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Posts Tagged ‘romance’

My default position when it comes to John Carpenter is that he is basically one of those people who did their careers backwards – most of us, when starting out in a new field, have results which are a bit hit and miss, until we figure out what we’re up to and (given sufficient time, dedication and natural talent) eventually master whatever it is we’re doing. Carpenter’s career isn’t like that. Even though his first film Dark Star is flawed, it’s still arguably the most influential science fiction movie of the last fifty years, while Assault on Precinct 13 is flat-out brilliant, and Halloween changed the face of the American horror movie. And then, at some point, he just went off the boil – by the late 1980s he was making schlocky films like Prince of Darkness, a decade later it was warmed-over rehashes like Escape from LA, and after 2001’s Ghosts of Mars (a fairly dreadful film) he more or less gave up.

A sad decline. Most people point to the tipping point being the commercial failure of his version of The Thing, which was competing at the box office with E.T. and came off distinctly second-best. I disagree: I think the last genuinely really good Carpenter film came a couple of years later, in the form of Starman. It seems to be a film that slips easily from the mind when it comes to discussing Carpenter’s work, perhaps because it is so uncharacteristic of the films he’s known for.

The film opens with the slightly hackneyed plot device of the Voyager 2 probe being intercepted by an alien intelligence. The aliens give it a good checking out, paying special attention to the gold disc placed aboard, and return the favour by sending their own probe ship to Earth to see if it’s as nice as the LP suggests. You know those Earth people, they’re devils for sending mixed signals, and the probe is shot down by the US Air Force somewhere over Wisconsin. It crashes near the home of recently-widowed Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen) and the pilot – an immaterial being of pure energy – zips around the house curiously before settling on one of her mementoes of her late husband Scott; a lock of his hair. The alien uses this to grow itself a new body to inhabit, a body which is naturally the spitting image of Scott (Jeff Bridges).

Jenny herself takes this about as well as you might expect, but there is more bad news on the way – the alien Starman’s colleagues are coming to Earth to pick him up, but, for important reasons of plot, their agreed rendezvous will be in Arizona in a few days time. Road trip! The chances are it will take just long enough for Starman to learn to appreciate the beauties of life on Earth and for him and Jenny to fall in love. Meanwhile a scientist from SETI, on the government’s payroll (he is played, very capably, by Charles Martin Smith), is hunting for the visitor, but increasingly beginning to question the rightness of the uncompromising approach taken by the authorities.

As you can perhaps see, it’s a fairly straightforward story without big twists or deep complexities. It’s not an exploitation movie or an action movie, nor is it a western modulated into a different setting, and as such it’s a fairly atypical project for Carpenter to take on. Mostly it’s a romantic comedy drama about two people sitting in a car, with the qualifier that one of them happens to be an alien.

The history of Starman is fairly interesting if you’re a student of the genre: Columbia started developing it at the same time as a script called Night Skies, which eventually became E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The studio eventually abandoned the latter project, which of course went on to be a massive hit for Universal – this in turn resulted in Starman, deemed a more adult-oriented take on similar material, being put into production. (Carpenter was hired ahead of Tony Scott and Peter Hyams, and was keen to change his image as a director.) The similarities are obvious enough; this is clearly a post-Spielberg science-fantasy film. But what struck me about the film, watching it again recently, was the extent to which it also feels like it’s parallelling The Terminator in some ways – not really in terms of the trajectory of the plot, but when it comes to the imagery of some sequences – the main character materialises naked, out of thin air, at the start of the story, and the central relationship ends up becoming an archetypal James Cameron-style romance – which is to say it concludes with a one-night stand in an unlikely setting.

Nevertheless the film has a kind of understated sweetness and authenticity to it which isn’t quite there in any of the films it resembles – the road movie element also helps to make it distinctive, Carpenter apparently keen to explore the Americana of the story. It only really has four significant characters (the other is Richard Jaeckel’s Air Force heavy) and most of it is about two of them sitting in a car or a diner together. Both Allen and Bridges are really excellent; you do wonder why Allen didn’t have a more significant career considering she’s so good here and in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Everyone seems to accept now that Jeff Bridges is one of the best actors of his generation – he remains, to the best of my knowledge, the only person ever to be Oscar nominated for playing an alien. He’s not afraid to come across as initially weird and unsettling as the Starman, before gradually toning it down and creating a credible and sympathetic character. It is, I think, one of the best ‘playing an alien’ performances anywhere.

There are lots of good things about Starman, even if the story feels a bit low-octane and familiar in places. The real flaw that jumps out at me, however, is that the script is so keen on the character-building, phatic scenes between Jenny and the Starman that some of the connective tissue that allows the script to function is a bit skimped on. For example, one scene ends with Jenny getting a fright as she bumps into the Starman, who has only just appeared in her house. The next time we see them both, he is wearing her late husband’s clothes and she is preparing to drive him to Arizona. A whole lot of quite significant stuff seems to have happened between scenes, which one would quite like to have seen. How did he explain all this to her? How does she feel about it? Is she down with the alien turning himself into a clone of her husband? And so on.

Nevertheless, the scenes we do have retain a considerable charm, and you can usually figure out for yourself what happened off-screen in the bits we’re not privy to. It’s a well-made, entertaining film for a mainstream audience, and as such fairly unrecognisable as a John Carpenter project. As I say, for me it’s the last really good film he directed – but despite good reviews, it wasn’t particularly successful and within a couple of years the director was back to making more energetic and derivative schlock. A shame – on the strength of this road movie, the road not taken by Carpenter would surely have been at least as interesting as the way his career actually went.

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Nothing else you see at the cinema this year is likely to be a soul-shreddingly harrowing as the PETA commercial currently running in front of certain screenings in UK theatres. They say that modern commercials don’t advertise products, they advertise the lifestyle which the product being flogged supposedly enables you to have – well, PETA have gone further ahead of the curve on this one and have made an advert for a lifestyle itself (it is, not entirely surprisingly, Veganism). The commercial features a cartoony lovable young turkey, a van en route to the turkey farm, a very suggestive moment when chopped tomatoes spray reddish fluid everywhere, and… well, you get the idea. Subtle stuff, guys.

Then again, I saw it before Luca Guadagnino’s Bones and All, for which it seemed strangely appropriate, even though the two things – on the face of it – seem to be pulling in diametrically opposed directions. On the face of it this looks rather like another slightly soft-centred, wet-between-the-ears YA novel adaptation (the book is by Camille DeAngelis, who is, and this may prove even more pertinent as we continue, a certified Vegan lifestyle coach); what Guadagnino (director of Call Me By Your Name and A Bigger Splash) actually produces is something much more… well, something much more than that, anyway.

