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Posts Tagged ‘thriller’

Any film featuring the final performance of a talent as singular as that of someone like Diana Rigg instantly acquires a significance – and, perhaps, a set of expectations – it wouldn’t otherwise have. Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho doesn’t really do itself any favours by reminding everyone of this fact at the very beginning, featuring the dedication to the legendary actress and icon as virtually the first element of the film. It’s a brave step, but also a laudable one, and the film does not feel swamped by this unexpected (and unwanted) new element.

Wright is one of those directors who can be rather tricky to read: he bounces around across all kinds of genres, usually managing to make each his own in a rather quirky way – so far his CV includes a zombie rom com, a buddy action movie set in rural England, an offbeat comic book adaptation, an alien invasion movie, a diegetic musical car chase thriller, and a documentary about one of the world’s weirdest bands. (For a long time he was also attached to direct Ant-Man, but the whole ‘making it his own in a rather quirky way’ thing fell foul of the Marvel Studios method.)

The new movie is certainly creative, but largely tones down the overt oddness and games with genre. Thomasin McKenzie, who for a while has looked like one of those actresses one really good film away from significant stardom, plays Ellie, a young girl who has grown up in Cornwall with a head full of the sights and sounds of the swinging sixties. She is determined to go to London and make it as a fashion designer – what also rapidly becomes clear is that a suitcase full of old LPs is by no means the only baggage she is carrying with her: her mother took her own life, which has not stopped Ellie from seeing her about the place sometimes.

Despite some misgivings from her gran (Rita Tushingham), Ellie heads off to fashion designer university in the smoke anyway, and almost at once begins to find the reality does not match up to her dreams. Problem number one is the self-absorbed and callous room-mate she’s been assigned (Synnove Karlsen), which she manages to solve by renting a bedsit from a local resident (Rigg).

The fact that, after moving into the flat, Ellie starts to have some rather strange dreams does not initially appear to be a problem. She finds herself transported back to the half-mythical London of the swinging sixties (Thunderball is showing at the cinema, along with The Plague of the Zombies and Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, from which we can conclude that it is supposed to be early 1966 – even though the Amicus film came out six months earlier), experiencing the life of another hopeful young woman named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) – though in Sandie’s case, her disillusionment comes faster and harder and altogether darker. Ellie sees Sandie fall under the sway of Jack (Matt Smith), a shady and controlling character, and begins to fear for what eventually happened to her. But isn’t she just making it all up? As the boundary between her increasingly nightmarish visions and the waking world begins to splinter, it becomes difficult to tell…

Last Night in Soho might not be quite the genre-bender that some of Edgar Wright’s films have been, but it’s still a slightly tough film to pin down. Is it a psychological thriller, or a full-on horror movie? (I was amused to hear two very earnest patrons at the showing I attended intently persuading each other, as the final credits rolled, that – despite its legions of genuine alarming spectres and some rather gory revelations in the third act – this couldn’t possibly be a horror film as it dealt with some serious issues. Hey, money from genre snobs is as welcome as anyone else’s, I suppose.

I’m pretty sure this is a horror movie – it’s genuinely unsettling for long periods, deals with proper horror material, and Wright deploys a few classic horror gags along the way – but it is also a very modern piece dealing with the topics of mental health and misogynistic violence. The sense being alone in a new place, feeling isolated, and never quite fitting in no matter how hard you want to, is superbly created, as is the sickly reality of being a vulnerable single woman constantly having to deal with the calculating male gaze.

And that’s just some of the present day sequences: the stuff set in the late sixties is arguably much worse. It initially looks like this is going to be a love letter to the glamour of that period, the London of Carnaby Street and the Beatles and their peers – a young Cilla Black appears as a character – something only emphasised by the appearance in the cast of such iconic sixties faces as Diana Rigg, Terence Stamp, and Rita Tushingham. But the film is also a ruthless deconstruction of the notion of that kind of glamour and the reality it was built on, which was one of ruthless exploitation and abuse.

It’s a powerful thesis and one the film puts across highly persuasively – I was even slightly surprised that Wright was making a film which was quite so on-the-nose with its moral premise, although I should say the film also works exceptionally well as a piece of dark, hard-edged entertainment, with the director showing off his usual casual mastery of the craft.

However, what definitely came as a real surprise was the conclusion of the film, in which Wright and his co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns opt for something rather more unexpected and nuanced. To be honest, it does feel like the film is reaching a bit, mainly because some kind of twist ending is what the form calls for, and while the ending is still strong and effective it is a little bit contrived.

Nevertheless, this is up there with the very best of Wright’s other films, taking you on a journey into another world (more than one, in this case). It does a good job of suggesting how foundational the pop culture of the sixties remain in the modern world, making full use of the music of that period (along with a few interlopers: the most recent song I recognised was Happy House, released in 1980 by Siouxsie and the Banshees), but is more than just a casual piece of nostalgia. That said, Stamp, Tushingham and Rigg all get meaty roles that allow them to show their quality, and there is something rather marvellous and touching about seeing Diana Rigg command the screen so effortlessly one final time, far removed though she is from her iconic persona of so many decades ago. But nearly everyone involved in this production emerges with credit. Last Night in Soho is a terrific film, one of the best of the year so far, and a worthy valediction for a great star and a great actress.

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The arrival of a new James Bond film has always been a very big deal, for as long as I can remember – but such is the breathless expectation awaiting Cary Joji Fukunaga’s No Time to Die that one half expects significant chunks of the population to turn purple and fall over. This is, let us recall, the production which saw Danny Boyle depart shortly before shooting began, due to script differences; various injuries besetting key cast members; and not one but two substantial postponements, the second of which was the catalyst which caused several major UK cinema chains to shut up shop last Autumn, well ahead of the second lockdown.

Now, of course, it seems that Bond is the latest movie to be hailed as the saviour of commercial cinema. So desperate, so certain is the company running the local multiplex where I’m living, that they scheduled forty-five screenings of the movie on its day of release alone (not counting the midnight showing – they started at nine in the morning and continued several times an hour until eleven at night). This is unprecedented, mad, and silly; it almost qualifies as a new level of hype and expectation. No film, not even a classic Bond, can match up to this kind of hype, surely?

Well. The film opens with the customary pre-credits sequence, but its first innovation is to shatter the record for time elapsed before the actual titles roll. Don’t hold your breath or you’ll be turning purple and falling over again. To be fair, this is a hugely confident and thrilling segment, opening with a vignette like something out of a horror movie, segueing into something unexpectedly moving, and then slamming into high gear as Bond’s trip to Italy with his girlfriend from the last movie (Lea Seydoux) hits a few wrinkles – suffice to say the famous Aston Martin DB5 gets one more glorious run-out.

