audience for this movie, at least inasmuch as I know who all the characters are, not to mention the associated mythology. It does occur to me that anyone new to this might find all the casual talk of Atlantis and Parademons and the Speed Force and Mother Boxes to be utterly baffling; I don’t know how good a job they do of keeping the film accessible.

On the other hand, I’m also not the easiest person to please. This movie clearly owes a debt to the rebooting of the Justice League by Geoff Johns from a few years back, not least in the way it attempts to incorporate Cyborg as a core member of the team. I am of the generation for whom this guy is a member of the Titans, not the League, and the absence from the film’s version of the team of any Green Lantern, not to mention the Martian Manhunter, is inevitably a disappointment – although there is a tiny cameo by a Lantern at one point. (Shame they didn’t draw much more from the Morrison-Porter incarnation of the group, but then Johns is producing the movie.)

We’re still in a slightly odd world where Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman, and even the Justice League itself are barely referred to by those names at all (just not credible enough, I guess), but nevertheless the film works very hard to include lots of crowd-pleasing moments to satisfy both casual viewers and the die-hard faithful – from the Flash’s look of panic at the unprecedented realisation that a hostile, amnesiac Superman can actually see him coming, to the decision to incorporate classic elements of the soundtracks of the 1978 Superman and the 1989 Batman into this film’s score.

This is not to say this is a great film, simply one which has its moments. Again and again you realise that this is a film stuffed with charismatic performers who just aren’t being given the material they need to really shine. You never get that sense of the characters coming together as the iconic team they are; they just sort of bump into and hang around with each other. Going with an all-CGI villain like Steppenwolf is arguably a serious mistake. And there’s a point in the second act at which the plot goes off on a frankly bizarre and very wrong-feeling tangent, which the film really has to work hard to recover from.

Still – and bear in mind that, as I say, I’m inclined to be generous here – this is still quite watchable stuff, with all the various quips and one-liners (courtesy of Whedon, one presumes) making up for the tendency towards CGI-slathered heavy metal gloom (courtesy of Snyder, one is quite sure). I still think DC and Warner Brothers have a lot of work to do to turn this into a viable long-term franchise of the mighty Marvel kind, but – and in the context this really isn’t the faint praise it sounds like – on the whole, the thing to bear in mind is that Justice League could really have been much, much worse.

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Chris Hemsworth is in the odd position of being one of those people who can command a huge salary, get his name in big letters on a movie poster, and sit on top of a massive opening box-office weekend, and yet he’s not really what you’d call a proper movie star: people don’t go and see a Chris Hemsworth movie, they go and see Thor movies, and it’s just Hemsworth’s good fortune that he’s the guy who gets to play Thor at the moment. Once he steps away from the magic circle of the Marvel Studios franchise – well, it’s not as if he doesn’t make any other movies, and it’s not as if they don’t make money (although he has notched up a couple of significant bombs), nor is it the case that he is routinely bad in them, but they tend not to make the same kind of impression, no matter their quality. For the time being I’m sure this isn’t a major issue for the big lad, but he surely can’t carry on playing Thor forever, and what is he going to do then? (To be fair, this isn’t problem isn’t limited to Hemsworth, as a number of Marvel’s other big names also seem to struggle to find success in other roles.)

Anyway, Hemsworth is back giving us his God of Thunder once again, in Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, umpteenth entry in the all-conquering Marvel Studios megafranchise. This is their third release of 2017, but – as you might expect by this point – they make it all look very easy indeed.

Things get under way with a rather busy and somewhat convoluted opening section, but this is surely forgivable given that it allows for a brief appearance by Cumbersome Bandersnatch as Dr Strange, and an uncredited cameo from an extremely game Major Movie Star, all played very much for laughs. (To be honest, the vast majority of the movie is essentially played for laughs on some level or other, so we can take that as read from this point on.)

