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Posts Tagged ‘Joel Edgerton’

Jennifer Lawrence was as prominent as ever at the Oscars the other night, as befits a star of her calibre and popularity (I can’t remember when they started calling her ‘America’s Sweetheart’, and even if this was originally meant semi-ironically, that doesn’t seem to be the case any more). She wasn’t actually up for a gong this year, and one is tempted to suggest this is mainly because David O Russell didn’t have a film out this year (her last three Academy nods have all come from appearances in Russell movies).

Instead, she was plugging her new movie Red Sparrow, directed by Francis Lawrence (no relation, I find myself obliged to say), which mainly appeared to involve showing up on a cold London rooftop in a slinky and rather revealing black dress while her male co-stars were decked out in nice warm coats and scarves. Needless to say, t’internet had things to say about this double standard, and most of it was not complimentary. Surprisingly enough, reaction to Red Sparrow itself has been rather more mixed – personally, while I find Jennifer Lawrence’s decision to appear in that dress to be fairly unremarkable, I find her decision to appear in Red Sparrow to be borderline baffling.

The film is mostly set in present-day Russia and eastern Europe, not that this is immediately apparent. Lawrence plays Dominika, a nice young ballerina whose career comes to an end after a gruesome work-related injury nearly results in one of her legs coming off. Things look bleak for her and her poorly mum, until her sinister uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts), a member of the security services, appears with an offer: if she exploits her natural charms to get close to a person of interest, he will see she and her mum are looked after.

Well, naturally things do not go quite according to plan (or do they…?) and Dominika is presented with a choice of options: be shot in the head and dumped in the river as a witness to a secret operation, or go to a special training school and become a ‘sparrow’, a highly-trained specialist spy-stroke-prostitute (and you can probably guess what gets stroked the most). After due consideration of the alternatives, Dominika agrees to enrol in what even she describes as ‘whore school’.

Intercut with all this is the marginally more conventional tale of rugged CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) – do not let the fact his name means ‘ours’ in Russian, as any fule who have seen From Russia With Love kno, lead you to expect a twist – who is running a top-level mole inside Russian security. He knows who the mole is. The Russians know he knows who the mole is. He knows the Russians know he knows who the mole is. Rather than let this go on indefinitely, sinister uncle Ivan decides to send in Dominika to make contact (hem-hem) with Nash and persuade him to reveal who the traitor is. But will she stay loyal to the motherland? Could she in fact be playing a game of her own?

I suppose the first thing one has to say about Red Sparrow is to question the extent to which it is in good taste to make blockbuster entertainment about Russian espionage activities at the moment. Whether you think that Russian involvement in western politics and society is a serious problem (as I write this the UK news is full of what appears to be an attempted assassination on a former Russian national which took place on British soil, to say nothing of the protracted shenanigans in which President Man-Baby finds himself embroiled), or that the Russian government is an essentially harmless paper tiger, this kind of depiction is unlikely to move the world closer to unity and peace. ‘Your body belongs to the state!’ snaps the commandant of sparrow school, played with inimitable menace by Charlotte Rampling, who later goes on to announce ‘It is time for Russia to take its place at the head of other nations’. Russia is shown, in short, as being an almost cartoonishly awful and sinister place.

However, and somewhat startlingly, this doesn’t even begin to deal with all the most problematic elements of Red Sparrow. All right, films are in production for a long time – years, in the case of one like this – and I’m sure no-one involved had any more inkling that the Post-Weinstein Moment was on its way than the rest of us. But it remains the case that this film feels almost uncannily, supernaturally misjudged in its sexual politics, at the moment. We’re no more than twenty-five minutes in before the first time Jennifer Lawrence is forced to undress, and this is followed by a sequence which plays almost like a reconstruction of certain of the allegations that have been doing the rounds, as a rich and powerful man engages in a violent sexual assault on a vulnerable young woman in a hotel bedroom.

This isn’t the only recent film to add a little dash of this sort of thing – I have occasionally complained about Hollywood’s blase attitude to misogynistic violence in mainstream thrillers in the past – but what makes Red Sparrow different is that, ever since the first trailer, its advertising and marketing has focused solely on the fact that this is a Jennifer Lawrence vehicle and she is a very comely young woman. The whole subtext of the trailers could really be summed up as ‘Jennifer Lawrence as a sexy spy – cor! I mean – COORRRR!!!’ And the film is really no different – it really does feel like the sine qua non of the film is to show Lawrence in various alluring states of undress, and engaging in various provocative activities. It’s overwhelmingly prurient and actually rather repugnant: I emerged from the theatre feeling like I wanted to be hosed down with sheep dip, the film is that icky.