Taylor Russell plays Maren, a young woman living in the American midwest in the late 1980s; her mother is not on the scene, she and her father (Andre Holland) seem to on the fringes of poverty and are new in town to boot. One of the girls at high school invites Maren to a sleepover, even though she has to sneak out of their trailer to do so (her father locks her in at night: our first inkling that this story may be headed to uncomfortable places). All goes well until, in the midst of the trying on of different shades of nail varnish, Maren suddenly yields to an impulse, pops her friend’s finger in her mouth, and strips all the flesh off it with her teeth. Looking duly apologetic (then again, is it possible to look apologetic enough for trying to eat your hostess’ finger?) she flees into the night – what amplifies the sudden note of disquiet the film has acquired is that her father has clearly been anticipating something like this will happen.

They relocate, as you would. However, Maren shortly turns eighteen, at which point her father reasonably takes the position that he’s had enough of a pattern of behaviour going back to when Maren ate the babysitter, and that she’s old enough to take care of herself – so he exits the scene with alacrity, thoughtfully providing her with her birth certificate and some money. From the document she gleans some information about her mother, and sets off to try and learn more about her.

On the way, she encounters Sully (a monumentally creepy performance by Mark Rylance), a man subject to the same awkward dietary impulses that she is, and she learns something about herself and those like her (she and Sully share a meal, provided by an old lady they meet – if you get my meaning). They are Eaters, afflicted by the urge to eat human flesh from time to time – an urge that increases in strength and frequency as they age. (They don’t seem to get any special benefits from this, so it’s not like they’re vampires or anything; Eaters come across as pitiful as much as revolting.) Sully clearly has it in mind to be some sort of mentor to Maren, but she has different ideas: she bails as soon as she can and continues her journey.

But on the way she meets Lee (Timothee Chalamet), another Eater who is much younger and more handsome than Sully, something which seems to incline her to overlook the fact he goes around murdering and devouring people on a semi-regular basis (there’s a slightly spurious plot point where he claims to only eat bad people, but it doesn’t seem to take much to earn a place on Lee’s menu). Soon they are travelling together, and the spark of romance flickers between the pair of them…

Yes, it’s the cannibal romance roadtrip movie that you may have heard about. I can easily imagine many people reacting with disgust and moral outrage to a film like this, and maybe they have a point – but cinema normalises, maybe even glamourises, all sorts of socially-aberrant behaviour, so the crime here is really one of degree only. Nevertheless, there’s a sense in which the whole film is a rather fragile construction, falling apart on some levels if you think about it rigorously – so it’s to Guadagnino’s credit that you generally engage with the film on its own terms. It’s not as if he’s glamourising cannibalism as a way of life, anyway – the film’s use of gore is not sensational, but makes it very clear what a messy and gruesome process it is. The whole film has a kind of measured thoughtfulness to it that makes the horror fade somewhat into the background, almost lost amongst the great midwestern skies and granular Americana of the film.

Perhaps this is something akin to what Sergio Leone did with the western over fifty years ago: an outsider coming in, taking an arguably quintessential American genre, and recreating it as something wholly new and startling. Whether that genre is the road movie or the horror film is a good question, for Bones and All functions as both, but it’s the craft and beauty of the film’s atmosphere and imagery that lingers with you. This isn’t one of those quiet-quiet-quiet-LOUD horror films, but something more pervasive – it knows where your phobic pressure points are (to use Stephen King’s helpful phrase) and gently caresses them to create disquiet and unease, only very occasionally squeezing tight.

To be honest, there is something very much of Stephen King about this film, in its evocation of real-world horror and the careful detail of its world and characters. It reminded me rather of Doctor Sleep, but I think this is a better film, in almost every way.

Of course, if we’re going to discuss Bones and All as a horror film, then the question we should be asking is what it’s actually about, how does it function, what is it trying to say? That eating people is wrong, as the old line has it? Well, it seems to me that the device of the Eaters is a useful way of establishing the main characters as somehow apart and distanced from ‘normal’ society, an allegory for alienated youth, and the dispossessed generally (perhaps they are distant cousins to the redneck vampires of Near Dark). Feeling different and misunderstood is part of the deal when it comes to being a teenager, I suspect; being an Eater just legitimises this feeling. It’s significant that the cannibalistic urge in the film is depicted as uncontrollable, thus supposedly freeing Maren and Lee from much of the moral responsibility of their activities – the film pointedly includes a scene where they meet a ‘normal’ person who’s a cannibal simply because he enjoys it (played by David Gordon Green, director of the recent Halloween sequels), and Maren flees in horror and revulsion from him.

Is there more to it than this? Vampire films are about deviant sexual activity, werewolf films about the conflict between the Apollonian and Dionysiac aspects of human nature – so what’s going on here when Maren and Lee feel their stomachs start to rumble? It’s not entirely clear, although I think it may be something to do with the desperation arising from their social backgrounds – all the Eaters in the film seem to be part of the underclass, steeped in poverty, scrabbling to survive. Society so often treats the underclass as sub-human – perhaps that is the metaphor here, and we are nearly back to H.G. Wells’ morlocks.  Life on the fringes certainly feels like one of the themes of the film.

Guadagnino sustains the film’s atmosphere and credibility brilliantly, aided by some great, committed performances. The climax and ending are perhaps a little predictable and obscure, respectively, but – as is usually the case with road movies – it’s much more about the journey than the destination. Bones and All is a strong challenger to Raw for the title of the best horror movie about cannibalism ever made, but it’s much more than that – not just a great horror film, but a great film full stop.

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You know how it goes: you and your significant other quite fancy the prospect of watching a movie together, but there’s nothing on at the cinema you haven’t already seen or made a commitment to watch at a later date. So you decide to check out the big streaming sites – the challenge here, of course, is to find something you’re both interested in actually watching. (The big dividend of the broadband age is surely that the row about picking a movie which used to take place in Blockbusters now happens in your front room.)

Our conversation basically resolved as follows: the light of my own life’s favourite films all tend to feature love and romance quite prominently. I myself am much more partial to horror and destruction (often wrought by unconvincingly-realised giant invertebrates or herptiles, but even so). So we decided that a movie called Doom of Love had a better chance than most of satisfying both of us, at least a bit. Fortuitously, just such a movie had just turned up on one of the big streaming sites (directed by Hilal Saral – I should mention that the film is Turkish). Down we settled, confident in our knowledge that obscure foreign-language Netflix originals are a byword for cinematic excellence and innovation. Yes, we are very cynical people.

(This happened a while ago – the Top Gun, Jurassic Park and Toy Story sequels were comfortably ensconced and blocking most of the screens, even in art house and independent cinemas. Modern world, eh?)

Normally I have a bit of an issue with films that open with a flash-forward to some point in the third act, as this seems to me to be a rather a cheap and obvious way of generating tension and interest. I’m not saying that Doom of Love gets away with it when it does the same thing – the film opens with the main character coming out of a coma, and then flashes back to a year earlier – but it is certainly to the benefit of the movie, generating the only bit of suspense and dramatic energy it possesses for most of its length.

