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Posts Tagged ‘thriller’

A little bit less than a year ago I was approached at work by a former student of mine. It was obvious he had something on his mind and that there was a burning question he was dying to ask me. Although we no longer had a formal relationship of any kind, I am always honoured and happy to help out in this sort of situation, and mentally prepared myself for what would very likely be a perceptive and thoughtful question concerning rarefied details of linguistics, culture and social behaviour. As I suspected, he got straight to the point and asked me the question uppermost in his mind.

‘Why did Dr Strange give Thanos the Time Stone? It’s stupid, it didn’t make any sense.’

Well, we discussed the answer for some time, as you would, but even as we talked I found myself feeling a great sense of pride that my former student still had his priorities straight and that I had placed his feet so firmly on the path of virtue. And so it felt entirely appropriate that we went to the cinema together, this week of all weeks, to enjoy – well, actually, we went to see Neil Jordan’s Greta, as the other film you may be thinking of only opened at midnight and there’s no way I can stay up until 4am on a work night and still function the next day. So it goes.

Still, we had a pretty good time watching Greta, because Neil Jordan is never less than competent as a director – that said, you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get from him, as the description ‘eclectic’ barely begins to do justice to his filmography – he’s done fantasy films, thrillers of various stripes, and comedies. His last film, Byzantium, was about pole-dancing vampires, and I still regret not actually going to see it. Hey ho.

Greta is set in New York City and concerns Frances (Chloe Grace Moretz), a young woman working as a waitress in one of the metropolis’ swankier restaurants. She has recently lost her mother and has a somewhat fractious relationship with her pa, both of which are relevant to the plot, as is the fact she is sharing an apartment with her best friend (Maika Monroe). The best friend is brash and somewhat self-interested; Frances is kind and thoughtful. The wisdom of this as a lifestyle choice is thrown into doubt after Frances finds an expensive handbag on the metro one day and resolves to return it to the original owner. This turns out to be Greta (Isabelle Huppert), a pleasant but lonely lady of a certain age. Great’s husband has passed away, her daughter is living abroad, and she doesn’t even have a dog any more. Frances’ sympathies are stirred, to say nothing of the fact she is missing a maternal influence in her life, and the two quickly become close.

And then, of course, because it’s fairly obvious from the start what kind of movie this is and how it’s all going to go, there is the big moment of revelation: while round at Greta’s house, Frances looks in the wrong cupboard and comes across a whole pile of handbags of the same kind she found, each one labelled with the name and phone number of the person who returned it to Greta. But where are these thoughtful people now? What exactly is Greta up to?

I think you would have to be pretty wet behind the ears yourself not to have some idea which way this movie goes, for it is apparent from quite close to the start that this is one of your old-fashioned obsession-themed psycho thrillers, not all that different from the likes of Fatal Attraction, Single White Female or The Resident. Greta doesn’t seem particularly interested in moving the genre on at all; its main innovations are that the traditional bit with a kitchen knife is reimagined to make use of a biscuit cutter, and that it is completely, ravenously, roaringly bonkers. Not particularly in the story, which is standard stuff as I have noted, but in the treatment of it. I was really anticipating something subtle and classy, given Jordan’s involvement, with a long build-up before the onset of the screaming ab-dabs, but the film has other ideas and is really, really keen to get to the proper psycho killer meat of the story. The ominous strings and twitchy smash-cuts are introduced rather abruptly, not to mention quite early on, which means the film has to go further and further out there to maintain its momentum as it continues. I have to say I found the results to be highly entertaining, but the film is preposterous rather than any kind of scary.

Which leads one, of course, to wonder exactly what an actress with the stellar reputation of Isabelle Huppert is doing in this kind of tosh. Huppert is in majestic form and carries off the whole movie effortlessly, bringing a lovely lightness of touch to her role as a frothing maniac: she barely needs to get out of first gear to dominate the film. But still, why is she in it at all? The only explanation is that she feels she needs to raise her Hollywood profile a bit so she can compete for good parts in American films; this is the reason why Nigel Hawthorne made an equally unlikely appearance in Demolition Man, after all. Then again, I suppose there may also be a financial component involved – Laurence Olivier, during that point at the end of his career when he routinely turned up in things like The Boys from Brazil, The Jazz Singer, Dracula, and Clash of the Titans, responded testily to questions as to why he did so many lousy movies with the reply that artistic merit wasn’t the only consideration. Anyway, Huppert is very far from the first class act to slum it in dodgy genre fare, and it’s not as if she’s alone here – Chloe Grace Moretz is also a feted performer (not so much for her recent work, admittedly), and she does good work here too. Also, just to make sure everyone is certain this is a Neil Jordan film, his regular collaborator Stephen Rea turns up in a small role; students of film history will understand what I mean when I say that Rea is in the Martin Balsam part.