Then we’re off into the plot, which starts with a resurgent SPECTRE (I know I’m the only one still capitalising the name of the organisation, but I’m a sentimental old thing) attacking a London bio-warfare lab, stealing a new weapon, and kidnapping its creator. Shadowy forces are at work inside the governments of the free world and a retired Bond is recruited by his old friend Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) to retrieve the boffin before SPECTRE persuades him to do something nefarious with it. However, he finds himself in competition with his old paymasters at MI6, who have sent a Double-O agent from the younger generation on exactly the same mission…

And it all takes off from here, more or less. The plot is convoluted, but not impenetrably so, although it does feel sometimes that all the double-crossings and personal angst and exposition of bleak back-story is rather taking the place of the action and grand set-pieces which have always been the Bond franchise’s bread and butter. Somewhere along the way, too, exactly what the agenda of the diabolical mastermind (Rami Malek) is seems to become rather unclear. Even so, the film finishes strongly, with all the requisite crash-bang-wallop (along with a few more surprising touches) and the getting-on-for-three-hours running time more or less floats by provided you haven’t ingested too many liquids before it starts.

This is lavish, highly entertaining stuff, less glum and introspective overall than some of the Craig Bond films have been in the past, and striking an interesting balance between honouring the series’ history and engaging in some startling acts of iconoclasm – the plot draws on elements from the original version of You Only Live Twice, while the film overall is informed by one previous entry in the series in particular. Daniel Craig himself carries a huge movie with aplomb, but he is very well supported – Rami Malek is an authentically creepy and twisted Bond villain, Jeffrey Wright manages to make Leiter so much more than just Bond’s sidekick, and there’s an eye-catching extended cameo from Ana de Armas (who I think everyone was expecting to be in the movie a bit more than she actually is).

However, there are a lot of things about this film which it’s very difficult to talk about without spoiling it completely – most of them ultimately boiling down to the question of just what place, if any, there is for a character like James Bond in the world today. The producers (one of whom is Craig) seem very aware of this, which is why a number of what can perhaps be called corrective measures have been put in place – Lashana Lynch plays one of Bond’s fellow agents and the script has been given a polish by the acclaimed Fridge Wallaby, writer and star of Fleabag. Even so, one gets a sense of the decks being swept quite clean and a line firmly being drawn under the Craig era, in preparation for…

Well, that’s the question. When you really get down to it, James Bond – Ian Fleming’s James Bond 007, as the credits still put it – is the personification of a white heterosexual male power fantasy, and I can’t think of anything more problematic in modern culture. Bond has always been a bit problematic, but never more so than today, when virtually every major remake or adaptation of an older story sees characters ostentatiously having their genders or ethnicities changed.

Looking at the Craig era now, it’s clear that throughout them there’s been an ongoing negotiation between Bond-as-power-fantasy-figure and Bond-as-an-actual-credible-character; what made Casino Royale such an astounding breath of fresh air was that it did treat Bond seriously as a character; the series’ occasional problems since then have largely arisen from the limitations of this approach within the confines of a traditionally big, brash, and slightly tongue-in-cheek blockbuster action movie series. The new film really pushes this approach to its uttermost limits: one of the things I predict will prove highly polarising and divisive about it is that it is the human, flawed Bond that is central to the (rather contrived) final sequence, rather than the comforting, infallible superhero. (Not that the pay-off to this isn’t unexpectedly moving.)

The old idea of James Bond as a white male wish-fulfilment figure likely has no future, the modern cultural landscape being as it is. The problem is that the subtler Bond the Craig movies have brought to the screen, a somewhat modulated and updated, more humanised version of the character from the novels, likely has little distance left to run either: for a new actor to continue with it now would only invite deadly comparisons with Daniel Craig. But there has to be something a Bond movie provides that you just don’t get from – say – a Fast & Furious movie; call it the quintessence of Bondishness. What the people at the top of Eon have to figure out now is just what that is and whether it still has a place in the culture of the future.

I must admit to not being particular optimistic on this front, having seen too much well-intentioned cultural vandalism over the last few years. Bond is really the last of the great masculine icons; it’s a wonder he’s lasted this long. If this twenty-fifth Bond film does prove to be the last hurrah of the series before it’s reconfigured into something fundamentally different, then that’s a shame – but No Time to Die is at least a worthy and entirely fitting piece of valediction.

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Frederik Louis Hviid and Anders Olholm (O with a line through it)’s Shorta opens in disquieting and uncompromising style, depicting a young Black man being aggressively restrained by the police. ‘I can’t breathe!’ he repeatedly cries. The fact that this is all happening in Danish makes it slightly less provocative, perhaps, but likely not much. It’s followed by a sequence depicting a heavily-armed police officer aboard a helicopter observing the activities of the inhabitants a bleak-looking housing estate, rather like a soldier observing occupied territory: the tone is definitely more like that of a war movie than a police thriller (which is what this nominally is).

Although we are in Copenhagen, the setting is not explicitly made clear, perhaps intentionally: the implication possibly being that this is a story that could take place in any large western city. The action proper begins a few days later: the youth from the start is in critical care in the hospital and large parts of the city are experiencing elevated levels of tension. It’s in this atmosphere that principled young cop Jens Hoyer (O with a line through it) is assigned to go on patrol with his older colleague Mike Andersen (Jacob Lohmann). Andersen is a hard man, set in his prejudices; he wields his authority like a baton. Initially the two of them struggle to bond.

The events of their patrol lead them into an estate named Svalegarden, home to many immigrant communities – one of the areas they have been advised to steer well clear of. Seemingly on a whim, Andersen stops to make an illegal and demeaning search of a passing Asian teenager, Amos (Tarek Zayat), angering other local youths – Hoyer backs his colleague up nevertheless. But when it looks like Amos has attacked their squad car in response, they arrest him.

Then news comes through that the teenager from the start of the film has died of his injuries and all uniformed police should pull out of the neighbourhood. It’s too late: their car is wrecked and the duo face the challenge of getting out of the ghetto in one piece, dragging their prisoner with them. Only now does it become apparent that the two have been partnered up for a reason: Hoyer was a witness to the events which led to the youth’s death, and Andersen is under orders to ensure his testimony to the upcoming enquiry shows the police in a favourable light, regardless of the truth of the matter…

Shorta, in case you were wondering, is an Arabic word meaning police; the film is also trading in some territories under the title Enforcement (which is a bit fridgey; the cinema I saw it at was using one title on its website and the other at the actual venue, which confused me no end). To be honest, Shorta is a fairly fridgey title too, although I suppose it could be meant ironically – one of the themes of the film is just how short the police fall, in relation to the standards one might expect of them.

In any case, we are in relatively familiar territory here: this is a movie in the time-honoured ‘cops in extremis’ genre, which dates back at least as far as Assault on Precinct 13 and includes more recent high-concept offerings like The Raid. It’s also not the first film to be driven by the clash between a young and relatively idealistic cop and an older one whose effectiveness means the authorities overlook how corrupt he has become (I’m thinking here of films like Training Day, though I suppose the same dynamic is there as far back as Touch of Evil). What adds something to the mix is the level of social awareness in Shorta; the film it most closely resembles is Les Miserables, which came out in the UK last summer.