So, as I say, you really have to wonder what possessed as sharp a customer as Lawrence to make a film where she is depicted almost entirely as a sexually-objectified victim, where her physicality seems to have been at least as important as her acting ability. With regard to rooftopdressgate, Lawrence’s response was that she liked the dress, thought she looked good in it, and it’s nobody else’s damn business what she chooses to wear. Which I suppose is good strong feminist stuff, from a certain angle at least. And I expect one could make a similar defence of her appearance in the movie – it’s her career, after all, and if she wants to receive a massive cheque for doing gratuitous nude scenes in tacky sex-thrillers then that’s nobody’s business but hers. She owes no responsibility to anyone else.

Well, therein hangs the question, of course: Lawrence is free to do whatever she wants, and is unlikely to be casually exploited, no matter what happens. Other young women who are not influential celebrities with an estimated net worth of £84 million may find themselves in a different situation, and the issue is the extent to which Lawrence is personally responsible for the state of the world.  It’s a big one, of course, and probably too big to be properly discussed here, but I will just say this: Lawrence’s talent and power means she is never going to be short of films to appear in, so I don’t see why she felt it necessary to appear in this particular one, given it is so tawdry and unpleasant.

The thing is that once you get past the objectionable sexual politics of Red Sparrow, all you are actually left with is a turgid and overlong spy thriller. There are plenty of twisty-turny bits along the way, but it all feels curiously inert and is never especially engaging. For most of the film, the agendas and goals of the different characters remain enigmatic and shrouded in mystery: the problem is that this doesn’t engage or intrigue the viewer very much, you just don’t care, for some reason. This is despite a couple of pretty decent performances from Jeremy Irons (who recently, and with no discernible sense of irony, announced in a TV interview that actors shouldn’t pocket a big cheque if it means appearing in rubbish) and Schoenaerts.

Of course, even when it’s not being leery and exploitative, the film still often finds time to be graphically, sadistically violent – and there are even bits where it manages to be leery and sadistic at the same time: oh, look, here’s Lawrence having her clothes cut off preparatory to torture! Here she is actually being tortured! Here’s someone else being flayed alive!

Normally I would say all the violence was over-the-top, but in Red Sparrow‘s case it suits the tone of the rest of the movie all too well; that’s really the problem. And, as I’ve said (possibly at too great a length: what can I say, I’m a Guardian reader), this film does have more serious issues going on. It is competently made, up to a point – this is almost a problem in itself, as it gives the film a veneer of respectability it really doesn’t deserve – but beneath that surface is something comprehensively misogynistic and deeply objectionable.

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You usually know what you’re going to get when you watch a David Ayer movie; he’s that kind of film-maker. It’s going to be about guys, being masculine together, usually under trying conditions. Even when there are women in the film they basically act fairly masculine too. It may be that the guys in question are cops (as in Training Day, or SWAT, or End of Watch) or the crew of a tank (as in Fury) or super-powered mercenaries (as in Suicide Squad) – the general emphasis of things is more or less the same. Given that Ayer seems to be a reliably safe pair of hands, with several LA-set cop movies under his belt, you can understand why one of the world’s leading film and TV streaming companies (the name of which rhymes with Get Clicks) would get him on board for its most ambitious original project yet, which is yet another LA-set cop movie. Albeit one with a pretty big difference, as we shall see. The movie in question is called Bright.

Will Smith plays Daryl Ward, a somewhat careworn Los Angeles beat cop, coming back on duty after being shot in the line of duty. He blames his injury largely on his inexperienced partner, Nick Jacoby (Joel Edgerton). Ward doesn’t want Jacoby as his partner, but is uncomfortable with the openly racist attitudes of the higher-ups in the LAPD towards the rookie – for Jacoby is the first Orc to serve as a police officer in the city.

Yup, this is one of those movies. Bright‘s version of the USA is truly multi-racial, with Humans, Orcs, Elves, and other races living side-by-side (there also seem to be Centaurs, Dragons, and Fairies, but the Dwarves and Hobbits seem to be being held back for the sequel). Two thousand years earlier, the Orcs served a dreaded Dark Lord in his attempt to conquer the world, which still fuels prejudice and tension in the present day.

Well, the awkward relationship between Ward and Jacoby soon becomes the least of the cops’ problems, as they stumble upon the scene of a multiple murder and encounter Tikka (Lucy Fry), a traumatised young Elf. Also on the scene is a magic wand, which in Bright’s milieu is the equivalent of a suitcase full of heroin combined with a nuclear warhead. Soon enough Ward and Jacoby are being sought by corrupt LA cops, agents of the US Department of Magic, gangbangers both Human and Orc, and a cult of evil Elves determined to bring about the return of the Dark Lord. But our guys decide not to be chicken when it comes to Tikka, even if it seems highly unlikely they will survive the night…

David Ayer usually writes his own movies, but not this time: Bright is from the pen of Max Landis, previously the scribe of Chronicle, amongst others (he was also involved in the Power Rangers movie, though his script was ultimately not used). I’m not quite sure what to make of the main idea behind Bright, mainly because it manages to be soaringly high-concept and yet curiously unoriginal (the Shadowrun game franchise came up with the notion of fantasy and mythological beings living openly in a modern or near-future US over a quarter of a century ago).

