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Posts Tagged ‘thriller’

Baltasar Kormakur’s new movie has a bit of a problem in the title stakes: all the obvious and good ones have gone. This is a film about Idris Elba being chased by a lion for the best part of an hour, but he couldn’t call it Lion, as that was the name of a well-received Dev Patel vehicle from a few years ago. Likewise, calling it Pride would run the risk of getting mixed up with a movie about LGBT activism during the 1980s miner’s strike from even further back. Help! It’s a Lion! would probably have been a bit too on-the-nose even for a modern studio picture. In the end they’ve gone with Beast, which is hardly a perfect solution because – as any fule kno – there was a rather superior psycho-thriller of that name in 2018. First world problems, eh?

The film itself is, obviously, concerned with nothing of the sort, and opens with some people whom we eventually learn to be poachers shooting some lions deep in the South African bush. However, they miss the male of the pride, which – presumably due to the trauma of the experience – transforms into a sort of magical monster lion, capable of killing people in complete silence, shrugging off tranquiliser darts, teleportation, surviving being inside exploding vehicles, and so on.

None of this is known to Idris Elba, playing a doctor who’s flying into the country with his two teenage daughters (Iyana Halley and Leah Sava Jeffries) for a much-needed holiday: his estranged wife, the girls’ mother, has recently passed away and everyone feels it is important that the family spends time together (no-one actually uses the word ‘bond’, presumably as Idris Elba always gets very agitated whenever he hears it, even in passing). They are staying with an old family friend who is a game warden: as this is an Afrikaans character, he is of course played by Sharlto Copley, who has owned the Hollywood concession on playing white South African supporting roles for a good many years now.

Off they go into the bush for some driving around and looking at animals, and it is all fairly agreeable until they come across a village where every single person has been killed by the magical monster lion. The lion even has a go at eating Sharlto Copley, but as this would mean Idris Elba would essentially have to be in every scene for the rest of the movie, it just nibbles on him a bit. Elba and the kids end up stuck in a landrover looking worried. This takes up a surprisingly long section of the movie. Eventually, of course, it falls to Elba to put aside his metropolitan skittishness and man up, for the sake of his children if nothing else. How is he feeling emotionally as the struggle gets underway? The magical monster lion could probably tell you the answer: raw!

There’s a lot of meat on the menu in Beast, but really this movie does feel like low-hanging fruit somehow: it’s a film about Idris Elba being chased by a lion. At heart it is as basic and straightforward as that. It takes exactly the shape and form you would expect from a movie about Idris Elba being chased by a lion. There is an initial opening section in which there is no lion, in which there is some industrious laying-in of heavy-duty backstory and relationships. You know from the start that the classic, archetypal story of Idris Elba being chased by a lion is going to (in theory) be given some emotional heft and colour by the subplot about this damaged family coming together in adversity, as there is always an upside to this kind of experience, apparently. It’s a bit like in the Spielberg version of War of the Worlds where thousands are killed and civilisation nearly collapses, but it’s all okay because this teaches Tom Cruise how to be a better dad. In the same way all those people who get mauled to death by the magical monster lion must end up resting easy as they reflect on how their agonising demises at least served to help Idris Elba and his kids remember that they are really quite fond of one another.

It is, I suppose, quite functional; the scenery is nice, there are some decent jump-scares, there is nothing to nitpick in the special effects department, and Copley is always a watchable presence on screen. Elba isn’t really done any favours, by the script, however – I know this is supposed to be the story of how Elba finds the strength and will and ingenuity to fight for his family, but he’s so completely useless at the start of the film it’s genuinely quite irritating (it’s like a suspense thriller where the main character is Daddy Pig – Peppa’s old man). I found myself actually wanting him to get eaten by the lion; it almost feels like he deserves it.

Then again, you have to admire Idris Elba, if only for his sheer staying power: the man keeps plugging away, even if the average person would be hard-pressed to name a hit film where he is genuinely the leading man as opposed to the head of an ensemble or a supporting player. (His people would no doubt point out Elba’s sheer bankability, given his films have made nearly four billion dollars in total, but most of that would probably come from cameos in half a dozen Marvel movies – an experience he apparently hated.) As this film goes on he becomes less irritating and his innate charisma is allowed to manifest; in the end, it’s not actually a bad performance, even if the climax, when it finally arrives, put me very much in mind of part of the Monty Python Scott of the Sahara sketch, which was rather disastrous for it as a piece of drama.

It’s… okay. It’s the kind of film you’ll probably end up watching on TV on a Saturday night, because you fancy watching a thriller about a man-eating lion and your partner likes Idris Elba (or vice versa). It’s about Idris Elba being chased by a lion. It delivers everything that description promises, but very little else of substance or genuine interest. If you want to watch Idris Elba being chased by a lion for the best part of an hour and half then this is the movie for you. Otherwise, not so much.

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Cultural hegemony operating in the way that it does, the American remake of a successful non-English movie is a well-established phenomenon – there’s a very long list, including films as diverse as True Lies, Vanilla Sky, and The Magnificent Seven. Foreign-language takes on Hollywood are a little thinner on the ground, but they are still what is technically known as ‘a thing’, especially if you include somewhat unofficial versions of popular hits – we’ve already talked about Turkish Superman, for instance. (Just as an example of something completely different and rather curious, at some point this year we will hopefully get to see the French-language remake of the Japanese meta-comedy One Cut of the Dead.)

