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Posts Tagged ‘thriller’

Democracy, I commented recently, has had a rough couple of years. I must, of course, qualify this by saying I speak as a left-leaning progressive and internationalist; should you be a right-winger who fervently believes in the primacy of the nation state, you will probably be little short of delighted with how things have turned out for you. Perhaps it’s better to say that recent events have conspired to show up the cracks in the system. As Churchill famously said, democracy is a terrible way of organising things; it just happens to be better than all the others. It inevitably reduces the multi-layered complexities of human opinion and belief down to a black and white tick-your-preferred-box choice.

And this is when the system is functioning as it’s supposed to. Situations like the one in the USA last year, when the person who scored three million votes more than the second placed candidate did not in fact win the contest, almost inevitably lead one to wonder in what sense the electoral college system is genuinely democratic. Meanwhile, here in the UK, we have repeatedly had the problematic situation where the slenderness of a winning majority has had no effect on the behaviour of a winning side – you may only get 52% of the vote in a referendum, but that still gives you 100% of the power to impose your interpretation of the result on the population, under the cover of the useful phrase ‘the Will of the People’.

The extent to which the Will of the People really matters is one of the issues examined by A Very British Coup, a 1988 TV drama which I was recently moved to revisit (available free-to-watch to UK residents). Rather to everyone’s surprise, it is showing every sign of becoming prescient and topical: written by Alan Plater from Chris Mullins’ novel, and directed by Mick Jackson, it opens on the day of a general election, in which former steelworker and lifelong socialist Harry Perkins (Ray McAnally) is victorious and becomes the Prime Minister of a borderline-Marxist Labour government. In addition to the nationalisation of various sectors, Perkins’ legislative programme includes open government, limiting private ownership of the media, nuclear disarmament, and the removal of US Air Force bases from British soil.

Unsurprisingly, this is met with horror by various members of the British establishment, not to mention the current American administration, and a shadowy coalition including senior figures at MI5, the head of the BBC, a Tory press baron, and members of the CIA comes together to undermine and, if necessary, topple the elected government of the UK. For the good of the country, naturally.

As I say, the series was made in 1988, and has a near-future setting (most clearly indicated by the fact that there are various references to ‘the King’) – apparently if you squint you can see tax discs for the year 1991 or 92, not that it really matters. The story was apparently inspired by persistent rumours that a military coup against Harold Wilson’s government was a very real possibility in 1974, not to mention alleged CIA involvement in an Australian constitutional crisis at around the same time.

It’s a solidly-made production, a product of that time when the scope and production values of British TV drama were becoming more cinematic, while its tone remained more theatrical. It is quite talky, and the audience is credited with some intelligence. McAnally carries the production ably, and there’s one of those interesting supporting casts made up of people on their way to a somewhat bigger time – Keith Allen plays Perkins’ press secretary, Jim Carter is the Foreign Secretary, Philip Madoc is the press baron, Tim McInnerny is a ruthless MI5 operative, and so on. (Of interest to a more niche audience – Geoffrey Beevers, Caroline John, and Jessica Carney also appear in roles of differing sizes.)

It’s a product of its time in another way, too – it’s hard to imagine anything quite so openly party-political being made by a UK broadcaster nowadays: Perkins is unmistakably the good guy throughout, with the forces against him clearly those of conservatism (with both a big and small C) and the right. The series was made while Thatcher was in power, based on a book written when it seemed distinctly possible for a hard left politician to become Prime Minister (in the early 80s, prior to the Falklands adventure, it seemed that Thatcher might lose the 1983-84 election and someone like Michael Foot or Tony Benn would take over – V for Vendetta was also originally predicated on this type of scenario). One of Thatcher’s most enduring achievements is that for many years it seemed wildly improbable that a committed socialist could ever get the job again.

And yet here we are. The series failed to foresee the fall of the Soviet Union, which inevitably colours its international outlook, and barely touches on the topic of the UK’s relationship with Europe, but to me it still feels like one with relevant things to say about the country’s situation today. Our papers are full of editorials referring to the Will of the People – or at least a particular, narrow interpretation of what that Will might be – and we see the privately-owned media united in attempts to discredit the leadership of the Labour party. ‘Partisan’ and ‘biased’ doesn’t even begin to properly describe the treatment of Jeremy Corbyn by many papers. Once again, no doubt the editors involved would say they are doing it for the good of the nation. They may even believe this themselves.

