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The Phoenix in Oxford is officially in the middle of a Hitchcock season at the moment (Psycho this coming Sunday, Vertigo the week after that), but if one didn’t know better one might suspect that the cinema’s film booker was quietly running another, unofficial season at the same time: this week the place is showing not two but three films with a religious theme to them. (I enjoy a revival as much as anyone else, but not usually in this sense of the word.)

Yes, this week, currently showing at a cinema near – well, likely not you, but certainly me – is First Reformed (previously discussed hereabouts), Apostasy (a British drama about life in a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses), and finally Xavier Giannoli’s The Apparition (titre Francais: L’Apparition), which will be our main focus on this occasion.

Vincent Lindon plays Jacques Mayano, who as the film opens is a deeply traumatised figure: we first find him hunched in a hotel bedroom, somewhere in the Middle East, clutching a battered and bloody camera. The situation soon becomes clear: Mayano is a war reporter, and his photographer colleague has recently been killed in action. Mayano is consumed by grief and guilt, and upon his return home to France shows every sign of being in the throes of some kind of psychological breakdown.

Then a message comes, from the Vatican no less. He is invited for a confidential meeting with one of the cardinals there. The Catholic Church has a job for Mayano, if he is prepared to take it on: a young girl in rural France claims to have been visited by an apparition of the Virgin Mary, and has attracted a dedicated following of pilgrims and other believers as a result. The girl is named Anna (she is played by Galatea Belugi) and she is a novice in the local convent. Her local priest (Patrick D’Assumcao) is a rebellious type and not being especially cooperative with the Holy Office, who generally like to keep a lid on this sort of thing, at least until it can be authenticated (Mayano is told that the Church would prefer to let a genuine case of a supernatural manifestation languish in obscurity than give publicity to something that might be fraudulent).

And authentication, or not, is what is on the cards for this particular phenomenon. How does this involve Mayano? Well, the Church would like him to participate in the process, essentially being lead investigator for the assessment panel (which also includes a psychiatrist, a priest from the local diocese, a theologian, and so on). More out of curiosity than anything else (or so it is implied), Mayano takes the job – but as he gets to know Anna and the other principals in the case, he finds himself being more deeply affected than he had anticipated – especially when it seems there may be a connection between Anna’s supposed visions and his own recent trauma…

I saw Xavier Giannoli’s previous film, Marguerite, a couple of years ago, and was rather blown away by it: a very subtle and impressive piece of work, especially in the understated shifts in tone which see a film that begins as a smart comedy end as a genuinely moving and rather tragic drama. His name rang a vague bell when I saw it on the poster for The Apparition, but I didn’t put two and two together until after seeing the film – I have to say this is probably just as well, as it would only have raised my expectations for the new movie.

As it is, The Apparition gets off to a notably assured and compelling start, detailing Mayano’s personal situation and then his summons to Rome. This all plays rather like a more naturalistic and credible version of something that Dan Brown might write, with the understated way that various church officials discuss extraordinary phenomena only adding to the impression that the film makes. You are left genuinely wrong-footed and unsure of just which way the film is going to go as it proceeds – is this going to be a slightly arty drama about Mayano’s own personal issues? Some kind of paranormal mystery, with a touch of the theological about it? Or a more conventional thriller, exploring some of the murky backstory of Anna’s visions of the Virgin?

Well, if I say that even at the end of the film, I wasn’t entirely sure which way the film had gone, you may get some idea of the problems with which The Apparition is saddled: it has a great opening, to be sure, but by about halfway through it has lost most of its momentum and cuts back and forth between a number of plotlines, with no great sense of this being a film which is in a hurry to go anywhere in a hurry. Indeed, ‘hurry’ is definitely not the word, for The Apparition is knocking on the door of being two and a half hours’ long, and this is frankly just too much. The story wanders off on odd tangents and explores obscure subplots, but there’s not much sense of anyone being in command of the narrative. When I say that by the end of the film I still wasn’t entirely clear if anyone had genuinely seen the Virgin Mary or not, and what this might mean, you may get some idea of how impenetrable the film becomes – not because it’s difficult to follow what’s going on from scene to scene, but because it’s clearly all supposed to mean something but it’s very difficult to tell what. You’re in no doubt as to Mayano’s mental state as the film concludes, but you have no real sense of it yourself, nor any real understanding of why he’s feeling this way.

Now, it would be remiss of me to suggest that there’s nothing of interest going on here at all: Giannoli takes a balanced view of the Church, comparing the genuine faith and decency of some adherents and members of the hierarchy with the willingness of others to exploit Anna for her visions, and puts this across with a light touch. The film also benefits enormously from two tremendous performances from the two leads – Lindon does just enough to suggest that beneath the surface of his world-weary journalist is a man who may actually want to believe in something greater, while Galatea Belugi is astonishingly self-assured in a very demanding role as the young devotee: I suspect she may very well be going places.

