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Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

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.

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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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Reckless use of atomic energy upsets the natural order of things, spawning a terrible monstrosity which rises from the sea and threatens the dominion of man, devastating a famous city while scientists work desperately to find a way to resolve the situation. Given a capsule synopsis like that, it’s entirely surprising that Behemoth the Sea Monster is often dismissed as simply a low-budget rip-off, a minor work cluttering up an already overcrowded genre. Well, maybe. In some ways I feel it’s the very familiarity of many features of this film which make it interesting, if not exactly essential. (This film also trades under the title The Giant Behemoth, which is just a bit too close to a tautology for my tastes.)

Okay, so, basic information first – this is a British-American film, released in 1959, and co-directed by Eugene Lourie and Douglas Hickox (Hickox’s debut production). Already connoisseurs of the loopier kind of genre film (and sometimes it’s hard for me to imagine anyone else hanging around this blog) will have pricked up their ears, for Hickox would go on to make the brilliant (and almost entirely different, in terms of sensibility) Theatre of Blood, while Lourie’s name appears on a number of interesting and accomplished films, most obviously The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Gorgo.

It’s over a decade now since I made my first vaguely systematic attempt to write about American sci-fi B-movies of the 1950s, but watching Behemoth get underway brought it all flooding back – it so closely adheres to the conventions of the genre that one could make a pretty good case that this is an archetypal exemplar of it (despite not actually being an entirely American film itself). It opens with the requisite cod-Biblical quote, declaimed over stormy seas, before a montage of A-bombs going off and a rather poetic monologue about scientists investigating the aftermaths of such blasts. This comes from imported American star Gene Evans, playing (but of course) visiting nuclear physicist Dr Steve Karnes, who is addressing some sceptical establishment scientists. The scene is a familiar one, but the dialogue is unusually well-written and the substance of Karnes’ speech is still strikingly on-point today – the ocean is not some bottomless dustbin for all the world’s rubbish and poison, but part of our environment, and what affects the tiny creatures at the bottom of the foodchain will eventually reach us, with unforeseeable consequences. Needless to say Karnes gets a cool reception, but local eminence Professor Bickford (Andre Morell, basically reprising the same performance he gave in Quatermass and the Pit on TV a few months earlier) is sympathetic and respectful.

Nevertheless, in terms of establishig the theme of the film, this whole scene is a bit on-the-nose and is basically just there to introduce the two lead characters nice and early on. When a bit of actual plot becomes essential, we go off to Cornwall where a nice old fisherman, checking his tackle on the beach one evening, is killed when… well, it’s initially unclear, for there is some radiophonic noise and a sudden flare of intense light. But we know this movie is called Behemoth the Sea Monster so we suspect the answer will prove to be an outlandish one.

The old man’s death is followed by masses of dead fish washing up on beaches all around Cornwall. Mixed in with the fish is something which looks a bit like mashed potato but virtually burns the hand off one young fisherman who tries to pick it up; we are left to conclude for ourselves what the lethal mash actually is. (The experienced viewer will not be surprised by the strict delineation in the movie between the working class (brave, headstrong, essentially helpless), the military (brave, organised, essentially helpless), and the scientific establishment (brave, brilliant, and capable of doing virtually anything if given enough time and resources). The few women characters in the film don’t benefit from such careful character development, though they are certainly less brave.)

Karnes and Bickford hit the scene and eventually conclude that something big and radioactive is lurking off-shore – unfortunately it proves to be undetectable by radar or sonar, which pads out the movie a tad. But, like any respectable sea monster, Behemoth rapidly gets bored with hanging around out in the sticks and sets course for London, though not before frying a local farmer and his son first. The trail of car-sized footprints tips our heroes off to what they’re up against, and they check in with eccentric paleontologist Dr Sampson (Jack McGowran), who seems more delighted than anything else by the prospect of seeing a live relict dinosaur (Behemoth is, we are informed, a paleosaurus from the fictitiosa group – a close relative of the rhedosaurus, if one were inclined to be ungallant). Suffice to say he probably changes his opinion when Behemoth nukes his helicopter while he’s attempting to observe the creature.

Well, you get the idea – and even if you haven’t, the chances are you’ve probably seen another film with something very similar going on. Thankfully the film is soon able to stop counting the pennies, abandon its attempts at something approaching documentary realism, and splurge on the big stop-motion monster rampage stuff which is what the audience is here for: Behemoth sinks the Woolwich car ferry (this would probably have been a big deal at the time), tears down a few cranes, appears to demolish Westminster Bridge, and generally wreaks havoc in London, while the scientists are desperately concocting a means to eliminate this menace… but is it already too late?