Boran Kuzum plays Firat, a thrusting young Turkish businessman with big plans for the future. Unfortunately, as the story proper gets going, his plans are coming to nothing as his agency – which seems to have something to do with selling advertising, or possibly bespoke obituaries, it’s a little hard to tell – is going bust. I hate to go negative quite so early in a review, but one of the things about Doom of Love is that much of the script has a rather perfunctory, back-of-an-envelope quality about it. In a more conventional movie, Firat’s business would be going bust due to some particular personal flaw which he would spend the movie overcoming, or he would be the cruel victim of circumstances beyond his control. None of that here: he may just be a rubbish entrepreneur.

Anyway, despite the bailiffs coming round and being declared bankrupt, Firat still finds the time to head off to a yoga weekend at what looks like a luxury beach resort. The film-makers seem aware that this is a bit of a stretch, and the fig leaf they provide is that one of Firat’s friends has recently made a pile of cash investing in Bitcoin (one gets the sense this is just something the scriptwriters have vaguely heard about which is currently sort of trendy, rather than them knowing what they’re talking about) and he’s going to the weekend to tap them for debt relief.

At the yoga weekend, Firat becomes more familiar with the downward dog, but also makes the acquaintance of Lidya (Pinar Deniz, apparently a superstar of Turkish Netflix), a free-spirited singer and musician who’s playing the event with her partner/boyfriend Yusuf (Yigit Kirazci). A heroically unwieldy cute-meet ensues in which a cross Lidya, taking a call from her family, hurls her phone into a sand dune, prompting Firat to suggest she gives him her number so he can ring the phone. The thing about this movie is that about 85% of it is so crashingly direct it virtually gives you concussion, while the other 15% is bafflingly obscure, mystical, and symbolic.

Anyway, there is some obligatory faffing about to be done, and so Firat has a go at being a pharmaceutical rep after his brother wangles him a job with a big corporation. However, who should be doing the corporate entertaining at the very first conference he attends? That’s right, it’s Lidya and Yusuf. Without seeming to give the decision much consideration at all, Firat decides to pack his new job in, embrace the exciting opportunities of being bankrupt and horribly in debt, and go on the road with his new friends as a bongo player. But what will develop out of the obvious chemistry that exists between Firat and Lidya? Could the fact that she has a disapproving and controlling family have any bearing on their future? And what’s all that business about Firat coming out of a coma in a year’s time…?

Well, if nothing else it’s better than that Polish film about the coercive romance between the head of the Sicilian Mafia and the travel rep from Warsaw, if only because it’s less actively nasty. Where it does fall down is in not having a plot as it is conventionally understood. Perhaps that is a bit unfair on Doom of Love – but it does feel like a sort of vague idea for a movie that’s ended up being filmed rather than a fully-developed story. Of course it is a melodrama, but even so – characters and situations are just suggested, the film drifting blithely past them, apparently confident that the film’s attractive visuals and sound metaphysical underpinnings will be sufficient to keep the audience on board.

They’re right about the film being easy on the eye – it’s almost totally innocuous and Turkey does look lovely in it. The ‘non-threateningly attractive’ folder at central casting probably has the principal cast’s mugshots near the top of it, too; but they almost seem like the kind of people who think that being pretty to some extent excuses them from having to bother to act (Deniz is extremely pretty, though). It’s a bit like watching high-end lifestyle commercials for an hour and a half.

On the other hand, there’s that 15% to contend with – there’s a lot of wofflegob about not struggling through life, and finding harmony with yourself, and all the usual sort of New Agey stuff. I could put up with this until it actually started to impact on the plot. When the plot of the film actual grows some muscles – when Firat comes out of his coma – it is initially rather interesting, because Firat has woken up in the middle of the Covid pandemic. There is some dramatic potential here, which the film does nothing with. Instead it opts for a rather baffling denouement where nothing turns out to be what it seems. If you don’t buy into the whole yogic wisdom angle, then this is a very bland and good-looking piece of mildly romantic tosh which takes a hard left turn into mystic nonsense at the very end.

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When it comes to film CVs, there’s homogenous, and then there’s eclectic, and then there’s George Miller. To be fair, Miller isn’t the only one to have skipped his way through multiple genres in the course of a long career – you could argue that (amongst others) Neil Jordan, Steven Soderbergh and even Steven Spielberg have all covered a lot of ground, as well – but the relatively small number of films he’s made in over forty years, and the acclaim many of them have received, does make it particularly noticeable in his case. He practically invented a new subgenre in Mad Max 2, moved gracefully on to glossy fantasy with Witches of Eastwick, wrote and produced the pitch-perfect pig fantasy Babe, and then – after a brief interlude involving dancing penguins – blasted back with the most recent Mad Max film at the age of 70. A further spin-off to the road warrior series is apparently in the works, but Miller has warmed up for this with another entirely different kind of film.

This one is entitled Three Thousand Years of Longing, and a somewhat curious beast it is too. The protagonist-narrator (Tilda Swinton) presents it as a kind of fable or fairy tale, which is entirely appropriate as the film is largely about why people tell stories and the power inherent in them. Swinton plays Alithea Binnie (her name means ‘truth’, which is probably not a coincidence), a present-day academic – she calls herself a narratologist, but this sounds to me like the kind of discipline scriptwriters invent when they’re worried audiences won’t understand what an anthropologist or ethnographer actually does. Basically, she studies folk tales and other literature. As the film opens she is on her way to Istanbul to address a conference.

All goes well, apart from Alithea having some rather bizarre hallucinations of outlandish and otherworldly individuals haunting her steps – she is clearly well-liked and respected, despite being someone who has always been solitary and slightly detached from everyone around her. A colleague insists on buying her a gift from the Grand Bazaar before she departs, and she settles on a slightly curious glass bottle, somewhat discoloured by fire at some point in its history.

As you would, she decides to give the bottle a bit of a scrub with her electric toothbrush, and – you are probably ahead of me at this point – the top flies off and billowing mystical vapour fills the room. Yes, it’s one of those bottles with a genuine genie inside it, although as we are in 2022 and respect other cultures now, the movie tends to stick to the word djinn instead. The djinn (Idris Elba) offers Alithea the usual three wishes to fulfil her heart’s desire, subject to certain reasonable rules (no wishing for infinite wishes, no raising the dead, no abolition of suffering, etc), at the end of which he will be able to vanish off to the realm of the djinni. However, there are a couple of problems to be overcome first – as a scholar in her particular field, Alithea knows full well that the entire corpus of wish-granting literature easily fits into the genre labelled ‘Cautionary Tales’, which is hardly an incentive to start wishing for anything. There’s also the problem that she’s very satisfied with her current mode of existence, and isn’t at all sure what her heart’s desire actually is…

This is not one of those films which you get a sense of an iron narrative structure about while watching, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable or engaging. Once the djinn is out of his bottle, the two of them settle down in her hotel room to discuss their situation, which develops into the djinn recounting the peculiar tale of his long existence and the various interludes which have punctuated his time in the bottle. A series of quite lavish Orientalist fantasies unfold, incorporating characters such as Solomon, the Queen of Sheba, Suleiman the Magnificent, and so on. There is doomed love and palace intrigue and a striking number of really extremely voluptuous women who are notably under-dressed. It put me very much in mind of certain elements of Terry Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen movie, and also some parts of his Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus too, although Miller doesn’t have quite the same unique visual style. Eventually the film goes into a different gear, telling the story of what happens when Alithea takes the djinn back home to London with her.

