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Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

Given the popularity of so-called Scandi noir, with all the darkness and moral ambiguity implicit in the notion, it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that the past year has seen something of a bumper crop of horror movies from the Nordic countries – the weird livestock-based psycho-drama Lamb, the profoundly disturbing ‘what I did on my summer holidays’ movie The Innocents, and now Hanna Bergholm’s Hatching. In some ways this is more of a conventional horror film than either of those, but there’s always something to be said for the classic style.

Hatching is centred on the members of an affluent family living somewhere in Finland (though there is nothing intrinsically Finnish about the story). The father is amiable but clueless, while Mother (Sophia Heikkila) rules the roost, demanding nothing but domestic perfection from everyone else, mainly because this is best for the video-blog which seems to be her main concern in life – we see a few glimpses of this cringe-making project, which is entitled Lovely Everyday Life. In the case of her daughter Tinja (Siiri Solalinna) this extends to constant and gruelling gymnastics training, to which she submits without complaint.

One day the domestic idyll is disrupted when a bird flies into the house – the distressed creature swoops around, flapping and cawing, breaking plates and generally wreaking havoc amongst Mother’s carefully-managed decor. Tinja manages to catch the frightened bird – only for Mother to snap its neck, seemingly out of simple spite. Mother has a thinly-disguised ruthless and manipulative streak, as quickly becomes apparent – when Tinja walks in on her cavorting with the handyman (Reino Nordin), she quickly manages to make her daughter complicit in her infidelity.

It’s a lot for a young girl to deal with, and Tinja has more to contend with than this, anyway – racked with guilt over the death of the bird, she has brought what initially seems to be one of its eggs into the house and is secretly trying to incubate it. This at least seems to go well, for the egg grows to an enormous size – before cracking open and disgorging…

Well, thereby hangs the tale, of course. The hatchling is a remarkable creation, a fusion of CGI and the puppeteer’s art – a rather disquieting bird-thing and yet not entirely without the capacity to evoke sympathy. Perhaps even more disturbingly, there is clearly a profound bond between Tinja and the creature, which she names Alla. For her part, Alla seems very prone to becoming outraged on Tinja’s behalf, even violently and excessively so – a local dog which nips at her meets a grisly fate. Needless to say things do not bode well for her annoying little brother or her rival on the gymnastics team…

This is a slick and impressive production which has clearly been thought-through by the writers. It’s kind of curious that several of the things I’ve been saying about horror movies recently certainly apply to Hatching – firstly that it is, to some extent, clearly inspired by E.T. the Extra-terrestrial – a troubled pre-teen develops an extremely close connection with an unearthly creature they keep hidden in the family home – but done as a horror movie. (My understanding is that the original conception was for the protagonist to be male, which would have made the derivation even clearer.)

The origins of the film are just a starting point, of course, for this eventually goes off in a quite different direction. Whatever the alien is meant to represent in E.T., Alla is clearly a symbol of something else. When I was writing about Men, one of my complaints about the film was that while the central metaphor was entirely clear, the film didn’t make sense in any terms other than those of the metaphor – while the thesis was clear, the narrative delivering it was a nonsense. Hatching doesn’t fall into the same trap, but it pushes the limits of the narrative right to the limit, by which I mean that the horror story is just good enough to serve the director’s purpose. The decision to frame and present the story almost as a fable or fairy tale helps smooth some of the more awkward edges, too.

What Hanna Bergholm is up to here is another film about the pressures placed on young people, particularly girls, in modern society: forced to adhere to a certain set of standards and requirements, they have no socially-sanctioned outlet for their negative emotions – which nevertheless build up and lead to a destructive outburst. Here, the eruption takes the form of an alarming bird-monster, but I am sure that many parents of teenagers can empathise, plumage or no plumage.

The film is well-made, and extremely well-acted, with an astonishingly self-assured performance from Siiri Solalinna (who apparently has never acted before). The eruption of gore and grue into the carefully-curated family home is striking, and there are a few effective jump-scares sprinkled into the story (even the most atmospheric horror movie is sometimes enlivened by the odd jump-scare). However, once it becomes clear what’s going on – and, to be fair, the film is so well-paced that this takes a while to become apparent – the film inevitably seems a bit less interesting than it did to begin with, like a song where you can guess many of the rhymes in advance.

To be clear, there’s a definite pleasure to be gained from finding yourself so in-synch with a film, or when a film is so congruent with the conventions of whatever genre it is operating in. Hatching is a satisfying and effective film, certainly a success by any rational metric – both as a horror story and a film with something to say about the dehumanising and pressurising elements of modern life. But the distinctiveness of the early part of the film, when it is at its most fairy-tale-ish, led me to anticipate something as original and striking throughout. Nevertheless, this is a very good movie, and one which will hopefully mark the debut of a number of talents who will go on to do interesting work for years to come.

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It’s a crowded market when it comes to the low-to-mid-budget horror movie – the very nature of the form means that it can be hard to cut through and get attention. What you really need, in the likely absence of star names, is either to be part of an established franchise, or a really good gimmick. But there’s only so many films they can crowbar into the Conjuring or Paranormal Activity settings, which may be why we are increasingly seeing the rise of the peculiar (to my mind, anyway) ‘…but done as a horror movie’ subgenre.

I suppose if you wanted to be pernickety you could argue this dates back all the way to the 1940s with I Walked With A Zombie, which is Jane Eyre, but done as a horror movie. It’s all become a bit more impudent and grisly in recent years, however: one film that stood out for me was Brightburn, which is basically the origin of Superman, but done as a horror movie. There was also the horror take on (of all things) the Banana Splits, also in 2019. Currently getting more buzz than you would have thought possible for what sounds like a deeply questionable work is the forthcoming Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey, in which the loveable old bear is reimagined as a homicidal maniac and basically sounds like a fantastic argument for revisiting the law when it comes to copyright and public domain. (I doubt it will prove quite as traumatising as the Peter Rabbit movie, of course, and that wasn’t even meant to be a horror film.)

I didn’t have quite as extreme a reaction when my fellow Cthulhuites and I went along to see Underwater, not that long before the first lockdown, and were treated to the trailer for the film version of Fantasy Island, directed by Jeff Wadlow. My first reaction was ‘doing Fantasy Island as a horror movie? That’s a really, really weird idea.’ I am old enough to remember the original Fantasy Island TV show from the late 70s and early 80s – I barely remember any of the actual plots, but I do recall the iconography of the thing – Ricardo Montalban swanking around in a white suit crying ‘Smiles, everyone, smiles!’, and Herve Villechaise as his sidekick shouting ‘De plane! De plane!’