Well, basically, the machinations of Thor’s devious adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) bring about the return of the banished Asgardian Goddess of Death, Hela (Cate Blanchett), who is intent on seizing the throne for herself and reinventing Asgard as an aggressively imperial force in the universe. Thor and Loki take exception to this plan, but in the course of their tussle with Hela and her eye-catching headwear, find themselves dumped far from home on the junkheap planet Sakaar.

While Hela tightens her grip on Asgard with the help of Skurge (Karl Urban), an unscrupulous warrior, the brothers have to survive on this new alien world, which is ruled by the alien Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), who is part despotic emperor, part superstar DJ. Thor is nabbed by the slightly boozy Asgardian renegade Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and consigned to the gladiatorial pits where he must battle to survive. Bereft of his magic hammer and his flowing locks, can Thor still summon up enough of his mojo to escape and save the universe…?

I think it is fair to say that not many people would rate the first two Thor movies amongst the top flight of the Marvel series – it’s not that they’re actually bad, but they are slightly ponderous in a way that most of the studio’s other films are not. Clearly the people at the top of Marvel feel the same way, for there has obviously been a rethink and a bit of a retooling of Thor and his particular corner of the universe, perhaps somewhat influenced by Chris Hemsworth’s very effective comic turn in the All-Female Ghostbusters Reboot. Everything is much more laid back and comedic than it was in the first two films; Thor is positively chatty much of the time, and there are sight gags and pratfalls aplenty.

Marvel savants will already be aware that, in an attempt to add something new to the formula this time round, the writers of Ragnarok have borrowed a few elements from the Planet Hulk storyline (which ran in the comics over ten years ago). Presumably this is one reason why the Hulk himself has a major role in the story (he is played by Mark Ruffalo, as usual) – although in terms of the actual plot, Thor is in the Hulk role, while the Hulk is in the position originally occupied by the Silver Surfer (who, needless to say, isn’t in the film). As I say, it’s only a superficial take on Planet Hulk, but putting Thor and the Hulk in outer space together does open up some new possibilities.

If nothing else, it does allow the movie to move away from some of the more limiting elements of the previous movies – Anthony Hopkins has a much-reduced role, as do several other established characters. Natalie Portman isn’t in it at all, and for a while it also looks like Idris Elba’s voluble complaints about working for Marvel (‘This is torture, I don’t want to do this’) have earned him the sack – but he’s dragged back in front of the green screen before too much time has elapsed. In their place, Cate Blanchett is clearly having a whale of a time as an extremely camp villainess, closely followed by Goldblum. One of the film’s most quietly impressive features is Karl Urban’s performance as Skurge the Executioner – Urban takes a third-string Marvel villain and manages to turn him into someone who actually has a bit of a character arc in the course of the story.

It’s one of the few elements of the film which takes itself (mostly) seriously, for the sense I get from Ragnarok is that Marvel’s main directive to Waititi was ‘Make it more Guardians of the Galaxy-y’. The playlist this time is more prog rock and disco, but the quotient of spaceships, ray guns, monsters, and cosmic nonsense is certainly much closer to a James Gunn movie than one by Kenneth Branagh. And, you know, it’s all good fun, crowd-pleasing stuff, unless you happen to think that films about wisecracking alien gods and big green gamma monsters are actually the stuff of heavy drama and should be taken terribly, terribly seriously.

On the other hand, I have generally been impressed by the way Marvel have negotiated the ‘too silly-too serious’ tightrope in the past, but all three of the films they’ve released this year have arguably been primarily comedic in tone. It’s certainly worked for them, but I’m not sure it’s sustainable – on the other hand, the next film off the conveyor belt, Black Panther, looks like it will be more down to earth in most respects. Normally at this point one would say ‘this could be a challenging change of tone, it’ll be interesting to see if Marvel manage it’, but seventeen films into the series it certainly seems like Marvel’s main challenge will be to keep finding new challenges for themselves. Thor: Ragnarok is not the greatest Marvel movie ever, but certainly not the worst: it moves the story along in interesting and unexpected ways, and you’re never more than a few minutes away from a genuinely good gag or some well-executed crash-bang-wallop, or both. A very safe bet for a good time.