I fished out my dog-eared copy of The Illustrated Dinosaur Movie Companion to refer to while watching Behemoth the Sea Monster and found it received only a distinctly average rating of two brontosauruses out of five. This strikes me as a bit unfair, but also perhaps understandable, as this is in many ways the awkward middle child of three very similar films directed by Lourie in the course of a decade – it doesn’t have the bravura animation sequences of Ray Harryhausen to boost its climax, just some quite primitive and clearly underfunded work from an elderly Willis O’Brien and his team, nor does it have the colour or scale or brilliant central twist of his final film. So what’s the point of it, if it brings nothing new to the party?

Well… new is a relative thing, after all, and what makes Behemoth quite striking, if you’re not prepared for it, is quite how seriously everyone is taking the story. This kind of film is often dismissed as basically just kiddy-fodder nowadays, simply because even the best effects have dated so poorly they now seem laughable, but the film is trying to make serious points about the environment and ecology, albeit in a monster-horror-movie idiom. It seems to me that Lourie wasn’t just repeating himself – he’d clearly seen what Ishiro Honda had done with the ‘atomic sea monster’ idea in the first Godzilla film, producing an movie of extraordinary resonance and bleakness, and was attempting to incorporate some of that atmosphere back into an English-language genre movie.

This is most obvious in the sequence where the monster first comes ashore and attacks London. Some of the acting from the extras is charmingly awful, it’s true, and the monster is notably less charismatic than other equivalent beasts, but there’s a real sense of panic and terror in some of the scenes featuring fleeing crowds – the camera is much closer to them than is usually the case with a crowd-fleeing-from-giant-monster shot – and as Behemoth blasts them with atomic rays we see them tumbling to the ground, flesh covered in gruesome radiation burns. This is not kids’ stuff; nor is the way that (in the ferry sequence) it is firmly established that women and children are amongst the victims. In terms of monster-related grimness, I’ve seen nothing like it except in the original Godzilla.

All that said, I still found Behemoth to be slightly hard work – it’s not a complete rip-off of any single film, but that doesn’t mean there is a single element of it that is genuinely original. All of its ideas come from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, or Godzilla, or other sci-fi monster movies of the period – whatever creativity is involved just concerns how the different ingredients are mixed together. If you’re genuinely interested in atomic monster horror movies, then the subtle difference in the formula here will probably be enough to make it a rewarding watch for you. If not, then there are several other movies telling basically the same story with much more impressive results.

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Some movies acquire their own folklore as supposedly ‘cursed films’, beset by more than their fair share of accidents and problems. The most famous example is probably The Exorcist, doubtless because of its subject matter – one cast member died and various others suffered on-set accidents. Other films which infamously suffered production difficulties, up to and including injuries and deaths, include The Matrix Reloaded and (most recently) No Time to Die. (Though there’s a facetious case to be made that pretty much every big film over the last almost two years has cause to consider itself cursed.)

Slightly more abstractly, there’s an argument to be made that, for many years at least, the entire notion of doing a sequel to Ivan Reitman’s 1984 film Ghostbusters seemed to labour under some kind of baleful influence. The original film is terrific, let us be in no doubt on this point, but the direct sequel was notably poor, and the 2016 all-female reboot, whatever its merits or otherwise as a film, is likely to be best remembered for the incredibly toxic reception it received from some sections of the fanbase. Hostile early reviews for the latest attempt at a continuation, Jason (son of Ivan) Reitman’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife, suggested that a good Ghostbusters follow-up might simply not be possible.

Reitman the Younger’s movie opens with a bit of scene-setting spookiness out in America’s heartlands which is not, to be honest, a model of clarity when it comes to establishing exactly what’s going on, although anyone familiar with the 1984 film will be able to figure out some of the key details (how well versed you are in the original will probably have a direct bearing on how good a time you have with Afterlife). The obfuscation is mostly intentional, as a lot of the film is structured as a mystery anyway.

From here we are plunged into the lives of a struggling family whose only hope of getting out of their dire financial straits is the fact that mother Callie (Carrie Coon) has recently inherited a farm from her estranged father. Living there will entail relocating to Oklahoma, which does not fill the hearts of her children Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) with joy. (Phoebe is brilliant but socially awkward, while Trevor is in training to start work as a Timothee Chalamet impersonator.)