However, if so it will almost certainly be in vehicles which are better assembled than The Apparition. There is enough good stuff here for me to put it in the pile marked ‘Creditable Misfire’, and one certainly gets the impression that Giannoli managed to get reasonably close to the subtle and thoughtful film he was clearly aiming for. Nevertheless, it still looks to me like he fell some way short of his target, with the result that this is an ultimately disappointing movie on many levels.

 

 

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It is with a bit of a jolt that I realise that I have been going to see Mission: Impossible movies at the cinema for half of my life. It doesn’t seem that long since I had only been going to see the first one for a couple of hours, at a rather lovely old cinema in Hull city centre, but there you go, that was 1996. I just wish that I had lasted in the interim as well as Tom Cruise, for he doesn’t look that different to how he did in the first film, whereas I’m honestly starting to feel slightly ravaged.

These days, a nice Mission: Impossible movie is Tom Cruise’s best shot at getting the kind of hit which sustains a career, which may be why he’s finally settled down to making them approximately in accordance with a standard blockbuster franchise release schedule – to wit, one every three years or so. The new one is as punctuation-heavy as ever – Mission: Impossible – Fallout, directed (like the last one) by Christopher McQuarrie. The first few films in the series were essentially standalones without much connecting them, but the retention of McQuarrie as director signals that a bit of a change is in the air, although ‘change’, where this series is concerned, is a relative thing.

So it’s front and centre once more for crack American fun-and-games squad the Impossible Missions Force, in this film comprising toothsome legend Ethan Hunt (Cruise, 56), comic relief Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg, 48), and computer whiz Luther Stickle (Ving Rhames, 58). Clearly the new young generation of agents just ain’t cutting the mustard, even though Luther’s ability to do all the running about and hiding in plain sight demanded by a typical Impossible Mission is somewhat compromised by the fact he looks about seventeen stone and is always wearing a selection of rather incongruous hats. Jeremy Renner, somewhat ironically, has not come back this time as apparently his commitments to Infinity War got in the way – I say ‘ironically’ as all of Renner’s scenes in the Marvel movie ended up on the cutting room floor.

Plotwise, it turns out that capturing the international terrorist mastermind Solomon Lane (Sean Harris, 52) at the end of the previous film has only annoyed his various acolytes and caused violent global upheaval and terrorism (which only makes one wonder why Cruise et al bothered in the first place), and they are now intent on getting some plutonium so they can blow things up. They are assisted in this by the mysterious John Lark, a shadowy figure intent on causing international disruption and chaos whose real identity is a mystery (I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he turned out to be a golf-loving Washington DC resident with an active Twitter account).

Well, things do not initially go to plan, as Cruise opts to save a comrade rather than secure the plutonium, and the team is obliged to proceed in the company of beefy CIA hard-case August Walker (a luxuriantly moustachioed Henry Cavill, 35 – this is the moustache that Warner Brothers had to spend a bomb digitally erasing from Cavill’s mush after the Justice League reshoots), who is under orders to get nasty if Cruise looks like going rogue at any point (which is a pretty sure thing, given he seems to go rogue on a weekly basis in these films). It turns out that securing the plutonium will involve another run-in with Lane, not to mention ex-MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson, 34 – one thing about these characters is that they do lower the average age of the ensemble a bit), with whom Cruise had a bit of a thing last time round…

So, anyway, another new Mission: Impossible movie. As usual, I sat there watching the movie, making mental notes of pithy little observations I could make when it was time to write this here review which you are reading (if indeed you still are). But a strange sense of familiarity, even perhaps deja vu, crept upon me as I did so. In the end I went back and re-read the reviews of Mission: Impossibles 3, 4, and 5 from this blog, just to make sure I didn’t end up repeating myself.

And, seriously, I’ll tell you what a really Impossible Mission is: it’s telling this film apart from the previous ones. Now, I know that probably sounds quite negative, and I should qualify it by saying that it’s every bit as competent a piece of glossy, big-budget entertainment as the other films in this series. There are some stupendous, absurd stunt sequences, a ridiculously byzantine plot, first-rate action, competent performances, and all the rest. But the fact remains that, just like the previous films, it primarily resembles a series of set-pieces strung together by minimal plotting, said plotting revolving around double- and triple-crosses and characters ripping off their faces at key moments to reveal they weren’t who they initially appeared to be.