For the uninitiated: it was basically an anthology show which came out of an unsuccessful pitch meeting at the network ABC. Apparently the exhausted producers had half a dozen ideas rejected by executives, leading one of them to jokingly suggest they do a show about an island where people could live out their sexual fantasies, which of course the network really liked. (Nowadays it would probably be a reality show.) The premise was essentially just that: an island where visitors could live out their fantasies, through unexplained but possibly otherworldly means. (Various episodes suggested that Roarke might be God; Montalban’s own theory was that he was a disgraced angel.) I think it’s fair to say it was about as gritty and challenging as The Love Boat, although apparently the version from the 1990s with Malcolm McDowell was a bit sparkier. (I understand that, post the movie, yet another incarnation of the show is now running, though whether the success of the movie had any part in making that happen I have no idea.)

So, anyway, this is a horror version of that show. Roarke is played by Michael Pena and the premise seems to be the same – visitors arrive on Fantasy Island to leave out their dreams. As we have already seen a young woman being kidnapped by masked men, however, it’s clear that this place has a darker side to it. Initially it seems very much like a conventional update of the TV show – a hard-working businesswoman (Maggie Q) wants the chance to revisit a bad relationship decision, a cop wants the opportunity to be a soldier for a while, two brothers just want to live like millionaires for the weekend. But the final guest (Lucy Hale) has a different kind of fantasy – horribly bullied and persecuted at school, she wants revenge on the person responsible. Her fantasy consists of her going into an underground vault where the bully (who we saw at the start) is tied to a chair. Various options for punishment are available to her. Is this really what she wanted?

Gradually it turns out that most of the other fantasies are not going fantastically well, either, and it seems like a succession of cautionary tales with the subtext ‘be careful what you wish for’ are in progress. Some of the guests also get momentary glimpses of a horribly burned figure closing in on them, and it becomes clear that there is something else going on here…

At this point I sat up and started paying more attention to a movie which was proving to be a bit less dumb than I had expected it to be. It turns out that all the guests, rather than simply winning a free trip to the island, have been deliberately selected to go there. To say more would be to enter the territory of spoilers, I fear, but there is perhaps a sense in which the shade of J. B. Priestley briefly lingers over Fantasy Island (before no doubt leaving very rapidly).

It’s certainly an interesting take on the material – very up-front about the powers of the island and Roarke’s position as its overseer, both of which get a lot more exposition than ever happened on TV. ‘Interesting’ can only take you so far, of course, and the main problem with Fantasy Island is one you might have predicted: tonally it’s a bit all over the place, switching from frat-boy comedy to mainstream drama to dark fantasy to something not unlike torture-porn horror almost at random. It’s very curious to watch, and actually quite intriguing as the story begins to develop, but it’s never that funny, or emotionally involving, or honestly even scary. It’s also the case that, for the film’s twist to work, at least one of the characters has to spend the first half of the film acting in a way that doesn’t actually make sense given what we later learn about them. Probably this is a major flaw in the script, but the film is so hectic it’s not the sort of thing you find yourself minded to dwell upon much.

Occasionally you see a trailer for a movie and your gut reaction turns out to be exactly on the money: Fantasy Island is really, really weird. It’s almost certainly not an unqualified good kind of weird, though on the other hand I don’t think the film is so awful it deserves some of the opprobium heaped upon it (multiple nominations at that year’s Golden Raspberries) – I can only imagine that people thought ‘Fantasy Island as a horror movie? Terrible idea = terrible movie.’ It’s certainly a strange idea, and film itself is odd and not really very satisfactory. But it has a certain originality and ambition to it.

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In the past we have occasionally touched on the odd phenomenon of what happens to movie titles when they crash through a language barrier of one kind or other. It seems to me to be greatly preferable to leave things be and not make any changes at all, if the alternative is films ending up with titles like The Indestructible Iron Man Fights The Electronic Gang (one of the Asian titles of A View to a Kill) or Archie and Harry are Too Old to Do It Anymore (an alternative name for the 1986 comedy Tough Guys).

I suppose you can sort of understand why Wim Wenders’ 1987 film Der Himmel uber Berlin got retitled for its English-language release: The Heaven Over Berlin strikes me these days as a rather evocative and thoughtful title for a movie, but back in the 1980s if you mentioned Berlin to anyone it probably had a rather different set of associations. Getting an audience to go and see what’s undeniably a German art-house film probably demanded a different approach, and so the film received the title it got back then and has just recently been re-released under: Wings of Desire.

The setting is, as mentioned, Berlin, a grey and divided city nearing the back end of the 1980s – or perhaps that should be two Berlins? Not just the East and West Berlin of temporal geography, but two versions of the city on different metaphysical planes, one home to all the usual humanity you might expect (and filmed in glorious colour), the other a monochrome world which hosts (and I use the word with precision) angels, tasked with overseeing, or witnessing, the lives of men, women, and children – something which is made considerably easier by their supernatural powers of telepathy, or possibly clairvoyance.

The main angels in the story are Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander), and much of the film is relatively plot-free, the camera simply accompanying one or other of the duo as they carry out their appointed taask. Tableaux of city life unfold on the screen, the interior monologues of whoever’s on screen murmuring away as the angels pass unseen amongst them. It’s quite hypnotic and occasionally very moving; something about the conceit generates an enormous sense of humanity and compassion. Intermingled with this are a number of continuing threads – a trapeze artist named Marion (Solveig Dommartin) has to come to terms with the news that her circus is closing, while visiting American movie star Peter Falk (played, not entirely surprisingly, by Peter Falk) ruminates on various philosophical concerns of his own. If the presence of Falk playing himself (in one sequence he is followed by a crowd of fans chanting ‘Co-lum-bo!’) isn’t off-kilter enough, a later scene includes a live performance from a very young Nick Cave and his band (Cave was apparently based in West Berlin at the time and a fixture on the city’s cultural scene).

Much of the film is unrepentantly arty and it all seems very unlikely as the source material for an American remake with Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan. And yet such a film exists (1998’s City of Angels). Needless to say, the remake is mostly drawn from the final movement of Wenders’ film, which adopts a rather more conventional narrative mode: Damiel grows weary of his role as an eternal onlooker, and seeks the full breadth of human experience, including a relationship with Marion. It does feel like the beginning of some sort of slightly offbeat romance or romantic comedy, but it is here as a conclusion to the film, and as such it works rather effectively.

Prior to this the film is… well, I told the woman of my life (who is of German extraction) that they were showing this classic piece of West German cinema locally and asked if she wanted to go and see it, and she sort of grimaced at me, having already tried to watch it once before. If gripping narratives are your thing, watching Wings of Desire is unlikely to be a particularly happy experience – most of the film is ruminative, stately, and not particularly concerned with providing a singular storyline for most of its duration. Some of the dialogue between the angels, in particular, comes across as especially stagey; the dialogue (often more accurately a series of monologues) in the scenes depicting the lives of the mortal characters is much more naturalistic.