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The business of proper big-screen revivals of classic movies can be a funny old thing sometimes. It’s quite normal for the two slightly art-housey cinemas in my area to regularly show something like The Graduate or West Side Story of a Sunday afternoon, the main selection criterion seeming to be that the film is just old and good. In terms of an old movie getting a more general showing, well, having a major anniversary certainly seems to help. Even so, things are often not quite as one would expect: if you’d asked me which blockbuster Hugo-nominated fantasy film would be getting a spruced-up revival for its fortieth birthday in 2017, my first guess would not have been Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

(Then again – and I hope you will forgive the digression – there is always something slightly nostalgic about a revival, and I get the impression that nostalgia is only allowed near the stellar conflict franchise nowadays under strictly controlled conditions. To do otherwise might end up suggesting that there was something genuinely magical and innovative about those first couple of films, while the current sequence are just machine-tooled product. Other opinions are, of course, available.)

Close Encounters, directed and (in theory – many hands were involved) written by Steven Spielberg, is one of those movies which has shifted into the cultural background somewhat over the years, no doubt as a result of its ideas, themes, and images being so extensively reworked in other venues. Long before seeing the actual movie, I remember watching the parody of it on The Goodies (Bill Oddie, in a Superman costume, playing a trombone duet with an alien spacecraft), and not being at all confused by the various references. Hard to imagine The X-Files without Close Encounters; impossible to imagine E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial at all, for obvious reasons.

The film opens on a black screen, over which an unsettling wail of white noise rises, before a smash cut to the heart of a sandstorm. One group of the film’s protagonists emerges from this: Lacombe (Francois Truffaut), a French scientist, who meets a group of American colleagues. Together they make a disturbing discovery: a flight of torpedo-bombers has been deposited in the Mexican desert. The planes seem to be a squadron that disappeared off the coast of Florida in 1945, but they appear to be brand new, as though thirty years has not happened. A witness speaks of the sun rising in the middle of the night and singing.

More strange phenomena occur over Indiana: strange lights in the sky are reported by airline pilots. A blackout spreads across the countryside. Electrical engineer Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) leaves the domestic chaos of his home in an attempt to track down the source of the power cut – he is an ordinary guy, a little harassed, but generally happy in his life. Then something happens to him on a lonely country road in the middle of the night that changes everything. He encounters a UFO, which wreaks havoc with his truck and gives him severe sunburn before heading off. Neary goes in pursuit, encountering others who have had similar experiences. Amongst these are Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) and her infant son, who were visited in their home by an unseen presence. A flight of several UFOs swoops by, hotly pursued by the cops. Neary’s world has been transformed.

From here the movie follows both Lacombe and Neary. Lacombe is a scientist, following a trail of evidence: long-since-disappeared ships return, in rather improbable locations. From India there come reports of strange noises from the sky. Signals are received from deep space, providing map co-ordinates. Government preparations are made. Something is coming to Earth.

Meanwhile, Roy and the other eye-witnesses are struggling to make sense of their own experiences. They find themselves compelled to draw or sculpt a particular mountain. A particular five-note sequence of music has mysteriously lodged itself in their brains. Roy’s newfound obsessions cost him his job, and eventually drive his family away. He is irresistibly drawn to the mountain from his dream – as Lacombe observes, Roy has been invited to a very special occasion…

Close Encounters is part of that sequence of early movies which established Spielberg as probably the most famous and financially successful director in the world – Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T.. (Rather more obscure is his 1979 knockabout comedy film 1941, which was less successful but which I find very hard to dislike. Apparently the experience burned Spielberg when it came to doing pure comedy, which is a shame, as legend has it his next project was going to be, almost unbelievably, a big-screen blockbuster movie version of The Goodies. Strange how all these things link up together in different combinations.) Of all of them, Close Encounters is the one which has slipped furthest from the public consciousness, perhaps in part because it hasn’t been sequelised or exploited to death, and also because it has to some extent been eclipsed by E.T..