The real Impossible Mission – or certainly, the very challenging one – is to identify the bits of Fallout which actually make it distinctive from the other films in this franchise. Well, initially it seems like the dramatic meat of the film is going to be built around the Big Moral Question of whether Tom Cruise is capable of dealing with a Hard Choice. Will he save a team-mate or grab the plutonium? Is he prepared to shoot a cop for the good of the mission? Is he even prepared to go head-on with Ilsa? Sounds quite promising, doesn’t it, until it becomes apparent that the script is always going to let Cruise cop out of actually making a Hard Choice, or contrive it so that whatever dubious choice he makes works out in his favour. In the end this angle just gets dropped in favour of slightly vacuous stunt sequences (although, to be fair, the film concludes with a set-piece with a couple of helicopters that is absolutely eye-popping).

The other innovation in this film is the fact that it’s much more a sequel to the previous film than is usually the case in this franchise – the same villain recurs, along with various other supporting characters. You also really need to be more than passingly familiar with the plot of Rogue Nation in order to completely follow that of Fallout (not that following the plot of one of these films is strictly necessary in order to enjoy it). The links go further back, with another appearance by Michelle Monaghan (most prominently seen in Mission Impossible 3), and the implication that a new character played by Vanessa Kirby is the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave’s character from Mission Impossible 1 (I’m not sure this is even biologically possible, given their ages, but I suppose fertility experts get assigned Impossible Missions too). In this case at least, it’s just something to reward those of us who’ve been turning up faithfully for over two decades.

When you really get down to it, Mission: Impossible – Fallout is basically just product made to meet the demands of a formula – there’s still more than a little of Bruce Geller’s classic TV show to proceedings, and there’s a particularly bombastic version of Lalo Schifrin’s classic theme this time around, but the film series has probably now eclipsed its forebear in terms of audience awareness. It basically just has all the fights, chases, stunts, twists, turns, and tricks you expect from this kind film, delivered with a lot of gloss and conviction. And the end results are undeniably entertaining, even if six months later you’ll be hard pushed to remember what this film was actually about, and probably find it blurring together with the others in your head. But this is the world of the popcorn action blockbuster – it’s not intended to be a film for the ages, but a film for the moment when you’re actually watching it, delivering a pleasant and familiar buzz. And, on those terms, it is undeniably a successful movie.

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As this long, hellish, The Day the Earth Caught Fire-esque summer has worn on, so the Kubrick season at the Phoenix has come to a conclusion, which is obviously cause for sadness. But looking on the bright side, in its place we are currently enjoying a season of Hitchcock revivals, which is always something to relish. Most recently on the screen was a movie from the start of the 1950s, the decade which arguably saw Hitchcock at the height of his powers and brought him his most sustained run of popular and critical successes. The film in question is Strangers on a Train, one of the great director’s most playfully ambiguous works. Is it a psychological thriller? A film noir? A pitch-black comedy? Or just a searing indictment of poor health and safety standards at American funfairs? Nearly seventy years on, the jury is still out.

Farley Granger plays Guy Haines, an amateur tennis player and aspiring politician, who is making a fairly routine train journey when – apparently by chance – he makes the acquaintance of Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), a wealthy, charming fellow who seems to be a fan of his. Somewhat reluctantly, Guy gets to know Bruno better, and it transpires that both men have their problems: Guy is stuck in a marriage to an unfaithful wife (Laura Elliott), while Bruno finds himself oppressed by his authoritarian father. Bruno takes the opportunity to unveil his ‘perfect murder’ scheme, whereby he will kill Guy’s wife, while Guy disposes of Bruno’s father – as each man apparently lacks a motive for these particular killings, they should get away with it, with no difficulty.

Guy is clearly just too well brought-up, for his attempts to extricate himself from the company of someone who is clearly slightly unhinged only serve to give Bruno the impression that he is enthusiastically on-board with this ‘criss-cross’ plan. Matters become somewhat more complicated when Guy’s wife proves to be not just unfaithful but rather manipulative, soaking him for money while refusing to give him a divorce, even though she is carrying another man’s child (hey, it was the Fifties). All this causes Guy to make some rather intemperate public utterances, which could well be seen as incriminating when his wife turns up dead in the middle of a funfair one night – Bruno has gone full speed ahead with his murder-swapping plan…

Guy is safe for the time being, but one piece of evidence away from being arrested (his alibi just isn’t quite watertight enough). This would be stressful enough, even without Bruno starting to haunt his footsteps, wondering why Guy is so reluctant to follow through on his side of the deal, and clearly quite capable of making Guy’s life extremely difficult if he reneges entirely…

Strangers on a Train is not quite at the very top of the list of Hitchcock movies everyone can name – it’s a step or two down from Psycho, Rear Window, North by Northwest and Vertigo, for instance – but it is still immediately recognisable as a product of the same creative sensibility. From the very first seconds you are aware of the playful way in which the director is presenting the two leads as doubles, or opposites – their arrival at the station opens the film, with Hitchcock choosing to show us their feet rather than their faces, saving this for the moment when they first see each other. There is also the same kind of moral ambiguity that shoots through so many later Hitchcock films – it’s made clear that Guy really does want to murder his wife, it’s only the social contract which is keeping this urge in check. There’s a sense in which Guy is a bad, er, guy.