That said, naturalism isn’t really the name of the game here, as you might expect – the film’s debt to a whole range of classic cinematic fantasies is clear from the start (the list starts with A Matter of Life and Death and proceeds from there). Any threat of things becoming too portentous – which is a danger – is countered by the film’s unexpected (and presumably entirely made-up) revelations about the biography of Peter Falk (the actor was apparently cast at the suggestion of Claire Denis, who I know is a respected director these days but still seems to specialise in really dingbat ideas). Even Falk thought the film was a bit crazy but he certainly seems to be enjoying himself in it.

There is certainly something pleasingly upbeat and life-affirming about Wings of Desire, as is often the case with stories about exotic outsiders who become enamoured with what initially seem to be just very ordinary lives. It’s not at all what you’d expect from a film set in a divided Berlin, which is not to say that the shadow of the wall does not loom over the project. Much of the film concerns the angels bearing witness to the individual experiences of the people they encounter – there’s an Eleanor Rigby-ish sense to some of it – and the divisions and separations between them are surely reflected in the larger division of the city itself.

I suppose, in the end, it’s a film about the value of human experience – the film’s strongest card is Ganz’s performance, and his shift from cool detachment to almost palpable joy as he elects to pursue a mortal existence. You can’t help but be dragged along and conclude that life is really not that bad and something to be savoured. This may not be the most profound message ever committed to celluloid, but it’s still a worthwhile one, and Wenders handles it with enough wit and warmth and style to make this a satisfying film, worthy of its reputation and a return visit to the big screen.

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One of the life lessons I came though the late unpleasantness having learned was that it really isn’t necessary to go and see films you’re likely to violently dislike just because they look intriguingly awful, or out of a strange sense of masochistic duty: hence the fact that I have spared myself from seeing Peter Rabbit 2 and you have been spared reading my howls of outrage and despair about it. And yet, just recently I found myself invited to go and see Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin’s Minions: The Rise of Gru and accepting said invitation with nary a pause. Then again, it was my old friend (and frequent presence on the blog) Olinka doing the inviting.

I don’t think the circumstances in which I ended up seeing the first Minions in 2015 have ever properly been recounted here on the blog. The conversation ran along the lines of ‘Let’s go to the pictures!’/’What’s on?’/’Terminator 5!’/’What else is on?’/’Err… Minions? But I want to see Terminator 5.’/’I don’t want to see Terminator 5. Let’s watch Minions.’/’I don’t want to watch Minions.’/’Well, let’s compromise then.’/ (some time later) ’Two tickets for Minions, please.’ However, I did have the last laugh as my then-partner agreed with me that Minions was mostly a load of old tat. Nevertheless, it made a billion dollars, which naturally spells one thing and one thing only: sequel! But how does it score on the whole load of old tat front?

Well. This time around we find ourselves in a rather peculiar version of the middle 1970s, in a world where supervillains are apparently ubiquitous but there seem to be no actual superheroes. Pre-pubescent miscreant Gru (Steve Carell, bravely hoiking his voice into a higher register) is seeking to establish himself as potential supervillain material, although whether the fact he is the master of the minions – a vast tribe of seemingly-indestructible little yellow morons – is a help or a hindrance to this end seems to be rather in the balance.

Nevertheless, he finds himself on the interview shortlist when leading villain team the Vicious Six have an internal squabble and a vacancy opens up. They have recently taken possession of an important plot-device amulet which they can potentially use to get up to all sorts of shenanigans. However, the important plot-device amulet gets stolen and misplaced several more times, becoming an object of desire for pretty much every major character, and putting Gru and the minions on course for a confrontation with their older, larger, and much more competent rivals…

I have to report that of our quartet who attended the movie (me, my co-spousal unit, Olinka, and her progenate Danya), I was the one who laughed least, by quite some way. But it is still a relief to be able to say that this is most likely a rather better movie than the first one; I may not have laughed a great deal, but it’s diverting and rather curious in places, and the 87 minutes or so I invested in it shimmied by mostly painlessly.

Should we address the whole I-didn’t-laugh-much issue? I expect so. Well, you know, what I can say; it’s not like I sat in stony-faced silence all the way through, I just found a lot of the jokes to be quite predictable, and the kind of slapstick which the movie frequently defaults to isn’t quite my thing. To be honest, I found some of the casting decisions to be much wittier and more impudent than anything in the script: there’s a French-accented supervillain called Jean-Clawed who’s played by Jean-Claude Van Damme, and a roller-blading Scandi villain named Svengeance who’s voiced by Dolph Lundgren. (The film’s inventiveness when it comes to ridiculous parody supervillains is admittedly very impressive – Lucy Lawless pops up as a habit-wearing, chain-stick wielding dominatrix calling herself Nun-Chuck.)

Actually, as an animated superhero movie, comedy spoof or not, this is technically extremely well done – as well as the designs of the various characters, the chases and fights are handled with real verve and inventiveness; they are entertaining in their own right and often quite exciting.

However, for me the most striking thing about the film was the element that wasn’t pitched at a very young audience. It’s customary in many of these films to include an element of some kind that will probably go sailing over the heads of the juvenile audience but nevertheless amuse and entertain the adult audience specifically: they’re the ones who are buying the tickets, after all.

The thing about how Minions 2 handles this is that most of the cultural references and parodies that it throws in for the adults are ones that the kids hopefully won’t get anyway: it’s the mid 1970s, so of course the characters go and see Jaws on the big screen. There are also allusions to blaxploitation movies, classic James Bond films, and martial arts films (the minions adopt Bruce Lee-style yellow jumpsuits for one sequence). As well as being a frantic, silly comedy, the film works on a whole other and entirely separate level as well, which is a rather curious achievement. (I should say that in an unexpected and most likely coincidental development, it also has a few points of connection with Everything Everywhere All At Once, most obviously a character played by Michelle Yeoh.)

I was trying to figure out just what Minions: Rise of Gru reminded me of when it came to me: this is like an animated version of an Austin Powers movie, only not as funny or inventive and with all the gross-out stuff and filthy jokes edited out. Whether that sounds appealing or not probably depends on your view of the Austin Powers franchise; personally I wouldn’t say I really missed it, but the first two films certainly had some very funny moments in them.

What this particular film lacks in consistency it certainly makes up for in sheer energy and work-rate; the pace never slackens and it never shows signs of running out of ideas. Most of it still occurs in the same register of manic stupidity, but it’s generally good-hearted. Rather to my surprise, I found it rather hard to dislike. Don’t necessarily put my name down for the next instalment yet, but don’t automatically write me off either.

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Counterprogramming can take some very odd shapes, and none odder than Brian and Charles (directed by Jim Archer), which has somehow managed to weave a way through a crowded field (resurrected dinosaurs, the king of rock and roll, progressive Norse gods, etc) and find its way onto a few UK screens (apparently it had some sort of US release earlier in the summer).

