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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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I first saw James L Conway’s Hangar 18 when it showed up on prime-time UK TV in the summer of 1986 (the film itself came out in 1980). I seem to recall I was more pleased than anything else, at the time – it wasn’t that often that a new sci-fi movie turned up at a time I could actually watch it – and the movie itself seemed engaging. Looking at the movie again now, however, I am somewhat astonished that, even thirty-two years ago in the dog days of summer, the BBC actually put this sucker on in the middle of the evening. As far as the development of my critical faculties go – well, we were all young once.

 

Hangar 18 was the product of Sunn Classic Pictures, an outfit which is indulgently remembered as a producer of a series of rather credulous sensationalist drama-documentaries, with names like In Search of Historic Jesus, In Search of Noah’s Ark, Beyond and Back (a movie about near-death experiences which made it onto Roger Ebert’s most-hated films list), The Bermuda Triangle, and The Mysterious Monsters. Hangar 18 has a go at whipping up the same kind of ‘could it be true?’ vibe, but is nowhere near up to the task.

Things get underway and we find ourselves watching the inaugural mission of the space shuttle (which presumably gave the film a near-future kind of vibe on release, as the first shuttle launches lay in the future in 1980). Aboard the ship are astronauts Steve (Gary Collins) and Lew (James Hampton). I would say they are the world’s least convincing astronauts, but then almost nobody in this film is convincing as their character. The crew are in the process of launching a satellite when they find themselves joined by another space vessel of extra-terrestrial origin. Despite their enormous technological prowess, the aliens prove themselves unable to get out of the way of the satellite and there is what orbital mechanics experts would describe as a bit of a ding.

The UFO falls out of orbit, landing in Texas, and the third crewman on the shuttle is beheaded by flying debris (the unconvincing special effect of the floating corpse seems to be one of the things about this movie that everyone remembers). Steve and Lew land back on Earth safely, but find themselves being blamed for the accident, with the presence of the alien ship not mentioned. What on Earth is going on?

Well, there’s a presidential election only two weeks away, and Machiavellian White House chief-of-staff Gordon Cain (Robert Vaughn, on autopilot) has decreed that all information relating to the saucer be kept under wraps until the votes are in (his reasoning here is a bit complicated but essentially spurious). This is almost certainly the least convincing cover-up in history, or possibly the worst thought-through. Steve and Lew get hung out to dry for the death of their crewmate, but there seems to be no attempt to keep tabs on them, as they are allowed to wander about doing some fairly inept sleuthing with no real difficulty.

Meanwhile the saucer itself has been whisked off to Hangar 18, which is not the same as Area 51, of course: Hangar 18 is in Texas, for one thing, and looks like a beat-up old aircraft hangar rather than a state-of-the-art government installation, although they try to get round this by suggesting it is cunning camouflage. ‘Don’t let the outside fool you!’ cries NASA boss Harry (Darren McGavin), introducing his team to the site, which is about as close to inventiveness as the film gets.

Mind you, the alien ship looks even more cruddy than the hangar, resembling a collection of vacuum-formed plastic boxes glued together, and it has not-terribly-interesting black-with-black-highlights décor, too. (On the other hand, it does seem to be bigger on the inside than the outside, so maybe one shouldn’t be too critical.) Harry and his team set about studying the ship and the bodies of the dead aliens inside, uncovering the odd abductee, translating the alien language with almost unseemly speed, and so on.

All this time, however, Steve and Lew are closing in on the heart of the cover-up, threatening to expose the secret of Hangar 18 and potentially really mess up the presidential election result. How far will Cain go to keep the situation under control…?

It’s not very far into Hangar 18 that you realise that, for whatever reason, you have sat down to watch what is fundamentally a bad movie. It is not quite the case that it is a comprehensively bad movie, for Darren McGavin works his usual magic and manages to lift many of the scenes he appears in to the level where they are relatively engaging. The film has a decent premise and is somewhat revealing as a post-Watergate, pre-X Files conspiracy thriller. But most of it is very heavy going. Partly this is because it has clearly been made on a punitively low budget, with minimal special effects.