As I say, I enjoyed the ridiculous extremity of Greta more than anything else, because there’s little substantially new about this film, and Jordan really only does a workmanlike job as the director – there’s an interesting sequence where the boundaries between reality and fantasy seem to start breaking down, but this doesn’t really go anywhere. But the movie is worth seeing even if it’s just for the sight of classy actors having fun; by that same token, of course, I have to say that if this film had been made with a less distinguished cast, it would almost certainly have gone straight to DVD.

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Every now and then one comes across something which is a coincidence, or a sign that there are things going on in the world which one would not have expected: to wit, someone in the scheduling department at a high-numbers TV channel having either a fairly black sense of humour or fringe political views. These are the only two possible explanations for the decision to show Franklin J Schaffner’s 1978 movie The Boys from Brazil on April 20th; for this is a movie about Nazism and the date is the most significant one on any observant Nazi’s calendar. I enjoy a dubious gag as much as anyone, and probably more than most, but I find I am still crossing my fingers and hoping this was a coincidence.

Based on one of Ira Levin’s pulpy shockers, The Boys from Brazil is Lew Grade and ITC Entertainment’s answer to The Omen, which came out a couple of years earlier. One should add the important proviso that in this case the answer is close but not quite right, but at least the film-makers’ working-out is fairly obvious: take a somewhat ludicrous conspiracy thriller, prominently featuring ominous children, add Gregory Peck, various other distinguished actors, and a lavish budget, season with a little spectacular gore here and there, and away you go.

Did I say distinguished actors? One of the first well-known faces to make an appearance is that of Steve Guttenberg, who was still a semi-serious actor at this point in time (he was only 20). Guttenberg plays Barry Kohler, a young Jewish Nazi-hunter who as the story starts is monitoring the activities of various war criminals in Paraguay (James Mason and various character actors play the roles of the Nazis; Portugal plays the role of Paraguay). Who should turn up to preside over the get-together but Dr Josef Mengele (Gregory Peck), Auschwitz’s own Angel of Death? (Yeah, yeah, I know; we’re going to talk about this, I promise.) Mengele is here to launch the next stage of a project which has been long in the works, and dispatches a squad of ruthless Nazi killers to assassinate 94 men across Europe and America; all of them are 65-year-old civil servants of different kinds (and, based on the ones we see, most of them are other well-known character actors: there’s Michael Gough, not to mention Richard Marner from Allo Allo! and Alternative 3).

Well, it turns out that Steve Guttenberg is not yet old or famous enough to make it out of the opening section of the film in one piece, and so he passes on his notes to a more distinguished Nazi hunter who provides the necessary investigating and moral outrage for the rest of the film. Yes, it’s Lord Olivier, not exactly underplaying it as relentless sleuth Ezra Lieberman (Larry seems to be practising for his Razzie Award-winning turn in The Jazz Singer), who persuades an old friend in the media (Denholm Elliott, another of those cameos that these ITC movies tend to be stuffed with) to send him details of any 65-year-old men who meet an untimely death in Europe or America. Verily, the mind doth boggle, but I suppose things were like that in the days before search engines. Credulity is stretched to its absolute limit as this actually leads Olivier to the families of three of Peck’s victims, who seem to have little in common beyond their ages, jobs, much younger wives, and freakishly identical adopted teenage sons – hang on just a cotton-picking minute here…!

There’s probably a productive discussion to be had about which is in more dubious taste, The Omen or The Boys from Brazil – I suppose it depends on whether you’re more prone to be offended by theological horror or real-world extremism. Beyond-hope materialist that I am, I’m always inclined to dismiss the various Omen films as knockabout camp of varying quality, whereas this one, for all that I do find it rather enjoyable, is arguably well over the border and into the realms of the deeply questionable. I’ve written in the past about the mini-boom in the mid-to-late 1970s for films and TV episodes concerning some kind of Nazi revival, usually centred on a resuscitated Hitler, and on that level there’s nothing particularly unusual about Boys from Brazil‘s scheme to bring back the Fuhrer. What really topples the film over into the realms of the arguably suspect is the decision to make the antagonist Mengele himself. Mengele, it is worth considering, was a real historical figure, responsible for appalling atrocities carried out in the name of science, and – and here it is only right to switch into italics – he was still alive when this movie was made. He could potentially have seen this film; God knows what he would have made of it. Regardless, turning him into a supervillain for a slightly cartoony thriller is arguably a horrible misstep, regardless of what kind of performance Gregory Peck gives (suffice to say that Peck, like Olivier, appears to have carved himself off a thick slice of ham).