In the same way, there’s a sense in which Bruno is, if not a good guy, then at least a charming, appealing presence whenever he appears. This is mostly due to a terrific performance from Robert Walker, whose final completed film this was: Walker pretty much walks away with the acting honours from Strangers on a Train, as the good guys are decent but wooden, and his only real competition (Elliott) is only in the film briefly. Elliott manages to be so objectionable that the set piece in which Walker stalks her through a funfair before eventually strangling her – the murder famously reflected in her fallen glasses – is essentially one in which the audience is complicit with the killer, or at least feeling no guilt at anticipating the murder.

Of course, there’s something else going on in this film, a subtext which is surprisingly clear given the time it was made. Guy is dashing but weak, led into immorality by a charming older man with a mother-fixation. The coding is quite obvious – Bruno is presented as a thinly-veiled predatory homosexual, aiming to seduce Guy – morally, if not physically. Robert Walker’s performance is very good, but it’s also kind of Liberace meets the Boston Strangler. Suffice to say that the love of a good woman (Ruth Roman) is essential to Guy’s clearing his name and resolving the crisis.

As the film goes on, it progressively deviates, if you’ll pardon the expression, from Patricia Highsmith’s original novel, which (to minimise spoilers) concludes with Guy being arrested, and this may be why the initially watertight plotting of the film begins to unravel somewhat. There’s something a little melodramatic, or at least rather improbable, about the way the climax is managed – Guy has to win his tennis match in double time, lose his police tail and then get to the scene of the crime before Bruno can plant the evidence that will see him arrested. You could poke half a dozen holes in the scenario, yet it is still thoroughly engaging, enjoyable stuff, and you do get the sense Hitchcock is having fun, not intending the audience to take it too seriously either . There are quite a few moments during the climax of the film which drew general laughter from the audience at my screening, and I’m sure some of this was intended. But all of it? I’m really not sure; Hitchcock remains as slippery a magician as ever.

Possibly if this film were in colour, or had a more distinguished cast, it would perhaps have a slightly higher profile. Nevertheless, it is still a supremely accomplished movie – the plot holds together well enough, there is plenty of snappy dialogue to enjoy (‘I may be old-fashioned, but I thought murder was against the law’, ‘When an alibi is full of bourbon, it can’t stand up’, and so on), and the story has just enough darkness and ambiguity to it to deliver a pleasant frisson, rather than becoming too bleak or downbeat. A very fine film, and still only one of Hitchcock’s relatively minor works.

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You have to feel a bit sorry for the proprietors of Oxford’s premier art-house cinema, working hard to bring international movies to film-lovers in and around the city. I imagine that their hope with non-English language presentations is to lure in anyone from the same country as the film being shown, together with casual viewers who happen to be passing. And so it is quite simply the worst possible luck for their preview showing of Michael R Roskam’s Franco-Belgian thriller Racer and the Jailbird to coincide almost exactly with another, rather higher-profile Franco-Belgian get-together, of considerable local interest to boot. So it was that about three of us turned up to watch Roskam’s film while everyone else was glued to the football semi-final.

(I suppose one should be grateful the film was showing at all; the entire schedule in Screen One had been cancelled for the following evening so yet another venue could show the other semi-final match. And don’t get me started on the fact that the UK release of Ant-Man and the Wasp has been postponed until six weeks after its American debut, once again because of the bloomin’ World Cup.)

But hey ho. There we were for Racer and the Jailbird (a title which we will return to), which initially looks like it will be a familiar sort of tale in tone, if not in detail. It opens with a fragment from the youth of Gigi, a young man with a clearly troubled family background, before we meet him in adulthood. He has grown up to be that very capable Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, and has apparently become a charming and smooth businessman, even if exactly how he makes his money is a little unclear. He and his friends are visiting a racetrack when he makes the acquaintance of Bibi (Adele Exarchopoulos, probably best known for Blue is the Warmest Colour), a promising young racing driver.

Well, Gigi makes a move, rather directly, Bibi is not unwelcoming to his overtures; the film in general doesn’t hang about and cuts straight from them meeting for their first proper date to the pair of them in a fairly graphic delicto-type situation. They get to know each other as people, too: would you follow me anywhere, they ask each other, do you trust me? What’s your biggest secret, Bibi asks Gigi. I’m a gangster and rob banks for a living, ha ha, he replies.