Nevertheless, off they all go to the sticks, to the small town of Summerville (one of the iron laws of cinema and TV is that whenever somewhere has a name incorporating the words Summer, Sunny, or Pleasant, it’s practically a guarantee that this is ironic and someone is in for a pretty grim time: see The Wicker Man, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Pleasantville, Point Pleasant, etc). It duly turns out that the house and other buildings on the farm are filled with spooky old junk, up to and including backpack cyclotron proton generators and an ancient hearse with a rather odd colour-scheme.

Summerville is also afflicted with regular earth tremors, despite being nowhere near a seismically active zone, a fact which puzzles local seismologist and useless summer school teacher Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd) – his idea of occupying his students is to let them watch cheesy 1980s horror films (one of these is Cujo, which seemed to me to be an oblique acknowledgement of how much all the small-town Americana of the film is derived from Stephen King).

It transpires that the events of the 1984 film have become a cross between an urban legend and folklore, and Grooberson is savvy enough to recognise that some of the junk Phoebe and Trevor have discovered is equipment from the original Ghostbusters team. It transpires that their grandfather was indeed a Ghostbuster, and he relocated here, alienating his friends and family, because he believed the world still faced an even greater threat…

Some of the initial reviews of Ghostbusters: Afterlife were not afraid to put the boot in with what some might call excessive force: ‘a stinking corpse of a movie’ is one phrase which stuck in my memory. Well, fair enough: I can see why there are elements in this film which might alienate some viewers – the way its respect for the 1984 film sometimes seems to border on actual fetishization of it being perhaps the most obvious one. Props, costumes and throwaway gags are swooningly dwelt upon, and while it’s not unusual for the plot of a sequel to largely be a retread of the original, it is rare for this to happen quite as openly as happens here: there are most of the same monsters and villains, and some of the original sets and dialogue is revisited. If you’re the kind of person who feels that digitally resurrecting performers who have passed on breaches some kind of boundary of taste and decency, this is also a film which will give you pause.

I suppose you could also argue the film is chasing an audience in the way it apparently attempts to co-opt some of the style and atmosphere of the popular entertainment series Stranger Things (Finn Wolfhard apparently appears in this programme). My ability to comment on this is quite limited, as I am that person you may have heard of who has never seen Stranger Things (though from looking at its pop-cultural footprint I feel I have a pretty good idea of what it’s all about). Certainly the movie is less of a comedy than the original, and the emphasis is very much on the younger characters until the very end.

While it’s true the film gets off to a slow start and takes a while to find its groove (I was almost moved to hug Paul Rudd, figuratively speaking, when he eventually appeared – for he’s just a reliably entertaining screen presence), in the end I found it to be rather charming, occasionally very funny, and in a couple of places actually quite scary. The change of scene and introduction of the new group of younger leads, not to mention the way the film is structured, means it has a wholly different energy, atmosphere and tone to the 1984 film – although perhaps this is what makes the brazen recycling of plot elements more palatable. It certainly feels it’s working hard to establish itself as its own thing before it wheels on the ‘special appearances’ by most of the original cast.

In the end it’s the warmth and occasional poignancy of the film which really makes it work, and much of this is channelled through an extremely winning and impressive performance by Mckenna Grace. I was certainly filled by a rush of fondness for the original movie; Afterlife may fundamentally be fuelled by a mixture of sentimentality and nostalgia, but that can be a potent combination when it’s employed as effectively as it is here. It’s not in the same league as the original film, but a worthwhile addendum to it.

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With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps it was always the Eternals who had the most potential to throw a spanner in the works of the mighty Marvel machine. One of the more abstruse debates in the realms of comic book history is the exact nature of the working relationship between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and who, if anyone, was the dominant creative talent. Both men claimed it was them, one way or another; Lee was a more flamboyant self-publicist by far, and had another quarter-century to put his side of the story after Kirby died in 1994, hence his status as the perceived Prime Mover of the Marvel Universe.

Not that this is necessarily untrue. Working together, the Lee-Kirby partnership produced the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, the X-Men, Daredevil, Black Panther and the Silver Surfer. Lee working with other artists, most notably Steve Ditko, created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. Kirby working alone, on the other hand… well, he co-created Captain America back in the 1940s, but apart from that – Machine Man, anyone? Devil Dinosaur?