The similarities between the two are obvious – the relationship between Neary and Lacombe clearly parallels that of Elliot and Keys in the latter film, which had its earliest origins as a Close Encounters follow-up – but it seems to me that Close Encounters is a rather subtler and more thoughtful film, in addition to being less sentimental and cutesy. It feels much more of a piece with other films being made in America in the mid-to-late 1970s, when the country was still trying to process the tarnishing of the government in the Watergate affair and the implications of the conclusion of the Vietnam War. People were looking for something that would allow them a chance to escape, and perhaps even give them something to believe in, and it seems significant to me that so many of these late 70s and early 80s films conclude with an explicit act of faith on the part of the protagonist – switching off a targeting computer and relying on instinct, or averting their eyes from the wrath of God. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is perhaps the fullest realisation of this theme of all of these films, for it is surely primarily about the finding and following of faith.

I find it now a little ironic that my parents are fond of declaring that E.T. is actually some form of Christian allegory (they said the same about the first stellar conflict movie for a while, if memory serves) – for one thing, Spielberg is not exactly noted for his Christian background. But Close Encounters does have that spine-tingling sense of human beings coming into contact with the deeper mysteries of the universe, and so often the imagery used is religious: there are signs and portents in the sky. A ship appears, ark-like, in the middle of dry land. When John Williams’ famous five-note motif first appears, it is as a mantra, endlessly chanted by what appears to be a choir of Indian mystics. At one point Roy Neary demands of the sky what all of this means.

Neary’s story itself practically qualifies as a conversion narrative: he’s an Everyman, transformed into a true believer by a chance encounter. From this moment on he finds he has no other choice than to follow his new faith, despite the efforts of friends and the authorities to dissuade or convince him otherwise. He loses his job, and his wife and family leave him too (the movie is perhaps a little hard on Neary’s wife, played by Teri Garr). But he presses on, makes his pilgrimage, and in the end it appears to be him, the true believer, who is chosen ahead of all the government-approved candidates to be taken up into the heavens by otherworldly forces. (The sensation is presumably one of pure rapture.) Spielberg has said that he now finds it unimaginable that Neary could abandon his children and go off into space, but in the context of the movie, and given its theme, it would feel very strange if he didn’t: the movie is about shedding those kinds of Earthly connections in favour of the spiritual kind.

That said, it’s not a cosy or sentimental spirituality: Close Encounters‘ aliens may be otherworldly, but they are also enigmatic and strange, and often frightening as a result – the visitation of alien forces on Jillian in her home is a genuinely frightening sequence, rather at odds with the rest of the movie. (Almost enough to make one regret the fact that Spielberg hasn’t really directed a horror movie since Jaws; one imagines it would be utterly terrifying.) There is a real sense of the unknown and perhaps unknowable touching life on Earth.

Perhaps this is rather odd material for an SF movie, then: but then I suppose this is a case of a film being declared SF simply because it isn’t obviously anything else, and besides, it has aliens in it. (It’s noteworthy how rare in-the-flesh aliens are in ‘serious’ SF movies prior to 1977, also this movie’s role in creating the assumption of friendly alien life which would persist until Independence Day once again inverted the stereotype.) Science fiction and ufology are distant cousins, I suppose, but no more than that, simply because ufology is only marginally science (it’s still more respectable than Bermuda Triangle lore, which is also touched on in this movie). While there’s obviously something going on with the UFO phenomenon, I doubt it admits to a single, simple solution, and not the one suggested by Spielberg here – but as I’ve suggested, the UFO element of the story is simply a metaphor that allows Spielberg to talk about something else. (Slightly ironic, then, that the 40th anniversary showing I attended was followed by a serious talk by a couple of university professors about the prospects of intelligent life in the universe and our chances of communicating with it.)