There are a couple of other things about the script of Bright, too, and they’re both to do with the way the film mashes up pure fantasy with gritty realism. Personally, I think there’s good fantasy, where there’s some kind of thought-through underpinning to the whole thing (geography, metaphysics, history, that sort of thing), and – not to put too fine a point on it – bad fantasy, where the writer just makes up anything that takes their fancy and doesn’t worry about whether there’s any coherent basis to it. Bright is, to be blunt, bad fantasy – not just in its talk of magic wands and ‘brights’ (the gifted individuals who can use the wands), but in the simple basis of the story. It’s not just that this is a city which kind of resembles present-day Los Angeles in present-day America. We are informed it really is LA: and there are further references to places and events and things like Russia, the Alamo, and Uber. The world is wildly different in some ways and completely recognisable in others, not because this makes any sense but just because it’s the kind of movie they want to do.

Also, the moment I saw the trailer for Bright I found myself thinking, ‘Hmmm, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes moment incoming’ – that being a movie with an interesting approach to genre-based social commentary, as it essentially restages scenes from the civil rights struggle with apes in the role of African Americans. The allegorical coding in Bright is, if anything, even less subtle: Orcs live in the projects, wear sports clothing and jewellery, run in gangs, and so on. Nevertheless, just so everyone gets the point, Smith gets a line early on about how ‘Fairy lives don’t matter’.

The problem is that none of this sledgehammer social commentary seems to be there to any good purpose, unless Ayer and Landis really are suggesting that African Americans are physically powerful but a bit slow (etc.). I doubt that; it just seems like everyone thought this was a cool idea for a movie and didn’t worry too much about what any of it might mean, or indeed whether it made sense at all.

Now, I have been quite harsh about Bright so far, and the film has generally been picking up less glowing reviews than Get Clicks might have been hoping for (this hasn’t stopped them ordering a sequel, though). However, provided you lower your expectations and put your brain in low gear, there is still some entertaining stuff going on here. Smith and especially Edgerton give rather good performances as the co-leads (whatever its failings as a piece of fantasy, Bright holds together pretty well as a buddy thriller), Ayer directs the action with his usual aplomb, and Noomi Rapace is not bad as the chief Elf villain (finally, the role those cheekbones were born for). When it’s not being ponderously serious, there are some quite good lines, such as when Jakoby tries to persuade Ward they are in the midst of prophetically-foreseen events: ‘We’re not in a prophecy, we’re in a stolen Toyota,’ Will Smith snaps back. It still takes quite a while to properly get going, and arguably outstays its welcome a little too, but hardly objectionably so.

There’s definitely a sense in which Bright is still recognisably a David Ayer movie, but if anything the thing to take away from it (for the director if no-one else) is that Ayer should stick to writing his own scripts in future. It certainly works better as a guys-in-extremis thriller than it does as an actual fantasy movie, simply because it’s all about surface, with no thought given to anything else. I get the sense that Bright exists simply because a lot of people went ‘That sounds cool!’ and thought that was a good enough reason to make to movie. The actual movie strongly suggests that coolness can only take you so far, and no further.

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As soon as the theatre doors opened in the dark I felt my heart sink. Sometimes it feels like I get premonitions when it comes to this sort of thing. It had all been going so well – all the way through the adverts and then the trailers there had been only two or three of us in there, sitting far apart, obviously there to watch the film. And then they came in: four of them, young, male, juggling popcorn and drinks, muttering to each other. They had made two terrible mistakes, not that they realised it at the time: this was not their kind of film. And they had chosen to sit immediately behind me.

I went to see Hugo in 2012 and was forced to prevail upon someone at the back of the cinema to stop singing along to his smartphone in the middle of the movie. I went to Now You See Me in 2013 and found myself obliged to be quite astringent with some children who were throwing food and drink at each other a few rows behind me. I am quite prepared to put myself out there in this kind of situation. For all that I respect the quality of his thought, I would even have taken Peter Hitchens to task for not switching off his smartphone during Ex Machina, had it gone off one more time.

The whispering and rustling continued behind me, at an unreasonable level now the film was underway. I gave them Stage One, also known as a good shush. There was a brief reduction in the noise level, for a bit. But only for a bit. Subsequent shushings were followed by sniggering and ironic shushings back at me. At one point the whisperings became quite audible, along the lines of ‘this is a stupid movie, and anyone who wants to watch it is stupid, too’.

Eventually smartphone lights started flicking on and off behind me, drinks bottles were being juggled, and the noise escalated even further. It was time for Stage Two, also known as the hard word – ‘Are you going to talk all the way through this? Turn the phone off, shut up, and watch the film,’ I said, unprintably. ‘Stop swearing at us,’ said one of the confederacy of morons behind me. I was pretty sure at this point that they had not stumped up the extra couple of quid for the premium seats they were in and asked to see their tickets. ‘You don’t work here so we don’t have to.’