However, a low budget does not excuse the suckiness of much of the script, which is the kind of thing that gives melodrama a bad name. The main driver of the plot is the sheer ineptness of the government cover-up, which allows Steve and Lew to roam the country gathering evidence and following tenuous leads almost with impunity. It is not one percent convincing as a depiction of the intelligence services in action, and as a result the film is almost impossible to take seriously as a drama.

The stuff with Harry and the others investigating the saucer is somewhat more interesting, though there is little original to be found here, either: it turns out the aliens have been abducting people, and also possibly armadillos (it’s not entirely clear); the ancient astronaut ideas of Swiss hotel manager and convicted fraudster Erich von Däniken are also dusted off and wheeled out. It barely qualifies as proper science fiction, to be honest, and I can imagine many modern commentators having issues with the fact that this is a movie almost wholly populated by middle-aged white dudes.

In fact, I have to say that possibly the most interesting thing about Hangar 18 is the ending, or perhaps I should say endings, for there are two: the original theatrical one, and another one cobbled together for the film’s TV broadcasts (some of which took place under the spoiler-tastic title Invasion Force). Now, it seems to be the case that it’s the second ending which is in general circulation at the moment. The difference between the two, so far as I’ve been able to find out, is as follows. Both versions conclude with Cain deciding to make the problem of Hangar 18 go away by blowing it up in a faked plane crash (listen to the 9/11 conspiracy nuts squeal). Meanwhile, Harry and the others have just discovered that the alien ship is an advance scout for an imminent invasion. But before they can raise the alarm generally, the hangar is blown up and Cain’s machinations leave humanity unprepared! (In the theatrical version anyway.) In the TV version, the ending is somewhat recut to suggest the alien ship survived intact, along with everyone who was inside it. It’s a bit of a cop-out, to be honest, concluding a rather bland movie in a very bland way. So I suppose it has consistency to commend it, but at least the darker original end would have been more memorable. Even so, I’m not even sure Hangar 18 really has any particular claim to be remembered.

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Looking ahead to the biggest films of the summer, it’s a fair bet that the latest iteration of Jurassic Park (which appears to focus on people fleeing from dinosaurs and a volcano) will be somewhere near the top of the list. On board for this latest excursion into peril-based running is one of the original cast, Jeff Goldblum, reprising his role as the wacky mathematician. I wonder if there is any correlation between who is fronting a Jurassic Park film and the actual quality of the movie? I always felt that of the original three, the ones with Sam Neill were rather better than the one headed up by Jeff Goldblum (although I suspect Goldblum will be in the heritage cameo slot this year, with Chris Pratt once again doing most of the heavy lifting, heroically speaking).

I mean, I like Jeff Goldblum a lot, and I know that if he’s in a movie then I’m going to enjoy his bits if nothing else. The fact that he seems to be enjoying a bit of a profile spike at the moment (Isle of Dogs, Ragnarok, and the new Jurassic Park) is great. As a movie veteran, he has developed into a great character performer; but looking back at his career one can’t help wondering if he was ever quite cut out to be a leading man in the conventional sense.

Recently making an appearance on the local version of a world-conquering streaming site was John Landis’ 1985 film Into the Night, a black comedy which was really Jeff Goldblum’s first leading role. Exactly what genre (or subgenre) this film belongs to is a curious matter we will return to shortly; suffice to say that it seems to me to be a quintessentially 80s movie.

Goldblum plays Ed Okin, a disaffected executive at an aerospace engineering company in Los Angeles. He is suffering from severe insomnia, which causes his work to suffer, and this in turn results in him discovering his wife is having an affair. Shocked and uncertain, he finds himself driving out to the airport around midnight, perhaps contemplating flying off to parts unknown. He arrives there just in time to meet Diana (Michelle Pfeiffer), a young woman-on-the-make who’s just returned from Europe. The guy meeting Diana is killed by a quartet of hoodlums of Middle Eastern origin, and they seem intent on taking a similar interest in her. Needless to say she hurls herself into Ed’s car and begs that he drive her out of there.