Spielberg’s casual mastery of cinema is already well-developed in this movie, which includes several of his most memorable bits of legerdemain – the moment where the lights in Neary’s rear-view reveal themselves to be not headlights, but something rather more exotic, for one, and the one where a TV set in the foreground flashes up an image replicating the vast sculpture dominating the room behind it, for another. He also manages to keep a film which could easily have become a bit airy and earnest grounded and accessible, inserting many bits of humour and action. Not that he gets everything completely right – quite apart from the handling of Mrs Neary, one is struck by the sheer number of people (virtually all men) at the Devil’s Tower arena who seem to have nothing to do but stand around looking on in awe: spectacle trumps logic here, I suppose. Fairly prominent in the crowd is a young Lance Henriksen – there’s a guy with an interesting CV – and also J Allen Hynek, the formulator of the ‘close encounters’ scale (which never gets elaborated upon in the actual movie, oddly enough).

The late 1970s and early 1980s have left us with a lot of significant SF and fantasy movies, not all of which get the attention they deserve. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is probably the least action-adventure oriented of all of them, and the least escapist (as escapism is generally understood, anyway). It’s also much more obviously a film about personal themes, but one which handles them in a very accessible way. That it manages all this while still looking very much like a modern special-effects blockbuster is by no means the least of its achievements. Probably not Steven Spielberg’s best film, perhaps not even the best of his early films – but still a significant one, and worth remembering. Good to see it back on the big screen.

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I don’t want to appear to be misjudging the situation, because I suspect that at least one friend of mine already believes that I am biased when it comes to the great opposition of our day – but I have to say that all the omens for Justice League do not lead me to be optimistic. Even a friend and colleague, who is one of the very, very few people I know who actually enjoyed Batman Vs Superman, declared ‘That looks awful’ when we saw the trailer for the new movie on our last cinema trip.

What comfort can one offer to DC at moments like this, except to say that the great wheel turns, even if it sometimes turns slowly. Back in the 70s and 80s it was DC who made successful movies and TV shows, while Marvel languished in the netherworld of trash TV, for the most part. (As recently as the mid-2000s, Marvel were still turning out the likes of the Thomas Jane version of The Punisher and the big-screen Man-Thing.) So you never know.

American trash TV from the 1980s is not normally in my wheelhouse, but I will make an exception for the 1988 TV movie The Incredible Hulk Returns. This is partly because this movie is a curious addendum to the Kenneth Johnson-produced Hulk TV show, which is very much not trash TV and a classy piece of work, but also because of the curious way it prefigures exactly the sort of thing with which Marvel Studios have scored such a massive success over the last decade or so. (Kenneth Johnson was not invited back for the Hulk TV movies, towards which he has a rather dismissive attitude.)

To start off with The Incredible Hulk Returns works very hard not to disappoint fans of the original TV show, reusing elements of the original title sequence (although the lettering and so on is now a lurid gamma-green shade). Presumably this is because retained as the writer and director of this opus was Nicholas Corea, a prolific contributor to the series.

Anyway: years have passed since the end of the show. It has been two full years since Banner (Bill Bixby, of course) even turned into the Hulk (Lou Ferrigno, of course). Adopting a typically impenetrable false identity (currently David Banner is living under the name of David Bannion), our man is working as a technician at an LA-based research institute, where in return for using his scientific genius to build the ‘Gamma Transponder’, a potential source of cheap, clean energy (I really should pen a paper on the history of this trope in superhero movies), he is allowed unfettered access to the labs in the evening, no questions asked. The Gamma Transponder has a second function, of course, which is to dehulkify Banner and let him move in with his lovely and predictably understanding lady friend.