‘Then I’ll get someone who does,’ I said. I don’t recall ever having to go up to Stage Three before, because it really is the nuclear option, and involves missing part of the film (thus kind of defeating the point of the exercise). When I returned we had a degree of toing and froing around the cinema, but my playmates were fatally overconfident and were eventually ambushed by the manager and his minions. They were expelled into the outer brightness and the rest of us were left to enjoy the last twenty minutes or so of the film as best we could (I found myself wondering what my chances of being beaten up by the gang of them on the way to the bus stop were).

Is there a moral to this story? Not really. Except, perhaps, to say that the response of the cinema staff was pretty much exemplary, and it is a sadly necessary reminder that if you want a good cinema experience, sometimes you have to fight for it. It is also a bit regrettable that this was the only showing of the movie I could get to all week, but then I’m not entirely sure it’s a film I’d care to sit through again anyway, for all of its definite quality.

You know, in the circumstances I’m kind of wondering about my ability to give a completely objective review of Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes At Night. But hey ho, I’ll just have to do my best, I suppose. As you may know, I’m not averse to a spot of viral apocalypse, and It Comes At Night is a particularly cheery (this is not true) new entry to this particular subgenre.

The spread of a particularly nasty disease (a bit like smallpox, a bit like bubonic plague) has led to the collapse of civilisation as we know it. Paul (Joel Edgerton) and his family are leading lives of extreme seclusion in their remote home, which he has virtually fortified. He is relentless in his attempts to ensure their safety – the very first thing we see is his enforcing his cordon sanitaire in frankly hair-raising fashion when another member of the group becomes infected.

This is a hard lifestyle, to say the least, and it is taking its toll on the members of the family – especially Paul’s son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr), who is having grisly nightmares. But the pressure just gets worse and worse, when a stranger (Christopher Abbott) breaks into their house one night. When captured, he claims to be looking for food and water for his wife and child. After tying him to a tree for a few days and thinking things over, Paul decides to invest a little trust in the man, whose name is Will. The two of them will go and check out his story, and perhaps bring the new family back with them, amalgamating the two groups. But with trust in such short supply, can even a social group as simple as this survive?

No doubt about it: this is a horror movie more than anything else, with bits aplenty that viewers of a delicate disposition will find somewhat challenging. However, while it does include moments which attempt to function as jump scares – Travis’s nightmares are a slightly hokey device for this sort of thing – it is not really in the quiet-quiet-quiet-LOUD tradition which to some extent epitomises the modern mainstream horror movie. Instead, this is a brooding, rigorously paced movie, which is reliant for most of its effects on an atmosphere of almost palpable unease and disquiet.

Partly this is down to the performances – Edgerton appears to be doing most of the heavy lifting in this department, but Harrison is a good example of someone contributing much more than initially appears to be the case – but it’s also the result of the direction, as the camera drifts silently around the claustrophobic interior of the fortress-house. In the end it’s much more the case that the film is uncomfortably tense and unsettling to watch, than actually scary as such.

This is the kind of film which starts off with things in a very bad way, and the promise that they are only going to get worse and worse as the end of the film approaches. The script  does a good job of almost making you believe that things may actually improve, as the two families come together and there are moments of warmth and hope between them. The strophe (ooh, get me – I mean the moment when everything turns and starts to quickly unravel), when it comes, is perhaps not quite rigorously plotted enough, but on the other hand I was out of the screen summoning the management around this point so I can’t be 100% sure about that.

In the end, things resolve in about as bleak and horrible a way as could be, as the lurking tensions in the household hatch out, fed by the fear of infection, and… well, find out for yourself. It Comes At Night proves ultimately to be a film about death: the death of the body, the death of society, the death of trust, and in the end the death of hope. And it’s a very well-made one, though obviously this won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Definitely worth seeing if you enjoy a spot of gut-wrenching paranoid misery, but maybe take your electric stun gun if you’re going to an early evening showing and they’re going to let juveniles in.

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I realised from a comparatively tender age that I was destined to be one of those sci-fi types – BBC2’s run of classic movies from the 50s, 60s, and 70s on Tuesday nights in early 1983 probably did for me, if it wasn’t already the case – and so as I staggered into adolescence I diligently recorded and watched any movie which was tagged as even vaguely SF in the TV guides. Some of these I enjoyed (Westworld, Trancers, Teenage Comet Zombies), some bored me nearly unto death (Quintet), some freaked me out entirely (The Man Who Fell To Earth), and some I found totally unmemorable (…um, I’ll get back to you). And a lot of them were just really obscure and undistinguished (I expect I am the only person in the world who remembers films like Starcrossed, Cherry 2000, and Circuitry Man… actually, Cherry 2000‘s not bad). Nevertheless, I persisted, I stayed loyal, I always watched to the end.