Ed, naturally, has no idea what’s going on, and just wants to conclude their association and go home (he seems to have been startled out of his ennui),  but – inevitably – events conspire to keep them together. (Plus, every time she says ‘Please stay with me for a little while longer’, he seems just a little too willing to agree.) It turns out that Diana has got herself mixed up in a dodgy deal involving the heritage of the Shah of Iran and some jewel smuggling, and now various heavies of Iranian, French, and British origin are on her tail. Can either of them get through the night in one piece?

Careers go up, careers go down; Goldblum had been appearing in films for over ten years by 1985, and was just on the verge of breaking through to genuine stardom (he appeared in The Fly the following year). Pfeiffer wasn’t quite so well established, being mainly known for Grease 2 and Scarface at the time, but was just beginning the run of movies that would lead to her becoming one of the most successful actresses of the late 80s and 90s. John Landis, on the other hand, had already directed The Blues Brothers, Animal House, An American Werewolf in London, and Trading Places, but from the mid-80s on he would struggle to consistently find creative or commercial success. You could argue that Into the Night marks the onset of this: Landis’ previous movie, Trading Places, made $90 million; Into the Night made less than eight.

There were quite a few films with a similar theme doing the rounds in the middle 80s. I’ve heard this described as the ‘yuppie nightmare’ or ‘yuppie in peril’ subgenre, but the thing is that this seems mainly used to describe films like Fatal Attraction, Single White Female, and Bad Influence, straight thrillers concerning the ‘[insert noun] from hell’ – the one night stand from hell, the room-mate from hell, or whatever. I think that Into the Night represents something a bit odder and more obscure, which I would refer to as ‘yuppie-led-astray’ movies (a different subgenre – or perhaps subsubgenre?). Into the Night came out in early 1985, Scorsese’s After Hours appeared later the same year, and Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild was released in 1986: all of them concern outwardly successful but quietly unhappy men who find themselves involved in a series of misadventures after encountering a free-spirited young woman.

As Into the Night was the first of these films off the blocks, it can hardly be that people were already sick of the idea when it came out, so its relative lack of success must be due to something else. One of the elements of the film singled out for criticism by directors at the time is the fact that it is stuffed with cameos by Landis’ friends and acquaintances from the film-making world. If you really know your stuff you can spot people like Jack Arnold, Don Siegel, Jim Henson, Rick Baker, Roger Vadim, Paul Mazursky, Jonathan Demme, Lawrence Kasdan, Jonathan Lynn, Amy Heckerling and David Cronenberg, all making small appearances. I’m not sure this is necessarily a huge problem, as it’s only distracting if you have a genuinely encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema – I’m a big fan of Jack Arnold’s films, for example, but I had no idea what he looked like until I found out he’d been in this film.

More of a problem is the sense that the elements of the yuppie-led-astray film are here in embryonic form but haven’t quite fully developed yet. The best of these films have a strong sense of time about them: After Hours takes place in the course of a single night, Something Wild over a single weekend. You would expect Into the Night to follow the same pattern, with the main action of the film all happening in the course of a night and the climax, perhaps, coming at dawn. This is not the case – about two thirds of the way through, a new day dawns, and there’s about ten minutes of plot before the protagonists decide to nap through until the following evening, which is when the rest of it takes place (the conclusion is not great, and the film ambles to a close rather than actually having a strong climax). Maybe they just ran out of money for night shooting; certainly the production values of some parts of this film resemble those of an episode of The A Team or The Rockford Files rather than a genuine movie.