A Very British Coup takes biased press coverage as being just the first of the conspiracy’s moves against Perkins, going on to include fomenting industrial action, forged evidence of financial impropriety, and actual murder (a pro-disarmament scientific advisor is assassinated by MI5 – or so it is strongly implied). The series ends ambiguously, with another election, talk of ‘constitutional uncertainty’, and the sound of rising aircraft engines, implying that perhaps a genuine coup d’etat is in progress (again, there has already been speculation as to the likely response of the military to a Corbyn victory). Before all this, however, is a scene between Perkins and the head of MI5 where the civil servant admits that the prospect of a successful, genuinely left-wing government terrifies the establishment and those with a vested interest in the status quo, hence their determination to destroy Perkins and his government.

It’s a powerful scene and a disturbingly credible one, although still slightly theatrical. Who really runs the country? Does the Will of the People carry any real power? Or is it just the case that our elected officials are only allowed to govern within certain parameters, regardless of their popular support? If so, who has the real power, and what is it based on? In a few days there is a chance that all these questions may feel very urgent and significant indeed, and it will be interesting, to say the least, to see if any answers emerge.

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You would expect the coming together of a group as disparate as Ridley Scott, Steve Coogan, the BBC, and the Isle of Man film board to result in a fairly peculiar film – and sometimes things work out in an entirely predictable manner, for the fruit of their collective effort is Sean Foley’s Mindhorn, which is indeed fairly peculiar. This is a comedy, which is also as you might expect given the involvement of Coogan and co-writer and star Julian Barratt. Barratt is possibly best known for his role in the TV series The Mighty Boosh, which is another one of those things I must confess to having hardly ever seen. In some ways the new movie seems very familiar anyway, though.

Barratt plays Richard Thorncroft, a TV actor who was briefly famous in the 1980s as the star of Mindhorn, a (seemingly dreadful) show about a bionic detective set on the Isle of Man. (Yes, there may well be an implied dig at Bergerac, as there is a running gag about John Nettles in this movie too.) Now, however, Thorncroft’s star has faded, and he is now an overweight, balding unemployed-going-on-unemployable actor reduced to advertising support hosiery.

Things change, however, when a murderer strikes on the Isle of Man. The prime suspect is a mentally unstable youth (Russell Tovey) who’s obsessed with Mindhorn and wants to speak to his hero about the crime. Somewhat reluctantly, the Manx police decide to recruit Thorncroft to recreate his most famous role in the hope of catching the killer.

Once back on the island, however, Thorncroft gets a bit distracted, seeing this more as a chance to relaunch himself than an act of civic duty. So, rather to the annoyance of his police handler (Andrea Riseborough), he sets about trying to woo back his ex-partner (Essie Davis) and hopefully bring about the launch of Mindhorn on DVD, provided he can win the support of a much more successful ex-colleague (Coogan)…

As I said, there is a sense in which Mindhorn feels very familiar – this film is certainly not outside the mainstream of British comedy cinema in recent years. Films about delusional middle-aged men becoming caught up in slightly absurd adventures have actually been pretty common – Mindhorn is especially reminiscent of the Alan Partridge movie, Alpha Papa (though this was perhaps inevitable given it was made by the same company), but it also has a strong whiff of the David Brent film, too. Perhaps as a result, the genuinely odd thing about Mindhorn is that it feels like a big-screen adaptation of a sitcom, even though it’s a wholly original story. There’s been a notable tradition of metatextuality in British comedy for a while now, and Mindhorn’s lovingly-detailed if rather OTT realisation of the show-within-the-movie is part of it – viewers who stay to the very end of the film are rewarded, if that’s the right word, with a fake music video from the fictional Thorncroft’s non-existent music career. I was particularly reminded of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, another project built around an absurd 80s genre pastiche, and not surprised to learn that Barratt was involved in that show too.

I suppose the other distinctive thing about this film is that most of it is set in the Isle of Man. Now it’s not that the Isle of Man doesn’t show up in movies occasionally, it’s just that when it does it’s usually pretending to be somewhere else (for example, Waking Ned, where it’s supposed to be Ireland). In Mindhorn, the Isle of Man is on screen as itself (various local tourist spots are worked into the plot), but the odd thing is that this is largely bathetic. The idea of a TV show about a bionic detective isn’t as necessarily funny as that of a TV show about a bionic detective set in the Isle of Man. The Isle of Man’s role in the story is to be a provincial, underwhelming backdrop (much fun is had with the supposed awfulness of the Manx Day parade), which strikes me as a rather brave move on the part of the Isle of Man film board, who were involved in making this movie, after all.