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Young people of the future with similar tendencies would probably find themselves watching… (What am I thinking of…? Who patiently scours the TV guide for obscure SF movies any more? Sometimes I feel like a chunk of history that just hasn’t quite stopped moving yet) …speaking hypothetically, if Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special had shown up on BBC2 or Channel 4 when I was about 14, it’s exactly the kind of film I would have made a point of watching just for its genre elements. Would I have found it particularly rewarding experience? Well…

The film opens with two men, Roy and Lucas (Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton) on the run with a young boy, Roy’s son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher, and I don’t know how to pronounce that either). They are on the run from the members of a cult-like religious group, the police, and the government, all because Alton has unusual qualities, such as being able to listen in on satellite communications without the need of technology, although on the other hand he can’t go out in the sunlight without starting to explode and nearby machinery breaking down. The trio are on a mission to get Alton to somewhere in the vicinity of Tallahassee, Florida at a particular time.

However, the various government agencies interested in exploiting Alton’s powers have working the case top analyst Paul Sevier (that bane of galactic furniture Adam Driver, in a role which allows him to give free rein to his essential spoddiness). Sevier has figured out where they are going, but perhaps he sees Alton as something more than just an asset to be studied…

(Kirsten Dunst is in it as well, in a resolutely non-glam role as Alton’s mum, and she’s pretty good too. Shame she doesn’t do more movies.)

Midnight Special (no, the title doesn’t really get explained) plumps for a sort of in media res beginning, with the guys on the run from everyone, the FBI descending on the cult, Sevier already having done a lot of the spadework on Alton, and so on. This isn’t exactly an exposition-heavy movie, so I really had to figure out what was going on for myself, which wasn’t a problem at first. However, as it went on and on without very much really being explicitly articulated, I did find a certain sort of fatigue threatening to set in.

What is it with this current trend for genre movies without what I would consider acceptable levels of exposition? Here are some people. They are doing something. What does it signify? Why are we showing them doing it? We’re not going to tell you. You’ll just have to figure it out for yourself. I mean, I’m not demanding every film have a super-simplistic storyline that’s slowly and carefully articulated in the foreground of the movie, but currently everyone seems to be trying to be Shane Carruth with a frankly quite variable success rate.

Well, in the end, it all turns out to be quite a lot like many other things you will probably have seen before – there’s a substantial dollop which could have come from any number of X Files episodes, more than a dash of John Carpenter’s Starman, and so on. These are very respectable sources, but the tone of Nichols’ film isn’t quite right to do them justice – everything is quite dour and restrained. Michael Shannon’s performance sets a note of sombre intensity which colours everything else on the screen. What we are watching is very serious and profound: there is no danger of anyone ever forgetting that. Important and meaningful things will be happening. Why they are important and what the meaningful things actually mean are questions that the film doesn’t actually get around to answering, unfortunately.

I mean, I can understand the urge to do a piece of serious-minded SF or fantasy – Midnight Special probably wants to be the former but is actually the latter, I would say – without surrendering to the perceived need to be all ironic or zany, but this film takes itself so seriously for so little apparent reason that it’s ultimately rather impenetrable: cold, austere, easy to admire but almost impossible to truly like. I suppose you could argue that the film is much more about important things like theme (paternal devotion, presumably) and atmosphere than ephemera like back-story and plot, but I think that other stuff is important and normally included for good reason.

I wanted to like it, for the subject matter is my sort of thing, the performances are strong, and the production values are excellent, but ultimately I found it all to be hard work. I know that Nichols and Shannon have very respectable indie reputations – presumably why Shannon has turned up in big movies, for example Zach Snyder’s festival of gloom masquerading as a superhero film – but this project really doesn’t do their talents justice.

 

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I turned up to see Ridley Scott’s new-style biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings in keen expectation of an energetically bad movie. As chance would have it, I happened to see it at the Blackpool branch of Odeon. This will be my final visit to this particular cinema, and I must confess the occasion was not without a degree of emotion – I have been watching films there for over fifteen years, on and off, and the place did play a small but significant role in keeping me sane during what I suppose I should call my wilderness years. Not having been there for a while, I was somewhat dismayed to find the cinema showing every sign of struggling – no sign of a ticket desk at all, with punters obliged to use the concessions counter, tickets themselves going for insanely low prices, and no allocated seating either. I was saddened, to be honest.

The first film I saw there was Payback, starring Mel Gibson back when he was acceptable, and Exodus is if nothing else rather better than that. Although, to be honest, my enjoyment of the film was given a unexpected spin by the fact I’d unwittingly turned up to a subtitled showing. The subtitling was rather zealously done, with every vocalisation from every performer painstakingly committed to the screen – a lot of (sigh), (exhale), (incoherent scream), and so on. As a result of this I can be very certain when I tell you that the defining sound of Exodus is ‘indistinct shouting’.