But, of course, he’s not really joking, which sets up rest of the plot, one way or another. The lovers grow closer, and realise that something serious has begun between them. But Bibi is no fool and is aware that there are parts of Gigi’s life to which she is not privy; her father (Eric De Staercke) can tell Gigi is serious about his daughter, and gives his blessing provided he either comes clean or stops doing whatever it is that’s forcing him to lie. One last big job looms, after which they can be together…

So, yes, that title. In the original French this film is called Le Fidele, which basically translates as The Faithful – something which gives you a pretty good pointer as to the general tenor of the movie. But, for reasons which I cannot begin to fathom, for its English release it has been given (as noted) the title Racer and the Jailbird, which is a horrible, totally inappropriate name for this kind of film, sounding as it does like some kind of wacky, high-spirited comedy-thriller caper from the 1970s.

This is not a wacky, high-spirited comedy-thriller caper in a 70s kind of style. The first half of the film is admittedly a very slick and entertaining crime drama, in what seems to be a highly-commercial style intended to appeal to international audiences (I have heard it compared to Heat). I found myself idly wondering how long it would be before the inevitably inferior American remake came out, who would be cast in the two lead roles, and just how much they would tweak the story and style (the sex scenes in this film are just a tad more explicit than you tend to find in a mainstream American film, but hey, there are French people involved). In short: thoroughly enjoyed the first half.

But then the film undergoes an abrupt and profound volta, signified by the switch of main characters from Schoenaerts to Exarchopoulos, and a huge change in tone. This is much more the kind of thing you would expect to see in Franco-Belgian art-house releases, i.e., it all becomes a bit heavy and depressing. The list of tribulations visited upon Bibi and Gigi as they struggle to sustain their love is so comprehensive and extreme it might even move Job to complain providence was laying it on a bit thick. Melodrama beckons, and the film doesn’t really manage to resist its siren song.

This is a shame, not least because the second half of the film is really Adele Exarchopoulos’ opportunity to shine after playing what’s initially something of a supporting role. She’s still very good, but she has to contend with some rather suspect material in a way that Schoenaerts simply doesn’t in the first half. But the two actors are good together, have chemistry, and you do kind of want to see them end up with some kind of happiness, even if the film never quite hits you with the massive rush of emotion you get from a film like (to choose another Schoenaerts-starring romance) Rust and Bone. In the end what you get is a curious ending, rather carefully ambiguous while still definitely quite downbeat. And you come away feeling mildly disappointed, both by the lack of closure and the way in which all the promise of the first part of the film was left to fizzle away.

I find it hard to be really negative about Le Fidele (or, if you really insist, Racer and the Jailbird), simply because the first half is just so strong, and even the second half is lifted by the two lead performances. But the fact remains that this resembles a peculiar welded-together hybrid of two films with wildly different styles and sensibilities, one of them much more accomplished and rewarding than the other. Worth seeing, I think, but keep your expectations under control.

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As regular readers may recall, my friend Olinka’s suggestion that we go to see Hereditary did not exactly result in a glowingly successful evening, but one duff movie is not enough to dissuade her and she suggested we have another go, at a film of my choosing this time. Of the options which I offered, she plumped for Ocean’s Eight, which makes a certain kind of sense – this movie is kind of being marketed as a comedy thriller, and Olinka tends to assume any film she sees is a comedy thriller until forcibly persuaded otherwise. Well, you know, I saw the three Ocean films with George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh, and this one has an interesting cast, so Gary Ross’ new movie looked like a reasonable bet.

(I bet there was some serious hardball involved in deciding who got which place on this poster, especially the spots on the right hand side. It also occurs to me that someone didn’t realise that ‘pro’ has more than one meaning in colloquial English.)

Things get underway with Debbie Ocean (Sandy Bullock) attending her parole hearing, as she has apparently been in the big house for the past five years. Having been successful in getting herself let out of the slammer, she slinks off into New York wearing the evening gown in which she was apparently arrested. This sequence basically does the job in getting the narrative underway, but also raises a couple of important flags for the audience – firstly, it is established that George Clooney’s character (Bullock’s brother) has very definitely carked it, so one shouldn’t get one’s hopes up for a cameo from the big man, and secondly, it is made clear that this is the kind of film where attitude and appearance are more important than credibility or things actually making sense.

Debbie has spent the last five years working out every detail of a reasonably complicated robbery (they occasionally refer to it as a con, but it is basically just nicking other people’s property with a pinch of get-your-own-back time). To assist her in executing her scheme, she recruits her best friend (Cate Blanchett), who is also a criminal, as well as a dippy fashion designer (Helena Bonham Carter), a housewife and part-time fence (Sarah Paulson – is there somebody at the door?), a skateboarding pickpocket (Awkwafina), a jeweller (Mindy Kaling), and a Rastafarian computer hacker (Rihanna). The plot revolves around stealing a $150 million necklace from the neck of a self-obsessed and rather vapid model (Anne Hathaway) at the gala night of the New York Met. And if Debbie can get her own back on the worthless ex-boyfriend who sent her to prison (Richard Armitage), then so much the better!