Still, none of this matters very much given that the film is genuinely funny all the way through, for all of its vague familiarity. The film is, as mentioned, lovingly detailed, with a very strong cast inhabiting its array of comic grotesques – there are a couple of celebrity cameos early on which raise a smile. As regular readers may know, I’m not a particular fan of most modern comedies – they generally don’t make me laugh, plain and simple – but there are many extremely funny bits in Mindhorn: Julian Barratt carries the film with impressive aplomb, and the script is solidly structured and cleverly plotted. On the other hand, this is clearly a film which has been made on an extremely low budget – what, the Isle of Man film board doesn’t have bottomless coffers at its disposal?! – and this does occasionally result in an unintentional sense of cheesiness.

Then again, it just adds to the charm, probably, for this is a movie which was almost certainly never intended to set the world on fire – or even the Isle of Man, probably. It’s not terribly innovative or spectacular, but it takes the business of being very knowingly stupid extremely seriously, and I did laugh a lot. And that’s ultimately what you want from a comedy film.

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I’m always on the lookout for a chance to do something new and innovative on the blog, not to mention a chance to showcase my freakish ability to identify obscure actors in minor roles. And so, hot on the heels of our look at Lust for a Vampire, featuring David Healy in the small but relatively important role of Raymond Pelley (aka Angry Father of Early Victim), I thought we would move on and examine another Healy movie from 1971 – Guy Hamilton’s Diamonds are Forever, in which the actor treats us to his take on Vandenberg Launch Director (an uncredited performance). (Other movies featuring the work of Mr Healy which are reviewed on this blog include You Only Live Twice, Phase IV, and The Ninth Configuration.)

Oh, who am I kidding, it’s just a coincidence (I’m still quite proud to have spotted him though). When you’ve spent nearly seven years reviewing virtually the entire canon of Eon Bond movies, you do start to run out of ways to start them off, but as this is the very last vintage Bond to cross off my list, that’s one problem I probably won’t have to worry about much in future.

Diamonds are Forever is one where Connery came back, for an enormous fee and for one film only, after an arguably rather overconfident George Lazenby decided not to stick around in the part. Fleming’s original novel provides about a third of what happens on screen, as Bond finds himself mixed up in diamond (well, duh) smuggling in Las Vegas, taking on sundry gangsters including the gay hitmen Wint and Kidd. Fairly soon, however, it all mutates into much more standard Bond movie fare, to wit Bond Plot 2: evil mastermind has nefarious scheme involving satellite-based superweapon. Other points of interest include the scene where Q uses his talents to defraud a casino, the one where Blofeld (Charles Gray) dresses up as a woman, and the one where Natalie Wood’s kid sister gets thrown out of a hotel window in her pants.

In the past I have commented on how the addition of SPECTRE and Blofeld to films based on books in which they did not appear often resulted in the improvement of the story. I’m not sure the same can be said in this case; while the presence of Blofeld in this movie was probably inevitable given how the previous one ended, all that results is a fairly bland piece of by-the-numbers Bond – the boxes of the formula get dutifully ticked, but not much new gets added to the recipe.

You could view Diamonds are Forever as the conclusion of the first phase of Bond movies, which nearly all concern themselves with Connery’s Bond taking on SPECTRE in various ways. From being virtually ever-present in the early films, neither SPECTRE nor Blofeld would really feature again for over forty years after this point, and I have to say that while this may have been forced on the film-makers for legal reasons, making most of the Roger Moore movies standalones with new villains does give them more variety and life. I’m always much more entertained by the blaxploitation or chop-socky stylings of the early Moore films than by anything in Diamonds are Forever.

One way in which Diamonds are Forever does set a precedent for the rest of the series is that it establishes that it is perfectly acceptable for Bond to be an older gentleman. Connery was in his early 40s by this point, and the part wasn’t played by anyone younger than this until the advent of Craig (who was only a couple of years shy of 40). Fleming’s Bond is said to be 37 at one point in an early novel, so it’s not as if this is wildly at odds with the source material. Quite what one should make of Connery’s performance here is another matter – as someone pretending to be a smuggler, he certainly has the ‘smug’ part down pat. One never gets the impression that Sean Connery has a problem with a lack of self-belief, and in this film he’s practically a battering ram of entitled self-satisfaction.