Moving spirit behind this project, one suspects, is co-writer and star David Earl, who I must confess I wasn’t really aware of prior to seeing the trailer for this film. Nevertheless, he has been knocking about the middle-tiers of UK comedy for a while, from the look of his Wikipedia page, often in the vicinity of Ricky Gervais. Even if you hadn’t bothered to do the research, you might well have been able to work this out for yourself, given that Brian and Charles is framed as a fly-on-the-wall mockumentary with Earl playing its awkwardly self-conscious participant.

However, rather than The Office, this is more like The Cowshed: Earl plays Brian, apparently a variation on a long-established character of his. Brian lives in a farmhouse in a remote part of Wales, where – after a personal crisis of some sort – he has decided to reinvent himself as an inventor. Not an inventor of anything that you might actually want to own, of course – amongst the products of his fertile, or possible furtive, imagination are such things as the egg belt (a belt just for carrying eggs in) and the pine cone bag (it’s a bag with pine cones glued to it). There is pathos in abundance here, and that awkward sense of uncertainty as to whether we really want to be laughing and someone as clearly fragile as Brian.

However, one day things change: Brian hits upon the idea of building a robot to help out  around the house. So he retires to his inventing workshop (in the cowshed, of course), and emerges some time later having incorporated such available ephemera as a washing machine and a mannequin head into his latest masterpiece. When Brian eventually figures out how to switch it on, the robot (played by co-writer Chris Hayward) initially proves skittish, but eventually calms down, learns to make sense of the world around it (by reading the dictionary), and takes the name of Charles Petrescu.

Brian is bright enough to realise his eccentric and rather excitable creation will cause a stir should he take it down the village, where he is already having problems with a local bully (Jamie Michie), but making Charles understand that is hardly straightforward. On the other hand, Charles does sterling work in impelling Brian towards actually doing something about the not-quite-a-relationship he has with another local (Louise Brealey). But what will happen when someone learns that Charles exists?

As I suggested, this is really a very odd film – not necessarily in a bad way, because it has considerable charm and is strangely endearing, and there are some very funny moments in it. But it is composed of a very odd mixture of ingredients, that one really wouldn’t expect to work together. The fact that the film is as effective (and indeed as functional) as it is must therefore be some kind of achievement.

This is apparently an expanded version of a short film made by the same creators a few years ago – I haven’t seen it, but I feel I have a very good idea of exactly what it’s like: presumably it’s exactly the same as the feature film, but with all the elements of a (relatively) more dramatic plotline missing. I would imagine that as a result it’s a lot less tonally uneven – the full-length Brian and Charles often plays rather like a mash-up between the sitcom Metal Mickey and a heavyweight thriller like Dead Man’s Shoes (or maybe even a folk-horror movie).

Brian and Charles is silly. Lots of films these days are, of course, but Brian and Charles is silly in the same specific way as a lot of children’s TV is – it doesn’t even pretend to engage with the real world. It’s fantastical and illogical like that kind of juvenile story is – a man who is, on the face of it, really not very bright or skilled, manages to build a functioning, sentient robot in his shed. It’s a ludicrous idea, but one that the film never questions or even acknowledges the implausibility of. There are lots of other bits of silliness scattered throughout – Brian’s fixation on cabbages, for instance – and a general detachment from reality (no-one even suggests involving the police as the thriller storyline escalates).

And yet, as I say, there is also a genuine vein of darkness running through the film – not just in the plotline about Brian being menaced by the local hard-case, though of course there is tension and disquiet there. Even before this becomes prominent, there is a real sense of quiet desperation threaded through the film: lonely people living lives which were not the ones they would have chosen for themselves, scrabbling to make the best of what they have. It’s a strange, bittersweet atmosphere for a film about an absurd, unbelievable robot and its creator.

Brian and Charles has managed to land a PG certificate in the UK, which is pretty rare these days – virtually anything that isn’t a kids’ film or something very gentle indeed usually winds up with a 12. It just reinforces my impression that this film plays like something you could take your children to see with a fairly clear conscience. The story is simple and the only metaphor the co-spousal unit and I could find in it was a fairly obvious one about the perils and challenges of raising a child and then accepting when he or she eventually needs to be independent. Kids will probably enjoy the ridiculousness of Charles the robot and his domestic situation, and may even be gripped by the storyline – but the film’s mixture of darkness and mawkish whimsy is a very odd choice for a piece of family entertainment. Nevertheless, Brian and Charles doesn’t really make sense as anything else.

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One of those words that we currently don’t have but really could have done with for several decades now is the name for that thing when – you know, when someone comes along and does something unusual and unexpected and it turns out to be rather successful and much acclaimed. So then they naturally leap to a slightly erroneous conclusion and do the same thing all over again as a follow-up, only much moreso, and this time the end result is just a bit too much to cope with. In the Bond franchise I would direct you to Moonraker, which has the fantasy and comedy elements of The Spy Who Loved Me dialled up to 11, and probably also SPECTRE, which likewise takes the distinctive things about Skyfall – the general glumness of tone and attempts at psychological complexity – and concentrates on them to the point where they start getting in the way of the fun of the movie.

I’m tempted to call one of these an exequel – a sort of portmanteau of excess and sequel, and you heard it here first, folks – and it’s a word which may well come up in our imminent discussion of the well-nigh-inescapable Taika Waititi’s Thor: Love and Thunder. This is, as you have doubtless guessed, the latest Marvel Studios production – 29th of that ilk, should you be keeping count – and the fourth in the particular strand following the doings of Norse god Thor (Chris Hemsworth). (For the purposes of this movie’s plot the original clarification that Thor is not actually a divine being but a representative of a supremely advanced alien culture is quietly forgotten about.)

When we last saw Thor (and I hope you will indulge me in the ‘we’, given I know that there are people reading this who would more happily donate a major organ without anaesthetic than watch a Kevin Feige production), he was flying off into space with the Guardians of the Galaxy to try and find himself, following the deaths of pretty much his entire family and the destruction of his home realm. The new movie finds him still with them, along with his rock-like sidekick Korg (Waititi again).

However, a series of distress calls reveals that the galaxy is experiencing a sort of theological crisis, as somebody is hunting down and slaughtering the gods of every civilisation, leaving chaos and turmoil in their wake. (This turns out to be Christian Bale, playing a character called ‘Gorr the God Butcher’ whose name is certainly descriptive.) Thor leaves the Guardians to sort out the galaxy (off-screen) and heads back to his people’s enclave on Earth, which he has learned is next on the God Butcher’s hit list. However, a surprise awaits him here, as also helping in the defence of New Asgard is another hammer-wielding red-cloaked warrior – one who turns out to be his ex Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who now wields his old weapon Mjolnir and likes to go by the name of Mighty Thor. Can the two ex-lovers put their complicated baggage to one side, figure out just exactly what Gorr is up to, and find a way of stopping him?