Shorta has drawn some quite negative notices from some outlets, certainly in America, with critics suggesting it’s a clumsy attempt to comment (or even cash in) on the Black Lives Matter protests of last year. The long lead times of movies leads me to doubt this, to be honest; it also overlooks the fact that immigration and the administration of so-called ‘ghetto’ estates is a live issue in Danish politics.

Nevertheless, the film engages with these issues, even if all it really does is suggest that they are painfully complex and not easily resolvable. The action of the movie comes first, which is as it should be, and this is certainly well-handled, gripping stuff, with the two cops’ plight and their degenerating relationship generating plenty of tension; the bursts of violent action punctuating the movie are convincingly gritty as well as gripping (not a film for dog lovers, I should say).

The first half of the movie barely puts a foot wrong, and I was all set to bemoan the fact that such an effective and engaging thriller was only playing in a small number of art-house theatres, simply because of what Bong Joon-ho has called the ‘one-inch barrier’ of subtitles. But to keep the plot moving, an increasing number of dubious contrivances and coincidences begin to appear, which threaten to tip the movie over into melodramatic territory. Many stories incorporate unlikely events to some degree or other; the question is whether the pay-off they facilitate is sufficient to make the audience give the film a pass on this front.

If Shorta had concluded with an ending that both satisfied and managed to say something insightful and significant about the themes it covers – assimilation, the role of the police in society, the conflict between loyalty and principle, the extent to which enforcers are both brutal and brutalised – then I would happily have agreed that some of the contortions in the script were justified. And the end of the story is effective and reasonably satisfying (though it will hardly count as a spoiler if I suggest it’s not the most optimistic of outcomes) – it’s just not clear what the thesis of the film is, beyond the simple message that policing in these kind of situations is a messy, ugly business, with flawed people on both sides and no happy endings in sight for anyone.

It’s a shame, because Shorta looks very much like a film which wants to be something beyond a simple cop thriller. It is at least a very effective cop thriller, tense, exciting, and well-played by all the leads. But if it has a deeper message then it’s not at all clear what that is. This is still an accomplished and extremely watchable movie, though.

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Dominic Cooke’s The Courier doesn’t have a fridge title, just an uninspired one (it played at the  Sundance Festival under its original title of Ironbark, which is at least a little more distinctive). This is a movie which came out in the Land of Uncle US of Stateside nearly six months ago but is only just getting a domestic British release. Quite what the reason for the big lag is, I’m not sure; possibly the makers think this movie has a better chance of succeeding theatrically in the UK, given its subject matter and star – they may even have a point.

This starts off looking like a very traditional, drab and naturalistic espionage thriller, although an opening caption establishes that we are in that even more tenuous and shadowy world of movies theoretically based on true events. It is 1960 and tensions between the superpowers are mounting, reaching the point where senior military intelligence officer Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) decides that the only way to save his country is to betray it, by sharing classified information with the western powers.

Penkovsky’s initial contact is with the CIA, but they are having difficulties in mounting operations in Moscow and request help from MI6 in handling the Penkovsky case (his codename is Ironbark). To allay suspicions they decide to use a civilian as a go-between, and settle upon middle-aged businessman Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch). Wynne is an unexceptional chap, mainly notable for his great emollience and clubbability, and when he eventually figures out he’s being recruited by a couple of spooks his response is one of alarm more than anything else. Somehow they manage to talk him into it nevertheless.

Initially unsure of himself, Wynne nevertheless warms to his work, not least because of the growing warmth developing between him and Penkovsky. This is despite the lack of enthusiasm of his wife (Jessie Buckley), who is unaware of what’s really going on and starts to suspect Wynne has personal (and rather ignoble) reasons for all these foreign trips. But the KGB soon begin to suspect that there may be a leak somewhere in Moscow, and the question becomes one of whether the agencies can extract Penkovsky before he is rumbled…

As I say, theoretically based on true events – although even while you’re watching The Courier you find yourself noticing just how slickly the story told by the film hits the well-established beats of classic story structure: inciting incident, character arc moments, midpoint turn, stakes-raising, and so on. Normally I would suggest this is just another case of creative caution blanding out a movie, but perhaps not on this occasion – for the film departs quite radically from the traditional structure in its closing section (spoilers concerning the Wynne-Penkovsky affair are widely available, not least in history books). Maybe the conventionality of most of the movie is an attempt to wrong-foot the audience, but I’m not entirely convinced about this – it doesn’t feel as if the makers of The Courier are interested in operating on such a sophisticated, self-conscious level.

Instead, the film is much more of a meat-and-potatoes hats-and-fags period drama for most of its duration, the kind of film which the British film industry is simply very good at (they get a lot of practice, after all). All the costuming, set design, and direction is competent and familiar-feeling, and the performances are, in general, decent or better (some of them are very good indeed). The only thing that really distinguishes it is the strikingly bleak and powerful final act. Cumberbatch is good throughout, but here he really gets to shine, while Buckley – saddled with the less than plum stock part of The Wife for most of the movie – also gets to show more of what she’s actually capable of. (Angus Wright plays the stuffy old chief MI6 handler and Rachel Brosnahan his younger and more human American opposite number – needless to say the script favours the Americans.)

The climax is by far the most memorable part of the film, and probably the most accomplished too, but it’s understandable that it and the material leading up to it makes up only a relatively small part of the film – powerful it may be, but it’s also probably downbeat to the point of being profoundly uncommercial.

I’m assuming that the makers of The Courier think the movie has a reasonable chance of commercial success – with someone like Cumberbatch on board, on this kind of form, this would normally be a fair assumption. (They would hardly have made the film otherwise.) And yet I wonder about its chances of cutting through and making an impression – the publicity for it doesn’t do a great job of making it distinctive from many other hats-and-fags period thrillers of the last decade or so, and it’s not as if the story of Wynne and Penkovsky is likely to be all that familiar to anyone under the age of seventy. It’s not a bad movie at all, but nor is it really a big one or one which is likely to make a huge impression.

I suppose this is a shame, because if nothing else the film is a decent reminder of events of the past. But is this enough? What I mean is that the objective of the film (beyond making its budget back) is somewhat obscure: maybe it is just a tribute to Wynne and Penkovsky, if only because its implicit criticisms of the authoritarian Soviet system, though clearly sincere, hardly relate to a live issue (making parallels between the current Russian regime, compromised and brutal though it is, and the horrors of the USSR seems to me to be rather facile). I expect one could argue that the film is really a reminder of the forgotten human cost of historical events. There’s a shot in the film which rather put me in mind of one from Hitchcock’s Frenzy – an ordinary door closes, and the camera quietly retreats from it as everyday life quietly encroaches from both sides of the screen. What’s going on behind the door is left unrevealed and unelaborated upon – but it is the long tail of history, the people involved trying to come to terms with what they have been mixed up in, not the stuff of newspapers or history books but unrecorded life. It’s a striking moment, but most of the film is less contemplative. The Courier tells an important story and just about does it justice, but doesn’t find a way of operating on a high enough level to do more than be a competent and not especially memorable movie.