The original Eternals comic-book was the product of Kirby’s mid-seventies sojourn with Marvel Comics, something he wrote and pencilled himself. Heavily influenced by (amongst other things) the ‘ancient astronaut’ books of Swiss hotelier and convicted tax-fraud Erich von Daniken, it was never really supposed to be a part of the larger Marvel universe, being a cosmology separate to itself. It didn’t stay that way, of course, but the grafting of the Eternals characters onto the wider continuity has never quite taken: someone has a go at doing something with the Eternals every few years, which is briefly successful, but then they all get quietly forgotten about for a while, until the next revival comes along (one obscure bit of the lore is that, in the comics, Thanos is technically an Eternal; it’s not entirely clear if or how the movies are going to deal with this).

Will Chloe Zhao’s movie do anything to break this age-old (well, decades-old) cycle? Let us not forget that Zhao has the singular distinction of releasing a Marvel movie in the same year that her previous film (Nomadland – no, still haven’t seen it) won Best Picture at the Oscars. (What was that quote about what Fred and Ginger individually brought to their partnership?)

Well, the film gets underway with the first of several big whomps of exposition to the viewer’s head – delivered by roller caption, no less. It all boils down to a bunch of almost infinitely powerful aliens called the Celestials sending a slightly less infinitely powerful bunch of aliens called Eternals to Earth, to protect the developing human race from some considerably less infinitely powerful aliens called Deviants. (Lots of blazing cosmic power in the mix here, along with Kirby’s gift for rather oddball nomenclature – which the film rather cheekily cocks a few snooks at.)

We get to see the Eternals arriving on Earth in 5000 BCE: there is a nicely understated raid on Kubrick as their black slab of a starship slides toward the planet out of the void of space, followed by some well-staged superhero action in the classic style as they save some primitive humans from marauding, sinewy Deviants. All this stuff in the ancient past with the Eternals introducing humanity to various innovations (agriculture, steam-power, the Mexican accent) takes place in a lyrical-pastoral-mythical mode which I found rather pleasing, to be honest.

Cue a jump forward to the present day, where Eternal Sersi (Gemma Chan), who has vast cosmic powers and never ages but still apparently can’t grasp the concept of an alias, is working in London. An immense earthquake is followed by the emergence of a new strain of Deviant (whom the Eternals figured they’d killed off centuries ago, after which they went their separate ways). Her old flame Ikaris (Richard Madden) turns up to help out, and they decide it is time to get the band back together. When it turns out that one of their number has already been slain (the awkward bit of comics lore where Eternals are literally immortal and indestructible has been dispensed with for the film), the scene is set for the revelation of the truth about the Eternals’ true nature and that of their mission on Earth…

So, a bit of an outlier as Marvel movies go: so much so that you can almost imagine Eternals working better as a standalone film with no ties to the rest of the franchise (in line with Jack Kirby’s original concept). The links that do make it in feel more than usually contrived; Marvel seem to feel obliged to cram obscure characters into each new film at this point, to say nothing of a voice cameo by… ah, I shouldn’t spoil it. (There are also a couple of references to DC Comics characters, who are apparently part of pop culture in the Marvel world. One wonders if the DC movie adaptations are any better over there.)

On the other hand, the fact the Eternals are such an obscure property – I could only have told you the names of a couple of these guys – means that the Progressive Agenda Committee have been very free to come in and give them a proper seeing to, retaining the names and (to some extent) power sets of the characters but changing ethnicities, genders, and almost everything else, regardless of Kirby’s original conception or indeed whether it even makes sense on the film’s own terms. But then this is the nature of modern culture, as is the appearance of a disagreeable trope, the nature of which would be another spoiler.

There are still a whole bunch of Eternals, though, which means many of them inevitably spend a lot of time in the crowd scenes just standing around in the background – one main character is completely absent throughout the climax and I honestly didn’t notice he wasn’t involved. Who manages to cut through? Well, Madden does okay as Ikaris, as does Salma Hayek as the matriarch Ajak; Angelina Jolie undeniably makes an impression in a rather secondary role as mentally-fragile war-goddess Thena. There’s an interesting role for Kumail Nanjiani as an Eternal who’s become a Bollywood star – however, as ostensible lead Sersi, Gemma Chan is amiable but essentially affectless.