Well, the least you can say about Ocean’s Eight is that it has managed to avoid the tsunami of abuse which greeted the All-Female Ghostbusters Remake, despite the fact that it is essentially an All-Female Ocean’s Eleven remake – well, not really a remake, but a film with a very similar premise, featuring cameos from a couple of minor characters from the Soderbergh films. Is it just the case that insecure men on the internet have calmed down a bit in the last couple of years? Given all this chatter about raising funds for a less-feminist remake of last year’s stellar conflict movie, I kind of doubt it. It may just be that Ocean’s Eleven is less a part of people’s childhoods and they don’t feel as possessive about it. It’s certainly not because Ocean’s Eight is a better movie than the Ghostbusters remake, because it isn’t.

I mean, this is obviously what you would call a caper movie, and the pleasure point for this kind of thing comes from the cleverness of the plot, which will ideally have some kind of twist, and the fact that you are rooting for a bunch of appealing characters who have the odds apparently stacked against them. The problem with Ocean’s Eight is that the plot just isn’t that clever or surprising – there’s a lot of stuff about computer hacking and 3D printing (quite how they afford the printer, given Bullock has to go on a shoplifting spree at the start of the movie just to stay solvent, is not really gone into), but nothing to really make you go ‘Ooh that’s clever.’

There is an interesting range of performances on display from the ensemble. Blanchett, as you might expect, and Paulson, as you might not, emerge with the most credit and credibility, and Hathaway seems to be having fun in a somewhat OTT role. Most of the others are strictly functional, while Bonham Carter decides to deploy a somewhat dubious Irish accent (I was reminded of the apocryphal actor’s dictum: if you don’t think the script is funny, make sure you do a voice that is). Bullock is, well, watchable, because she’s Sandy Bullock, after all, but I was kind of reminded that a few years ago she largely stopped starring in anything other than slightly ditzy rom-coms, mainly because anything else is outside her comfort zone. As a supposedly super-cool criminal mastermind, she is, how can I put this, just a little bit inert. On the whole, in fact, if you asked me the composition of this movie, I would have to say it was about 20% Mission Impossible, 60% Sex in the City, and 20% hardboard.

Given that the plot doesn’t sparkle and the characters don’t engage, it is probably not a surprise that it’s quite hard to care about most of what happens in Ocean’s Eight, and – given they basically are just robbing a (relatively) innocent jewellery house – I couldn’t help feeling this is a film rather lacking in what you’d call a moral compass. Near the start, Bullock knocks off some makeup from a department store, and this is depicted in sufficient detail for young and impressionable audience members to very possibly have a go at doing the same thing. I’m not suggesting that we return to the days when Alec Guinness had to be led off in handcuffs at the end of The Lavender Hill Mob, for fear of sending the wrong message, but suggesting that a quotidian offence like shoplifting is somehow cool or clever is not quite in the same league as plotting a bullion heist.

Then again, I’m not exactly in the target demographic for this movie, and for some insights from someone who is I turned to Olinka at the end of the film. ‘What did you think of it?’ I asked. She shrugged. ‘Well, it was cool, and some parts of it were funny, and I enjoyed seeing all the beautiful women in their expensive dresses – so yes, I enjoyed it.’ There is, I should mention, a rather contrived sequence of nearly all the protagonists swishing out of a party in couture, even the ones who have previously been established as working in the kitchen or hiding in a van nearby.

I have to say I was slightly surprised to learn that some conspicuous consumerism and escapist glamour was all it took to sell this movie to my friend, especially given how poor a lot of the rest of it is (quite apart from the stuff I’ve mentioned, James ****ing Corden turns up near the end, and (as usual) brings to the movie all the charm and fun of a urinary tract infection). But then again, I suppose this isn’t very much different from many male-oriented summer genre movies, in which ropy plotting and duff characterisation are excusable as long as enough stuff blows up.

There’s a sense in which Ocean’s Eight is just another quite mechanical and formulaic summer genre movie, it’s just one which has been clumsily retooled so the characters can be played by women. They still kind of act like men, though, even though rather than knocking over a bank vault they are stealing some pretty jewellery (I am kind of reminded of the summer of 2004, when Spider-Man saved New York from a nuclear apocalypse, while in her own movie Catwoman had to avert the sale of some iffy make-up). I’m all for better representation of women in films, and more feminine perspectives given screen-space (well, you know, I’m still a thunderous misogynist, but apart from that), but I’m sure there must be more options than either decorative subservience or playing a clumsily rewritten male stereotype. Sylvester Stallone was greeted with incredulity and derision when he announced he was working on a distaff-oriented version of his superannuated-musclemen franchise, to be entitled The Expendabelles. But Ocean’s Eight is uncomfortably close to becoming something very similar to that. I suppose it’s not an outright bad movie, but I would struggle to find anything really positive to say about it.