This film is really a buffet of things to enjoy; it looks fabulous, and the two leads are both on top form – then again, Tilda Swinton is seldom less than magisterially watchable. Perhaps it is working opposite her which inspires Idris Elba to give one of the best performances I can recall him ever producing – blessed as he is with a very distinctive presence, so often Elba seems to be actively trying to be generic. The most memorable thing about Idris Elba’s film career, in some ways, is just how forgettable he often is. For whatever reason, that doesn’t happen here, and Elba’s work has both depth and subtlety. If he really wants to leave an impression as an actor, he should spend more time doing films like this and less time being chased by lions.

What it’s actually about is a little more obscure. George Miller is of the post-Lucas school of thought in the sense that he is very much influenced by the writings of Joseph Campbell, particularly with respect to the latter’s theory of the monomyth – the idea that there is one fundamental ur-story from which all the others are derived. You can sense the director’s very real fascination with the power of storytelling and roots of mythology throughout the film; you get the impression there’s a first-rate documentary waiting to be made here. But as an actual piece of fiction dealing with this topic, it’s not really clear what point he’s trying to make – or even if there is one.

Instead, the film concludes with a reasonably affecting (if slightly rose-tinted) tale of romance and loss. If it’s ultimately a bit unexpected, that’s because it always seems difficult to predict what’s going to happen next in this film. It’s a very likeable, deeply humane film, made with obvious intelligence, wit and sensitivity – but’s notably short on any real sense of conventional narrative structure. The incidental pleasures on offer will more than likely be sufficient reward for many viewers, however.

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Let us go down the rabbit hole and consider the fact that there really was a poet and swordsman known as Cyrano de Bergerac: yes, I sort of had a vague idea he was fictitious too, but apparently not. It seems that not much is known about the historical Cyrano, best known as he is for inspiring Edmond Rostand’s play about him. It even seems to be the case that no-one is entirely sure whether or not Cyrano actually had the gigantic conk which his fictional counterpart is most noted for, although it does seem to have been the case that he was ‘not conventionally handsome’, as the euphemism has it.

This puts a new perspective on Joe Wright’s new film based on Rostand’s work, which I would imagine may have caused some purists to instinctively clench up for the liberties it takes with the classically accepted version of the tale (although perhaps not as much as the version set in America with the firemen). The new Cyrano had its origins as a stage show mounted as, essentially, a star vehicle for Peter Dinklage to demonstrate his undoubted talents.

Given that Dinklage is undeniably famous and celebrated, appeared in one of the most successful films of all time (admittedly in what was essentially a cameo), and also starred in possibly the most talked-about TV show of the last ten years, you would expect his hallway to be blocked with scripts every day. But, and I mention this because I feel I have to, the fact that Peter Dinklage has a form of dwarfism probably impacts on the kinds of roles he gets offered – basically, if he wants to play the romantic lead or the action hero, he has to organise that for himself. And so he has.

The film is strong on period atmosphere but a bit vague when it comes to historical detail. The setting to begin with is distinctly Mediterranean, as a small seaside town basks in the sun. Here we meet Roxanne (Haley Bennett), a slightly impecunious young woman from a good family – she is all ringlets, rosy cheeks and exuberant embonpoint. Roxanne is off to the theatre, but decides she doesn’t have to put on that red dress she’s just been sent by her slightly unwelcome suitor the Duke de Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn), despite the fact she risks offending this powerful man.

Well, what should happen but that she falls head over heels in love at first sight just before the play gets underway – with a young soldier named Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr). It proves to be an eventful evening in all sorts of ways, as the performance has to be abandoned when a famous actor is driven from the stage by the cutting words of famed local poet and swordsman Cyrano (Dinklage). For an encore Cyrano wins a duel against one of de Guiche’s followers, definitely putting himself on the wrong side of the Duke.

But behind the fierce façade he presents to the world, Cyrano has a secret of his own – he has long been in love with Roxanne himself, and her request that he takes Christian under his wing – they serve in the same regiment – causes him some angst. But she also wants Christian to write passionate love letters to her, something he proves very ill-suited for. Cyrano takes up this task on Christian’s behalf, and finds he is finally able to express his feelings, although the object of his affections naturally remains oblivious…

I feel I should stress that I did have a good time watching Cyrano; there is much to enjoy about this film. The costuming, sets, and cinematography are all excellent, creating a memorable and very attractive world full of life and movement. It’s also a notably well-acted film, by the principals at least. I was rather cruel about Haley Bennett in a review a few years ago, but she is quite winning here; Kelvin Harrison has perhaps the least showy part but finds a way to make an impression. Ben Mendelsohn isn’t immediately very recognisable, but eventually that vocal delivery gives him away and he turns in what’s basically another live-action Disney villain performance (which is to some extent his stock-in-trade).

Nevertheless, the film exists as a venue for Peter Dinklage to do his stuff, and he meets the challenge superbly. One of the many sources of my habitual air of smugness is the fact that I was on the Dinklage train well before Game of Thrones ever got started; I saw him in The Station Agent nearly twenty years ago and was hugely impressed by his talent and presence. Those get free rein here – no-one does brooding, wounded nobility quite like Dinklage does, but also gets to show his vulnerability, and his facility for underplayed comedy, along with much else – including sword-fighting and singing.

Yes, Cyrano is a musical, which – regular visitors will recall – is always a genre I’m willing to give a fair hearing to. However, the thing about musicals is that they have songs in them; this is really a defining feature of the form (I hope I’m not being too provocative when I say this). It’s a general rule that, the better the songs, the better the musical. The songs in Cyrano are not bad songs. They are very pleasant to listen to. They slide very agreeably into your ear. And then they slide equally easily out of the other one. Which is to say, they are not memorable or catchy at all. We were walking home after seeing the film, agreeing we had enjoyed it, when I asked my co-spousal unit if she could hum or sing any of the tunes from it. Less than ten minutes after the film finished, they had completely faded from her memory. Whatever the opposite of an earworm is, the songs in Cyrano are that.

This becomes a particular problem at the end of the film, which honestly has a slightly odd structure to it – it almost feels like it skips the third act entirely and goes straight from the middle section to the epilogue. You can tell all involved are going for a heart-rending tragedy of profound emotions, but it all falls a bit flat – possibly because the audience hasn’t had a chance to get used to the characters being in a changed situation, but also, I suspect, because the songs aren’t quite up to plucking at the heartstrings to the required extent.