This is not especially good news for a film which has an odd tonal problem – there’s some quite hard-edged violence at a couple of points (there are sequences which trouble the TV censors more than most older Bond films), but coupled to a slightly camp tone. All the Bond films are essentially masculine wish-fulfilment fantasies, but it somehow feels more obvious here than in many other cases, and in a particularly unappealing and slightly sleazy way. Connery gets the dodgy ‘collar and cuffs’ gag (to be honest, I’m not sure he or Blofeld has an interaction with a woman in this film which isn’t basically patronising, although Bond is pretty patronising to most of the men, too), and there’s the very dated and frankly dubious (if not outright offensive) material with Wint and Kidd to consider as well.

One of the dated elements of the movie which occasionally draws attention is the rather peculiar sequence in which Bond, having infiltrated the enemy base, discovers what appears to be the filming of a fake moon landing in progress. This was 1971, after all, when the Apollo programme was an ongoing thing, and it has been suggested that this is a not terribly deeply coded signal as to what was really going on at the time. Quite how Eon got wind of the lunar hoaxes and why they decided to blow the gaffe in this slightly oblique way is never really adequately explained, though.

It would be nice to find more genuinely positive things to say about Diamonds are Forever – I suppose I’ve always enjoyed Charles Gray’s performance, and the theme song is good too. In the end, though, this is Bond as an almost totally mechanical, formulaic spectacle, and entirely lacking in the lightness of touch and charm which the best films of the series possess. A bit of a disappointment however you look at it.

 

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From Russia, With Love is, of course, the James Bond story which concludes with the death of Agent 007, undone by his own hubris, not to mention a spiked toecap covered in nerve poison. Bond crashes to the floor, struggling for breath, and everything fades to black, thus allowing his creator to get rid of a character he’d grown rather bored by.

I refer, of course, to From Russia, With Love the novel, not From Russia With Love the movie, at the conclusion of which James Bond is as unstoppably lively and priapic as ever. (As it turned out, Ian Fleming’s intention to kill Bond off was not followed through in the books, either, and the character went on to feature in several more novels, courtesy of prompt first aid from the French secret service.) There was surely never any intention to retain the ambiguous ending of the book for Terence Young’s 1963 movie version, mainly because one gets a strong sense of the producers realising just how good a thing they might be onto here – there’s an almost cautious quality about Dr No, the film-makers’ message being ‘This is a bit different, we think it’s quite good’, but by the following year they seem much more self-assured: this time round the subtext is ‘This is great, you’re going to love it.’

One thing which I think is too-little commented upon is the way that several of the early Bond movies arguably improve on the plots of the novels on which they are based. I’m not talking about those instances of the two shooting off in wildly different directions – the novel of You Only Live Twice is a dark, introspective tale of the death of the self, while the film concerns Blofeld’s spaceship-gobbling volcano – but those where the movie script adds just another level of complexity and adventure to the story.

I’m thinking of the nuclear bomb angle in Goldfinger (absent from the novel), and the main thrust of the plot in From Russia With Love. Bond himself (Connery, obvs) is absent for nearly the first twenty minutes of the film (well, a lookalike in a Connery mask gets killed right at the start), which concerns the nefarious machinations of SPECTRE, back when the organisation wasn’t run by Bond’s long-lost estranged secret adoptive brother (because the series is so much more gritty and realistic these days). SPECTRE are planning on stealing a top-secret Russian cipher machine and then selling it back to the Kremlin, employing an engagingly labyrinthine scheme dreamt up by a Czech chess grandmaster (Vladek Sheybal). The plan involves traitorous former Russian officer Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya), a paranoid homicidal maniac (Robert Shaw), a home-made blue movie, a winsome Russian file clerk (Daniela Bianchi), and – of course – British Intelligence’s most libidinous operative.

The late Kevin McClory’s claim to part-ownership of the entire Bond movie franchise, not just Thunderball, was based on the fact that he co-created SPECTRE, which was inserted into movies based on books in which the organisation did not feature. McClory argued that it is the fantasy of SPECTRE which turns the Bond stories from being slightly dour thrillers into something more accessible and fun. SPECTRE doesn’t feature in the novel, which revolves around an attempt by the Russian secret service to take their British opposite numbers down a few pegs, but Blofeld and his team are inserted into the script with great deftness, arguably improving the story a lot. Bond and M assume that this is a Russian plan from the start, while the Russians themselves have no idea what’s going on either. It’s unusual for the audience to be quite so many steps ahead of Bond as they are for much of this movie, and it works rather well in establishing tension, as well as making Bond less of an annoyingly smug superhero.