I think it may just be that John Landis wasn’t quite a good enough director to pull off this kind of movie, as they require a level of wit and subtlety that you don’t necessarily associate with this director, except perhaps in American Werewolf. There are some rather embarrassing slapstick hoodlums in this movie, one of whom is played by Landis himself; in one particularly tonally-off moment a gag where they struggle to get through a door, which is not funny, is followed by them pursuing and then murdering a fleeing woman, which would never be funny. There is a definite problem with pervasive misogyny in this movie, I would say: most of the women in it are, if not actually prostitutes or mistresses, then defined by their attractiveness. There’s also a fair degree of gratuitous nudity in it, all female of course.

Even Michelle Pfeiffer is required to get every stitch of kit off for a couple of brief sequences, but she manages to rise above this, not to mention a generally underwritten part, and delivers a convincing and effective performance as a recognisably human character. You can see why she became such a big star. Can the same be said for Jeff Goldblum? Well – here’s the thing about the protagonists of yuppie-led-astray films; they are by nature hapless everymen, audience identification figures plunged into peculiar and unexpected worlds. Goldblum is a fine performer, but he is almost always the quirky one, the slightly off-kilter character. In this film he has to rein all of that in and be the most normal thing in the movie, basically spending nearly two hours reacting to the more eccentric characters around him (and some of them are highly eccentric: David Bowie cameos as an extremely polite moustachioed English hitman). And you can’t help feeling, what a waste of potential. This isn’t to say Goldblum is bad in this film, but you’re just aware he can be much better when he isn’t so badly miscast.

Into the Night is basically one of those odd movies which has a certain kind of curiosity value and passes the time in a not too objectionable manner. The thing is that everyone in it is much better in other, more famous movies; it’s not the director’s best work, either; and this whole style of story is handled much, much better in other movies (my recommendation would be Something Wild, which is darker, stranger, sexier, and more emotionally engaging). Just about worth watching though, particularly if you like Goldblum and Pfeiffer.

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It would appear that the Steven Soderbergh collective, having resumed their film-making activities, are back to their usual remarkable level of productivity: it’s not much more than six months since the last Soderbergh movie, Logan Lucky, and yet here comes their new one, Unsane.

The thing that distinguishes Soderbergh, other than a certain breezy stylishness, is his sheer versatility as a film-maker: all-star disaster movie, revenge thriller, martial-arts action film, caper comedy, Soderbergh has had a crack at them all and for the most part been highly successful. The thing about Unsane is that it seems to be playing off this difficulty in pinning Soderbergh down, for at first it’s not at all clear exactly what kind of movie this is going to be.

Claire Foy, probably best known for her role in The Crown (and the size of the pay packet involved), plays Sawyer Valentini, an ambitious young financial analyst with a slightly traumatic personal history. (The film does address the fact that she has a fairly unlikely name.) She has issues, to put it mildly, and they are impacting on her life – so, in an attempt to sort herself out a bit, she visits a private psychiatric facility in an attempt to get herself some counselling.

Although the facility is in Pennsylvania, it might as well be called the Hotel California, for while checking out of the place is (on paper at least) quite straightforward, actually leaving it is another matter entirely. To her understandable astonishment, Sawyer finds herself incarcerated in a rubber hospital, her sanity questioned, and declared to be a risk to herself and others. Naturally, this is not what you need when your mental state is already somewhat fragile, and Sawyer finds herself having hallucinations of a man who used to stalk her (Joshua Leonard, still probably best known for The Blair Witch Project). But are they really hallucinations…?

The opening section of Unsane is diligently ambiguous about exactly what is going on, and just what kind of film this is going to be. It could be that it’s going to be a fairly serious and thoughtful drama about what it means to be mentally well, or mentally ill – ‘I get a bit blue sometimes! Who doesn’t?’ cries Sawyer, as the orderlies are bundling her down a corridor. How do you make that call? Who sets the standard?

Or, it could be a fairly bleak comedy-drama about the state of the American mental health system, with the startling and plausibly-presented revelation that some private mental facilities are basically insurance scams, actively seeking a pretext to lock up essentially healthy people so they can claim the cost of their care from their medical insurance providers. It is suggested that this is what may have happened to Sawyer.