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Based on the book of the same name by some guys in Babylon, this is the stirring tale of stuff going on in ancient Egypt and the surrounding area. Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro in a brave choice of hat) is in charge, though he does a lot of delegating to his son Ramses (Joel Edgerton, sadly looking not unlike Ricky Gervais in drag) and adopted son Moses (Christian Bale, looking not unlike Christian Bale with a beard). Seti secretly thinks Moses is a safer bet as a future leader, partly because the self-regarding Ramses spends much of his spare time stroking his python, but this is not to be. Especially not when Moses discovers his secret heritage as a member of the Hebrew slave underclass.

A life-long atheist, Moses isn’t interested, but when Ramses ascends the throne it forms a good enough pretext for the new boss to have Moses exiled. Moses does not seem to take this very personally and trades in being a top Egyptian court official and general for shepherding and being a loving family man. However, one day he receives a bang on the head and finds himself confronted with the vision of a burning bush and a surly ten-year-old boy (Issac Andrews), who is actually God. God tells Moses to go and get the Hebrews out of Egypt toot-sweet, and – not without a degree of justified grumbling – Moses heads off to get on with the job…

Well, I will be astounded if Exodus wins any major awards, but I did not find it to be quite the artistic failure or absurd fiasco some of the reviews I’ve seen suggested. Then again, I am the kind of person for whom the word ‘absurd’ does not necessarily carry wholly negative connotations, and parts of this movie are definitely absurd. We are spared the climactic sword-fight between Moses and Pharaoh on the bed of the Red Sea, though it’s a close thing, but one of the final scenes of the film is set in a cave up Mount Sinai, with Moses hard at work with hammer and chisel on some stone tablets, God fixing the pair of them some drinks, and the duo idly bickering about the Ten Commandments. If that’s not the most ridiculous scene to appear in a serious film this year, I don’t know what is.

It’s certainly an odd choice for a film which must, on some level, have hoped to tap into a religiously-motivated audience for some of its ticket sales. Then again, there are plenty of others – the film is specifically dated to 1300 BCE, not BC, and there’s a half-hearted attempt at providing a rational explanation for all the apparently miraculous events that occur. As I mentioned, Moses gets a crack on the head before his first meeting with God, and even he admits he sounds like a delusional person. Ewen Bremner comes on as a Scottish-Egyptian clever-clogs who explains the Plagues as a quasi-scientifically based series of events.

To be honest the whole Plagues sequence is the closest the film comes to toppling over into Monty Python silliness, although it also includes some fun CGI crocodiles and frogs: the various Egyptian characters initially react with annoyance and exasperation rather than anything more serious, at least until God sends in the Angel of Death to slay all the first-born. This is a rather effective and well-mounted sequence.

On the other hand, it doesn’t exactly present God in the most flattering light: the Almighty comes across as rather petulant and unpredictably bad-tempered. Having packed Moses off to lead the Hebrews in their struggle for freedom, He then turns up to give our hero a rollocking for taking too long about it. ‘They’ve been slaves here for 400 years! Why are you in such a hurry now?’ cries Moses paraphrastically. ‘Just am,’ sniffs God, and brings on the CGI carnage.

Oh well. I suppose you shouldn’t expect very much more from a film which presents the revelation of Moses’ Hebrew roots as some sort of unexpected plot twist – it often seems to have little idea who its target audience is, or indeed what it’s fundamentally about. Is it about the relationship between the heroic Moses and the resentful, lesser Ramses, two men who grew up together but forced into conflict? (Shades of Ben-Hur – not to mention Gladiator, in places.) Is it about Moses coming to terms with being a Hebrew? Or is it about an atheist who finds himself forced into faith? The film plays with all of these things and more, but usually just settles for another show-stopping CGI sequence.

This being a Ridley Scott film, of course, he at least gives good epic – Scott throws in a pretty big battle just to get things warmed up, and never spares the spectacle. I know that in the past I’ve criticised him for being much more interested in arty, beautiful visuals than in actually telling a coherent story, but he keeps everything under control here, and events – while frequently a bit bonkers – are always easy to follow.

There is a lot to enjoy in Exodus: Gods and Kings, provided you don’t take any of it too seriously and are prepared to engage with the film on its own terms. It’s never dull and it always looks good, even bits of it are silly, it squanders some of its most capable cast members, and it doesn’t seem to really have much idea of what it’s actually supposed to be about. Whatever it is, it’s vague, and rather loud: indistinct shouting, indeed.

 

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Would it be a truism or merely trite to suggest that one of the worst ways possible to make someone appreciate a book is to force them to study it? I suspect many people would agree; many friends of mine were undoubtedly put off To Kill A Mockingbird for life after studying it at GCSE. In my own case, though, I don’t know – while it took me over a decade to go back to Pride and Prejudice after being obliged to read it at A level, I’ve always enjoyed Chaucer and was always able to appreciate the remarkable quality of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. To this day I can still bang on at tedious length about the themes and imagery of this novel, and the prospect of seeing what Baz Luhrmann could do with (or possibly to) the story was an intriguing one.