Well, on one level this plays as another Marvel movie in the usual style – and if you look at it from a certain angle, the storyline is distinctly reminiscent of the one in the very last movie they released, in that the antagonist initially seems to be an alarming, horrific figure on a metaphysical quest, who eventually proves to be not entirely unsympathetic. And, you know, it’s a Marvel Studios production, so it’s breezily entertaining and colourful and the pace never drags; there may be the odd reference that goes soaring over the heads (or perhaps beneath the contempt) of any normal people who have wandered into the cinema by mistake, but that’s par for the course by now. You’re certainly never in any doubt as to what’s going on or who the bad guy really is.

On the other hand, partway through the film – during the bit where Russell Crowe comes on in a skirt and plays Zeus the King of the Gods with the same accent Harry Enfield used to employ as Stavros the kebab-shop man – I found myself compelled to lean over to my companion and say ‘This is the silliest film I have ever seen.’ That may not strictly be true, but it has a sort of pugnaciously daft quality; it’s not afraid to be stupid and often seems to be challenging the audience to actually complain about this. Waititi has talked about feeling the need to challenge himself and stay creatively invested in the project, and this seems to be code for including, amongst other things, more tongue-in-cheek cameos, screaming goats, semi-gratuitous male nudity, out-and-out surrealism, needily jealous sentient weapons, nostalgic hair metal, and much more – all played entirely for laughs. This is as openly a comedy film as anything else Marvel have ever released, and why I would suggest it is basically doing all the things that Ragnarok did, only even more extremely.

You might therefore think that it is an extremely dubious decision for Waititi to include some of the story elements he has gone for – a dead child prominently features in the plot, while another character is suffering from terminal cancer. This would usually be a very bad fit for a wacky comedic fantasy, but the slightly baffling thing is that Waititi somehow manages to get away with it – it doesn’t quite have the turn-on-a-dime quality that some Paul Verhoeven films, for instance, possess, but neither does it feel particularly choppy in terms of its tone. Much of the credit for this should probably go to the performers, who deliver deftly-pitched turns. The star attraction this time around is Christian Bale, who consistently comes up with surprising and engaging line-readings and never quite plays the God Butcher in the obvious way one might expect.

Still, the film is so self-conscious and arch that it never quite coheres into an entirely satisfying and involving story the way that Ragnarok or the other top-tier Marvel movies do. It may also be just a generational thing, but I found the film’s politics to be a bit too on-the-nose and laboured in places; turning Jane Foster into a Thor-equivalent, for instance, is a reasonable enough idea (although exactly what’s going on here is really skated over, to be honest), but quite why she’s so insistent on actually being called Mighty Thor is a bit baffling (beyond the fact that it’s a comics reference). She’s gained equivalent powers to Thor, she hasn’t actually stolen his identity.

The Marvel franchise may well have reached the point where one’s fond memories of the collective successes of all the previous films flow together and ensure that each individual new film can’t quite live up to expectations – or at least, makes doing that much more difficult (we’re back in Bond franchise territory again). Nevertheless, I would be lying if I said that there wasn’t a huge amount that I really enjoyed about Love and Thunder, and very little that I found outright objectionable. But if the trajectory of this series continues along the same lines, the next sequel will probably take place on ice, in Welsh, performed in semaphore.

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Somewhere in the infinite possibilities of creation there is a world which is not experiencing a sudden spike in the number of TV shows and movies about parallel worlds. But it’s clearly not this one. Currently filling up cinemas across the land is Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (the clue is in the title), while arriving here soon (maybe even before this thing gets published) is Everything Everywhere All At Once, which has enjoyed an (apparently) unexpectedly healthy run at the American box office.

Sneaking up under the radar, however, has been another treatment of a very similar idea, this one from the BBC: the drama serial Life After Life (based on a novel by Kate Atkinson), which has recently concluded its network broadcast. I would say this qualifies as what some people call slipstream SF: something which deals with the themes and material of speculative fiction, but does so using the style and techniques of conventional or literary fiction. In short, it’s an SF or fantasy novel disguised (for the most part) as a costume drama. The BBC does costume dramas very well; it used to do SF and fantasy rather well too, so perhaps one should not be quite so surprised that this is as impressive as it is.

The story proper opens on a snowy night in 1910, with a small domestic tragedy unfolding: Sylvie Todd (Sian Clifford) gives birth to her third child, a daughter, but there are complications, the doctor has been held up by the weather, and the infant dies at birth. The screen fades to black.

And then we are back at the start of the scene, with the same events unfolding. But this time there is a different outcome: the doctor has managed to battle through the drifts and the baby survives. She is christened Ursula and goes on to enjoy a fairly happy childhood with her brothers and sisters. Until a trip to the seaside, when she and her sister unwisely go too far our while paddling, are swept away, and drown. The screen fades to black.

And we are back in the snow on that night in 1910 once more. It gradually becomes apparent that Ursula is gifted, or possibly afflicted, by some kind of dim, subconscious memory of her ‘previous’ (parallel?) existences, which means she can sometimes influence her path through life – sometimes, random chance plays a much more significant role. Many people have made the connection between Life After Life’s premise and that of Groundhog Day – the main character repeating variations on the same set of events over and over again – but for me the first episode in particular put me rather in mind of one of those government safety films like Apaches where a small child meets a horrific death every few minutes – Ursula drowns, falls out of a window, and so on, with traumatic regularity.

However, the story also serves as something of a cultural history of England in the first half of the last century, and by the end of the first episode Ursula is having to contend with the arrival of Spanish Flu: which one of the servants brings into the house. Ursula cops it from the flu at least three times before figuring out a way of avoiding this untimely death: her solution is surprisingly ruthless, given she’s still a nine-year-old girl.

Once Ursula manages to reach adulthood (from the age of sixteen she is played almost exclusively, and just as well as you might expect, by Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) you feel like you’ve got a sense of the way the story works (to the extent that this actually works as a unified story). It starts to feel like a computer game or one of those choose-your-own-adventure books, where each grisly demise brings you a little bit closer to figuring out what the ‘correct’ route is. Some of the iterations of Ursula end up on wildly variant paths, meeting very grim fates indeed: the fact that the main character’s repeated demise is a core element of the story means that there is a constant tension even when things seem to be going well for her. Certainly there are some profoundly moving moments – in one of her darkest moments, Ursula seems to be desperately inviting death, so she can have another go, but for once it stubbornly refuses to claim her: she is trapped, for the time being, in the life that fate has contrived for her.

Modern TV conventions – indeed, modern storytelling conventions – lead one to expect some kind of revelation, or resolution, as the story enters its third and fourth episode. There has to be an end point, surely – some goal, which once achieved will free Ursula from this endless loop. I was actively speculating as to what this might turn out to be (part of me was probably dimly remembering the final episode of the Nicholas Lyndhurst time-travel sitcom Goodnight Sweetheart, in which it is revealed that the main character’s ability to visit the 1940s only existed so he could save Churchill’s life) and thought it might turn out to be managing to die of natural causes at a relatively happy old age.