And the result is… well, the film certainly has scope and a sort of visual majesty about it, even if some of its ruminations on the nature of belief and free will and destiny aren’t anything like as profound as the film-makers were probably hoping for. It’s all a bit like a galleon under full sail: deeply impressive and beautiful to look upon, and maybe even rather stirring, but at the same time hardly agile and not exactly what you’d call sparky fun, either. (Some might say this gives it the authentic feel of one of Jack Kirby’s solo projects.) It may well be that this is the best adaptation of Eternals one could realistically hope for, but at the time of writing this is the worst-reviewed film in Marvel Studios’ history (‘the script is a load of hooey’ is the considered opinion of one writer on a major British paper), and while I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that, it’s hard to think of another film in the Marvel meta-franchise which is less obviously a crowd-pleaser.

That said, a healthy crowd turned out for the first showing at my local multiplex (what can I say, I needed to get out of the house to avoid the cleaners), and the two evening showings that day were close to selling out, so it would be foolish to declare Eternals to be the death-knell of the whole Marvel project. But this will be a considerable test of the brand’s ability to retain an audience, I suspect. Future plot developments may prove otherwise, but for now this looks like the least essential Marvel movie in ages.

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One sign of the movie business getting back to normal – the scheduling and releasing wing of it, anyway – is the fact that major releases, like Commander Bond’s latest excursion, are surrounded by a sort of exclusion zone where no sensible person releases another commercially-oriented movie – never mind not releasing in the same week, there were no major films out the week before or the week after. By ‘commercially-oriented’ I of course mean ‘films expecting to draw big audiences’.

Nevertheless, the reason we have the expression counter-programming is because some films are aimed at the kind of niche audience that probably doesn’t want to go and see a big popcorn blockbuster anyway, and will happily trot off to the local arts centre to see something more unconventional. As previously touched upon, The Green Knight has seemingly been designated an art-house movie for these purposes, not running at all in the local multiplex (I can kind of see why you’d make that decision) and joining in it on the fringes, well beyond the mainstream, is Fanny Liatard and Jeremy Trouilh’s Gagarine.

Yes, they are French, yes, this film is subtitled, and – just in case you were wondering – there is an odd blend of non-naturalism and le old Nouvelle Vague about the movie. Even its origins are slightly off-the-wall: the directors have a history as documentarians and were recruited to interview the occupants of Cite Gagarine, a housing project in Paris (basically a tower block to the likes of you and me). The project was being considered for demolition and the architects wanted someone to interview the residents about their experiences. And, as you presumably would if you were a French documentary film maker, this inspired Liatard and Trouilh to make a full-length narrative film about the last days of Gagarine, albeit working from a rather skewed perspective.

The movie opens with archive footage of your actual Yuri Gagarin visiting the project which bore his name, and interviews with some of the crowd that turned up to meet him. A young boy is asked if he’d like to go into space, but he cheerfully admits to doubting he’s good enough – even from a very early age, one absorbs a sense of what one can realistically aspire to do.

Then again, much of the film feels like a retort to this, although not an angry one. The narrative jumps to something not far off the present day, with some fabulous images of the sun rising past the rectilinear bulk of the tower, and a skewed shot of a forest of satellite dishes resembling a radio telescope array: the film may be set in urban Paris, but its heart lies in outer space.

Gagarine is being assessed for demolition, and doing his absolute utmost to make sure it isn’t torn down is Youri (Yuri according to the subtitles on the print I saw), a young man living alone in one of the flats (the fate of his father is never really addressed, but his mother has taken up with a new man who doesn’t want him around). This is a very winning performance from Alseni Bathily, who doesn’t appear to have acted before. Youri is going around replacing all the broken lights and wiring with the help of his best friend, using scrap he’s acquiring courtesy of getting to know Diana, a young woman from the local Roma community (Lyna Khoudri, who has the enviable ability to play a character getting on for half her actual age).

But, of course, slightly quixotic programmes of DIY cut little ice with the people in charge of urban renewal schemes, and the decision is made to demolish the project anyway. The community of Gagarine – and the directors take pains to show it is a community, not just a collection of social problems – begins to dissolve as everyone is relocated.

Youri, however, stays put, hiding from the construction workers charged with stripping the place out, and converting his apartment on the top floor into… well, not actually a space capsule, but something which strongly resembles one. More or less his only company is Dali (Finnegan Oldfield), the local drug dealer, who may have his own ideas about what to do with Youri’s hydroponic garden. Romance glimmers with Diana, but it does seem like Youri is staging a full-scale retreat from reality. Can it possibly end well?