Or, it could be that Sawyer’s unfolding nightmare is essentially the stuff of a psychological horror movie. Has her stalker really managed to track her down and infiltrate the hospital? Who can she trust? Can she possibly get anyone to believe her story?

Well, as regular readers (dearie me!) will be aware, we have usually had the film’s poster by this point, but in the case of Unsane it will be appearing shortly. This is because I am going to break with standard blog procedure and talk about the movie in a way which may give away important facts about it. In short, after the poster image I am going to Spoil This Movie. Caveat lector.

(For anyone wanting the Not-Spoiled verdict on Unsane: usual skilful work by Soderbergh, great performance by Foy, but this is one of those movies which gets steadily less impressive as it goes on.)

All right. Last chance to leave… There are many good things about Unsane, chief amongst them Foy’s performance: she’s not afraid to appear damaged or somewhat unsympathetic, and there are moments where you wonder if the shrinks might actually have a point and she does deserve special treatment. There is also Soderbergh’s casual mastery of storytelling. This wasn’t at all apparent while we were watching it, but apparently Unsane was entirely filmed on Soderbergh’s smartphone (needless to say he did all the cinematography and editing himself, too), which if you ask me is just showing off. Minor pleasures include an all-killer no-filler cameo from Matt Damon and some good supporting performances from the likes of Amy Irving as Sawyer’s mum and Juno Temple as another inmate.

But, and oh dear, this is a film which starts off looking like a smart and thoughtful drama-maybe-thriller, and concludes with some proper old fashioned fem-jeop, as the leading lady flees through a darkened forest chased by a psychopath with a hammer (in true slasher movie style, she is running, he is walking, and yet she never seems to get any further away from him). In short, we end up in gonzo B-movie territory with a swiftly unravelling plot and a succession of improbable developments.

As the credits rolled, my companion and I were sitting there actually trying to figure out what had actually happened. ‘So… if the dead body in the trunk of the car was actually Character X,’ I said, feeling like a dullard, ‘then who was that in the shallow grave in the park?’ (I am always careful to avoid using actual character names when out and about.) A passing total stranger paused to explain the plot to us. ‘That was Character Q,’ he said kindly (clearly a man after my own heart). Well, I suppose the film may have made this clear, but I suspect you would have to be really on the ball to have picked it up.

In any case, this general sense of narrative confusion isn’t even the film’s biggest problem. This is as follows: we are required to accept, as the premise of the film, that a young woman will accidentally have herself committed to the very same mental institution which her insane stalker has already infiltrated as an orderly under a false identity. There is, so far as I could tell, no attempt to justify this monumentally improbable turn of events. My companion suggested how this could have happened, but to say I am not convinced is a massive understatement.

Still, you really do have to accept this, as it is the premise for the whole second half of the movie: it’s a bit like Jaws: The Revenge in that respect. Provided you go with it, the concluding parts of the film have a certain manic energy to them, and the performances remain impressive, but I was constantly aware of how much slack I was having to cut the film just to take it seriously.

Seriously, you either go with the premise, in which case this is a reasonably fun piece of high-class psycho-horror, or you don’t, whereupon it simply becomes an absurdly implausible piece of tosh unworthy of the talent involved. I suppose in the end I kind of enjoyed Unsane, because it is well-acted and the ambiguity of the opening section at least is impressively achieved. But that doesn’t change the fact that this is really a wildly silly film which, to my mind at least, makes hugely unreasonable demands on the audience’s ability to suspend their disbelief.

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Heaven knows there are enough reasons to be alarmed by the state of the modern world, but this can manifest in some unexpected ways. ‘This is the death of cinema! We’re talking about a major director, here! Black Panther showing on three screens, and Peter Rabbit! It’s just commercial slop everywhere! Stock, Aitken and Waterman! I don’t believe it!’ cried a friend of mine, the cause of this outrage being the news that Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here was only showing at four Odeons nationwide and that we would have to go slightly further afield to see it than usual. (I hesitate to share more details of his Howard Beale-esque outburst, partly because I am not unsympathetic to the general gist of it, but mainly because he sits next to me at work and is wont to complain if he feels he’s been misrepresented on the blog.)