Nevertheless, there is a lot to enjoy here in every other department, although to me the ending still feels a little bit mishandled. This is an odd example of a musical which might well have worked better without the songs – but it’s still a very easy film to like.

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Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza is a film seeking to evoke that warm nostalgic glow you get when thinking back on the crazy things you did when you were young and a bit over-excitable. It’s part of a long and honourable tradition of such movies and TV shows, going back to things like The Wonder Years and American Graffiti. Licorice Pizza itself sounds like a bit of a fridge title unless you are particularly well-versed in Californian pop culture from the early 1970s – apparently it was the name of a chain of record shops, ‘licorice pizza’ being the nickname of a vinyl recording. If that sounds like a rather niche and in-jokey title, that’s perhaps not an entirely unfair conclusion, but the film itself is engaging, crowd-pleasing stuff, directed by Anderson with his usual deftness.

I think it is necessary to stress that the film isn’t as self-indulgent as it may come across as in a summary. Alana Haim plays Alana Kane, a woman in her mid-twenties trying to settle on a direction for her life, who is working as a photographer’s assistant in California as the film opens. An assignment taking high school yearbook pictures leads to her meeting Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a supremely confident and energetic fifteen year old – in addition to being a successful child actor, Gary is also very active as an entrepreneur. Not one to pay much attention to the reality of an age gap, Gary asks Alana out to dinner. She nearly laughs in his face, but ends up going along anyway for some reason. An unlikely friendship forms, but Alana is very clear that there is no prospect of anything romantic developing between them…

Nevertheless, their friendship deepens: she chaperones him on a publicity trip to New York, and then finds herself involved in Gary’s latest money-making scheme: a company selling water-beds. He even encourages her to pursue an acting career of her own. Some of these inevitably lead to moments of tension and downturns in their relationship, but it seems that there is always something drawing them back together…

Much of the charm of Licorice Pizza comes from the fact that this isn’t just another straightforwardly nostalgic coming-of-age comedy-drama – the nature of the central relationship, not to mention the fact that one of the lead characters is a precocious teenage entrepreneur, marks it out as something much more offbeat and oddball. Perhaps the oddest thing about it is the fact much of it is apparently based on actual events – the film was apparently inspired by various stories told to Anderson by his friend (and Tom Hanks’ long-time production partner) Gary Goetzman, who really was a child actor and waterbed salesman fifty years ago.

Nevertheless, the sheer weirdness of much of the story just adds to the infectious sense of fun and energy that permeates the movie. Perhaps this is in part a result of the fact that it is such a friends-and-family piece – Anderson’s partner and children appear, he is a long-time friend of Alana Haim and her own family (the Haim clan naturally appear as Alana’s relatives), making his acting debut as Gary is Cooper Hoffman, the son of Anderson’s frequent collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman, and so on.

While the ups and downs of Gary and Alana’s friendship are at the heart of the film, surrounding this thread are various other sub-plots, set-pieces and running jokes, most of them light-hearted if not actually silly. I was particularly amused by a plotline about a restaurant owner who can’t actually speak Japanese, despite being married to a succession of women from that country; his attempts to communicate with them are very funny (though I should note that this element of the film has met with furrowed brows and sucked teeth in some quarters). There are pop-culture references aplenty, with many of the supporting characters clearly very lightly fictionalised versions of real people – Christine Ebersole plays a character based on Lucille Ball, Sean Penn plays a version of William Holden, and Tom Waits a version of Mark Robson (director of several of Holden’s films).

Most peculiar of all is a ferocious cameo by Bradley Cooper as Jon Peters, a hairdresser turned film producer long renowned in Hollywood circles as a bizarre and outlandish figure (Peters’ unlikely plot stipulations while working as producer on the abortive Superman Lives have become legendary in and of themselves). Bradley Cooper’s casting alone virtually qualifies as some sort of convoluted in-joke, given that Peters produced the 1976 version of A Star Is Born (he was Barbra Streisand’s boyfriend at the time) and managed to land himself a producer’s credit on Cooper’s own take on the story. It’s not unfair to suggest that the film depicts Peters as some variety of maniac; what makes it quite so peculiar is that Peters is not fictionalised at all, but presented under his real name, and Peters himself was apparently completely on board with this (with the proviso that one of his best pick-up lines be incorporated into the script).

This is just one of the film’s incidental pleasures, though, of which there are many. Linking all of them are two fantastically winning and appealing performances by Haim and Hoffman, both of whom bring great naturalness and warmth to the film. The script is carefully judged: Gary is precocious for his edge, she still perhaps struggling to find herself, which makes their friendship more believable; but at the same time, the eruptions of jealousy and childishness which cause them occasional problems are entirely credible.

It’s a piece of feel-good entertainment, not anything deeper or more profound than that, and with less darkness around its edges than most of Anderson’s more recent films. I find that Anderson is another of those directors who I’ve been keeping tabs on without particularly meaning to – I still remember going to see Magnolia early in 2000 and having my mind well and truly blown, a seminal moment that changed my whole perception of what modern cinema was capable of. None of Anderson’s subsequent films have quite matched that for me, but Licorice Pizza comes closer than most, being his most accessible and purely enjoyable film in years.

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The day before my sister turned 21 I travelled down to visit her and, as we had a bit of free time, decided to rent a video before going out for the evening (this sort of indicates how old my sister is, but I’m sure she’ll be fine with that). After the usual wrangling and discussions over what to see (what used to happen in video rental stores now happens while looking at the front end of Netflix or Mouse+, that’s progress for you) we ended up watching The Meaning of Life, which – of course – also included the supporting feature, The Crimson Permanent Assurance. I remember enjoying this enormously and commenting to my sibling on how very Terry Gilliamish it was.

She is less versed in the ways of film (and, indeed, Python) than me, and admitted that she didn’t actually know what that meant. I, on the other hand, will happily turn up to see anything made by Gilliam, always assuming it gets a proper cinema release wherever I’m living at the time. (This is quite a big qualification as I don’t recall Tideland or Zero Theorem showing up at all, while The Man Who Killed Don Quixote only scraped a small release in an independent cinema.) And generally I have a pretty good time, and occasionally a great one.

The only Gilliam film I didn’t get the first time I saw it was The Fisher King, his 1991 film. This is arguably a bit of an outlier in the Gilliam canon anyway, as it was a film he made as a deliberate change of pace after some stressful experiences in the 1980s – he is even on record as having said he didn’t want to make another ‘Terry Gilliam film’ while shooting it. He was much more of a directorial gun for hire on this movie, as opposed to the auteurial role he usually plays.

The movie takes place in New York City in the present day (which is to say, in the late 80s and early 90s) and the protagonist is one Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges), a radio ‘shock jock’ and provocateur. In true late 80s style Jack is callous, materialistic and self-obsessed, and believes his career is about to really start going places. He is correct – but not the places he is hoping for. An unstable listener takes one of Jack’s rants rather too seriously and is spurred to commit a spree killing in which several people die.