All is set, but Banner’s dehulkification is delayed by the appearance of a figure from Banner’s pre-irradiated days, an old acquaintance named Don Blake (Steve Levitt). Blake is a medical doctor and a somewhat hapless, disreputable figure, and he has a strange tale to tell (perhaps even one of a journey into mystery, but let’s not overdo it). As a life-long fan of all things Viking, Blake jumped at the chance to be expedition doctor on an archaeological trip into the wilds of Scandinavia (was Scandinavia really that wild, even in 1988?), where he discovered an ancient Viking tomb. As any archaeologist would, Blake relates, he broke into the tomb and found a pile of bones and a mysterious war-hammer. No sooner did he pick up the hammer than a mighty Norse warrior appeared out of thin air, calling himself the mighty Thor…

Yeah, we should probably just clarify what’s going on here. ‘Don Blake’ was Thor’s Clark Kent-ish alter ego in the early years of the comic, a doctor with a gammy leg who turned into Thor by bashing things with his magic walking stick (initially it seemed like Blake was a random guy whom fate gifted with the power of Thor, but… well, they retconned this quite a lot as time went by). But in this movie, Blake and Thor (played by Eric Kramer) are entirely separate individuals, though linked in some usefully vague manner. If anything, they kind of resemble Johnny Thunder and his Thunderbolt from DC’s Justice Society comics, in that Blake is kind of a useless wimp who is obliged to whistle up Thor whenever the plot kicks in.

As it does here. Blake is not happy about the burden of being saddled with this responsibility, given that Thor will only exert his powers in a good cause. ‘It’s the eighties, I don’t even know what a good cause is,’ complains Blake, probably the best line in the movie. Banner assumes Blake is delusional, and so to prove his tale Blake summons up Thor, the shock of which does not do Banner’s blood pressure any good. Thor assumes that Banner’s lab is a bar, for some reason, and starts trashing the place in search of a drink. Banner strenuously objects, the inevitable happens, and we’re all set for the first ever live-action Hulk-Thor barney in media history…

Well, manage your expectations, pilgrim: it was 1988, after all, and once Lou Ferrigno’s body-paint and Thor’s rubber Viking armour had been paid for, there was only a bit left for electrical sparkles on Thor’s hammer and a few broken windows. Even so, everyone throws themselves into the fight enthusiastically enough, and it has a definite goofy charm if you’re prepared to be charitable.

What it doesn’t have is any tonal similarity to the original TV show, and the rest of the movie continues the decline into thick-headed cops-and-robbers nonsense. Someone decides to steal the Gamma Transponder, hiring a tough-talking squash-playing Cajun mercenary (Tim Thomerson, a prolific actor with a dizzyingly diverse, if somewhat variable CV) to do so. Thomerson decides to kidnap Banner’s girlfriend and hold her to ransom in the hope this will get them to hand the thing over. Could it possibly be down to Thor and the Hulk to save the day…?

Apparently The Incredible Hulk Returns was a smash hit on its initial broadcast, which I suppose we can only attribute to the enduring popularity of the original TV show, and the fact that the general standard of genre TV shows at the time was subterraneanly low. Even so, there’s something a bit dispiriting about watching a generally classy act like The Incredible Hulk TV show get quite so comprehensively dumbed-down and sillied-up. Possibly the most depressing thing about the whole extravaganza is the fact that Jack Colvin is dragged back as McGee the reporter – he gets nothing much of significance to do, and rather than the nuanced and rather sympathetic character McGee had become by the end of the original run, here he is largely played for laughs.

Oh well. At least Bill Bixby, who produced the movie through his own company, is as reliable and warm a presence as ever, very recognisably the same character as in the TV show. Banner just can’t resist helping those around him, even Blake and Thor, who spend most of the movie squabbling like a stereotypical married couple. (While we’re touching on – presumably unintended – grace notes of homo-eroticism, there’s also a bizarre scene in which McGee interviews a towel-clad Thor, who’s passing himself off as Banner for somewhat contrived reasons.)