I have to say that for a film which at least one major cinema chain seems reluctant to touch, You Were Never Really Here attracted a decent crowd to the late-on-a-Friday-afternoon showing that we eventually strolled up to. I must admit to being slightly curious as to whether people had been drawn in because of the ostensible thriller trappings of the film, or Ramsay’s own reputation. She is not, one has to say, the most prolific of film-makers, this being only her fourth full-length movie in nearly twenty years, but she regularly gets acclaimed as one of the best film-makers working in the world today: I had almost forgotten that I saw her second film, Morvern Callar, fifteen years ago, and was rather impressed by it.

The new film stars Joaquin Phoenix as Joe, a private security operative – basically, a mercenary – with a somewhat chequered past. After concluding his current mission, Joe heads home, where he keeps an extremely low profile as he cares for his elderly mother. Soon enough, however, a new assignment comes his way: a senator’s teenage daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) has fallen into the hands of the darkest elements of the underworld, and he is commissioned to retrieve her, ideally with the maximum incidental brutality (Joe is happy to oblige with this).

Initially Joe’s planning and preparation pay off, but very soon the job goes bad on him, and he finds that not only he but those around him are in deadly peril. And beyond even this, he may now be the only one with a chance of saving the girl.

Everyone’s obvious touchstone when it comes to comparing You Were Never Really Here with other things is Taxi Driver, and you can certainly understand why – this is a dark, brutal film, driven along by an exemplary central performance. However, as you may perhaps have been able to tell from the synopsis, there’s also a sense in which – on paper at least – the actual plot of the movie sounds like the stuff of a much more routine thriller – you can imagine Luc Besson doing almost exactly the same story, probably starring Liam Neeson. For all that this is essentially an art-house movie – that’s the kind of release it seems to have received, anyway – the structure of the story is also very conventional; you can imagine all the various screenwriting gurus and writers of craft books like How to Plot Your Movie watching it and nodding approvingly, for only in its closing stages does it really depart from narrative orthodoxy.

However, if we should take only one thing away from You Were Never Really Here, it is that it’s not just about the ingredients, but the delivery – fond as I am of a good solid no-frills thriller, no-one would ever mistake Ramsay’s film for one of those. A few years ago I read a piece discussing the whole subgenre of vigilante movies, suggesting that they basically come in two flavours: one where the use of violence fixes the world, and one where the use of violence is just representative of how irretrievably broken the world is. This is only marginally a vigilante movie, but as such it definitely falls into the latter category – there is nothing thrilling or cathartic about the film’s occasional eruptions of grisly mayhem, and Ramsay does not present them in a remotely glamorous way. As Joe lumbers into action, gripping his weapon of choice (the domestic hammer, usually applied to the skull of anyone who gets in his way), your first instinct is simply to shrink down in your seat and cover your eyes, because you know that the film is not going to shy away from the awful consequences of violence. When Joe is forced to fight for his life against a gunman sent to kill him, around the midpoint of the film, this is not some set-piece demonstration of martial arts, but a blurred and confusing chaos.

It may be off-putting to some, but the film is all obviously the work of the same clear vision – aside from a couple of scenes early on, there is very little in the way of genuine exposition, just a succession of signs and implications as to what is actually happening, and what it all means. This is especially true when it comes to Joe’s own past. The film’s Wikipedia page informs the reader very breezily of who he is and where he comes from (it also fills in a few plot details which are less than clear on-screen) – it may be that the novella by Jonathan Ames, on which the film is based, is more on-the-nose about these things – but in the actual movie, this is all presented as a series of disjointed, almost nightmarish flashbacks, some of them almost subliminal.