Several years on Jack is at a low ebb: his broadcasting career is over and he is working as a clerk in the video store of his girlfriend Anne (Mercedes Ruehl) – it is perhaps not entirely surprising that posters advertising Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen are prominently displayed around the place. Anne clearly adores him, but he is too drunk to notice this most of the time.

While contemplating suicide one night, he is set upon by thugs who believe he is homeless, but rescued by Parry (Robin Williams), an actual homeless person who believes himself to be a knight of the Round Table on a quest to retrieve the Holy Grail. (The Holy Grail is in the library of a wealthy architect on the Upper East Side, naturally.)

Jack’s initial gratitude and bemusement become something more significant when he learns that Parry used to be a successful and happily-married historian until he was widowed in the spree killing Jack was partially responsible for. He feels a sudden responsibility towards Parry, and perhaps the need to redeem himself. Maybe getting Parry together with the woman he is infatuated with (Amanda Plummer) could be a start…?

So, yes, this is the third sort-of Arthurian movie we’ve talked about in the last couple of months. Why should this be? Well, I’m still a bit peeved about The Green Knight having its release postponed, and these other films are filling the gap until (we may hope) it eventually appears. Also, my friends and I are playing King Arthur Pendragon at the moment, so anything with a whiff of Camelot about it is grist to my mill.

The Fisher King sounds like the name of a grand fantasy movie – at least, it does if you know your Arthuriana. The thing is – and I think this may be why I didn’t really take to it on my first viewing – it’s not actually a fantasy film in the traditional sense at all. The only thing epic about it is the length (which is arguably a little bit excessive). The Fisher King legend as related here does not bear much resemblance to the one traditionally associated with the Arthur cycle, and even then it is mainly just a metaphor for the central relationship in the film (it’s not even immediately apparent who is playing the role of the Fisher King in the story).

Instead, this is almost more like a slightly hard-edged Woody Allen comedy-drama about the lives and loves of various New Yorkers (albeit of a lower social stratum than usual), with occasional contributions to the art direction by Hieronymus Bosch. Gilliam seems to have been born several centuries too late and appears to gravitate towards mediaevally-inclined projects – he was the knight with the rubber chicken in Python, co-directed Holy Grail, did Jabberwocky on his own and creates some magnificent knights in this film and his version of Don Quixote – the fire-breathing Red Knight which pursues Parry (a metaphor for the real world, with all the pain and sorrow that involves) is one of Gilliam’s finest bits of conjuring.

If you approach The Fisher King fully cognisant of the fact that it’s only tangentially about the legend in question and more a piece of magic realism than full-on fantasy, I think the film is rather winning, and very worthwhile. It is humane, thoughtful, and quite happy not just to broach the topic of homelessness in the US, but to present homeless characters as sympathetic and intelligent people. The relationships between the four main characters are convincing and, without exception, extremely well played – Robin Williams gets top billing, but Jeff Bridges is at least as good in what’s arguably the central role, while Mercedes Ruehl deserved all the awards she won for a properly layered and utterly convincing performance as his girlfriend.

It’s a little odd to watch a Terry Gilliam film which is basically people just walking around and talking to each other, but the maestro finds plenty of opportunities to bring some visual distinctiveness to the film – quite apart from the Red Knight, there’s the lovely scene in which the crowd in Grand Central Station all start waltzing as Parry stumbles after the woman he’s fallen for. Given the slightly frenetic grimness which occasionally popped up in Gilliam’s films from the 1980s, it’s rather lovely that this one is so genuinely charming and romantic; it suggests he has a range as a director which he has never really got to fully explore (it’s perhaps slightly facile to make comparisons between Terry Gilliam and Orson Welles, but I think there are certainly parallels).

As I said, the film is probably about twenty minutes too long, considering the slightness of the story, but apart from the slightly languid pacing this is a really well-made, thoughtful film for adults. Before watching it recently, it was never really one of my favourite Gilliam films, simply because it doesn’t have that obvious Gilliamishness which is so obvious in The Crimson Permanent Assurance and his earlier feature films. However, it turns out that Terry Gilliam is still a great director even when he isn’t trying that hard to be Terry Gilliam.

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It is curious to reflect that, as he settled comfortably into a prosperous middle age, Sean Connery seemed quite happy to spend most of his professional life in the middle ages, too. Think of a noteworthy Connery film from the mid-seventies to the mid-nineties and there’s a good chance it will feature our man swinging a sword and possibly wearing chain-mail, too: Robin and Marion, Highlander, The Name of the Rose (all right, he’s a monk in that one), Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves, Dragonheart… in retrospect it’s something of an achievement that he managed to wrench himself back to the present day for so many of his final films.

We can only ponder as to what quality Connery possessed that made him such a good fit for this sort of film – Terry Gilliam once spoke of Connery’s essentially telluric nature (in the context of why he would have been a poor choice to play Quixote), and he does have that unreconstructed alpha-male aura going on for him, which may indeed go quite well with tales of an earlier and simpler time. Whatever the reason, the result is a CV featuring such plum roles as Robin Hood, Richard the Lionheart, William of Baskerville and (potentially the biggest of the lot) King Arthur.

This was a late-middle-ages role for Connery, coming in Jerry Zucker’s 1995 film First Knight. (Connery had previously played another of the great Arthurian roles, the Green Knight, in 1984’s Sword of the Valiant.) Zucker had scored a big hit with his previous film, the extravagant weepie Ghost, and this has the feel of a ‘classic’ Hollywood period movie, the spiritual successor to things like The Black Knight and Knights of the Round Table.  From the opening moments it goes full-bloodedly in search of the closest thing to Merrie Olde England camp you will ever find in a Hollywood movie of the 1990s.

King Arthur’s realm is finally at peace (it’s taken longer than usual, as he’s clearly in his sixties) and the monarch is intent on marrying, despite the lurking threat of a renegade knight (Ben Cross is playing the role of Malagant, who is essentially playing the role of Mordred in this version of the tale). Also wandering the realm is Lancelot (Richard Gere), who on this occasion is a charmingly roguish trickster leading an aimless life.

Prince Malagant is intent on taking over the land of Leonesse, which appears to be a titchy little realm between Malagant’s domain and that of Camelot, and this involves his men terrorising the local peasants (keen-eyed viewers may spot a young Rob Brydon hamming it up ferociously in the crowd scenes – Brydon was offered a bigger part but had to go and be at the birth of his child, or something). Playing Malagant’s chief lieutenant is Ralph Ineson, who – at the time of writing – is appearing (or not, depending on where you live) in the title role of David Lowery’s The Green Knight, and you have to wonder if the two facts are in any way connected.