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They say that America doesn’t have a class system; maybe not, but that great nation is certainly not a monoculture, as we are reminded in Tom McCarthy’s film Stillwater (this comes within a hair’s breadth of being a fridge title). Here Matt Damon seems to be making a conscious effort to show his range by playing a character who is a world away from one of the metropolitan or coastal types he is perhaps best known for (even Jason Bourne was obviously a well-travelled and highly-educated guy, albeit in a rather specialised field).

Damon plays Bill Baker, a construction worker and oil rig roughneck from the town of Stillwater in Oklahoma: a stolid, stocky kind of guy, who calls everyone sir or ma’am, has a tattoo of the Eagle of American Freedom, enjoys country music and only takes his baseball cap off when he’s in bed or saying grace. He is having a rough time financially at the start of the film, looking for work without much success, and living what seems like quite a lonely existence.

And yet here he is flying off to France for some reason. It seems like an unlikely destination for a man of Bill’s stripe. Slowly it becomes obvious that he is a frequent flyer on this particular route, a regular at a certain hotel in Marseilles, and a well-known fixture on the visitor’s list at the local prison. This is because his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) is five years into serving time for the murder of her flatmate and Bill is the only one who comes to see her, even though it is clear their relationship is at best somewhat strained.

But maybe this time is different. Allison believes she has a lead that could possibly clear her name – she’s heard from someone who met somebody at a party who claimed they’d literally gotten away with murder – and wants him to take it to the French lawyers. But they are unimpressed by the information; Bill is advised that he needs to get Allison to accept that she has no chance of release. But Bill will have none of this Gallic pusillanimity, and – despite not being temperamentally or linguistically suited to the task – sets out to get justice for his daughter, even if it means venturing down some of Marseilles’ meaner streets…

From that description it sounds rather like the kind of film Liam Neeson might turn up in, maybe even a Luc Besson project: the indefatigable American busting heads and taking names in the name of paternal duty. The thing about Stillwater is that it’s really not like that at all; there’s something very wrong-footing about this film, like a piece of music being played at very slightly the wrong tempo. I came out of it and I honestly wasn’t sure if I’d just seen a rather good film or a distinctly poor one. (Maybe as I write a definite opinion will come to me.)

Well, having said that, Stillwater does have one very obvious and serious strike against it, in that the whole film is built on foundations which are surely unjustifiable from a moral point of view. The murder case at the centre of the story bears such a striking resemblance to the real-life killing of Meredith Kercher, for which Amanda Knox was wrongfully imprisoned for several years, that the whole thing would be in dubious taste even had the scriptwriters not introduced several entirely fictional twists just to serve their story. People may possibly watch Stillwater and assume it’s a fictionalised version of the Knox case, which it isn’t. As I say, surely unjustifiable.

What’s actually slightly annoying is that the film itself has stretches of real class in it. The crime-thriller-vigilante element never really comes to life, to be honest, always feeling a bit flat and laborious, but there’s a whole other angle to it which works rather well: this is partly a character study of Damon’s character, but also about his burgeoning relationship with a local actress (Camille Cottin) and her daughter (Lilou Siauvaud). This is mostly the kind of low-key but entirely plausible character stuff which McCarthy did so well in his debut, The Station Agent. As a drama about these people – some may find the developments between the very conservative Bill and the liberal and cultured Virginie highly implausible, but surely that’s the essence of romance? – the film is rather engaging; I found myself caring about what happened to them and found myself sagging in dismay as…

Well, suffice to say the thriller element lumbers back onto the scene for a climax which is as low-key and understated as the rest of it. Perhaps that’s the thing that makes Stillwater so odd: it’s scripted and structured so it’s essentially a thriller with dramatic elements, but it’s paced and pitched like a much more naturalistic, low-key drama. The style and the substance don’t quite gel for long stretches of the film.

I suppose we should also talk a bit about Matt Damon. It’s a decent character turn and certainly a bit of a departure for the actor; possibly quite a demanding role for him. (He’s in virtually every scene, for one thing.) It’s a complex part, too – a representative of a certain, rather insular American subculture, devoted to his family and seemingly devout, but also capable of making startlingly bad decisions under pressure. Here the sheer undemonstrativeness of the character perhaps becomes a problem, as Damon struggles to find ways to show his inner life and make all these disparate traits come together into a credible, vivid whole. By the end of the film I was in the odd position of caring somewhat about a character who I didn’t entirely find plausible.

Always the film isn’t simply intended as a breath-takingly misjudged comment on the Amanda Knox case, you have to wonder what the wider moral premise of it is – why make the central character a representative of that particular stratum of American society? Bill specifically states he didn’t vote for Trump, but it’s implied this is only because he’s been disqualified from voting for anyone. Apart from this, he owns two guns, doesn’t seem to share Virginie’s liberal attitudes at all, and so on. Is the film trying to say something about a certain kind of blundering American attitude to dealing with the rest of the world? (At the start of the film, Bill still hasn’t bothered to learn any French, despite being a regular visitor.) Or perhaps the message is that paternal love can be as irrational and self-destructive as any other kind.

The deeper thesis of Stillwater never quite becomes clear, but the film has more obvious problems, anyway. It never quite works as a thriller, and the fact that it doesn’t inevitably impacts on its success as a character-based drama. This is a shame, as this is certainly the most affecting and effective part of the film. It’s certainly quite different, and by no means a total failure, but it does have serious flaws that make me hesitate before recommending it. A rather odd and in some respects deeply suspect film which never seems to feel entirely comfortable in its own skin.

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When we talk about genre movies we’re usually talking about highly distinctive genres with very definite conventions – something can be a good example of a western, or a rom-com, or a martial arts movie. These kinds of films often get looked down somewhat – I remember being rather condescendingly nicknamed Genre Boy by a colleague whose own tastes in film were, they clearly felt, somewhat more elevated and refined. At the risk of sounding like a cross between China Mieville and Bertrand Russell, I don’t have much time for this: if the concept of genre is to have any validity, then it applies to everything. You can’t write a book that doesn’t belong to a genre; nor can you make a non-genre film – it’s just that the genre conventions are looser and less obvious in some cases.

‘Drama’ is one of those loosely-defined genres; ‘comedy’ may well be another. It’s not that often that we see one of the less reputable genres smashing into either of them; your genre mash-up is usually something like a kung fu-western or a horror-road movie. But such a thing is possible, and Anders Thomas Jensen’s Riders of Justice (title pa Dansk: Retfærdighedens Ryttere) is a pretty good example of it.

Mand dagens Mads Mikkelson plays Markus Hansen, a veteran officer in the Danish army – ‘tough guy’ doesn’t begin to do him justice; he is as hard as stone. This doesn’t always make him the easiest person to live with, but his wife and daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg) seem quite fond of him anyway. However, everything changes when Mathilde and her mother are caught up in a train crash, which only Mathilde survives.