However, in another dazzling transition where the show’s costume-drama mask momentarily slips, a scene set in the middle of the Second World War is upended by the sudden appearance of the bassline from Blondie’s Heart of Glass on the soundtrack. Abruptly the setting jumps forward to the late 1970s or early 1980s – the only scene set after the war – and an elderly Ursula reflecting on the regrets of her life. She expires, peacefully. The screen fades to black. And then we are back in 1910, yet again.

The final episode focuses on Ursula’s experiences of the Second World War – dying in the London Blitz more than once, almost starving to death in a terrified Berlin awaiting the arrival of the Red Army – and almost qualifies as a sneaky piece of misdirection. If this was a more conventional piece of fiction, you could again probably guess which way the narrative was heading – something akin to Stephen King’s 22.11.63, with the protagonist intent on a bit of hands-on historical re-engineering. Something along these lines certainly happens along, but while Ursula indeed seems to be successful in creating a radically different new timeline, neither she nor the audience get to see it. The screen fades to black. And then we are back in 1910.

Nothing she does really makes any difference: in the end, she is always back being born (or stillborn) in 1910. She always dies; her friends and family are likewise always distressingly mortal. For a while it does seem like Ursula’s strange gift really is just a curse, as she can never achieve anything permanent. But then I suppose the same could be said for any of us. The series eventually achieves a degree of existential profundity which is very rare in a modern TV drama – something reflected in the script by the appearance of many references to Nietzsche and his philosophy, especially the concept of amor fati: the acceptance of destiny as a necessary fact of existence (to simplify the concept, probably egregiously). In the end, living an infinity of parallel lives is not more or less meaningful than living a single life, and by the end of the story (to the extent that a story like this can even have an end) Ursula seems to have achieved a degree of acceptance of her strange perspective on the world.

It’s a challenging, unexpected conclusion, and one which feels like it has come much more from the world of literary fiction than much of the rest of the story. But then the whole thing benefits from the synergy and genuine sense of creative excitement that often comes when you mash the BBC’s costume-drama expertise with less traditional styles of storytelling. The acting is uniformly excellent, but it’s McKenzie who carries the whole thing, giving a string of subtle modulations to what is basically the same performance, as Ursula’s experiences impact on her character over the course of the narrative. It’s not overstating things to suggest that she breaks your heart over and over again throughout the series; her eventual attainment of something approaching acceptance also gains its power from the actress’ ability.

I don’t often write about current TV, partly because I think things usually need time and perspective in order to be properly assessed, but Life After Life contains two or three of the most powerful and exciting moments I’ve seen in the medium this year, more than any other show. It is in the nature of the one-off serial not to leave the same kind of footprint as a continuing drama, but this is so good it deserves to be remembered and appreciated.

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Smaller studios and mid-budget mainstream films scatter and run for cover as the dominant force in popular cinema makes its presence felt once more: yes, Marvel return with Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, a somewhat baroque title which nevertheless is certainly appropriate for the film. That said, there are a number of factors which may combine to have some viewers expecting things which aren’t quite there in the movie: given the striking level of ambition some other Marvel productions have shown, perhaps this is only to be expected.

Benedict Cumberbatch is back in leading-man mode as surgeon-turned-sorcerer Stephen Strange, who is generally acclaimed for his role in saving the universe a few movies back but still not entirely happy in his personal life (as is practically obligatory for a Marvel character). The doc is also afflicted by bad dreams, specifically one about a young woman being pursued by malevolent supernatural forces while being aided by a slightly different version of him.

Well, the girl from the dream crashes a wedding reception Strange is at, pursued by a big gribbly demon, and naturally he saves the day and rescues her (with a little help from Wong (Benedict Wong), whom these movies have done an impressive job of making into much more than just a sidekick). She turns out to be America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a unique individual in that there is only one iteration of her in the entirety of the multiverse of parallel worlds, and she has the gift of being able to travel between the different worlds almost at will. Naturally this makes her a person of interest, especially to a powerful and ruthless supernatural being who wants to kill America and steal her power.

Well, Strange and his various allies (in addition to Wong, he goes to the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) for help) aren’t going to stand for that sort of thing, but needless to say they find themselves hard-pressed and Strange and America have to flee through a series of other parallel worlds, some of them jarringly odd, others rather familiar. But can they find a way of saving America’s life and defeating their adversary for good?

As noted here passim over the last decade or so, it’s quite rare for Marvel to turn out a movie which is not a solidly constructed and imaginative piece of entertainment – crowd-pleasers are what they do, and anyone who usually enjoys a Marvel film is likely going to enjoy this one too. Expectations are probably higher than usual for this one, partly because it’s directed by Sam Raimi (who has previously made some of the best Marvel superhero films ever), but also because it’s following on the heels of Spider-Man: No Way Home, another film with Cumberbatch which was deeply involved in matters multiversal.

Well, there are elements of Multiverse of Madness which certainly seem to be informed by Raimi’s CV as a director, but rather further back than his Spider-Man trilogy: there’s much more of a horror movie vibe to this film than anything else Marvel have done on the big screen recently. Some moments in the film are unexpectedly grisly and macabre, although I wouldn’t describe it as actually being any more scary than most mainstream films.

The multiversal element of the film is likely to be one of the things that may throw and possibly disappoint especially ardent viewers: following the cameo-stuffed pleasures of No Way Home, there has been a lot of excitable on-line chatter about just who could be turning up in this film. It’s tricky to talk about this without risking spoilers, obviously, but expectation management might not be a bad idea here – the closest thing the film has to a big gosh-wow moment won’t really come as a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention to the publicity for it. The rest of its surprises are clever, but you really need to be a devotee to get all the references and jokes, to the point where a Disney+ subscription is almost obligatory. This is certainly the case with a major element of the film’s plot, which is arguably lacking in the dear old objective correlative if you haven’t seen the applicable streaming series.

This is possibly a problem for the film, as it makes a big deal out of seeing alt-universe versions of familiar characters, certainly at the expense of other possible ways of exploring the multiverse concept. Strange is repeatedly asked if he’s really happy, and you might expect the film to explore the possibility of a world which has a Strange-iteration who genuinely is content. There’s dramatic potential here, obviously, but the idea is never really gone into – a typhoon of CGI and fan-friendly death-matches are what the script plumps for.

Long-term viewers might also be inclined to raise an eyebrow at how a character who was originally presented as powerful but not exceptional has, over the course of their last few appearances, become a virtually unstoppable force of reality-warping cosmic power, but that’s what the script here requires, I guess: in the same way, while the comics version of Doctor Strange is so nebulously omnipotent he’s often sidelined, treated as a plot device more than a character, the movie character is much more fallible and limited much of the time. He spends a lot of this film looking worried and running away – but, as I say, it’s all about the requirements of the story.