The odd thing is that for an arguably nasty schlock horror-thriller, The Boys from Brazil has got some interesting ideas going on under the surface. Whatever else you want to say about it, this was one of the first mainstream movies to be based on the premise of human cloning, which may be why the sequence explaining what cloning – or ‘mononuclear reproduction’ – is goes into such detail. (It is perhaps slightly ironic that the role of the scientist who has to explain the origin of the film’s legion of cloned Hitlers is given to Bruno Ganz, who later played the dictator in Downfall.) The film even has some interesting notions about the whole nature versus nurture debate: the plot is predicated on the idea that the second-generation Hitlers won’t automatically grow up with the same sparkling personality and interesting political views as their progenitor, and so Mengele is attempting to recreate the circumstances of Hitler’s own life and family background. It makes marginally more sense than your typical SF film about clones, I suppose, as duplicates normally grow up indistinguishable from the original without any intervention whatsoever (that, or they’re irredeemably evil) – but how exactly is this going to work? How is Mengele going to give the Hitler clones the experience of fighting in and losing the First World War when they hit their late twenties? What’s the objective here? Wouldn’t it be easier just to have a dozen or so young Hitlers and have them specially educated – indoctrinated, if you like – in secret, for whatever role Mengele and his associates have in mind? Unless the idea is for a crop of new young extremist demagogues from ordinary backgrounds to appear and revolutionise the politics of the west in the early 21st century? Won’t people notice they all look the same? Especially if any of them decides that a moustache would be a good look…

Of course, this is not the only Levin tale with a plot that doesn’t really stand up to serious scrutiny, and as usual the film keeps it together, mainly thanks to the febrile outrageousness of its ideas, put across with a mostly straight face. This is a preposterous story, not just because of the cloning idea but also the contrivances required to make it function, but Peck and Olivier really go for it. One could regret the fact that the film doesn’t explore some of the more intriguing ideas arising from its premise as much as it could – are the clones really destined to become as monstrously evil as their forebear? To what extent can they be held morally culpable for the original Hitler’s actions? – and there is no genuine doubt that this is a Bad Movie, and a bad movie in really suspect taste, too. But nevertheless, I kind of enjoy it for its sheer demented conviction, the fact it makes so many barely-credible errors of judgement, and – more seriously – the way it does manage to smuggle high-concept SF ideas into an apparently mainstream thriller. This film is surely a guilty pleasure at best, but the pleasure is as genuine as the guilt.

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Where do I begin with Carol Morley’s Out of Blue? Let’s get that title out of way, to begin with. That is not one of typos to which all flesh is occasionally prey, as a quick glance at poster below will confirm: movie really is called Out of Blue. But why? It is based on a novel by Martin Amis, which was titled Night Train; just why Morley has decided on retitling of it is by no means clear (one of many things about this film which is fuzzy, to say least). What does Out of Blue even mean? I don’t know. Omission of the definite article must be significant on some level: I wouldn’t mind having a bit of significance about the blog, which is why this particular piece will be an experiment in not including definite articles too (hopefully we won’t be required to discuss Matt Johnson’s well-known post-punk band, as that could get a bit tricky).

Basic plot of Out of Blue proceeds something like this: Patricia Clarkson is arguably cast somewhat against type as veteran New Orleans PD homicide detective Mike Hoolihan. Early in film she is assigned to a new case: body of a young female astronomer is found, dead from a gunshot wound. Her enquiries initially focus on dead woman’s colleagues, mainly Toby Jones and Aaron Tveit, but eventually move on to her family, a secretive and wealthy bunch led by patriarch James Caan and his wife Jacki Weaver. However, as investigation proceeds, Hoolihan discovers similarities with a series of unsolved killings committed by a serial killer decades earlier. Hoolihan finds herself becoming obsessed with discovering truth of case, even if it means having to grapple with her own personal demons.

When you distill it down like that, plot of Out of Blue sounds like that of fairly straightforward police procedural movie, and I suppose that on some level it operates as such. However, this is a very deep and well-concealed level, because no-one (I would imagine) is coming out of a screening of this film saying ‘Hmmm, that was a fairly straightforward police procedural movie’: critics are using words like incoherent and silly, and likening film to a clown car, while general audiences… I don’t know, but there were only three people at screening I attended, and I had to battle quite hard to stay focused on it; film is that unengaging.

As I say, film is based on Martin Amis’ novel Night Train, which I am not familiar with. Given that we have already discussed hereabouts dismal nature of certain elements of Amis’ career as originator of genre movies, my natural inclination would be to blame him – but on this occasion it seems that master of absurd grotesqueness is off hook, as his novel has been very freely adapted for silver screen. There seem to be some vague similarities of plot and theme, but also some very significant differences on many levels, particularly when it comes to serial killer storyline (wholly new, as far as my very limited research can discern).

So Carol Morley is clearly up to something beyond simply adapting Amis, problem is trying to figure out what this is. Obviously on one level film is trying to work as a piece of genre cinema, adopting familiar form of a very slightly noir-ish police procedural detective story – there are various suspects, and odd twists, and revelations, and  so on. Then again, there are also signs of it attempting to function as a kind of character piece: Clarkson is giving a very intense central performance and she’s in virtually every scene. Finally, there is way film appears to be grasping for some kind of profundity or resonance by exploring deep metaphysical and philosophical themes. There are various allusions to astronomy and astrophysics, and scenes where characters sit around having po-faced discussions about Schroedinger’s cat (at one point they even put a cat in a box as a kind of visual aid for the hard-of-thinking, just in case any of the audience couldn’t quite grasp concept).