Off the peasants stagger to tell the ruler of Leonesse, Guinevere (Julia Ormond). Her one-of-the-people credentials are established by the fact we initially find her playing football with another bunch of peasants. Lending the film some twinkly gravitas but making no substantial contribution to the plot is John Gielgud as her wise old mentor. It turns out that in addition to facing the threat of annexation, Guinevere has to decide whether or not to marry King Arthur. Needless to say she agrees.

However, on the way to Camelot, Malagant’s men have a go at kidnapping Guinevere, and she is only rescued by the timely arrival of Lancelot, whose charmingly roguish ways we have already been introduced to in the pre-credits sequence. Guinevere is soon roguishly charmed up to her eyeballs, but her sense of duty and self-respect require her to carry on to Camelot where she (and the audience) meet King Arthur (finally).

The film has been going for a bit by this point and it’s frankly a relief to finally meet Sean Connery, who is, after all, top-billed. To be honest, I find I can often take or leave these mid-to-late period Connery performances, as the actor often seems just a bit too ready to trade on his natural charisma and established screen persona rather than actually do any work. Here, though, he is rather good as the aged version of the King, a decent and just man, veteran of too many wars, who wears his vast authority very lightly. You can see why Guinevere loves him, but is it in truth a love with any fizz and wow to it? How does it, in fact, compare to the sizzling chemistry she clearly shares with Lancelot? Hopefully the threat of Malagant will somehow enable everyone to work through all their personal issues…

So: a story credit for Lorne Cameron, one for David Hoselton, and one for William Nicholson (who’s credited with the actual script). No story credit for either Chretien de Troyes or Thomas Malory, presumably because they just don’t have good enough lawyers (being dead for centuries can really affect your ability to get good legal help). Still, this is fairly recognisable as the classic story of the love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot, very much chopped down, speeded up and rendered digestible for the perceived requirements of a modern audience.

As you might expect, the various changes to the story inevitably impact on how it plays out – Lancelot meeting and falling for Guinevere before he even meets Arthur or becomes a knight really shifts the dynamic of the story – but none quite as much as the decision to dispense with virtually all of the mythic and mystical aspects of the story. So this is (spoiler incoming) a tale of the twilight and fall of King Arthur with no Mordred, no Morgan le Fay, no Merlin (not that you’d strictly speaking expect him to be around at this point), no Excalibur, no Avalon, and so on.

A non-mythological King Arthur movie is a curious choice but not necessarily a risible one; the 2004 film with Clive Owen made a similar choice, going all in on historicity and period detail and gritty realism. First Knight ditches all the mythology, but (as this is a family-friendly romantic adventure) can’t find anything to replace it. As a result the film fails to convince, either as fantasy or anything else. Even the romance feels rather turgid: Lancelot and Guinevere talk a lot about their feelings but they never come across to the audience; there is no actual sense of passion at any point, despite the fact that Ormond at least is working hard to convince. (Gere seems rather out of his comfort zone, to be honest.)

The result is one of those slick but bland movies that they seemed to make a lot of back in the 1990s. I suppose people with a taste for soft-focus romance in a cod-mediaeval setting may find it passes the time quite agreeably; the rest of it is not entirely bereft of interest – there are some interesting faces in the supporting cast, Ben Cross is not bad as the panto villain the film requires, and much of the fight choreography is likewise well up to standard – but it’s essentially unsatisfying as either an adventure film, a drama, or a screen version of one of Britain’s greatest myths.

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It’s a bit of a shock to realise that we still haven’t had any ‘new’ films for 2021 – not since the cinemas reopened, anyway. Virtually every major release has been something that was scheduled for early last summer: there’s a real sense in which we are still only catching up with the backlog, at least as far as the big studios go. One got to see the trailer, then the pandemic intervened, and now, sixteen or eighteen months later, we actually get to see the movie.

I’ve been racking my brains trying to remember what I saw the trailer for Jon M Chu’s In the Heights in front of. As we have established, films are trailed before other films of a vaguely similar kind, on the whole, but as there aren’t many hip-hop contemporary musical-comedy-dramas troubling the multiplexes it must have been something else. Was it in front of Parasite? I can’t actually recall.

That trailer made heavy reference to the fact that the guiding spirit behind the musical the film is based on – conceiver, producer, composer and lyricist – is Lin-Manuel Miranda, one of those people who you’d expect to be able to write their own ticket in terms of simply doing anything they feel like (and making a big song and dance out of it, ha ha, ho ho). This is mainly due to the success of the stage musical Hamilton; In the Heights is an earlier work which has taken a circuitous route to the big screen (casting issues, a change of studio, the Weinstein scandal, and then of course the delay due to the virus).

Anthony Ramos plays Usnavi, owner of a convenience store in the Washington Heights district of New York (the issue of his somewhat unusual nomenclature is addressed in the course of the film). His family is from the Dominican Republic, and his ambition is to return there and re-open his father’s old bar. Most of his neighbours have some kind of Latino background as well, not to mention concerns over their own futures: beauty salon worker Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) wants to become a fashion designer with a downtown address, while her friend Nina (Leslie Grace) is struggling with the pressures placed on her as the first person from the neighbourhood to go to an elite university, not to mention the prejudices and provocations she encounters in the wider world.

And the neighbourhood seems under threat: quite apart from the fact that so many of the young people seem to be intent on leaving, the businesses are being bought out or forced to leave by rent increases. When Usnavi learns that someone in his shop has bought a lottery ticket worth nearly $100,000, it seems like a portent of things changing forever…

If you only go to see one musical set on the streets of Manhattan this year… aha, but that’s the thing: one of the films being trailed before In the Heights was Spielberg’s likewise-delayed new version of West Side Story (the trailer was almost good enough to make me reconsider my position that a remake of the Robert Wise version isn’t just necessarily redundant, but folly). Spielberg’s film is likely to crush Chu’s in terms of box office returns and critical profile, which is a shame – but that’s what brand loyalty is all about, I suppose.

This is quite a different animal, anyway, less centred around a single narrative line and more concerned with the lives and experiences of an entire neighbourhood: one of its great successes is in the presentation of a vibrant, realistic community, somewhere it might actually be quite nice to live.

Well, realistic up to a point, anyway: people keep bursting into song and performing massed dance routines. A touch of realism goes a long way, but one of the reasons that musicals never really completely disappear from the cinema landscape is that they have a special magic all of their own – by being so proudly and completely non-naturalistic, at their best they have a truthfulness and sincerity about them which no other genre can quite match.

So it is here: the big routines have a joyousness about them which is utterly captivating, and bring to mind the best musicals of the past. The whole movie is quite classical in its form and structure – the songs are a mixture of ‘I want’ and ‘I need’, you can track the structure of the acts as the story develops, and so on – even if the mixture of musical styles is quite innovative (Latino music and hip-hop make up most of the score).