We’re still not quite in the realm of Bond movies as the theatre of the absurd, either – From Russia With Love is a little bit out there with its depictions of Blofeld and ‘SPECTRE Island’ (just down the coast from Anglesey, no doubt), but most of it is no more ridiculous than the average Jason Bourne movie. The movie is trying to be credible, not incredible, which is why chief heavy Grant (Shaw) isn’t a cartoon character like the movie versions of Oddjob or Tee Hee, and more interesting and plausible as a threat.

That said, you can see the elements of the Bond formula coming into focus with this movie, many of which weren’t there in Dr No: the pre-title sequence, the catchy theme song, the scene in which Bond is kitted out with handy gadgets by Q (not named as such on this debut appearance, and not showing much personality, either), and so on. The rest of it is the usual mixture of glamorous exotic locations, masculine power fantasy, and action set pieces – though it’s telling that the last few action beats of the film are distinctly low-key to the modern eye: a few motorboats catch fire and Bond has a fight with a middle-aged woman. The film certainly feels like it climaxes with the (really well-staged) fight to the death between Bond and Grant.

Connery swaggers through it all with his customary insouciance – in the past I have occasionally observed that I don’t think he’s an actor with a particularly impressive range, but he is always very good at projecting this particular type of character. The rest of the support is pretty good as well. Notable Bond girl trivia includes the fact that Eunice Gayson reappears as Bond’s girl-at-home (I met her once, 40 years after this film was made, and, do you know – she looked completely different), and Martine Beswick (ahhh, Martine Beswick) racks up (if that’s the right term) another Bond appearance as one of the fighting gypsy girls (she is credited as ‘Martin Beswick’ in the titles, which gives a wholly misleading impression).

It’s 2017, and From Russia With Love is closer in time to the end of the First World War than it is to the present day. The Bond films that are made nowadays are different beasts in terms of size, scale, expectations, and tone, but they still owe a huge debt to this film and a few other early 60s Bonds. The film is so much a product of its time that this in itself is a surprise; the fact that it still stands up as one of the very best films in the series is another. But there you go. The Bond series has long since become a legend, and every great legend hides a few mysteries.

 

 

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Film studios are usually so prepared to jump on the bandwagon of any successful movie and devote themselves to making more of the same, that it almost seems churlish to be less than fully enthusiastic when someone unveils a project which is quite startling in its originality. Nevertheless, this is the position I find myself in with respect to Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper. If you are a fan of movies in which low-ranking fashionistas moonlight as ghostbusters and find themselves mixed up in the stuff of a psychological thriller, well, rejoice, for this movie is right up your street. If you are part of that inexplicable minority for whom this is not instinctively interesting, well, you might want to read on anyway, for this is still a fairly interesting project.

Kristen Stewart wafts around Paris, London, and Muscat as Maureen, personal shopper and general dogsbody for a prominent figure in the fashion industry (who’s a fairly unpleasant individual, it would appear). Several people wonder why she stays in such a difficult and unrewarding position; well, she has something else on her mind – her brother died three months earlier and the two of them made a deal. Whichever one passed on first would send a message of some kind to the other, confirming the existence of the afterlife. For Maureen, you see, has mediumistic powers, in addition to a good knowledge of couture, and spends much of her spare time hanging around gloomy old mansions harassing dead people. So when she starts to receive enigmatic text messages from someone seeming to know all about her and her life, one of the first questions that occurs to her is that of which side of the grave her stalker is on…

There is a certain class of actor who rose from near-obscurity to global celebrity extremely rapidly and at a relatively young age, and while this may have done their profile and bank balance no harm whatsoever, it creates a lens through which all their subsequent work is inevitably viewed. I’m thinking of people like Elijah Wood, Daniel Radcliffe, and Emma Watson, and – of course – Kristen Stewart belongs to this select group as well. (Jennifer Lawrence, on the other hand, seems to have slipped the net, while the career of Leonardo DiCaprio indicates there is hope for any of these people.) No matter what Stewart does, on some level she is still going to be The Twilight Girl for many people, with all the baggage that comes with this. On the other hand, I expect having a net worth of $70m makes up for a lot, and Stewart could be forgiven for either just sitting on a yacht somewhere or simply doing very commercial work. I would say that for her to lend her profile to an odd little slightly art-house film like this one is commendable, especially considering the vanity-free performance it demands of her.