Now, there’s nothing wrong with any of this in principle – when this sort of idea is executed correctedly, it can give heft to an otherwise lightweight genre film and provide big ideas with a way of reaching a mainstream audience. The problem is that Out of Blue fluffs the police procedural aspect so badly that deep thoughts about nature of universe just feel incongruous – and, to be honest, hopelessly pretentious. Or, to put it another way, thriller angle is handled in such a clumsily mannered way that it provides no comforting context for more outre aspects of the movie to embed themselves in. You do almost wonder if there is an element of send-up going on here, so hackneyed is background given to Clarkson’s character – she’s a dedicated, brilliant cop with a history of psychological troubles and a drink problem, and so on, but film is almost totally lacking in humour or warmth. Patricia Clarkson is a fine actress, but she seems all at sea here, the script requiring her to do some fairly ridiculous things before story concludes.

In a way I am almost reminded of Paul Anderson’s Inherent Vice, another peculiar crime thriller with a notably impossible-to-follow storyline. There is a school of thought that actual plot of Inherent Vice is secondary to it giving you experience of what it feels like to be high on drugs: you just sort of drift mellowly from moment to moment as things occur in front of you. In a similar way, I suppose that Out of Blue would make much more sense if it was actually intended to make share experiences of someone undergoing a psychological breakdown – nothing seems to make sense, things seem to occur for no particular motivation, and so on. Alas, I have seen nothing to suggest this is actually case, but film certainly seemed to be giving me sense that I was drifting in and out of consciousness (of course, there is always the possibility that I genuinely was drifting in and out of consciousness – one should never rule this out at a matinee in the middle of a heavy week).

Very seldom does an English-language movie, especially a genre movie, fail to connect with me quite as completely as Out of Blue did, but I do note that Mark Kermode has seen it three times and found something new to enjoy on each occasion, while film’s publicists have managed to find people apparently willing to describe the film as ‘dazzling’, ‘thrilling’, and ‘mesmerising’ – although I note they are picking single words and using them out of context. Only one of those I would even come close to agreeing with is last one, and this is one trance I was very happy to wake up from.

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There were just under two hours left before we landed at Heathrow, which I reckoned should give me just enough time to enjoy, or not, Peter Berg’s Mile 22, a thriller starring Marky Mark Wahlberg. Berg and Marky Mark have forged a bit of a partnership in recent years, mostly doing based-on-a-real-life-disaster movies like Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day, although I have to say I much prefer his earlier, sillier films like The Rundown and Hancock. My main interest in Mile 22 stemmed not from the involvement of Berg, nor indeed Wahlberg (who I find I can really take or leave as a performer), but that of Iko Uwais, a brilliant Indonesian actor and martial artist who starred in the Raid duology (he was also in one of the stellar conflict movies for about three seconds, but let’s not worry about that). Any film where Uwais gets to do his stuff has a claim on my attention, even when that film gets unfriendly (and that’s putting it charitably!) notices from legitimate film critics.

(Checking out Mile 22 on the in-flight information system, I was startled to find the entry on this movie ran something like ‘Critics have said very unkind things about Mile 22, but these are the same people who didn’t like The Greatest Showman – so why not give it a try?’ I’m all for people being encouraged to make their own minds up, but on the other hand it doesn’t necessarily follow that The Greatest Showman is not, by any rational standard, a massive cheesy wotsit. It didn’t put me in the best of moods, anyway.)

Hey ho. Anyway, the film gets underway with some shadowy American coves, led by Marky Mark, undertaking a secret operation against – so far as I have been able to find out – some Russian spies operating on the US mainland. (This is one of those films which attempts to generate verisimilitude by having the characters rattle out their dialogue in a very terse fashion, and it’s probably not the best movie to listen to over headphones on a crowded plane, even in the wee small hours around dawn.) Things do not go as planned, but for quite a long time it is really not clear what this has to do with the rest of the plot.

This takes place in the fictitious Asian nation of Indocarr, where some radioactive terror dust has gone missing, and the American government would quite like to get it back before people start melting in the street (at least this is what it’s suggested will happen). Marky Mark, who is playing a version of that character whose brilliant brain function excuses the fact he is somewhat sociopathic, is on the job, and it is made clear to us at some length what a tough job it is keeping Uncle US of Stateside safe. Hey ho.