Gagarine is a good-looking, vivid, and ambitious film, well-played by the mostly-youthful cast and filled with striking imagery. Much of it is a compassionate and non-judgmental look at the lives of people too-easily dismissed as have-nots, naturalistically and convincingly presented. But of course there’s a whole other thread to this film, which becomes increasingly dominant as it continues, which I suppose you could describe as magic realism (‘Magic realism is Spanish for Fantasy,’ according to the late Gene Wolfe; possibly it’s a cognate in French, too).

Comparisons with High Rise are doubtless lazy and facile, but there is something very Ballardian about the way that the external world and Youri’s cosmic imaginings slowly begin to elide, courtesy of inventive set design and impressive cinematography. There are some wonderful images at the climax of the film, and a strong emotional arc to the story. The only issue – and perhaps this isn’t so much a problem as a convention of this kind of film – is that what exactly’s going on is not entirely clear on a boring old nitty-gritty plot-carpentry kind of level.

But, as I say, this may not have been the primary concern of the film-makers anyway, and the film does show every sign of being rigorously thought-through in terms of theme and imagery. The juxtaposition of Parisian housing projects and slightly retro space travel is not an obvious or especially natural one, but the directors find a rich source of material here, resulting in a film that may occasionally feel strange, but does so in a way which is entirely intentional. ‘The Martian set in a tower block’ is the glib elevator pitch for this film, but that doesn’t do justice to it. It’s true that Gagarine is much stronger on atmosphere and imagery than plot, but these alone are strong enough to make it a rewarding watch.

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Family movie night again (well, with my niece and nephew, anyway: their parents were off watching Bond) and I found myself in the midst of a ticklish diplomatic negotiation – finding a film to keep all parties happy. Virtually impossible, of course (it seems to me that the main innovation of the streaming era is that the protracted arguments you used to have in Blockbuster can now take place in front of your flat-screen), especially given the fact that my tastes incline towards nephew’s naturally, and I do worry about niece feeling a bit underserved.

So, in the end, I made an executive decision and we ended up watching Ron Howard’s Splash from 1984, which (the odd joke about Swedish pornography aside) I recalled as being nice, innocuous fare – this was admittedly based on my sole viewing of the film at Christmas 1987, so it’s not like my memory was pinpoint sharp or anything.

So: here we have a rom-com of the fantastical variety, although there are some interesting structural anomalies to it which we will come to in good time. A rather young Tom Hanks plays Allen Bauer, co-owner of a New York City fruit and veg wholesaler, who seems to be doing okay financially but is just not happy when it comes to his love life: no matter how seemingly perfect the woman in his life appears to be, he just can’t seem to engage romantically with them. His crass elder brother (John Candy) doesn’t seem to see the problem, but Allen wants love.

And so he drives up to Cape Cod, which for you or I would seem like an odd way to solve this particular problem – for him it makes marginally more sense, as he had an odd encounter there when he fell off a boat as a young man and hallucinated (obviously) seeing a young mermaid in the water. Apparently the area has form in this area, as a fringe marine biologist named Kornbluth (Eugene Levy) has turned up to go mermaid-hunting.

Well, what do you know, but Allen ends up falling in the water again, and knocking himself out. He wakes up on a nearby beach, apparently having been dragged to safety by a gorgeous naked blonde woman (Daryl Hannah) – maybe there’s something to be said for Cape Cod after all. She flees into the water when he attempts to speak to her, but still hangs onto his wallet (maybe there’s a lesson there, lads).

(The MousePlus version of Splash, which we watched, has a caption announcing it has been digitally re-edited for its appearance on the platform. I thought this meant the Swedish pornography joke had been expurgated, but no: what they’ve done is digitally extended Daryl Hannah’s hair to cover her bum when she’s running away from the camera. Apparently even an innocent pair of bare buttocks is unacceptable to the mouse executives – but the effect just makes it look like she’s got a furry arse, which is considerably less charming than the original scene must have been.)

Well, Allen goes back to New York, where he is soon afterwards joined by the blonde woman, who is indeed a mermaid, and has tracked him down using his driving licence and some ancient nautical charts (yes, this is a movie which makes a few substantial asks of the audience, even given that it is about mermaids). This being the 80s, and the whole safe sex message not quite having got going yet, they go straight back to his apartment for some off-screen (but apparently intensive) whoa-ho-ho: whether Allen later contracts Fin Rot or something similar is not disclosed.