Personal Shopper played at the Cannes festival, where it won the prize for best direction and was also booed by the audience, which may give you a sense of the film’s potential to divide and confuse. On paper the film sounds like some sort of odd genre mash-up, with elements of a psychological thriller and a possible ghost story intermingling, but to be honest it doesn’t so much combine genres as slosh around between them haphazardly. Most of the time it comes across as a naturalistic, ostentatiously understated character piece with Stewart buzzing around Paris on her moped, carrying out lengthy text message conversations, looking at shoes, and so on, and you think that the metaphysical elements – her fretting about the existence of the next world, the mysterious absence of word from her brother – are just part of this. She has the same congenital heart defect which killed him (and could potentially do the same to her), and you almost expect the business about spirits to be not much more than a metaphor, an expression of her existential uncertainty about life.

But then there’s a genuinely creepy sequence of Stewart wandering around a big old house in the dark, and vague shapes swirl around the edges of the frame, and abruptly she is contending with a hostile CGI spectre, and the effect is quite discombobulating – especially when the sequences like this don’t particularly seem to lead anywhere or add to the story. The thriller-storyline is somewhat less arbitrary – someone gets murdered, Stewart’s character is too close to being implicated for comfort, and what does her mysterious text friend know about it all? – but arguably gets going too late in the film and ultimately remains quite baffling and unexplained in several key details. (It may be there’s a brilliant subtext or hidden story in this film which completely passed me by; one sequence near the end is certainly very suggestive.)

Despite all this, Personal Shopper remains oddly mesmerising to watch – I glanced at my watch at one point, wondering when the plot proper would get going, only to find we were already 80 minutes into the film without my noticing it. This is partly because it’s simply quite a well-made film, and the various elements of the plot, for all that many of them are not entirely resolved, are nevertheless quite intriguing while they’re being developed. I would also say that credit should go to Kristen Stewart, who does have that indefinable quality we call Star. Her performance here, while a little mannered, is also technically meticulous, the work of someone who cares about their craft at the very least. And she pretty much has to carry the entire film – no-one else really makes much of an impression, with the possible exception of Lars Eidinger – it might be worth a small flutter on Eidinger as a potential future Bond villain, as he certainly seems to have the looks and the moves for the role.

For all that Personal Shopper sounds like a plot-driven genre movie, so much of it is oblique and ultimately unresolved that it really functions more as a mood or character piece than anything else. There are so many strangenesses and weird quirks and choices to the movie that I can fully understand why some people might find it deeply annoying, but on the other hand, the central performance is quite impressive and it is extremely watchable, in a funny sort of way. Is it actually a good movie or not? For once I can’t actually decide, but The Twilight Girl is certainly good in it.

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I remember seeing the front cover of a UK movie magazine about five years ago and being slightly amused by the strapline, which went something like ‘RoboCop! Total Recall! Starship Troopers! CLASSIC SCI-FI SPECIAL!’ (needless to say, all of those movies were supposedly being remade at the time, though one of them seems not to have made it out of development hell). Now, whether or not you consider all of them to be CLASSIC SCI-FI is really up to you (personally, I’d say that the original RoboCop is a genuinely great film, Starship Troopers a fascinating and extremely accomplished one, and Total Recall just another Hollywood mangling of one of the 20th century’s greatest writers) but what is really indisputable is that the magazine could definitely have billed itself as a PAUL VERHOEVEN SPECIAL with no grounds for argument whatsoever. And there certainly is something special about Verhoeven, though whether in a wholly positive way or not is something many people might debate.

Paul Verhoeven arrived in Hollywood in his 40s and very nearly got typed as a science fiction movie director – he was initially in the frame to direct Revenge of the Jedi, as it was then called, but lost any chance at the gig when George Lucas actually sat down and watched one of his Dutch movies – he was concerned, Verhoeven later recalled somewhat drily, that ‘the Jedi would immediately start ****ing’. Lucas’ suspicion that Verhoeven’s muse was wont to lead him into non-family-friendly territory was arguably confirmed when the director later oversaw the notorious erotic thriller Basic Instinct and the just plain notorious Showgirls.

Things have been quiet on the Verhoeven front for a while now – no American movies since Hollow Man in 2000, a typically restrained take on the Invisible Man story (NB: irony is present), and no Dutch movies, either, since the period thriller Black Book in 2006. At the age of 78, you might have assumed he had taken to the role of Grand Old Man of Dutch Cinema and was enjoying a well-earned retirement, but you would be wrong. He has a new movie out, Elle, and I think it is fair it say it is not quite like anything he has ever done before.