The thing about some of these Hulk TV movies is that they also functioned as back-door pilots for other potential series featuring famous Marvel properties. You can kind of envisage the Thor series that might have spun off from this, basically a version of Automan with more shouting and chain-mail. There’s a scene in which Blake decides to ask Thor important questions about the reason they’ve been manacled together, so to speak, and Thor insists he won’t talk until he has eaten, and drunk, and fought, and generally caroused like a man! So Blake takes him to a biker bar.

Really, though, Thor as he is presented here is a slightly ridiculous man-baby with zero grasp of subtlety, very poor impulse control, and a wholly ridiculous pile of absurdly blond hair atop his bonce. What kind of hero would he really make for the American people? At least they didn’t have Twitter in 1988.

Oh, this is a silly, silly, predictable film, but it’s often very funny (not usually on purpose, I should say), and the sheer enthusiasm of it, plus the positive elements inherited from the Hulk TV show, keep it watchable. You can see why Kenneth Johnson refuses to acknowledge its existence. But look at Marvel now! Try to stay hopeful, DC: sometimes all it takes is the passage of nearly thirty years, a complete change of creative personnel, and the injection of obscene amounts of money. So you never can tell.

 

 

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As a person who has been looking at and listening to things with my eyes and ears for quite a while now, I am no stranger to the concept of absurd hyperbole. That said, absurd hyperbole is not what it used to be – the revelation that Jonathan Ross’s review of Batman Forever described it as ‘one of the greatest films ever made’ solely in order to win a bet arguably debased the whole notion of saying something ridiculously overblown about a film simply to make yourself noticed. In other words, it takes a bit to get my attention these days.

But here comes the New York Observer (a reasonably well-established and respectable news source, even if it did used to be published by one of the Trump clan), proudly announcing that Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is ‘the worst film of the century’. Crikey, now that’s a bold claim, even if you accept they’re not actually making predictions about the next 83 years. Let us not forget that this is the same century which has given the world Sex Lives of the Potato Men, Paul Anderson’s butchery of The Three Musketeers, A Good Day to Die Hard, After Earth, and many other really poor films. One might even say that it would take something quite unusual to beat Hampstead to the position of Worst Film of 2017, before even starting to look further afield.

Well, anyway, such a claim had to be investigated, and as a colleague is a confirmed Aronofsky fan (‘He is incapable of making a bad movie,’ he declared, which just prompted me to ask ‘Have you seen Noah?’), off we trotted to the very small cinema which was showing mother! (regular readers can have fun imagining the intonation I used on the title when asking for our tickets).

It’s not just the Observer, by the way: the reputable market-research firm CinemaScore has given mother! its rare and very (not) coveted F rating, indicating a film which audiences are likely to react violently against – other recipients include the remakes of Solaris, which isn’t that bad, and The Wicker Man, which most certainly is. So what’s going on with Darren Aronofsky’s mother!?

Hmmm. Well. Popular and critical darling Jennifer Lawrence plays a young woman living in a beautiful house in the countryside, along with her husband (played by Javier Bardem). She is slowly renovating the house, he is a writer contending with a bout of the dreaded block, and all initially seems very nearly idyllic.

But then an older man (Ed Harris) turns up, claiming to have been sent there in the erroneous belief they run a hotel, and Lawrence is just a little irked when he invites the vaguely sinister Harris to spend the night without checking with her. Soon he is joined by his wife (Michelle Pfieffer), who is rather given to inappropriate behaviour. Is there something going on between Bardem and this couple? Or is Lawrence simply overreacting and being a bit paranoid?

While all this is unfolding, various other oddities and enigmas are floating around at the edge of the story – why does the structure of the house seem to dissolve when blood is spilled on it? (Don’t ask.) What is the obscurely disgusting object Lawrence finds clogging up the toilet? What is in the mysterious potion she finds herself compelled to glug when the stress all gets a bit too much for her? Will any of these things be explained before the closing credits finally roll?