Markus flies home on compassionate leave and the two of them attempt to process their loss, which is probably easier for her than him. Something unexpected enters the situation with the arrival at their door of Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), a statistician who was on the train as well, and who gave up his seat for Markus’ wife. He believes the accident – which caused the death of a man due to give evidence against a biker gang involved  in organised crime – was too improbable to be anything of the sort, and the gang – the Riders of Justice – were responsible.

Markus wants to see Otto’s evidence, of course, which involves bringing his associates into the picture: fellow computer and data experts Lennart (Lars Brygmann) and Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro). Soon the nucleus of a very unlikely vigilante revenge squad is forming, with the others in awe of and possibly slightly frightened by Markus’ hard-man charisma, and him dependent on them to get him where he needs to be…

We were talking very recently about the phenomenon of the bus-pass bad-ass movie, which this is sort of heading towards being (Mikkelson is 56 this year), but – the fact he’s the father of a teenage girl notwithstanding – the movie isn’t really about his age as much as the fact he’s a man with a certain set of skills and a very compelling incentive to use them. From some angles it looks very much like a straight down the line revenge thriller, complete with suitably heinous villains to be dealt with.

However, looked at another way, this is a very different kind of film – or at least, a combination of two or three very different kinds of film. Otto, Lennart and Emmenthaler are a trio of oddballs and misfits, much given to geekish squabbling over absurd minutiae and obsessing over niche details (Lennart has some sort of monomania when it comes to well-constructed barns, for instance, though there are hints that this stems from his own very troubled past). Their various fallings out are absolutely played for laughs, and are all the funnier for being set against Mikkelson’s baleful restraint. It’s a bit like the Punisher going into action backed up by Dad’s Army or the characters from The IT Crowd.

But it’s not just a simple black comedy-thriller: throughout the film the script takes a keen interest in the chain of cause and effect, and the reasons why things really happen, and appears to conclude that while the world is deterministic and comprehensible, this doesn’t occur on a scale which is accessible to the human brain. We may never know exactly why things happen, tragedies included: the deaths of our loved ones will always seem savagely random.

How people cope with grief and the cruelty of the world is really what this film is about: the revenge thriller bit is very engaging and the comedy business between the different characters extremely funny, but at its absolute heart this film deals with Markus’ inability to process his emotions and come to terms with the death of his wife, or establish any kind of bond with Mathilde. He refuses the offer of trauma counsellors for either of them; the irony is that he’s forced to pretend his new associates are exactly that, to explain what they’re all doing in the barn all day. The triumph of the film comes not just through the resolution of the biker gang revenge plotline, for this is a very ambiguous and dark kind of triumph, but through the bonds that have developed between Markus, Mathilde, her boyfriend, Otto and the others, and even a Ukrainian former sex slave they pick up in the course of the story.

The big challenge of this kind of film is to find some kind of consistency of tone, given the swift transitions between drama, comedy and action which occur throughout the film – Jensen pulls this off extremely well, unafraid to push the boundaries of each (some of the comedy is extremely droll and silly, some of the drama genuinely affecting, and some of the violence quite difficult to watch). There is a sense in which some of the connective tissue of the plot seems a little dubious – this is pretentious pretend film-critic talk for ‘the story depends on a couple of whopping coincidences to function’, but then again… I run the risk of committing spoilers here, so I must stop.

Riders of Justice gets more serious and less funny as it goes on, more or less, but it’s still a distinctive and highly original film filled with good performances and interesting ideas. It’s the sort of film I can imagine them remaking in America with only a fraction of the subtlety and wit, to considerably less effect, so it might be best to catch the original now while it remains unsullied. A very hard film to describe, but well worth seeing.

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What are we to make of M Night Shyamalan? Does he, in fact, get an unfairly raw deal from critics and commentators, for reasons which may have nothing to do with the quality of his work? (I myself have done jokes about his name in the past, which I am rather uncomfortable about now.) Many of the man’s films have been very successful; there’s a sense in which he rarely repeats himself; and he’s shown a willingness to be creative in his storytelling which a lot of less-mocked directors don’t.

But on the other hand, his work is maddeningly inconsistent, his early reliance on plot twists of variable quality has become the stuff of folklore, and some of the films are just plain bad. (This is before we even get to his insistence on casting himself in his films, often in significant roles he shows no real sign of being able to carry off.) It’s got to the point that with each new Shyamalan release, you wonder which version of the guy will have been responsible – the one who made The Sixth Sense and Split or the perpetrator of After Earth?

Well, he’s back again with the first post-Covid film I’ve seen on the big screen (this may explain some of the film’s formal minimalism), Old. It’s based on a Swiss graphic novel, but – not for the first time with Shyamalan – may strike some viewers as resembling an episode of The Twilight Zone stretched out to feature length.

Gael Garcia Bernal and Vicky Krieps play Guy and Prisca, an outwardly-successful professional couple (he is an actuary, she a museum curator) just beginning a holiday at a luxury resort hotel with their children. But, needless to say, there are soon signs of something strange and unsettling afoot. (Not least the fact that he is Mexican and she is from Luxembourg but their children both speak with neutral American accents.) The smarmy resort manager offers them a chance to go to an exclusive private beach on the other side of the island, and naturally they accept, despite the fact the guy driving the bus is a very bad actor (yes, it’s Shyamalan again).

They find themselves there with a doctor (Rufus Sewell) and his family, and another couple played by Ken Leung and Nikki Amuka-Bird (all those years of playing useless establishment types in dodgy BBC sci-fi have finally paid off). Also on the scene is a rapper (Aaron Pierre).

But is someone watching them from way up on the cliff top? Why are the children suddenly complaining of discomfort? And why does anyone trying to leave the beach seemingly faint? It soon becomes apparent that, due to a freak geological effect (it says here), anyone on the beach ages at the rate of a year every thirty minutes. This could be the holiday of a lifetime… it’s just that the lifetime may be over much sooner than anyone expected.

So, you know, an interesting premise for a movie, if nothing else. I must confess I wrote a little book about the horror genre not long ago (something to do during lockdown) and one of the things I discussed was the nature of those basic, primal fears that everyone shares. I think that deep down, everyone is a bit frightened of senescence, the slow and inevitable physical decline that’s part of the deal that comes with continuing to breathe. But because it’s so incremental and slow, we manage to thrust it from our minds, most of the time at least. Old, in theory at least, should be an interesting vehicle to force us to confront this particular issue.

The only problem is that – how can I put it? – nobody in Old actually gets that old; at least, nobody who wasn’t old to begin with. Primarily this is because Shyamalan clearly feels obliged to keep an eye on the narrative underpinnings of his high-concept story and try to ensure it all stays relatively plausible. Someone asks, quite sensibly, why their hair and nails aren’t growing at an accelerated rate, and the answer is that the acceleration effect only works on living cells. This is bafflegab, really, only there to facilitate the story (the director doesn’t want to mess about with everyone having hair down to their knees and two-foot-long fingernails), but one consequence of the very-quasi-scientific approach Shyamalan takes is that it rules out the use of proper prosthetics and other make-up to give the impression of extreme old age (the extent to which people actually look older is limited).