However, there are wrinkles in the idyll which appears to be in the offing: for one thing, the mermaid, who takes the name Madison (this was a joke at the time, but as a result of the movie it experienced an immense spike in its popularity), can only stay on land for five or six days before having to leave forever (it’s an arbitrary plot-enabling rule). Also, Kornbluth is aware that Madison is staying with Allen and is determined to expose her and thus vindicate his belief in the existence of merfolk (their tail turns into legs on lend, until they get wet, at which point the tail reappears – another ability the film seems to have invented wholesale as a plot-enabler, along with Madison’s ability to learn perfect English in an afternoon just by watching TV)…

Splash is a charming, funny film, and you can see why it was a big hit and gave most of the people involved such substantial career bumps – this is really the start of the career of Tom Hanks as we know him – not too long prior he was appearing in things like the silly scaremongering TV movie Mazes and Monsters, while he was also in the coarse frat-boy comedy Bachelor Party in the same year. At the time I doubt anyone honestly thought they were looking at the great leading man of his generation, but with hindsight you can see just why Hanks has become such a big star.

Daryl Hannah hasn’t done quite so well – I don’t remember seeing her in anything since Kill Bill – and while this may be due to the usual way movie star career trajectories pan out – men mature, women either fade away or end up in character parts – perhaps it’s also got something to do with the rather odd structure of the film, which I alluded to earlier.

I don’t want to generalise, but the rom-com genre is usually perceived as being quite female-oriented, or at least egalitarian in the way they handle the two leads. The thing about Splash is that it mixes into the rom-com formula some quite big dollops of broader comedy, as well as a sort of action-adventure jeopardy climax which feels like it owes a lot to E.T.. (This is where the Swedish pornography gag fits in, along with the pricelessly funny image of John Candy trying to play squash with a fag hanging out of his mouth.) These skew the film more towards a general audience. In addition to this, Madison never quite feels like a fully realised character, she’s just a sort of convenient fantasy figure (blonde, often-clothing averse, large sexual appetite – not sure the furry arse fits this profile though) – it’s Allen whose personality and feelings the film seems much more interested in exploring. Perhaps this is what you need to do for your rom-com to be a break-out hit – Four Weddings was a smash, which was likewise very focused on the male lead, while the critically-adored The Shape of Water (which is almost a darker, role-reversal version of the same story) billed itself as a fantasy or even a horror film rather than a romance.

I don’t know how much of this was the result of calculated choices by Ron Howard and the directors (nor, for that matter, how much of a debt the film owes to the British romantic comedy Miranda and its sequel, films with a vaguely similar theme), but I think they contributed substantially to Splash’s success. I enjoyed seeing it again, and my young relatives found it quite diverting too. So we may cautiously describe it as a minor classic – even if I would still recommend the pre-digital-editing version.

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If you’re anything like me (which isn’t really a fate I would wish on anybody), there is something of an elephant in the room when it comes to David Lowery’s The Green Knight (currently enjoying a low-profile theatrical run in the UK after having its release cancelled in the summer due to a spike in the virus numbers). You may recall a movie called Gods of Egypt from a few years ago, in which Gerard Butler, Geoffrey Rush, Elodie Yung, and others played the titular pantheon; the movie wasn’t exactly great, but a lot of the stick it drew was because none of the leading cast were actually Egyptian. (The question of ethnicity when applied to deities is an intriguing one, but let’s not get sidetracked.) Ethnically-appropriate casting is, according to a voluble section of society, very important.

So, anyway, back to The Green Knight, a story set in Dark Ages Britain, concerning the hero Gawain (or Gawaine), who according to some versions of the Arthurian legend hails from the Orkneys. And he is played by Dev Patel, because apparently ethnically-appropriate casting is not an issue on this occasion, at least less of an issue than diversity and colour-blind casting.

Well, whatever. If you feel that every film, no matter what its setting and source material, has to represent an idealised version of contemporary society, then that’s a coherent position you’re entitled to take. It just kicks me out of the movie when something like this happens, that’s all. I mean, Armando Ianucci’s David Copperfield film (also with Patel) just about got away with it, mainly through being studiously non-naturalistic throughout, but I don’t think this is an option open to every film.