Nevertheless, the movie has a charm and energy of its own, especially in its weirder moments. This is what you hire Sam Raimi for, after all. What’s perhaps a little unexpected and quite pleasing is the fact that – for all its metaphysical extravagance – the impulse driving the plot is firmly rooted in recognisable human emotions and drives. This gives the actors something they can really work with – and while Cumberbatch is as good value as ever at the centre of the film, what’s really eyecatching is a very impressive performance by Elizabeth Olsen, almost certainly the best she’s given in a Marvel movie. The various ghoulies and spectres the film summons up are very insignificant compared to the moment of genuine emotional anguish at the heart of the story. It’s this which holds the film together and keeps it satisfying even when some of its peripheral pleasures threaten to become rather unravelled.

This even extends to the ending of the film, which comes close to being a less-than-fully-satisfying cliffhanger (maybe even more than one). If this latest phase of Marvel films is heading in a particular direction, what that direction is is by no means clear yet. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a mid-table entry for this franchise (perhaps just a little higher than average), but I don’t imagine the huge audiences Marvel movies routinely attract will be disappointed by it.

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It’s entirely possible I haven’t watched The Midas Touch since the last time The New Avengers was on terrestrial TV; it’s certainly not one of the episodes I would automatically reach for as an example of the series at its best. Why this should be is all in the carpentry of the story, I would suggest: the premise is a decent one and there are some nice touches, but the core of the episode is somehow not quite sound.

The plot proper gets underway with a squad of armed men searching some wasteland near London, under the command of this week’s villain, Professor Turner (David Swift, second of two). They are watched with some concern by a tramp (John Carson, fourth of four) whom has already been established as a burnt-out former colleague of Steed’s (this is done in a very nicely written and played scene between Carson and Patrick Macnee). The gag is that the heavily-armed and cautious bad guys are actually searching for a cute little white bunny – the further gag is that when the little critter nips one of the soldiers on the hand while being picked up, Turner has the man shot on the spot.

Off in another part of the story, Steed and his partners have received word that emissaries are on their way to London to negotiate for the services of someone or something known as Midas, for which substantial sums will be changing hands. They apprehend one of the envoys after an attempt is made on his life; he is played by Ronald Lacey (third of three), which would be fine were he not meant to be from Hong Kong. Lacey’s attempt at a Chinese accent – he sounds like a bad Peter Lorre impression – just makes a really awkward element of the plot even worse.

Oh well. With the Chinese off the scene the field is wide open for someone else to hire Midas, who is of course Professor Turner’s creation: Turner is an expert in bacteriological warfare, late of ‘Pilton Down’, and has hit upon the idea of making someone who is an asymptomatic carrier of every deadly disease known to man – just touching Midas’ skin results in a rapid and painful death (‘They died of everything!’ cries a bizarrely-accented Chris Tranchell, playing a doctor examining some of Midas’ victims). But who is Midas’ target and how can they stop him?

Well, the idea of the assassin as a sort of pandemic on two legs is an arresting one, but it obviously doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny (at least not as a precision weapon – even Midas’ own handlers have to wear a 70s version of a hazmat suit around him). Nor does much of the rest of the plot, which is convoluted without being especially interesting and heavily reliant on coincidence (Steed’s old friend just happening to stumble across Turner’s plan, for instance). On the other hand, this is something of a showcase for the stunt team (some good car chases and running around – lots of the action shots from the first series’ opening credits come from this episode) and there are some witty moments (Gambit and Purdey casually discuss John Huston movies in the middle of a hot pursuit). On the other other hand, there’s all the stuff with the non-Asian Chinese casting and yet more tacky moments with people lusting after Purdey. In the end I suppose it just about passes muster, but it does feel like a central gimmick in search of a better plot.

Someone else finally gets their name on a New Avengers script next, in the person of Dennis Spooner and the shape of Cat Amongst the Pigeons. The facts that this is possibly the best episode yet and that Spooner is, in my opinion, one of the great underrated geniuses of British fantasy TV may not be unrelated – though the fact it seems to be consciously trying to emulate the style of a Philip Levene script from the old show may have something to do with it, too. It opens with a pet shop owner hearing an eerie whistle, which is closely followed by the mysterious disappearance of all his bird stock. Elsewhere, this week’s doomed-colleague-of-the-trio is trying to call in a plan to assassinate one Hugh Rydercroft (Basil Dignam, second of two), a senior figure at the Ministry of Ecology. He hears the same mysterious whistle and next he is jumping off a cliff to escape… something. (At least he doesn’t actually die, but he’s too injured to spill the beans.)

Steed and the others double-check Rydercroft’s travel precautions, much to the annoyance of his own security people, and eventually let him fly off on a trip to Europe, piloting his own plane. But at the appointed time something happens and the plane falls out of the sky for no immediately apparent reason. But the wreckage is festooned with feathers and a guest character with something to prove finds a bird ring from a nearby sanctuary, which he promptly goes off to investigate alone without telling anyone else. Will he survive to the closing credits? Or even the last ad break? (Hint: no.)

Once it is revealed that Rydercroft and a few colleagues have been working on a plan to savagely cull bird numbers (doesn’t sound very ecological to me, but I digress), old hands will probably be able to write the rest of the episode for themselves. A bird fancier and former magician named Zarcardi (a great role for Vladek Sheybal, probably best known for playing SPECTRE’s strategic genius in From Russia With Love) is trying to stop the plan using his uncanny ability to control birds with a special flute: he can cause bird-strikes, sneak birds of prey into people’s offices and cars, call down ravenous flocks to peck people to death, and so on. Needless to say someone makes a reference to The Birds at one point.

To be honest, the mid-section of the episode unravels into a collection of set-pieces rather than a developing plot, but they are such good set-pieces: directed like a horror movie, with good work from the bird trainers (though it’s obvious on subsequent viewings the actual number of birds involved is minimal) and some good performances from the guest cast: Peter Copley (third of three) is one of the scientists, Hugh Walters plays a nervous crash investigator, and the great Kevin Stoney (second of two) doesn’t get enough to do as a creepy plot-expositor who’s been blinded by (we presume) a bird attack. It follows the structure of a classic Levene script very closely, even concluding with a reprise of the ‘Pussy Galore!’ gag from The Hidden Tiger (perhaps its most obvious antecedent). It’s not surprising that this is an episode which bears comparison with the original series.

The same is true of Target!, which I originally wrote about towards the end of 2014: it’s the one where the robot firing range has been suborned by enemy agents. What can I add at this point? Well, only a few things: research now indicates it is quite unlikely that the police box in this episode is the one from the Dalek movies. Also, in an attempt to drag my young nephew away from brain-rotting YouTube videos, we ended up watching a handful of episodes of The New Avengers together, including this one. I am happy to say he seemed to find it entertaining and engaging. Also, when you watch these episodes in order it is quite obvious that most of the action sequences are being given to Joanna Lumley and Gareth Hunt (perhaps understandably, given Macnee was in his mid-fifties at the time) – Gambit getting the hero role and saving the day isn’t quite as incongruous in context.