Despite all this, you are never really in doubt about what is happening, partly due to Ramsay’s skill, but also thanks to an intensely powerful performance from Joaquin Phoenix as a man who is, not to put too fine a point on it, deeply messed up. Joe is more-or-less sympathetic for much of the movie, but no-one in their right mind would want to be him – and this is made clear by Phoenix’s dead-eyed stare, his aura of defeat, his almost total withdrawal from the normal world of human interaction. Phoenix’s main co-star in this movie is, in an odd way, the actual soundtrack of the film (a brilliant contribution by Jonny Greenwood), and it’s almost as if we are hearing the contents of his head – driving, percussive rock when he is going into action, a more discordant, atonal soundscape when he is at the mercy of his demons.

This is not an easy film to watch, coming from a very dark place and concluding on, at best, a finely-judged moment of ambiguity. I would honestly struggle to call it entertainment, but it is at the very least a superbly crafted piece of art, that has something to say which it communicates with tremendous skill.

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Jennifer Lawrence was as prominent as ever at the Oscars the other night, as befits a star of her calibre and popularity (I can’t remember when they started calling her ‘America’s Sweetheart’, and even if this was originally meant semi-ironically, that doesn’t seem to be the case any more). She wasn’t actually up for a gong this year, and one is tempted to suggest this is mainly because David O Russell didn’t have a film out this year (her last three Academy nods have all come from appearances in Russell movies).

Instead, she was plugging her new movie Red Sparrow, directed by Francis Lawrence (no relation, I find myself obliged to say), which mainly appeared in involve showing up on a cold London rooftop in a slinky and rather revealing black dress while her male co-stars were decked out in nice warm coats and scarves. Needless to say, t’internet had things to say about this double standard, and most of it was not complimentary. Surprisingly enough, reaction to Red Sparrow itself has been rather more mixed – personally, while I find Jennifer Lawrence’s decision to appear in that dress to be fairly unremarkable, I find her decision to appear in Red Sparrow to be borderline baffling.

The film is mostly set in present-day Russia and eastern Europe, not that this is immediately apparent. Lawrence plays Dominika, a nice young ballerina whose career comes to an end after a gruesome work-related injury nearly results in one of her legs coming off. Things look bleak for her and her poorly mum, until her sinister uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts), a member of the security services, appears with an offer: if she exploits her natural charms to get close to a person of interest, he will see she and her mum are looked after.

Well, naturally things do not go quite according to plan (or do they…?) and Dominika is presented with a choice of options: be shot in the head and dumped in the river as a witness to a secret operation, or go to a special training school and become a ‘sparrow’, a highly-trained specialist spy-stroke-prostitute (and you can probably guess what gets stroked the most). After due consideration of the alternatives, Dominika agrees to enrol in what even she describes as ‘whore school’.

Intercut with all this is the marginally more conventional tale of rugged CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) – do not let the fact his name means ‘ours’ in Russian, as any fule who have seen From Russia With Love kno, lead you to expect a twist – who is running a top-level mole inside Russian security. He knows who the mole is. The Russians know he knows who the mole is. He knows the Russians know he knows who the mole is. Rather than let this go on indefinitely, sinister uncle Ivan decides to send in Dominika to make contact (hem-hem) with Nash and persuade him to reveal who the traitor is. But will she stay loyal to the motherland? Could she in fact be playing a game of her own?

I suppose the first thing one has to say about Red Sparrow is to question the extent to which it is in good taste to make blockbuster entertainment about Russian espionage activities at the moment. Whether you think that Russian involvement in western politics and society is a serious problem (as I write this the UK news is full of what appears to be an attempted assassination on a former Russian national which took place on British soil, to say nothing of the protracted shenanigans in which President Man-Baby finds himself embroiled), or that the Russian government is an essentially harmless paper tiger, this kind of depiction is unlikely to move the world closer to unity and peace. ‘Your body belongs to the state!’ snaps the commandant of sparrow school, played with inimitable menace by Charlotte Rampling, who later goes on to announce ‘It is time for Russia to take its place at the head of other nations’. Russia is shown, in short, as being an almost cartoonishly awful and sinister place.