Anyway, up pops Iwo Uwais playing Li Noor, a rogue cop who knows where the terror dust McGuffins are to be found, but will only reveal the information if he is whisked off to the airport (35.4 kilometres away) and given political asylum in the States. The US government isn’t technically allowed to do this sort of thing under the usual international conventions, and so they activate Marky Mark and his team of plausibly deniable agents, who will theoretically be private citizens for the duration of the mission. Also on the team is Lauren Cohan, playing an agent with a challenging personal life, and Ronda Rousey, playing an agent who can clearly bench-press a lot (finely-drawn characterisation isn’t really Mile 22‘s strong point). Shouting at everyone over the radio is John Malkovich. Off they go in their SUVs, and before long an awful lot of people are shooting at them. This makes up the plot of most of the rest of the film.

Hey, you know what? The Greatest Showman is still a massive cheesy wotsit and this film isn’t much cop either. (I should point out that they are very different beasts and even if you are one of those people who thought that Hugh Jackman organising a diversity barn dance was a profoundly uplifting emotional experience, you still probably won’t enjoy Mile 22.)

I remember the critic and commentator Mark Lawson making the observation that when it really boils down to it, there are two kinds of entertainment: Escapist, which attempts to help you forget how awful the world fundamentally is, and Reminder, which grinds your face into the dismal grit of reality. One of the worst mistakes you can make as a storyteller, he suggested, is to be at all unclear on this point, or be under the impression that you’re doing one when you’re really doing the other.

This is the problem with Mile 22. It has a nice high-concept premise to it – team of guys must transport other guy they don’t particularly trust through hostile urban territory – and basically has cheesy knockabout thriller written all over it. Two prominent characters are played by performers with a martial-arts background, after all. However, after all those gravitas-laden true-life stories, it seems that Berg and Marky Mark have no real interest in doing cheesy crowd-pleasing stuff: they are Serious Film-makers now, even if they are now making a film in which Iko Uwais beats three armed opponents to death in his pants.

Thus, that high-concept premises vanishes under a slew of dour, improbable plot-twists, downbeat character bits, and general complications that just make the film less fun to watch. We’re quite a long way into Mile 22 before they start going those twenty-two miles, and the stuff before that is not especially interesting.

It has to be said that the actual twenty-two miles themselves are not much better, mainly because Berg seems to be one of those people who thinks that the secret of a great action sequence is to cut between cameras every three seconds. This is good for generating incipient nausea, but not so good when it comes to tension and excitement. Needless to say, it favours the actors over the martial artists and stuntmen – what’s the point of hiring someone like Uwais if you never show what he’s capable of doing? (That said, Iko Uwais does deliver an impressive English-language acting performance, though I’m not sure the film is worth watching just for this.)

In the end it is just a frustrating and depressing experience, not just because of the tone of the story, but because it feels like you’re watching people with genuine talent actively setting out to make a bad movie on purpose. And you just wonder what the point of the exercise is, unless this is all supposed to be setting up a sequel. Even if it is, I can’t imagine many people feeling sufficiently motivated to come along and check it out. This is pretty much a thorough-going dud.

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Normally nothing makes people in the film industry happier than when there is a buzz around their new movie and everyone is talking breathlessly about. Occasionally, however, something comes along which really tests that old saw about there being no such thing as bad publicity.

The most startling example of this in recent years was Liam Neeson’s recent performance on the press tour for his new movie Cold Pursuit, directed by Hans Petter Moland. Neeson has enjoyed something of a career resurgence in recent years playing the protagonists of action movies centred on characters who tend to be approaching pensionable age, but who don’t let this stop them going on roaring rampages of revenge. Cold Pursuit is really an addition to this odd subgenre, and (in case you’ve been on a desert island) Neeson decided to share his own experiences of the corrosive effect of the urge for vengeance, cheerfully regaling his interviewer with the story of how, following the rape of a friend by an unidentified black man, he wandered the streets of Belfast hoping to be provoked by someone of that ethnicity so he could justifiably beat them to death.

Unsurprisingly, this was not greeted as the sign of insight and mature self-awareness that Neeson clearly thought it to be, and the poo-storm of disbelieving outrage which ensued has really eclipsed Cold Pursuit‘s merits as a film, whatever they may be. However, this is still by some metric a thriller, and where there is a thriller in the cinema, you will most likely find me and Olinka, sooner or later. Is the film as dodgy as Neeson’s attempts to promote it, or is the unfair victim of its star’s poor judgement?

Neeson plays Nelson Coxman, unassuming snowplough driver in the resort town of Kehoe, Colorado, who as the film starts is a loving father and husband and recipient of the town’s Citizen of the Year award. You just know that when someone starts a film by being dull and civic-minded, they are not going to stay that way, and so it proves. Coxman’s son turns up dead of a heroin overdose and he and his wife (Laura Dern) are knocked sidewise, unable to believe they knew their child so little. Struggling to come to terms, Neeson retires to the garage to blow his own head off.