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It’s always an interesting moment when power and success which once seemed limitless suddenly comes up against a non-negotiable limit; when implacable might is firmly and unexpectedly put in its place. This rarely happens in the world of the blockbuster franchise – the major studios rely on these to keep going, so their progression forms part of the business-plan years in advance. Disney’s decision to suspend their yearly production of Star Wars movies sent a shockwave round the world, at least that of those people who take an interest in such things – the whole reason Disney had bought the franchise in the first place was that it seemed like an infallible license to print money.

I rather get the impression that Warner Brothers are having a similar experience when it comes to the whole Harry Potter/Wizarding World franchise. The comparison seems to me to be a valid one, as one of the few figures who must be able to understand what it feels like to be JK Rowling is George Lucas: the popularity of Star Wars amongst the hard-core fanbase has never appreciably wavered, but Lucas – who, and I feel the need to remind people of this occasionally, is the originator of the whole concept – was for a while being mocked and scorned and treated with casual contempt by people who clearly loved much of his work. No-one loves something quite as much as its most dedicated fans, obviously – but what is also true is that no-one has the same capacity for sheer hatred as a fan.

Which brings us back to the odd position of JK Rowling. If anything she is in a tougher bind than Lucas ever was: Lucas was castigated by his erstwhile fans for the understandable reason that they didn’t think the later films were very good. Much of Potter fandom’s beef with Rowling has nothing to do with the quality of her actual work as a writer of fiction, but is ideological in nature. There’s no arguing with ideology, particularly the fierce and uncompromising kind that Rowling has found herself on the wrong side of, hence attempts at what looks very like a coup: an attempt to wrest control of the Potter/Wizarding franchise away from Rowling and place it with the people who supposedly understand it best – the most dedicated fans, of course.

Rowling’s travails are fairly well-known, but some of this is taking place a distance down the rabbit-hole – so why should it have any effect on the current big-screen incarnation of the series, the Fantastic Beasts franchise? Well, it was always fairly obvious that a film series based on the back-story of some of the characters from the novels and their movie adaptations was going to be reliant on the goodwill of the hard-core Potter fanbase to succeed – but here again perhaps we are getting things backward. The Fantastic Beasts series only exists because it looked like there was a huge built-in audience for it. Six or seven years ago it appeared to be the safest of safe bets.

These days, of course, it looks like a distinctly iffy proposition. Quite apart from the controversy surrounding Rowling – whose name has greatly dwindled in prominence on the publicity material as a result – the series has also had to cope with the fact that de facto star Johnny Depp has had troubles of his own and been asked to leave the franchise as a result, while another key member of the cast got themselves arrested (and not for the first time) just the other day. The projected series of five films may be looking at a sooner-than-anticipated termination.

Once you start looking at the new movie – Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, directed (as usual) by David ‘Safe Pair of Hands’ Yates – with the idea in mind that it represents a franchise which is taking on water, you can’t help spotting sign after sign that something is amiss. It’s there in the way that Mads Mikkelsen has been parachuted in to replace Depp without the character’s change of appearance being addressed or referred to (this might have been less of an issue if this wasn’t effectively the third Grindelwald in three movies), it’s there in the strange, arcane, convoluted backstory of some of the characters – it’s vital to the plot, but never properly articulated – it’s there in the structure of the piece, which seems to be built around long, lavish, dialogue-free set-pieces which are stately rather than thrilling. It’s even there in the credits, which open a chink into a peculiar world of fine legal points and seemingly desperate attempts to cling onto as much credit as possible – ‘Screenplay by JK Rowling and Steve Kloves, based on a screenplay by JK Rowling’.

It would be nice to say that Kloves’ involvement has resulted in a movie with a bit more tangible story to it than the previous one. But we’re talking about a marginal improvement. Some time after the last movie, evil wizard Grindelwald is still set on his plan to become undisputed leader of the world’s magical community and bring about a fairly stringent programme of ethnic cleansing, directed at the non-magical population. (Some of this takes place in Germany in the 1930s, presumably because you just can’t be too on-the-nose sometimes.) In the Harry Potter books, the leadership position was apparently known as ‘Supreme Mugwump’ but they keep quiet about the exact title here, presumably because they’re gunning for a more mature tone.

Out to stop Grindelwald is his former boyfriend Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) – at least, he is if you’re not watching the film in one of those nations which has insisted on cutting the LGBT plot elements – but they are sort of magical blood brothers which stops them from confronting each other directly. And so Dumbledore is forced to rely on a selection of characters, some of whom we have seen in previous films, and some of whom we haven’t (at least, if we have, they made no impression on your correspondent) – Eddie Redmayne’s gratingly mannered magical naturalist, various magical cops and other experts, and a baker from New York with no actual magical skills.

Dumbledore’s plan is to defeat Grindelwald’s precognesis by doing things which are deliberately confusing and contradictory – I’m sure a smart cookie like you can see the problem with this kind of scheme in a film which is already densely packed with back-story and baggage from the previous two episodes. It all ends up revolving around a trip to Bhutan, Dumbledore’s family history, and something called a ‘chillun’ which looks like a cross between Bambi and a stegosaurus.

Needless to say all of this transpires over a murderously long running-time. Now, I must say again that this is a very good-looking film with some decent performances in it – Mikkelsen in particular makes the best of what’s arguably a bit of a hospital pass – and the very occasional surprising moment (for example, Peter Simonischek, star of Toni Erdmann, gets a brief cameo). But Rowling still seems to be writing long and densely-plotted novels, rather than screenplays, and doesn’t do nearly enough to make the piece accessible to non-fans of this setting.

That’s the thing about this film, and Fantastic Beasts in general – they’re not awful, they’re not stupid, they’re not offensive in any way – although some might argue that doing an allegory for the rise of Hitler in this particular context was possibly inappropriate, to put it mildly. Aesthetically and artistically they are frequently pleasing. But unless you’re really, really committed to Rowling’s world they’re just not that interesting. Nothing commands your attention and drags you in, nothing ever actually surprises you.

Well – as the film finally came to a close, I was actually pleasantly surprised when the plot showed every sign of, if not actually being resolved, certainly being brought to a point where there were no major loose ends. The jury is still out on whether Fantastic Beasts 4 and 5 ever get made, depending on box office for this one, but it looks very much like Warner Brothers are getting ready to quit while these films still make a profit. Part of me would regret that, because in a way these films are certainly weirder and more singular than the typical Hollywood franchise movie, but then again it does look like JK Rowling’s days of having creative carte blanche are over. But I can’t honestly say there is any sign that not having further instalments would in any way impoverish our culture.

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