As a celebration of Latino culture in New York, the film is a success – but it’s also notably politicised. Everyone is talking or singing about their dreams, but slowly this turns into a discussion of the fate of Dreamers, undocumented immigrant children. Viewed in this light, and bearing in mind it was intended to be a 2020 movie, it’s hard not to conclude that In the Heights was intended to be a challenge to Donald Trump and his views on immigrants and Latino and Hispanic culture. Well, if nothing else we should always be glad that this is a blow which no longer needs to be struck with quite such urgency.

On the other hand, as well as engaging with political issues – and it’s more than just bashing Trump, the complex realities of the immigrant experience are handled with intelligence and nuance – the film is also a romance of a very traditional kind, a comment on the fate of neighbourhood communities, and several other things besides. The sheer breadth of material and willingness of the film to try and do everything eventually becomes slightly exhausting, and results in a lengthy film that none of the plotlines are really strong enough to support.

Still, it’s often hugely enjoyable while you’re watching it, even if it does lack focus. The cast are mostly unknown (apparently Anthony Ramos was in the most recent A Star is Born, a Godzilla movie, and a Liam Neeson thriller), but put across their turns with charm and energy. Probably the most famous face in the main cast is Jimmy Smits, who as it turns out can sing quite well, while Lin-Manuel Miranda himself pops up from time to time as the neighbourhood slushy salesman.

Miranda’s appearances are one of the many small pleasures which pepper a hugely likeable film. It’s true that this is film which feels like its trying to do too much, possibly as a result of having been significantly altered from the stage incarnation (the central romance is more prominent, while the political elements have been amended to reflect the modern situation) – but it does package one of the most enduring pleasures of cinema very appealingly indeed. Worth the wait.

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If you’re looking to make an uplifting family-friendly musical, starting off with your protagonist being pursued by the police is not the most obvious choice, but it’s the one that director Roman White makes at the start of A Week Away (currently showing on a Netflix account near you). Yes, our hero is a lad named Will (played by a dude named Kevin Quinn, whose striking similarity to a young Zach Efron it seems to be compulsory to mention). The script has a tricky balance to strike, in that the plot requires Will to have a long history of trouble with the authorities, while the general tenor of the film (not to mention its target audience) means that he must also be, in the final analysis, essentially wholesome and non-threatening.

The compromise they hit upon is that a) we don’t actually see Will doing anything naughty, the film just starts with him being pursued by a cop and b) at least some of his misdemeanours are presented in a ho-ho-ho slightly ironic way (he has supposedly put his high school on Craigslist, for instance). Anyway, he is duly nicked and we get some background: orphan, long list of expulsions from various schools and foster homes, and so on, but his most recent exploit – stealing a police car – has landed him in particularly hot water.

Normally I would have said the essential non-naturalism of the movie musical was epitomised by the fact that people keep singing and dancing about every few minutes. This does happen in A Week Away, but it is still somehow rather more realistic than a young male stealing a cop car in the US and pretty much being let off, which is what happens here. Will’s social worker does a lot of more-sorrowful-than-angry head-shaking and offers him a tough choice: he can go to Juvie, or… he can spend a week at camp with one of the foster parents (Sherri Shepherd) and her family. Hmmm, poser.

So off they go to family-friendly camp, which is run by the only person in this movie I can ever recall having seen before, David Koechner (previously in the Anchorman movies and Snakes on a Plane). Will bunks with his new foster mum’s son (Jahbril Cook), who is a nice guy but terribly uncool and hopes Will can give him advice on getting it together with one of the girls there (Kat Conner Sterling). Will, however, is rather preoccupied by Koechner’s character’s daughter (Bailee Madison). But given her thorough-going perky wholesomeness, how will she react if she eventually learns of Will’s scallywag past…?

The word ‘wholesome’ has cropped up a few times so far, along with ‘family-friendly’. It should therefore come as no surprise if I reveal there is a bit more to this movie than just a sort of chaste take on the Dirty Dancing-style holiday-romance plot structure. The first big musical number, only a few minutes into the movie, opens unexceptionally enough until Shepherd starts belting out lyrics about ‘the grace of God’ which the chorus all enthusiastically join in with.

This turns out to be a motif in the songwriting of A Week Away. The songs are not painful to listen to, and the performances are decent if not outstanding (in a similar vein, the choreography is hardly up to Gene Kelly standard but performed with gusto). Most of the numbers cover commendable themes encouraging teenagers to have confidence and self-esteem, but you can’t help but notice that the grace of God does get mentioned quite a lot. There’s another song called something like ‘Whoa, God is Awesome’ and one of the oldies smuggled onto the soundtrack – the kids in the target audience will be too young to recognise this – is ‘Baby Baby’, by arch CCM-pop-crossover star Amy Grant. In short: yes, this is a faith-based movie.

Full disclosure: I’ve never found a religion that actually worked for me, though only a fool would dismiss the importance of the great faiths to world history and culture. Faith-based movies? Not so much. These things tend to get pretty brutally reviewed, on the whole, and the only one I’d actually watched prior to A Week Away – just to see if it was quite as bad as its crits – was Last Ounce of Courage (yes, it was). I’m not sure why it should be such an iron law that faith-based movies are invariably so bad, but then of course I’m sure that many people of faith must find them entirely satisfying entertainment in the way that non-faith-based entertainment presumably isn’t. Perhaps we touch upon a deep truth about how one’s belief system colours one’s perceptions of the world here. Nevertheless, to paraphrase someone off Roger Ebert’s website, even the best of these films put me in mind of a commercial for a product which everyone in the target audience already owns.

And, to be fair, A Week Away isn’t anything like as bad as Last Ounce of Courage. True, early on I did catch myself wondering if I could somehow throttle myself into unconsciousness and get to the end a bit quicker that way (in the end I just ended up playing a lot of 2048 while watching it just to keep my higher brain functions busy), but it’s sort of amiable and unmistakably good-hearted, even if the requirements to be wholesome and family-friendly mean that it is almost totally innocuous, lacking drama, tension, or any sense of threat. It’s almost as if near-total blandness is a genre convention for this kind of film. Jokes which poke very gentle fun at faith-based organisations probably count as edgy, subversive material in this kind of film. (Not that there isn’t the odd particularly weird moment: at one point the leading couple experience a moment of shared triumph by wreaking havoc together on the paintball course, which feels rather tonally wrong – there are various other points where the film seems to be trying a bit too hard to seem cool.)

Oh well. In the end, this kind of film really isn’t my kind of thing, but it’s bright and colourful and some of the songs are pleasant enough. I suspect that Netflix (who are streaming it) don’t feel any great ideological affinity with it either, but the Christian-movie audience is large and juicy and they probably need the subscriptions right now. I wonder how Christian movie-watchers feel about being exploited and/or pandered to in this way? It’s hard not to conclude that Netflix’s investment in this film is ultimately quite cynical and calculated. There are strong and less-strong ways of running your movie streaming service – and I can’t help but think that this is a weaker way.

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