Isabelle Huppert gives an astonishing and arguably very courageous performance as Michele, a businesswoman in her middle years who runs a production company making suspiciously Warcraft-esque video games. Verhoeven puts the audience on notice that they are not in for a comfortable ride by opening the movie literally seconds after Michele is the victim of a violent sexual assault by a masked intruder in her home. Neither director nor actress shy away from the sheer awfulness of this, but the first sign that this is not a conventional approach to this topic comes when she simply tidies up the wreckage and gets back to her normal routine, not bothering to even tell her friends, let alone call the police. The incident seems to have left no impression on her at all: when the lead designer at her company unveils a unpleasant piece of animation which appears violently misogynistic, Michele’s response is to complain that it just isn’t visceral enough for their target audience.

The fact of the rape looms over what otherwise would mostly seem to be a smart and sardonic comedy-drama about life in modern Paris, as Michele contends with her ex-husband taking up with a much younger new partner, her somewhat embarrassingly oversexed mother, and her useless great lump of a son (Jonas Bloquet) and his psychotic girlfriend. Everyone is very sophisticated and French – Michele herself is discreetly sleeping with her best friend’s husband, and also seems to be rather taken with her hunky married neighbour (Laurent Lafitte). C’est la vie, as I believe they sometimes say in the Netherlands.

However, the film frequently and unsettlingly shifts gears and transforms itself into a rather disturbing thriller: it soon becomes apparent that Michele’s attacker is not yet finished with her, as anonymous texts reveal he is still taking an interest in her life. Nor is she quite as indifferent as first appeared to be the case, judging from her recent purchases of pepper spray and an axe…

Your first thought might be that Paul Verhoeven has chosen to make a film in French (his first) because France is relatively close to home for him and thus a bit less of a gruelling commute than flying off to Los Angeles or New York City. This is not the case, apparently, because Verhoeven did want to make Elle in America, as an English-language movie. The movie obviously stands or falls by the central performance, and on the director’s wish-list were names like Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sharon Stone, Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron, and Marion Cotillard. Apparently all of them refused to participate; neither was an American studio willing to finance the film.

You may perhaps have gleaned some inkling of just why this film had the great powers of Anglophone cinema closing their curtains and pretending to be out when Verhoeven turned up on their doorsteps with the script – the tonal shifts alone mark Elle as an unconventionally audacious movie – but, I promise you, this is pretty minor stuff compared to the way Verhoeven gleefully takes a wrecking ball to all manner of social and sexual taboos in the course of the movie. Describing Elle as hugely provocative is an understatement.

And yet he manages to get away with it, making a film which is as manifestly intelligent and deftly controlled as the best of his work. How does Verhoeven work the trick? Well, the script is viciously clever, for one thing – from the start, it is clear that Michele is not quite wired up the same way as other people, and there is a monstrous never-to-be-discussed piece of family history that has left the deepest of scars on her. On the other hand, you are distracted from wondering exactly how messed up she really is by the fact that she is always a fascinating and amusing character, if not always a completely sympathetic one. Huppert’s performance is really breathtaking; I rather suspect the fact that she didn’t win the Best Actress Oscar may come to be viewed as a historic injustice. The way the movie deals en passant with issues such as the state of modern manhood, misogynist culture, and the role of religion in the world also means you are never short of food for thought.

The sophistication, dark humour, playfulness, and sheer transgressiveness of Elle has led some to suggest that there is something rather Hitchcockian about it, and I can see where they’re coming from – even though this is rather more extreme than anything Hitchcock ever made. But it also has that slight sense of misogynistic suspicion about it, the distinct feeling that women are somehow implicitly enigmatic, unpredictable creatures. That the movie also manages to be inarguably feminist, with the only characters possessing any real agency being women, is just another of its baffling achievements.

There are many things about Elle which are as impressive as anything I’ve seen in a cinema for a very long time, but I would still hesitate to recommend this film unreservedly to anyone I didn’t know well: it is just so extreme and challenging in so many different ways. One thing which I am certain of is that this doesn’t feel like the work of a man pushing 80 years old: it has the energy and appetite for mischief, the desire to challenge and cause trouble you would normally associate with a much younger artists. It almost goes without saying – but there’s an abundance of life in the old dog yet.

 

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You’ve been there, I’ve been there, we’ve all been there: you wake up in the morning, head throbbing, vision blurred, tongue like a cinema carpet, and you stagger over to the mirror and say to yourself, ‘I’m never watching another M Night Shyamalan movie ever again.’ For me, the last straw was 2013’s After Earth, in which Will Smith and his son encounter a stupid alien monster which can only be defeated if they stop even attempting to act. Or so I thought. I was lured back by the assurances of a friend that Shyamalan’s new movie Split really was worth paying attention to. (The identity of the Professor-of-Mathematics-at-a-prominent-university-in-the-centre-of-South-Carolina in question must remain secret in order to protect his identity.)