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Set in New York in the early 20s, this is a tale of obsession, excess, and corruption amongst the monied folk of the city. Nick (Tobey Maguire) is new to the area, and really the only people he knows socially are his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan), her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), and their friend Jordan (Elizabeth Debicki). One other person he is aware of, however, is the enigmatic Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), the immensely wealthy host of lavish parties at the mansion next door to Nick’s house. When Gatsby becomes aware of Nick, things change for everyone: Gatsby and Daisy have what is delicately known as a Past, and he is desperate to resume their relationship…

Baz Luhrmann isn’t exactly what you’d call a prolific film-maker – this is only his second project since 2001’s Moulin Rouge (one of the very first films I ever rambled on about on t’Internet). However, while Luhrmann may not make many films, the ones he does turn out are super-concentrated stuff: visuals, sound, editing and performances are all usually cranked up to startling levels of intensity. For this reason I find his films to be a bit of a change of pace, and occasionally an indigestible one: I’m surprised he hasn’t done more work making music videos and commercials, because his style is perfect for this sort of short form. Two hours plus of crash zooms, colour saturation, musical iconoclasm and restless camera pans, on the other hand, just leave me feeling somewhat embattled.

Possibly out of a sense of responsibility to Fitzgerald’s thoughtful text, Luhrmann manages to restrain himself at least some of the time on this occasion, but one is still left with an almost irresistible sense that in the making of this film, the interplay of sound and visuals was always the prime consideration, with the actual script being of only secondary importance. This is not to say that there aren’t some startlingly effective moments scattered throughout the film, but they feel like they’ve been inserted into the story from outside rather than naturally arising from within it. The Great Gatsby is a restrained, mostly internalised story, and Luhrmann has had to work quite hard to find ways to insert his idiosyncratic visual energy into it.

Which is not to say he’s taken particularly great liberties with the story: in fact, his additions to it seem atypically restrained. There’s a framing device in which Nick, now morbidly alcoholic, is recounting the events of the story as a form of therapy, but this is really it so far as I can remember. More conspicuous is the way in which the story has been subtly trimmed and reshaped so it now focuses almost entirely on the Gatsby-Daisy romance. DiCaprio, admittedly, does not make an appearance for quite a long while, but the mystery of his character is at the centre of the story nevertheless. And once he departs from the plot, Luhrmann wraps up the film with almost indecent haste, jettisoning some of the book’s most poignant moments in the process. The main consequence of this is that the character of Jordan is much reduced in significance, and her relationship with Nick almost totally excised. As a result Nick seems even more of a passive onlooker, and Maguire struggles to make the character particularly endearing.

This is not to say that the acting in this film is sub-par: Joel Edgerton is very good, as is DiCaprio – most of the time at least. Certainly, nobody is what you’d call actively bad. The problem is that at least some of the time, everyone is being obliterated by the art direction and sound design, which swamp the subtleties and paradoxes of the story and reduce it to a succession of lavish, frenetic tableaux. The human story and emotions just aren’t there when you need them to be, and the result is a film which is polished and intricate, but ultimately hollow. Given that two of the key themes of The Great Gatsby are the contrast between appearance and reality, and the perils of superficiality, for Luhrmann to have made such a superficial adaptation of it is actually quite ironic: whether this is the sort of irony F Scott Fitzgerald would have appreciated is another matter.

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So, my friend and I decided to go to the cinema together – for the first time, I believe, since 2007’s The Invasion, which we saw at the Serialkillerplex in Chiba. Protracted to-doings about seats and tickets concluded, we took our positions in the auditorium expectantly.

‘What do we do now?’ my friend asked.

‘Why don’t we just wait here for a little while… see what happens,’ I suggested.

Yes, we were there for the latest incarnation of John W Campbell’s immortal tale of extraterrestrial polar nastiness, best known these days simply as The Thing. I am a big fan of the 1951 adaptation (hereafter ‘the Nyby version’) and a recent convert to the 1982 take on the story (hereafter ‘the Carpenter version’) and so 2011’s offering, directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. (hereafter ‘the new version’, mainly as that’s easier to spell), was a movie I was rather looking forward to. Is it a remake of or a prequel to John Carpenter’s cult shocker? I’m not sure- let’s just call it a preremaquel and leave it at that.

Winter, 1982 (again), and a Norwegian expedition carrying out research in Antarctica makes an astounding discovery: a huge alien ship buried under the ice there, and what appear to be the deep-frozen remains of an occupant. Primarily to avoid the entire movie being conducted in subtitled Norwegian, comely American paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is recruited to help with the extraction of the carcass.

However, as is practically a truism by now, ‘frozen alien’ is not the same thing as ‘dead alien’ and the entity in the ice takes advantage of its new situation to bust out of its frozen prison and run amok around the camp. Casualties ensue before it is burned to death by American chopper pilot Carter (Joel Edgerton).