In short, the director can’t find a way to make the process of dying of old age very rapidly into something visually interesting and cinematic. Nevertheless, the structure of this particular kind of film requires a succession of – to put it delicately – striking deaths, along with other arresting goings-on. He just about manages it, but the result is a film supposedly about dying of old age where most of the characters are actually murdered, or drown, or fall to their deaths, or undergo spectacularly nasty demises due to chronic medical conditions running out of control. So it’s arguably a bit of a chiz on that front: the central conceit is fantastical, but the film feels inhibited about really running with that notion.

It does not help much that the script is a lot less clever and subtle than Shyamalan probably thinks it is: virtually the first piece of dialogue we hear is a mother telling her daughter not to be in too big a hurry to grow up, but there’s so much stuff in a similar vein very early on that it topples over from being a neat foreshadowing of the subtext to simply too on-the-nose. And in places it’s vague, too: the children grow from being pre-teens to being on the cusp of middle-age over the course of a day and a night; what’s not at all clear is whether they remain children in adult bodies, or if they mature intellectually and emotionally too. I think the film eventually inclines towards the latter, but why this should be isn’t really addressed.

We must remember Shyamalan was working under sub-optimal conditions with this film and there are still some good things about it: the various transitions between the different actors playing the children as they age are neatly handled (some of the switches in actor are almost imperceptible – The Crown this ain’t), horror fans will enjoy one or two memorably gruesome moments, and the whole thing does eventually hang together on its own terms reasonably well (there’s not so much a twist, more a sort of reveal of what’s been going on). The problem is that those terms, the ones that make it a coherent thriller, are the same ones which undercut the film’s effectiveness as a film about how people deal with the ageing process. For once, a more fantastical approach would probably have resulted in a better film. In the end, Old isn’t one of Shyamalan’s worst films, but it’s just mildly diverting tosh when it could have been something genuinely unsettling and thought-provoking.

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I finally find myself in a position to address a nagging piece of unfinished business: to wit, the three outstanding episodes of the original 1960s version of The Avengers that we didn’t manage to look at last year, back when the pandemic and its effects still had the occasional shreds of a silver lining about them (should anyone be wondering, the prospect of doing something similar with The New Avengers is on my psychic radar, but I’ve no idea when it will happen). All of these come from the first season – now, when I was nobbut a lad, there was only one extant first season episode, which Channel 4 duly repeated back at the start of 1993. Since then, two more have turned up, which in the case of Girl on the Trapeze virtually qualifies as miraculous considering it was broadcast live back in February 1961 (this was only the sixth episode to be shown).

The episode opens in a sort of recognisable early Avengers vein with a young woman turning up at the dressing rooms of a touring state circus from one of those fictional countries on the Other Side, having been invited there by an old friend. However, she is set upon by a sinister clown (Kenneth J Warren, first of four).

From here we are transported into the social life of GP-with-a-sideline Dr David Keel (Ian Hendry), who is on his way to a reunion when he comes across an apparent attempted suicide: a young woman has hurled herself into the Thames. Keel springs into action and assists in fishing her out, but what we know that he doesn’t is that the woman who jumped into the river is not the same one who was pulled out. He’s pretty sure he recognises her from somewhere, though.

After a lengthy trawl through the day’s papers with his assistant Carol (Ingrid Hafner, a semi-regular at this point), Keel realises the girl was a trapeze artist with the touring Other Side circus, and whisks Carol off there to check the place out. They soon arouse the suspicion of a suave circus member (Edwin Richfield, in the first of his six villainous appearances on the show, one per season). It all turns out to be about a plan to kidnap the daughter of a defector in order to apply pressure to him, which involves getting rid of one of the circus artistes so the abducted girl can take her place and use the group visa.

Quirky borderline fantasy, this ain’t, but it’s early days, after all. This is, at least, a pretty brisk and coherent thriller (which you don’t always get in the videotaped episodes) – given that it was written by Dennis Spooner, one might have expected a few more gags, but you don’t get those either.

The absence of jokes is less striking than the fact that Patrick Macnee and Steed only appear in the opening credits: Macnee got the week off on this occasion. In his memoirs Macnee recalled that Hendry had a circus background, and came up with the idea for the episode himself – and omitting Steed from the story was done at Hendry’s behest. If nothing else it gives us a good chance to see how Hendry rolled in what at this point was the lead role of the series: and he carries the show rather well, even if it is clear that Keel is interestingly played, rather than an inherently interesting character. It’s also notable that even Carol the receptionist gets some agency and the chance to tackle a bad guy or two, although it would be pushing it to suggest she’s some kind of proto-Cathy Gale.

I was expecting this very early, Steed-free incarnation of The Avengers to be quite hard work; it actually rattles along quite nicely and certainly engages the attention. I’m not sure I’d have stuck around for twenty-six episodes in this same kind of vein, but considering its age it holds up quite well.

The next surviving fragment of the first series is The Frighteners, by Berkeley Mather, which now I reflect on it feels like the kind of Avengers script Graham Greene would have contributed, had he been up for it: lots of nasty, sweaty gangsters and class conflict. A wealthy tycoon, Sir Thomas Weller (Stratford Johns, first of two), pays a ‘massage contractor’ known as the Deacon (Willoughby Goddard, first of two) to have his daughter’s suitor beaten up. The Deacon duly despatches a couple of his boys (one of whom is Philip Locke, first of three) to deliver the requisite hard knocks – but somehow (the episode is necessarily very vague about this) Steed has got wind of the affair and is looking to shut the Deacon’s operation down.

Naturally, he brings Dr Keel along to assist, collecting him in a taxi. It is clear the two have a slightly wary relationship – ‘Good of you to come,’ says Steed; ‘Yes, I thought so’ replies Keel – and while there’s a suggestion that Steed is looking to use the doctor’s surgery for a few activities best not performed al fresco, it may just be that Keel is also convenient muscle. Anyway, Locke’s character is apprehended, along with the intended victim, Jeremy de Willoughby (Philip Gilbert, best known for voicing Tim the computer in The Tomorrow People) – but both men seem equally keen to avoid entanglements with the law…

Solid cops-and-robbers stuff, this, with an interesting wrinkle: the Deacon and Weller are obviously bad’uns, but so, it turns out, is de Willoughby himself – he’s a con man with a long history of swindles behind him. Is it not incumbent upon our heroes to do something about this before Weller’s innocent (and possibly a bit dim) daughter falls victim to his charms?

Well, needless to say, they do: Steed has the police in tow for part of the episode, but for the most part he and Keel do a very good impression of a couple of rogue agents, tricking, threatening, and bashing the opposition in the name of a good cause (even Keel admits what he gets up to is a bit melodramatic). Perhaps the most interesting bit of the episode comes at the very end, when they con Weller’s daughter into abandoning him by fooling her into thinking he is – gasp! – really a working class bloke named Briggs, with ideas above his station. She flees the room in tears. So much for social mobility in 1960s Britain.