However, he is stopped by the appearance of a friend of his son who reveals he was murdered on the orders of the local drug baron, Viking (Tom Bateman). This at least gives Neeson a focus for his negative emotions and soon he is carving a swathe through the lower echelons of Viking’s organisation and hoping to get a shot at the top man. Killing drug dealers tends to come with consequences, however, and Viking and his lieutenants jump to the wrong conclusion, assuming that a rival gang of Native American drug dealers are responsible. Soon a bloody turf war is in progress and threatening to spin out of control…

A friend of mine was recently, and somewhat improbably given his image as a thoughtful and humane family man, outed as a bit of a fan of the whole Liam Neeson revenge-thriller genre, and seemed genuinely disappointed when his schedule meant that he couldn’t come to see Cold Pursuit with Olinka and me. I am not entirely sure this film would have been his cup of tea, though: the opening at least is deeply suspect, with an awful, grating uncertainty of tone – in part a dour, uncompromisingly downbeat drama about loss and grief (shades of In the Bedroom) and the couple struggling to deal with the loss of their boy, and partly a gruesome, graphically violent revenge-thriller.

In the end, however, a third style becomes dominant. This is an American remake of a Scandi drama from a few years ago, and you can still discern traces of that in the setting of the film and its humour (I was going to call it a black comedy, but in the circumstances I think it’s best to steer clear of that sort of language). Most of all it resembles a pastiche of the kind of films that the McDonagh brothers have been making in recent years, with a mixture of calculated provocation and clever subversion of genre tropes, spiced up with quirky humour and characters who refuse to be defined by their roles in the story. Thus we get a drug lord who’s obsessed with macrobiotic dieting and who gives his young son a copy of Lord of the Flies, believing it to be a valuable repository of life lessons.

There are some good jokes in Cold Pursuit, but on the whole it often feels quite laboured. Liam Neeson cheerfully sent himself up a few years ago in a sketch where he approached Ricky Gervais insisting that they work on ‘funny monologues… crazy characters… slapstick’, all delivered in that balefully intense manner, but the problem here is that he is really is playing it all much too straight and earnest. This is to some extent ameliorated by the fact that, as the situation spins out of control, he gets less screen-time, but this itself probably qualifies as another problem with the film – the script doesn’t quite hold together and contains some very cheesy bits of plotting. (The ending in particular is very abrupt and peculiar.)

In the end it’s all really very blokey, violent stuff, with a sort of motif – calling it a theme would be overdoing it – about fathers and their relationships with their sons. Most of the female characters are very secondary and don’t get much screen time; the exception being Emmy Rossum’s ambitious young cop. Rossum (who fifteen years ago looked like being on the verge of becoming a major star, but vanished into the netherworld of cable TV) gets some good scenes, but doesn’t really contribute much to the story either.

Neeson does the best he can with a character who doesn’t exactly leap off the screen; the actors playing all the comedy gangsters likewise make the most of their opportunities. But in the end, I don’t know – the film recovers well from a very dubious opening act, but in the end it feels just a bit too laborious in both its plotting and its quest to find unlikely sources of humour. I doubt people going in expectation of a Liam Neeson revenge thriller will find it very satisfactory, but then neither will anyone else: it’s a bit too self-consciously quirky given the subject matter, and it seems to have nothing really to say for itself about any of the themes and topics it touches on. Cold Pursuit is somewhat entertaining while you’re watching it, but if Neeson had kept his mouth shut on the press tour I suspect it would have vanished into obscurity fairly rapidly.

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You can’t beat a really good, really dodgy knock-off of a hit movie, especially one which is quite haphazardly thrown together in a spirit of mercenary opportunism. The various Bond pastiches of the mid sixties are the sort of thing I’m thinking of, also the Jaws rip-offs of the late seventies, not to mention the various excursions into dubious sci-fi the big studios embarked upon a couple of years later. A few years earlier, The Exorcist had gone a long way towards making the horror movie a respectable genre, something only consolidated by the success of The Omen in 1976 – to be fair, The Omen is schlock, but it’s classy, entertaining schlock.

You can’t say quite as much about Jack Gold’s The Medusa Touch, which emerged in 1978 – the schlock part is certain, but the rest is highly debatable. Things get underway in a sombre London – a jumbo jet has recently crashed into a tower block, causing massive devastation, while an American space mission has also just ended in disaster. Watching all this on the telly is writer and general grumpy-boots John Morlar (Richard Burton), who seems to be expecting company in his flat. Someone does indeed turn up, but rather than share a drink with Morlar they do their best to bash his skull in.

The police are soon on the scene, led by Inspector Brunel (Lino Ventura), who is on an exchange visit from Paris. (The Frenchness of the character is not actually relevant to the plot, but – given this is an international co-production – highly relevant to the budget.) Morlar’s body is still in situ, but his head is hidden from the audience by a felicitously-positioned coffee table, though whether this is to spare the audience the sight of his shocking injuries or just conceal the fact that Burton has gone off on the lash and this is a different actor is another debatable point. Brunel discovers that, almost miraculously, Morlar is still alive, and he is rushed off to hospital where his head is almost entirely swathed in bandages, although not quite enough to conceal the fact that it definitely isn’t Burton in these scenes.