But an analysis of the creature’s biology reveals something unexpected: the alien has the ability to absorb and then perfectly mimic any other life-form it comes into contact with. If the Thing can make it out of the barren wastes of Antarctica, there will be nothing to stop it assimilating the entire biosphere of the planet – and there are signs that prior to its demise, the original Thing was able to replicate at least one of the people at the base. But who…?

Well, the first thing to say about the new Thing is that this is such a good scenario for a story that it would take a very special film-maker to completely faff it up (and luckily Paul W.S. Anderson was busy elsewhere). This is by no means a dreadful film or even a particularly bad one: it’s never less than polished and competent in virtually every department. Unfortunately, it never goes much beyond this level of achievement, either.

This movie is being marketed very much on the strength of its connections with the Carpenter version, but something which slightly surprised me about it was the degree to which it draws on the Nyby version, too – rather more than Carpenter did. The chief Norwegian scientist (Ulrich Thomsen) is very reminiscent of the Thing-sympathising boffin played by Robert Cornthwaite in 1951, but there’s more to it than this. The biggest difference between the two previous versions is that Nyby’s is an it’s-out-there-somewhere! movie and Carpenter’s is an it’s-secretly-one-of-us! movie. You would expect the preremaquel to follow Carpenter, but it doesn’t: the Thing here spends much more time rampaging around in the open, spewing spiked intestines in all directions and chasing people about. Basically, the Thing here comes across as rather more stupid and less subtle than it was previously (or, given the nature of the narrative, it will be in future).

One could argue that this is a result of advances in special effects, making the realisation of the Thing much easier than it was in 1982. Well, maybe, but seeing more of the monster doesn’t necessarily help the movie. The startling effects sequences in the Carpenter version (described on the IMDB as ‘one of the most vile and scary movies ever’) work so well because a) they’re strictly rationed and b) they’re wildly varied and immensely inventive. And that movie works as well as it does because of what happens between the splatter – the tension and the atmosphere that is relentlessly built up.

In the Carpenter version the Thing doesn’t start doing its thing willy-nilly – but in the new one it does, as I mentioned up the page: people start splitting open and spewing viscera about, not quite at the drop of a hat, but certainly at times when it doesn’t strictly seem necessary from the entity’s point of view. And the CGI Things, while appropriately disgusting to look at, just don’t have the ‘eeuuuurgghhhh’-factor of Rob Bottin’s 1982 puppet and animatronic creations – they even get a bit samey-samey after a while, which is absolutely not how Things should be.

Nevertheless, the new version is deeply invested in its connection to the Carpenter version: and to some extent its achievement in this area is highly impressive. So far as I can tell, the two movies dovetail almost seamless, to the point where the last shot of this film is essentially the first of Carpenter’s – even down to the soundtrack. (Although I don’t quite see how the Norwegian videos in the Carpenter version fit into the story told here.) I was dubious as to how this would play, as it would surely mean depriving this film of a proper ending. That isn’t quite how it works out, but making the lead-in to Carpenter not much more than a coda really means it feels like an afterthought.

The new version’s status as a preremaquel doesn’t always work to its advantage, either – in order to stay credible this means that it can’t repeat too many scenes or ideas from the Carpenter version. The new ideas it comes up with are too often substandard – Kate’s plan to see who could possibly be a Thing and who’s still human is scientifically based, which is good – but the discipline in question is dentistry, which I thought came dangerously close to bathos. (Certainly, at the screening I attended, people were openly sniggering.) A lengthy sequence aboard the Thing’s own vessel also feels like it’s taking the drama too far out of a recognisable world, too.

The great thing about the Nyby version and the Carpenter one is that neither of them is exactly overflowing with reverence for their predecessor – Nyby’s film does a major number on Campbell’s short story, while Carpenter in turn doesn’t try to imitate Nyby (though he does go back to Campbell in a lot of ways). I would have been interested to see a brand-new version of The Thing that didn’t try so hard to mimic Carpenter – then again, mimicry’s the name of the game where this beastie’s concerned.

But, having said that, this is not a replication that the Thing itself would be proud of. One of the defining qualities of the Carpenter version is that it’s so resolutely true to a very idiosyncratic and rather uncompromising vision. It’s a relentlessly bleak and downbeat movie that makes very few concessions to the audience – for instance, Carpenter didn’t put any women in his film as he didn’t see how it would help the story. Here, on the other hand, we have hitherto-unsuspected Brits and Americans at the Norwegian camp, for the reasons previously mentioned, and a gutsy-but-cute female lead very much in the Sigourney Weaver mould. It’s exactly what you would expect in a by-the-numbers SF-horror movie (just as happened in Alien Vs Predator, a distant cousin to The Thing lineage), but given the history of The Thing, by-the-numbers doesn’t cut it. This is a perfectly average, perfectly acceptable piece of forgettable entertainment – but when it comes to The Thing, just being acceptable is not acceptable at all.

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