Fifteen episodes in, and Patrick Macnee already seems to have Steed more-or-less nailed down: the charming slipperiness is there, the bowler is in place, the ruthless edge occasionally displays itself, and Macnee knows when to go slightly over-the-top when Steed is undercover (he has a couple of scenes here as a professional chaperone). Solidly engaging stuff, as well as obviously being of historical interest.

Oh well, we bring things full circle, finally and definitively (unless any more episodes resurface, of course) with John Kruse’s Tunnel of Fear, the twentieth episode. It opens with what looks like another classic Avengers hook, as a stuffy-looking gent gets on the ghost train at a Southsea fun fair only to mysteriously vanish into thin air. In a filmed episode he would turn out to be a colleague of Steed’s, but not this time. The plot proper gets going when a man bursts into Dr Keel’s surgery demanding first aid after a supposed hit-and-run, but Keel suspects there is more going on. It indeed transpires that the man, Harry Black (Anthony Bate, first of two) is an escaped convict who claims to have been framed for a robbery, and who mutters something about being made to do things in his sleep. Steed turns up quite by chance in the middle of all this and sees a possible connection to something he’s working on: secrets are being leaked to the Other Side out of Southsea, where Black used to co-own the ghost train at the fun fair.

For the first time we get to see Steed doing his usual thing of finagling his current partner into undertaking a potentially risky investigation on his behalf, which Keel goes along with surprisingly meekly. Down in Southsea, however, he encounters what seems to be a collision between The Manchurian Candidate and Play for Today, as there is one plotline about someone potentially being brainwashed while a prisoner during the Korean War, and another about Black’s strained relationship with his girlfriend (Black isn’t the only one who’s been banged up, as she has apparently had a child in his absence). Neither of these plotlines really gets fully developed, though.

Dr Keel suggests that Steed try a different hat in future – perhaps a bowler?

Keel does a lot of sneaking and occasionally charging about with Black in tow; all the fun stuff arises after Steed appears on the scene in the guise of the new and slightly dodgy barker for the funfair belly-dancing show, wearing a kaftan and a sparkly turban. Needless to say he hurls himself into the role, and Macnee has enormous fun with it. It doesn’t stop there: it turns out the gang of enemy agents running the fair includes a hypnotist, who tries to put the ‘fluence on Steed to get some information: either Steed puts them on, or turns out to be monumentally slippery and unhelpful even when hypnotised – when asked who he works for, the answer is ‘No one’ – a curious answer, unless he really is faking it. Finally, the episode concludes with some business about Steed bluffing the villains with an exploding cigarette.

Probably a better episode for Steed than Keel, then, but a reasonably good one if you overlook the fact that various plot ideas go nowhere – I would say not quite up to the same standard as The Frighteners, while it’s hard to fairly assess a Steed-free episode in comparison with the others. Maybe it’s just with the knowledge of how the show developed – and an instalment like Girl on the Trapeze has almost nothing in common with anything from the final season, apart from the title of the series – but you can see that Steed is the character with potential, and the tiny off-beat moments that are present even here are usually the ones that make the stories sing. First season Avengers only very occasionally resembles the show in its legendary incarnation, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth checking out.

(There will now follow a suspension in blogging activity, hopefully a brief one. See you on the other side.)

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For someone who is overwhelmingly best-remembered as a singer, Frank Sinatra had a pretty good career in non-musical films: he won an Oscar for From Here to Eternity, directed None But the Brave (the first American-Japanese co-production), and at one point was in the frame to play the lead in both Dirty Harry and Die Hard (admittedly, the latter offer was a contractual obligation on the part of the producers). On the other hand, he did reject the idea of making a movie of A Clockwork Orange, thinking the idea had no potential, but nobody’s perfect.

Sinatra himself felt the zenith of his acting career came in 1962 with his role in John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate, one of those films which regularly shows up on lists of classics. (There was a fun pub quiz question a few years back – who is the only actor to appear in three of the movies on the AFI’s 100 Best of All Time list? I’ll give you a clue: they were also in Night of the Lepus, which is probably something they’re less proud of.) Certainly this is a formidably accomplished and intelligent film – it would be wrong to say that it hasn’t dated at all, but this hasn’t affected its ability to engage and entertain.

Sinatra plays Ben Marco, who at the start of the film is serving in the Korean War (that least romanticised of the USA’s 20th century conflicts). He is the leader of a patrol, assisted by his sergeant, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) – but things do not as planned when their native guide betrays them and they are captured by communist forces.

Three days later the patrol makes it back to their own lines, having lost only a couple of its members – Shaw’s incredible bravery has ensured their survival, and all the other survivors agree on his decency and general wonderfulness, even if they’re not convinced they actually like him all that much. Needless to say, Shaw gets the Medal of Honour for his deeds, which is eagerly seized upon by his calculating mother (Angela Lansbury), who sees it as a great publicity tool for Shaw’s stepfather, a senator of somewhat extreme views.

But Marco is troubled by nightmares, remembering the patrol being held prisoner by the Red Chinese and subjected to intensive conditioning and psychological programming: Shaw in particular being transformed into a mindless, remorseless killer. It is just a nightmare, though, isn’t it? But then he learns of other survivors of the patrol who are having the same dreams…

Yes, the whole story about Shaw’s stupendous bravery is just a cover-up for the abduction and processing of the patrol, as well as providing a convenient method of establishing Shaw as an unimpeachably heroic figure. Someone with knowledge of the right triggers – certain phrases and objects – can direct Shaw against any target they choose…

Stephen King has suggested that the political assassin – the proverbial lone gunman – was, for a while at least, one of the great bogeymen of American culture, and The Manchurian Candidate can’t have done anything to dispel this. Perhaps it’s fitting that this most famous of paranoid thrillers is surrounded by real-world conspiracy theories, but it’s certainly a striking coincidence that this is the second Sinatra-starring movie to revolve around a plan to effect change at the top of American society via a political assassination, the first being 1954’s Suddenly. Sinatra allegedly wanted both films withdrawn from circulation when it was suggested they had played a role in inspiring Lee Harvey Oswald’s successful assassination of John F Kennedy – rumour had it for a while that Sinatra bought the negatives to Suddenly and had the film destroyed. The assassin of Robert Kennedy, meanwhile, made various allegations concerning amnesia, brainwashing, and clandestine government activity, all of which are themes this movie touches upon.

Nevertheless, for a political thriller, this is a film which is notably difficult to read in terms of its own politics: one can perhaps detect a note of sympathy towards liberalism, but in general it is fiercely cynical when it comes to ideology of all flavours: quite which party the climactic convention is being held by is left open, while the particular agenda of the villains of the film is also quite obscure – they aspire to a level of social control which will ‘make martial law seem like anarchy’, but this feels more like a kind of authoritarian megalomania than a particular political position. They certainly don’t feel like committed communists – Lansbury vows to topple the communist powers which have assisted her. Then again, even the ideological commitment of the communists seems to be somewhat lacking: one Soviet agent is pleased to report that one of their front operations actually turns a modest profit, while another looks forward to spending an afternoon visiting a high-class department store. In all cases, it seems to be about the exercise of control in pursuit of enlightened (or not so enlightened) self-interest.