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Sigh. Coming up with original and engaging opening paragraphs isn’t easy, you know, and I was all set to go with a rumination on how hard it was to find a cinema showing Andrew Niccol’s Anon, which would have led into a by-the-by mention of the fact that all the multiplexes are currently stuffed with films about Josh Brolin beating up superheroes. In my neck of the woods, Anon has only managed to land a very low-profile release at the Curzon, Oxford’s most stylish but least-frequented cinema. Seriously, this is the second time I’ve been there and literally had the auditorium to myself. The whole cinema is like a luxury hotel in the middle of nowhere; I can’t help feeling sorry for them, because it’s quite a beautiful cinema which so often seems empty.

Anyway, you’ll be spared all that. My initial introduction to Anon basically consisted of finding a photo of it online along with a brief description. Upon cracking open Wikipedia to do some proper post-screening pre-review research, I discovered that this is yet another example of a movie which has been grabbed by Netflix and is available to view online for rather less than the price of a ticket to the Curzon. So the message, rather than being that sometimes the universe tries to stop you from going to a movie for very sound reasons, is instead that you should always do at least a little research. As it is, this is a film about the merits of obscurity which may well find itself ending up enjoying them more than the producers would like.

 

Hey ho. In Anon, Clive Owen plays police detective Sal Frieland, who has an American name but a London accent; the movie is set in a sort of mildly dystopian brutalist future archetypal City, so you can forgive the accents being a bit all over the place there. As Frieland walks down the street to work, we see the world from his point of view, with constant real-time annotations telling him the make and model of every passing car, the history of the buildings, and the names, ages and occupations of every passing person.

Yup, we are in gimmicky sci-fi territory here, and the main conceit of the movie is that everyone has had the perception centres of their brains hooked up to Google and Wikipedia (well, effectively: the movie is brand-name free) and their memories connected to YouTube, so they have a digital record of their experiences which can be accessed by the authorities, shared with friends and family, and so on. Being able to download a suspect’s memory, or indeed that of a victim, makes being a detective really easy, and yet Owen still spends most of the movie with the haunted expression of a man once talked of as a future Bond who now finds himself north of fifty and trapped in a string of duff genre movies. So it goes, old boy, so it goes.

However, a string of murders have the cops worried, for the killer has the ability to mask their presence and avoid being recorded by the system: they also appear to have the power to delete themselves from people’s digital memory recordings. Soon enough Sal is on the case, his prime suspect being a nameless young woman (Amanda Seyfried) whose business is hacking people’s memories and editing out things they’d rather other people didn’t learn about. Soon he begins to wonder – is the interest of his superiors because of the killings she has supposedly committed, or because her special skills undermine the whole basis of the way society is currently organised?

What can I say: I have a lot of time for Clive Owen, and I’m always on the look-out for a genuinely smart science fiction film, but Anon is not the latter and doesn’t really do the former many favours, I fear. Now, given the recent kerfuffle about data harvesting by Facebook and the whole issue of privacy on t’internet, there is clearly an issue here to be explored by the right movie. However, Anon is not it. What Anon is, is a rather pedestrian mash-up of Minority Report, Strange Days, Johnny Mnemonic, and various other undistinguished sci-fi films that nobody remembers with any great fondness.

This is the kind of film which touches on what it considers to be Big Important Issues, but doesn’t actually do anything with them. There’s some stuff about memory, and some stuff about the nature of truth, and some interesting dialogue about the difference between privacy and secrecy, but it doesn’t tackle these things in anything approaching a systematic way. It doesn’t discuss ideas, it ponders and pronounces on them, rarely saying anything especially memorable. There’s quite a good sequence exploring what a potentially lethal enemy someone who can hack and manipulate your perceptions would make, but once again it’s only briefly touched on (and one has to wonder why Owen doesn’t just disconnect his brain’s wi-fi – presumably this is illegal).

I imagine we are supposed to cut the various implausibilities of Anon‘s premise some slack, given that this is supposed to be a serious film dealing with important contemporary issues in a metaphorical manner. I don’t think the film does nearly enough to earn this. Nor do its attempts at topicality excuse several rather implausible plot points, or the fact that you just stop caring about who did the murders well before the end and just want them to get on with the climax of the movie. Plus, I notice yet again that this is one of those serious SF movies for intelligent adults where nearly all the significant female characters are required to perform a gratuitous nude scene. Having said that, the balance is possibly redressed a little by a scene in which Clive Owen humps someone while still wearing his vest: calm yourselves, ladies.

Anon looks good but the story is too sluggish and over-familiar for the film to really come to life; there is the odd decent moment and Owen and Seyfried are always kind of watchable, but it never grips as a thriller and it’s not nearly as profound or original as it thinks it is. Yet another of those films that basically resembles a long episode of Black Mirror but without the wit, focus, or humanity; it also commits the cardinal sin of any movie, especially one in the SF genre, and that is that it’s quite boring. Eminently forgettable, if you can manage it.