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After Earth seems to have marked the end of Shyamalan’s association with the major studios, and these days he seems to be ploughing a lower-profile furrow as a maker of mini-budget horror films. I have to say that this appears to be doing the chap no end of good, as Split is the most thoroughly enjoyable film I’ve seen from him in well over a decade.

Things get underway with the kidnapping of a trio of young women (Anya Taylor-Joy, Hayley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula) as they leave a party. They find themselves in, well, a dungeon, at the not especially tender mercies of a rather peculiar man (James McAvoy), who has the habit of talking to himself in different voices, occasionally cross-dressing, and confiscating various items of their clothing.

Running alongside this is a series of scenes concerned with Dr Fletcher (Betty Buckley), a psychologist specialising in dealing with people suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder (multiple-personality syndrome to the likes of you and me), and the kidnapper is one of her patients. Or, to be more precise, some of the 23 different personalities of one of her patients have conspired to carry out this kidnapping. But why are they doing this? And is there any truth to their talk of a terrifying new 24th persona…?

Split starts off looking like a rather suspect piece of fem jeop horror, not a million miles away from films I would usually run a mile rather than actually pay to watch (I still shudder at the memory of Captivity, a Larry Cohen/Rowan Joffe movie I unwisely saw nearly ten years ago – in my defence, I was in Osaka and it was the only English-language movie showing that I hadn’t already seen). And not even a particularly distinguished example of a genre where the bar is traditionally depressingly low – the three girls are not especially well-written characters and two of them end up as more actively irritating than sympathetic.

However, the scenes with Buckley’s character are much more interesting and do intrigue, even if the film’s approach to multiple-personality disorder rather tends towards being portentous cobblers. (Or is it? Insert your own joke about being in two minds on the subject at this point, should you wish.) There’s also a series of flashbacks, the relevance of which to proceedings do not become clear until very late on.

There’s a very decent performance from Taylor-Joy as the Final Girl, and the same is true of Buckley, also. I note that Shyamalan hasn’t lost his habit of casting himself in minor roles in his own movies, despite his having no particular screen presence – doesn’t the man realise that actors have to eat too? However, the plum job in any movie about multiple-personality disorder is that of the sufferer, of course, as it offers a magnificent opportunity to indulge in some ostentatious actorliness as the performer involved shows their full range (or not, as the case may be). James McAvoy grabs his opportunity and has a full-blooded go at it, and is very good – is his performance alone worth the price of admission, though? Well, hmmm…

Luckily it doesn’t quite come down to that, for the rest of the movie is enjoyable and well-made too, in a modestly-budgeted sort of way, though not without all sorts of incidental implausibilities. It never quite becomes as awkwardly sleazy as it seems to be threatening near the start (I think this is an impressively subtle bit of sleight-of-hand on the part of the director), nor does it quite turn into an outright gore-fest (still, I would say this is neither a movie for granny nor your infant god-daughter to enjoy). It’s also, for what it’s worth, the first 15-rated movie I’ve seen in an absolute age which doesn’t drop a single F-bomb, as far as I can recall.

That said, what starts off looking like a straightforward psychological horror movie slowly develops into something rather different, as it slowly becomes apparent that the condition which McAvoy is suffering from is the variant best-known to students of unlikely fictional health problems as Banner-Blonsky syndrome, albeit in a relatively mild form. This wasn’t an issue for me at all, but I can see how it might lead to some people throwing their arms in the air and making annoyed sounds.

Shyamalan initially rose to prominence as the master of the twist ending, then quite rapidly became known as the guy whose movies tended to be over-reliant on half-baked examples of the same storytelling trick: everyone started expecting the twist and even looking for it, which is the last thing any decent twist ending needs if it’s going to work properly.

So – what about the end of Split, then? Well, all I will say is that there is a gag/revelation at the very end of this film that meant I left the theatre amused and surprised in a way I wouldn’t have been, had it not been there. It works on a number of levels, acting as a bit of a treat for long-term followers of the director, providing a context for some of the film’s more improbable elements, and – perhaps most excitingly – setting up an irresistibly gonzo follow-up movie, the chances for which are surely good. Split still has elements that strike me as a bit suspect and improbable, but on the whole it operates somewhere on the border between Good Movie and Very Good Bad Movie, and that’s no bad place to be if you’re a genre director, I would say. Fingers crossed that M Night Shyamalan can continue his trek out of the wilderness with his next project.

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