The film is quite open about this, opting not to present the story as a mystery – the explanation as to what has happened to Shaw and the rest of the patrol is presented very early in the film, before Marco or anyone has really figured it out. The real driver of the plot is what Shaw’s controllers have in mind for him to do, which is indeed held back until the final act of the movie. In the meantime the movie is powered by the intricacies of the plot and the strength of the performances.

The acting is uniformly good, although Harvey’s tendency to declaim his dialogue in a rather sub-Olivier manner is an unusual choice. Sinatra gives a fine, subtle performance – although the scene where he engages hand-to-hand combat with a Korean communist agent inevitably brings to mind Peter Sellers fighting Burt Kwouk – and he has some engaging scenes with Janet Leigh (who is our pub quiz answer: her other two films from the top 100 are Psycho and Touch of Evil). The film’s star turn, however, is Angela Lansbury, who creates a quite extraordinary monster in Shaw’s mother, Mrs Iselin – it’s been suggested that Richard Condon’s original novel was partly plagiarised from I, Claudius, in which case it makes perfect sense that Mrs Iselin should be a modern-day equivalent of Livia Drusilla. (Seeing as we were recently talking about unlikely parent-child age-gaps in cinema, it’s worth mentioning that Harvey and Lansbury are completely convincing despite there being only three years between them.)

As I’ve said, some stylistic elements of The Manchurian Candidate have dated a little, but the film’s cynicism and intelligence are as engaging as ever. Perhaps in its own way it also acknowledges the fragility of human beings, and the invisible damage that soldiers can carry home with them, a notion which perhaps feels much more modern than one might expect. It’s the mixture of intelligence, cynicism and humanity which makes the film such an impressive and successful piece of entertainment.

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There’s a game you can play, if you get really bored and someone is prepared to do the research: it’s called Oscar or Not? and you play it like this. Someone says the name of an actor and everyone else has to say whether or not they ever won an Oscar. Easy peasy, right, but as ever, there may be a few surprises.

So – Woody Harrelson: Oscar or not? Not. Jason Robards? Oscar (two back to back, in fact). Jim Broadbent? Oscar. Peter O’Toole? Not (eight times). Brad Pitt? Oscar (two, but only one for acting). As you can see, there are literally seconds of fun to be had. Go on then, one more: Harrison Ford: Oscar or not?

If you don’t know the answer, it’s a tricky one, n’est-ce pas? Harrison Ford’s the kind of person who must have won an Oscar, surely? A few years back, someone did the sums and worked out that Ford’s movies, collectively, had made more money than anyone else’s collated filmography, and that kind of box office clout is not the sort of thing the Academy usually overlooks. (Then again, someone may have snuck past Ford in the intervening period, mostly likely to be either Christopher Lee or Samuel L Jackson, and neither of them have picked up a little gold homunculus.) On the other hand, as we have noted hereabouts in the past, Harrison Ford has stuck pretty strictly to his only-one-movie-a-year regimen for the last forty years, and for the last couple of decades his projects either haven’t been particularly high profile (I give you Crossing Over, Morning Glory and Paranoia, just for starters), or have been calculated franchise extensions mainly noted for being considered inferior to other Ford films from the 1980s.

Well, fear not, I shall put you out of your misery. Not by bringing this piece to an end (ha, ha) but by going to the point and revealing that, no, Harrison Ford has never won an Oscar (and if you ask me, he’s leaving it a bit late if he’s serious about getting one). The closest he came was in 1986 when he was nominated for Witness (this was a fairly noteworthy occurrence, as the film was actually released prior to the previous year’s Oscars rather than in the traditional awards period).

The film was Peter Weir’s first US project. It opens with the wide open spaces and swirling grassland which form the backdrop of most of the movie, as the people of a old-fashioned rural community come together for a funeral. The young widow, Rachel (Kelly McGillis), struggles through bravely; one of her neighbours (Alexander Godunov) is clearly looking to press his suit, but circumstances dictate he bide his time. Not long after, Rachel and her son Samuel (Lukas Haas), set off to stay with relatives – which involves passing through another world.

For they and their community are Amish, devout Anabaptists who eschew most contacts with the modern world. This makes travelling through Philadelphia a bit of an adventure, for Samuel at least, but things take a darker turn when he witnesses a brutal murder in the railway station restroom. Soon on the scene is detective John Book (Ford), who reveals that the victim was an undercover cop. Despite Rachel’s desire to get away from this sordid world, Samuel’s testimony will be vital – especially when it looks like the killer (Danny Glover) is himself part of the police department.

However, Book shares his suspicions with the wrong person, for his captain (Josef Sommer) is part of the plot as well. Book takes Rachel and Samuel home, trusting to the insularity of the Amish world to protect both them and himself – for an attempt on his life has left him wounded. But can a big city cop fit in here well enough to hide from the men who are hunting him?

This is essentially the first act of the film, which handles the requirements of its thriller element briskly and with clarity. There’s a sense in which this is a rather calculated piece of work – you can tell that director Peter Weir isn’t really that interested in a thriller about being on the run from dirty cops, but at the same time no major studio is going to put money about a clash of cultures mostly taking place amongst the Amish of Pennsylvania (‘we don’t make rural movies,’ insisted one big-name studio when offered the chance to finance the film).

The thriller plot is very straightforward and mainly there to make the film appealing to a wider audience; the latter is also really true of the presence of Ford himself, who at this time was overwhelmingly known for his various films with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. All of those were big, flashy, often noisy movies, with Ford’s main duty arguably to bring a little humanity and self-deprecating humour to great machines which could easily have becoming grating and soulless. You can see why the actor would jump at the chance to appear in a much quieter film with only the most cursory genre elements – and he makes the most of the opportunity, still retaining his movie star charisma but giving a performance of great warmth, subtlety and wit.

Witness is often acclaimed for its success as a romance, but while this is ostensibly a relationship between Ford and McGillis, there’s a sense in which she represents the totality of the rural experience and the environment in which Book finds himself – something totally new to him, for there is a sense of community here which seems to be lacking in the big city. The most famous set-piece of the film (if set-piece is the right way to describe a sequence in which a group of people build a barn) depicts the community coming together, and the long middle section of the film portrays Book slowly assimilating amongst the Amish, and becoming accepted by them.

The dictates of the plot, however, require that this be a less than total assimilation: Book isn’t capable of passively accepting the crass behaviour of tourists, thus standing out in the community, and in the end he leaves and returns to his old life. That this somehow feels an acceptable and logical ending for the film – Book really has little to return to, as we have already seen – suggests that Weir never quite stops presenting the Amish something as other and somehow strange, literally otherworldly. Nevertheless, the film is striking for its openness toward stillness, silence and simplicity: this is what marks it out as something unusual amongst studio thrillers, and perhaps what has given it its reputation for artiness. But this is also what makes it such an impressive and satisfying film, one of the best in Ford’s filmography.

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