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Oh, my stars and garters, there really is no escape at the moment – not content with having released a movie that has made $700 million at the box office in rather less than a week, it even seems like the people at Marvel are sneaking out other movies which sound kind of like they could be one of theirs. We went through a brief period of this sort of thing in 2o14, with the release of Fury and Nightcrawler, and now it seems to be happening again with the appearance of Michael Pearce’s Beast.  Just to reiterate: this is not a Marvel Studios or X-Men-related film, but something rather more modest; in fact, as a low-budget British movie from a first-time director and featuring no-one with much of a track record when it comes to the big screen, it probably qualifies as a piece of counter-programming, aimed at people who honestly couldn’t give a stuff where the Soul Stone happens to be lurking. Nevertheless, this is a superior movie and a worthy recipient of your attention.

It’s never really made explicitly clear, but Beast is set on Jersey, one of the islands in the English channel. (One notes that the French release of this movie is under the title Jersey Affair, which is arguably misleading in quite a different manner, suggesting something flippantly romantic.)  The focus of the story is Moll (Jessie Buckley), a young woman from a well-off background who has, shall we say, a somewhat troubled history. Her situation is not helped by her demanding family, especially her domineering and manipulative mother (Geraldine James). After she finds herself upstaged by her sister-in-law at her own birthday party, it all gets a bit too much for Moll and she goes off on a bit of a bender. This shows every sign of going badly wrong for her until she is saved by a gun-toting stranger (Johnny Flynn). He is Pascal, a charismatic rogue and a bit of an outsider; if they had tracks in Jersey, he would be from the wrong side of them.

There is instant chemistry between Moll and Pascal, and her family’s attempts to keep them apart are counterproductive. Soon they are a couple. However, before long there is a cloud looming over the relationship – the island has been troubled by a string of abductions and murders, and a family friend – perhaps motivated by his own feelings where Moll is concerned – lets her know that Pascal has a dark past, and is in fact a suspect in the latest killing. All this seems to do, however, is force Moll to confront the darkness in her own personal history which she has tried to forget. Now she has questions to confront, though: is Pascal the killer? And, honestly, does she really care either way?

Well, as you may have gathered, the tone and substance of Beast has rather more in common with Cracker than Bergerac; indeed, I think it is fair to say that while the film starts off looking like a fairly bleak drama, it soon develops into a highly engrossing thriller, and by its conclusion has actually started to resemble a psychological horror movie. The closing sequences in particular feature some events and imagery which people turning up to enjoy a nicely overwrought romantic drama with a picturesque backdrop could well find a bit too much to cope with. My instinctive point of reference is to compare it to a Lynn Ramsay movie, but it is not quite so impressionistic in its assembly: nevertheless, the fusion of cinematic artistry and narrative strength is highly impressive for the most part.

This is not to say that the film ever completely loses the depth and strength of characterisation established in its early scenes. I was not at all aware of Jessie Buckley prior to this movie, and was startled to learn that much of her background is in musical theatre: this is a proper movie acting performance, naturalistic but compelling. For the film to function you really have to understand why Moll, basically, makes a succession of questionable – if not outright bad – choices, and thanks to Buckley you do, and it is completely plausible. The movie takes its time to get going, building the oppressive details of Moll’s life – taken for granted and disregarded, squashed by their middle-class respectability, you can see why she feels the need to go a little crazy sometimes, and why such a bold act of rebelliousness – which is what her relationship with Pascal starts out as – holds such appeal for her.

The drama is consistently impressive throughout but the thriller element is perhaps a little more mixed in its execution. The serial killer plotline is partly notable for the way in which the protagonist of the film essentially becomes that much-demonised figure, the girlfriend or wife of a suspected murderer. We have all seen how such people get treated by the media, and Moll remains sympathetic enough throughout the movie for the scenes of her harassment by the press and treatment by the police to be slightly uncomfortable viewing.

There’s also a terrifically tense and uneasy interrogation scene in which Moll is questioned by the senior detective on the case – a well-played cameo by Olwen Fouere. Once again, you know that wise choices are probably not going to be high on the agenda here, but you can’t help hoping otherwise.

Later on, though, the psycho-horror component of the story comes more to the fore, and the way in which the thriller element is resolved would probably be unsatisfactory if this was at the core of the film. The least you can say is that the film keeps you guessing as to how things are going to play out right until the final scenes. By this point the film has, to some extent, left conventional reality behind, but it has carried the audience with it all the way, and the conclusion, if not comfortable viewing, is both memorable and satisfying.

Fine cinematography and assured editing just add to the quality of Beast, which is one of the most impressive debuts I can remember seeing. One can only hope that it finds the audience it deserves and that everyone involved is likewise rewarded. Well worth seeking out.

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