Um, well, probably not. Watching mother! really brought it home to me that the two kinds of people with the greatest creative freedom in the movie industry are completely unknown directors, whose films are made on micro-budgets and so whom no-one really cares about, and those who have a strong track record of both popular and critical success, who as a result are granted a certain degree of latitude to do something a bit different on a lavish scale (though this only lasts as long as their films continue to turn a profit, as a quick look at the careers of M Night Shyamalan and the Wachowski siblings will attest to).

Darren Aronofsky currently seems to be in this state of grace, making distinctive, generally well-received films. I went to see Black Swan (‘unlike anything else I’ve seen at the cinema in a long time’) and Noah (‘engrossingly strange’), both films which ended up making over $300 million. A similar achievement for mother! does not appear to be on the cards, however, not that this is especially surprising when you consider that this is an example of the historically-unpopular ‘surreal bat’s-ass-insane psychological art-house horror’ genre.

I suspect this is why many people have taken against what is, by any standards, a superbly crafted film – it is unafraid to go rather a long way out there. In fact, just as a thought experiment, imagine yourself going really quite a long way out, to the very fringes of your comfort zone. Now imagine a faint speck on the horizon, even further out. This speck is a house equipped with a very strong telescope, and through this you would just about be able to make out mother!, hurling itself about and howling at the sky. This is how way-out-there Aronofsky’s film is, especially in its closing stages.

Luckily, I figured out very early on that we were not in the realm of a traditionally naturalistic narrative here, which probably helped – there’s almost a sense in which the fractured dream-logic of mother!, in which events pile up wildly on top of one another in a totally irrational way, reminded me of some of the weirder short stories of H.P. Lovecraft, although that would require Lovecraft to have been capable of writing for a female protagonist. There is certainly a touch of Terry Gilliam in the film’s various conjuring tricks, and perhaps also a little of Peter Greenaway in its more gleefully gory excesses.

Aronofsky has gone on record and attempted to explain what mother! is actually supposed to be about – I won’t trouble you with that here, not least because it’s really a spoiler. I can’t help suspecting that this was a movie where the surreal, nightmarish style and tone came first, anyway, and it was just a question of coming up with a premise that would justify them.

Why, somebody asked me, would an actress like Jennifer Lawrence choose to appear in a film as strange as this one? The prosaic answer would have something to do with the (presumably significant) portion of the $30 million budget going home with her, but at the same time you can see why this film would appeal, if only as a technical challenge – it largely fails or succeeds by her performance, for she is on-screen virtually non-stop throughout, frequently in close-up. She is, needless to say, very good, but then so is everyone else – Bardem’s Iberian inscrutability is well-employed, and in addition to Harris and Pfieffer, there are somewhat unexpected cameos by the likes of the Gleeson brothers and Kristen Wiig.

Mainly, however, the film is a triumph of direction and editing, with the pace and mood of the film always expertly controlled. It is obviously the case that some of the subject matter will repel many people from this film – there are some nauseatingly nasty moments, none of them really suggested by the film’s (arguably misleading) advertising. Others will not be able to get on board with the peculiar stream-of-consciousness flow of the narrative, its lack of conventional story or characterisation. And this is fair enough – but I have to say I hugely enjoyed the film’s sheer audacity and willingness to do something unusual and different. This did mean I was laughing in some rather inappropriate places (my colleague feared I was laughing out of scorn rather than appreciation), but my enjoyment of the skill and innovation that clearly went into this movie was genuine.

The chances are that mother! is a movie which will not appeal to you. There’s quite a good chance its excesses will actively appal or disgust you. I suspect it may prove to be the cinematic equivalent of Marmite (a proverbially-divisive, rather foul yeast-based spread, in case you’re wondering). I can’t imagine anyone not having some kind of strong response to it, but the minority that get it, will probably really, really like it. Certainly not the worst film of the century, anyway, even if it’s highly unlikely to make much of a profit. Pretty much a dead cert to become a cult favourite for decades to come.

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