Anyway. Let’s talk about the movie proper, which opens one Christmas in – not that it matters much – probably the 6th century. Gawain, though kin to King Arthur (an idiosyncratic but memorable performance by Sean Harris), is still something of a young wastrel, spending all his time carousing and disporting with a young prostitute (Alicia Vikander). However, he is summoned to court by the King for the Christmas feast, and Arthur expresses a desire to know him better.

However, the feast interrupted by the coming – it is implied, the summoning – of a stranger, and a very strange stranger he is: a man made of wood. And, no, this wooden presence is not Orlando Bloom, but the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), who has come to play a special Christmas game with the knights of the Round Table – one of them must try to strike him, gaining great renown and glory if he succeeds. But a year hence, the other contestant must seek the Green Knight out and receive in turn whatever wound he inflicted.

Looking to make a name for himself, Gawain volunteers, and after – it is implied – being lent Excalibur by his uncle, arguably gets carried away and ends up beheading the visitor. Decapitating someone at a Christmas party always casts something of a pall, I find, but on this occasion the situation is somewhat saved when the headless body clambers to its feet, picks up the severed bonce and rides away – though not before Gawain is reminded that, one year hence, he is honour-bound to receive payment in kind from the Green Knight…

Anyone’s who’s been keeping up will be aware that I’ve been awaiting this movie somewhat impatiently, filling in the time by watching Excalibur, The Fisher King, and First Knight – my friends and I have been scratching our TTRPG itch with King Arthur Pendragon for the past few months, so it’s all grist to that particular mill. It certainly offers a new and distinctive take on the Arthurian legend, not least in the way it attempts to blend historical grit and uncompromising fantasy – but perhaps that’s not the right word, perhaps mysticism would be better.

This is absolutely not a straight-forward historical adventure, but a disquieting and often spikily strange movie, which makes a point of reminding the audience that this particular tale has been told many times before in different ways. As I’ve suggested in the past, the Arthur legend endures because it is vast and deep enough to accommodate all kinds of interpretations; David Lowery’s version is certainly not going to ‘break’ the myth.

Nevertheless, the film contains an odd mixture of fidelity and innovation, some of it quite self-conscious. The legend surrounding Arthur is pared back – Excalibur, Guinevere and Merlin are all present, but not referred to by name; none of the other famous knights gets anything significant to do. Also present is the figure of Gawain’s mother, who is Orcades (also known as Morgawse) in the legends – Lowery simplifies things by making her a more famous sister of the King, Morgan le Fey (played here by Sarita Choudhury), though again this is not made explicitly clear until the closing credits. One of the innovations is the heavy implication it is Morgan who summons the Green Knight, though her motivations are left for the audience to decide.

Quite a lot of what’s actually going on in The Green Knight – and, as importantly, what it all means – is left for the viewer to work out for themselves. The bulk of the film is concerned with Gawain’s journey to the chapel of the Green Knight, which comprises a series of adventures, some of them unearthly, others mundane, some almost sumptuously surreal in their presentation, and concluding with his stay at the home of a strange unnamed nobleman (Joel Edgerton) and his wife (Vikander again). Everything feels like it’s loaded with significance; the film is obviously heavily symbolic throughout, to the point where the actual plot sometimes feels like an afterthought, but interpreting what it all means is extremely difficult (especially while you’re watching it). This is a film that demands thought and time to fully assimilate.

And this is never less true than at the end, which is the section which has outraged some Arthurian purists. Some have complained the film changes the end of the story; I would just say that the film doesn’t have a conventional ending of any kind (shades of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, another Arthurian outlier, but the actual conclusions are quite different). The director has said a more definite ending was filmed, but the one they eventually went with was a deliberate choice.

(And I can’t really criticise this. Only after watching the film did I remember that, nearly 35 years ago, I was given the assignment of retelling this tale by my English teacher: we were given the premise, and told to continue the story. I couldn’t figure out what to do once Gawain reached the chapel, so I ended the story rather ambiguously at that point (and got a very good mark). Lowery, I hasten to say, takes a slightly different approach (and has likewise got good marks, from the critics).)

The film seems to be about the question of what constitutes a good life, at least in the case of a man like Gawain – wealth, longevity and happiness? Or honour and the fame that comes with it? (Very pertinent questions to a Pendragon game.) Not surprisingly, the film leaves the answer up in the air. One thing that is certain is what a visually impressive film this is, with an equally accomplished soundtrack. It definitely tend towards the arthouse more than the multiplex, and it’s probably easier to admire than genuinely love, but this is still an impressive movie on many levels.

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