Brunel sets about investigating Morlar’s life, reading his journal and talking to his shrink, Dr Zonfeld (Lee Remick). It turns out that Morlar was a successful writer, obsessed with the notions of power and evil, but also a man who left those who met him deeply unsettled. Various people who got on the wrong side of him ended up dead in freak accidents of different kinds. It slowly becomes clear that Morlar believed he had a form of telekinesis which caused disasters (this may not have come as a great shock to the audience, considering it’s basically explained on the poster). His parents died in a freak car accident, a schoolteacher who punished him was killed in a fire, his about-to-leave-him wife was in another car crash, and so on. Given Morlar’s proximity to so many unfortunate events, the list of people with a reason to wish him harm is lengthy, but Brunel and Zonfeld have another concern – it looks like Morlar’s power is operating to keep him alive, despite injuries that should have been fatal, but is there more to this than simple self-preservation?

The presence of Remick is only the most obvious sign of the debt that The Medusa Touch owes to The Omen; this is a film that aspires to be a classy, London-set supernatural thriller, with an A-list cast, various set-piece deaths, and a plotline about an initially-sceptical establishment figure slowly coming to believe in the powers of darkness. The climax of both films concerns an attempted execution which, on the face of it, looks like an awful act of brutality; there is also a final plot twist (although in the case of The Medusa Touch, this is almost drowned in bathos).

However, The Medusa Touch is badly hobbled by a number of factors – first of all, this is clearly not as big-budget a big-budget movie as it really needs to  be, with some of the model work (crashing jets and Bristol Cathedral falling down on people’s heads) really not up to scratch. It’s also notable how many of the distinguished actors featured in the credits only turn up for a single scene or two – it seems very unlikely that Derek Jacobi or Michael Hordern worked on the film for more than a couple of days each. Even Burton, the ostensible star, only appears in flashback once the opening scene of the movie is out of the way. This peculiar structure is also arguably a problem for the film – there are nested flashbacks, which is never a good way to go, and it means that once the film makes an awkward gear-change from being an ominous mystery to a stop-the-disaster thriller, Burton never actually appears.

This is a problem, as Richard Burton’s performance is probably the main reason to watch the film. The actor is issued with various scabrous and excoriating rants to deliver against the hypocrisy and corruption he sees all around him in modern society, and despite occasionally resembling a man waiting for the pubs to open, Burton gives most of them everything he’s got. It is a textbook case of an actor’s sheer presence and charisma lifting some rather suspect material. Practically everyone else in the movie is blasted off the screen by Burton, the only one coming close to matching him is Jeremy Brett (another of the film’s one-scene wonders).

The problems with The Medusa Touch‘s script and production are rather a shame, for this is a film with an interesting idea at its heart. If this kind of baleful telekinesis were real, and operated at least partly beyond the conscious control of the one possessing it, then the results would be nightmarish: Morlar initially suggests that the power is not something under his volition, but an instinctive thing which reflexively strikes down anyone who gets on his bad side. As the film goes on, they sort of move away from this, and the indications are that Morlar is a thorough-going misanthrope deliberately striking out at the symbols of the society he despises. It also almost seems to play with the idea that some so-called precognition is nothing of the sort – people who claim to see the future are simply just subconsciously shaping the events telekinetically (a notion which was in vogue with some psychic researchers for a while). Of course, the credibility of the film rather depends on how credible you find the notion of psychic powers; the film tries to ground itself by including footage of ‘real’ telekinetics doing their thing – no Uri Geller, but they do feature the Russian psychic Nina Kulagina interfering with compasses and so on.

In the end The Medusa Touch‘s combination of big, doomy ideas and slightly ramshackle production values means it is mostly just silly, and certainly not particularly frightening. As I say, Burton is the main reason to give it time of day, but even though it is derivative, it still has an odd originality of concept and structure – ‘odd’ in a not especially distinguished way, of course, but even undistinguished oddness can still make a film watchable. As such, The Medusa Touch just about qualifies.

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It’s fairly unusual for a film to show up on my radar and its UK release to then slip by me almost entirely, but this is what happened this year with Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale. I definitely recall seeing a trailer at some point, but then (and this may be partly due to one or other of my trips to the Kyrgyz Republic this autumn) it was suddenly showing as a catch-up movie in one of the out-of-the-centre cinemas in Oxford, apparently barely having troubled the main multiplexes at all. A somewhat plaintive cry of ‘Are you going to see this one?’ from a reader in the US forced me to confront the hard truth that sometimes you just can’t see every film that gets released.