However, and somewhat startlingly, this doesn’t even begin to deal with all the most problematic elements of Red Sparrow. All right, films are in production for a long time – years, in the case of one like this – and I’m sure no-one involved had any more inkling that the Post-Weinstein Moment was on its way than the rest of us. But it remains the case that this film feels almost uncannily, supernaturally misjudged in its sexual politics, at the moment. We’re no more than twenty-five minutes in before the first time Jennifer Lawrence is forced to undress, and this is followed by a sequence which plays almost like a reconstruction of certain of the allegations that have been doing the rounds, as a rich and powerful man engages in a violent sexual assault on a vulnerable young woman in a hotel bedroom.

This isn’t the only recent film to add a little dash of this sort of thing – I have occasionally complained about Hollywood’s blase attitude to misogynistic violence in mainstream thrillers in the past – but what makes Red Sparrow different is that, ever since the first trailer, its advertising and marketing has focused solely on the fact that this is a Jennifer Lawrence vehicle and she is a very comely young woman. The whole subtext of the trailers could really be summed up as ‘Jennifer Lawrence as a sexy spy – cor! I mean – COORRRR!!!’ And the film is really no different – it really does feel like the sine qua non of the film is to show Lawrence in various alluring states of undress, and engaging in various provocative activities. It’s overwhelmingly prurient and actually rather repugnant: I emerged from the theatre feeling like I wanted to be hosed down with sheep dip, the film is that icky.

So, as I say, you really have to wonder what possessed as sharp a customer as Lawrence to make a film where she is depicted almost entirely as a sexually-objectified victim, where her physicality seems to have been at least as important as her acting ability. With regard to rooftopdressgate, Lawrence’s response was that she liked the dress, thought she looked good in it, and it’s nobody else’s damn business what she chooses to wear. Which I suppose is good strong feminist stuff, from a certain angle at least. And I expect one could make a similar defence of her appearance in the movie – it’s her career, after all, and if she wants to receive a massive cheque for doing gratuitous nude scenes in tacky sex-thrillers then that’s nobody’s business but hers. She owes no responsibility to anyone else.

Well, therein hangs the question, of course: Lawrence is free to do whatever she wants, and is unlikely to be casually exploited, no matter what happens. Other young women who are not influential celebrities with an estimated net worth of £84 million may find themselves in a different situation, and the issue is the extent to which Lawrence is personally responsible for the state of the world.  It’s a big one, of course, and probably too big to be properly discussed here, but I will just say this: Lawrence’s talent and power means she is never going to be short of films to appear in, so I don’t see why she felt it necessary to appear in this particular one, given it is so tawdry and unpleasant.

The thing is that once you get past the objectionable sexual politics of Red Sparrow, all you are actually left with is a turgid and overlong spy thriller. There are plenty of twisty-turny bits along the way, but it all feels curiously inert and is never especially engaging. For most of the film, the agendas and goals of the different characters remain enigmatic and shrouded in mystery: the problem is that this doesn’t engage or intrigue the viewer very much, you just don’t care, for some reason. This is despite a couple of pretty decent performances from Jeremy Irons (who recently, and with no discernible sense of irony, announced in a TV interview that actors shouldn’t pocket a big cheque if it means appearing in rubbish) and Schoenaerts.

Of course, even when it’s not being leery and exploitative, the film still often finds time to be graphically, sadistically violent – and there are even bits where it manages to be leery and sadistic at the same time: oh, look, here’s Lawrence having her clothes cut off preparatory to torture! Here she is actually being tortured! Here’s someone else being flayed alive!

Normally I would say all the violence was over-the-top, but in Red Sparrow‘s case it suits the tone of the rest of the movie all too well; that’s really the problem. And, as I’ve said (possibly at too great a length: what can I say, I’m a Guardian reader), this film does have more serious issues going on. It is competently made, up to a point – this is almost a problem in itself, as it gives the film a veneer of respectability it really doesn’t deserve – but beneath that surface is something comprehensively misogynistic and deeply objectionable.

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