On the other hand, sometimes you find yourself with a spare evening in Berlin with a decent cinema showing movies in die ursprungliche Version only a brisk walk away, and it was a choice between Bad Times at the El Royale and BlacKkKlansman (another film I missed due to my sojourn in Bishkek), and my inner grammar obsessive clearly couldn’t face the prospect of typing that second title too many times [I buckled eventually – A]. So off we went to the Goddard movie.

Things get underway with a prologue set in the late 1950s, as a mystery man checks into a hotel room and proceeds to take up the floorboards and hide a bag in the cavity thus created. Before he can do much else, he is murdered, a development which is both shocking and disappointing (mainly because it means Nick Offerman, who plays him, is obviously going to be in the movie much less than one would hope).

Ten years later, a group of strangers encounter each other at the El Royale, a fading motel with a curious geographical quirk – it’s built squarely on the state line between California and Nevada, meaning (for instance) that you can only buy a drink on the west side of the bar room. Amongst the people checking in are a slightly confused elderly priest (Jeff Bridges), a garrulous vacuum cleaner salesman (Jon Hamm), an African-American woman with some unusual luggage (Cynthia Erivo), and a young woman (Dakota Johnson) who looks like a hippy but doesn’t seem that interested in peace and love. The boyish desk-clerk (Lewis Pullman) does his best to keep them all satisfied, of course.

Well, and wouldn’t you just know it, it turns out that most of these people are not at all what they initially seem to be, and several of them are dragging around a different sort of baggage entirely. As the night wears on, a peculiar chain of events develops, involving FBI wiretapping, blackmail, dementia and a psychopathic cult leader. Not everyone is going to be checking out alive…

I have to say that my first thought on properly looking at the poster for Bad Times at the El Royale was that this is a movie filled with people currently stuck in an odd twilight zone in terms of their movie career: by which I mean, there are some people who have the ability to open a movie (meaning their presence alone will guarantee the film does healthy business), and there are others who are by any standard appreciably famous, but aren’t able to translate this into consistent box office success under their own steam. Bad Times at the El Royale has Jeff Bridges in it, who is a veteran movie star and a fine actor, and Cynthia Erivo, who is a definite up-and-comer, but also a bunch of people who seem to be in the latter category – Jon Hamm (still best known for TV’s Mad Men), Dakota Johnson (whose high profile is mainly down to appearing in all those big-budget soft porn films), and – perhaps the best current example of the kind of thing I’m talking about – Chris Hemsworth (whose films make literally billions of dollars, but only when he’s playing one particular role).

I am aware that Bad Times is felt to have underperformed somewhat at the US box office, and this may be part of the reason why: it’s certainly a star-studded movie, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into ticket sales. It’s hard to think of another reason, apart from possibly the film’s length (it’s 140 minutes long, and by the end you’re starting to feel every one of them), for this is an engaging example of a type of film which was all the rage a few years ago but not much seen these days – by which I mean that Bad Times belongs to that very odd sub-genre, the Quentin Tarantino pastiche.

How can you possibly pastiche the style of someone who has basically built a career around pastiching other people? Mostly it is a stylistic thing: there are various self-conscious formal quirks here, and a chopped-up non-linear approach to some of the storytelling – one key moment in particular plays out multiple times, viewed from different perspectives. The film isn’t afraid to include some fairly grisly violence, too, and there’s where one sequence in particular where the threat of it hangs in the air and you almost get the sense the director is relishing the prospect. The retro setting also reinforces the idea that this is a film looking to the past rather than the future.

That said, while the movie includes a number of plot elements which are very specific to its setting – there’s a cult of murderous hippies, and a morally-compromised FBI surveillance operation, amongst others – it doesn’t feel like the film has anything particular to say about the sixties or America at that point in time. It’s just a convenient, colourful backdrop – a dressing-up outfit for a film which always seems just a bit more interested in style than in substance.

Nevertheless, this is a very capably assembled piece of entertainment. I must confess that the name Drew Goddard didn’t register with me at all, but it turns out I’ve been watching his work as a writer and director for about fifteen years, on and off, and this film is as polished and effective as his resume (which includes things like The Cabin in the Woods and The Defenders) might lead you to suspect. His script exploits the potential of this kind of set-up (the nature of the film is such that it’s impossible to tell which characters are going to survive to the closing credits) and he’s helped by consistently strong performances from the ensemble cast – I should probably make a special mention of Chris Hemsworth, cast most against type as a cross between Jim Morrison and Charles Manson.

As I say, there is perhaps a bit of a problem with a film that feels like it should be brisk, knockabout entertainment having a running time round about that of the theatrical cut of 2001, and the film’s performance may also have been affected by the lack of a bankable star and the nature of the narrative. However, I had a good time watching it and I’m glad I got the chance to do so on a big screen. I would say Bad Times at the El Royale has a decent chance of a respectable career as either a cult movie or an underappreciated gem.

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