Mohammed Hussain’s 1973 film Khoon Khoon doesn’t seem to be one of those knock-offs – for a long time it was available to view on a major streamer, rather than in the depths of YouTube, and it does has a vague patina of quality about it: signs of a respectable budget and established actors. Should you be wondering, Khoon Khoon – so far as I’ve been able to work out – means Bloody Murder in Hindi. (Or possibly Bloody Blood. Or indeed Murder Murder. Bloody Murder isn’t exactly a brilliant title, but it’s better than the other two.)

A psychopathic killer is on the loose in a major city, picking off targets at random from the rooftops, and taunting the police commissioner with his demands for money – so it falls to one tough police detective to lead the hunt for the killer, and yes, you’re right, this is the plot of the classic 1970 Don Siegel movie Dirty Harry, one of the films which established Clint Eastwood as a major star. Start talking about ‘the Bollywood version of Dirty Harry‘ and people are likely to start trying to have you sectioned, but this film exists and it’s a lot better than you might expect.

The weird thing is the extent to which this seems to be a genuine fusion of American genre moviemaking and what most westerners would recognise as the classic Bollywood sensibility. I should point out that this isn’t just a film which is vaguely inspired by or derived from Dirty Harry: it really is a genuine remake, including most of the same plot beats, and with some scenes – even individual shots and camera moves – replicated in detail. The resemblance is compounded by the fact that Khoon Khoon, in a move more commonly associated with unlicensed knock-offs like Turkish Superman, reuses significant elements of the soundtrack from its progenitor. (I should also mention the appearance of pieces of music from Bullitt, at least two Bond films – Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice, if my ears don’t fail me – and the original Planet of the Apes.)

The most obvious sign of the Bollywoodisation of Dirty Harry is also musical – or, to put it another way, Khoon Khoon itself is a musical. Initially the movie is relatively restrained about this element – the Clint-analogue, Anand (Mahendra Sandhu), and his comedy sidekick Pancham (Jagdeep), are working the case, and Anand pauses to sigh about the strain this is placing on his marriage and other family relationships (needless to say, Anand is not an unorthodox loner like Harry Callaghan, but a relatable family man). Before you know it we are into a flashback/dream sequence between him and his wife, complete with verses and choruses. ‘A cold rain is falling,’ trills Mrs Anand, alluringly. (The rain machine, always a sign of something raunchy on the cards, is going at nearly full blast.) ‘The weather is very pleasant. You are very pleasant too,’ croons Anand in response. Whether it’s a sultry interlude or a weather forecast with music is not always clear, but it’s definitely not the sort of thing you find in a Don Siegel movie.

Having thus taken the plunge, the movie goes off at a bit of a tangent for the next musical number, which is delivered by one of the Scorpio-analogue’s targets, a wise old holy man. He delivers a rather nice song – diegetically, this time – about the inescapable truth of mortality and the iron hand of fate, even as Raghav, the killer, is lining up his rifle to kill him. Needless to say, the musical wisdom leads Raghav to question his life choices and not shoot the holy man – presumably it was unacceptable to show a senior cleric being gunned down, although Khoon Khoon has no problems with small children and innocent young women being offed, sometimes on-camera.

Of course, as any fule kno, it’s not as if Dirty Harry itself is entirely bereft of musical accompaniment – there is of course the scene in which a busful of school children sing ‘Row, row, row your boat’ while being held hostage by Andy Robinson. Clearly recognising this as a fundamental element of the film, the makers of Khoon Khoon double down – Raghav (Danny Denzongpa) and the hostage children get their own production number (still on the bus), singing about what good friends they’re all going to become – at least until the children sing some rather rude lyrics about him and he starts slapping them about mid-song. I wonder if I am managing to communicate to you just what an extremely strange experience watching Khoon Khoon is?

Songs aside, Khoon Khoon is a less obviously challenging movie than its forebear – it certainly works hard to stay accessible, including lengthy scenes of slapstick comedy centred around Anand’s egg-loving sidekick Pancham, and some borderline soap-opera storylines concerning Anand’s slightly strained relations with his in-laws. Anand’s an establishment figure in a way Callaghan isn’t – not so much a man on the edge as one in the very middle of the road.

And, of course, something completely absent from Khoon Khoon is the whole subtext to Dirty Harry, which for me is a film about conservative America recoiling in alarm and disgust from the counter-culture of the late 1960s. The reference points just aren’t there, of course – Raghav isn’t the ambiguous character that Scorpio is, he’s just a greedy nutter who was thrown out by his parents as a child after trying to knife his baby sibling (Scorpio has no background, almost like Christopher Nolan’s version of the Joker; Raghav gets his own flashback to establish his character). The vaguely fascist politics and ambiguous ending of the Siegel film are likewise notably absent – Anand may disobey orders and trick Raghav into attacking him, so he can gun him down like a dog, but the moment where Clint Eastwood throws away his badge is gone: the police commissioner turns up and makes a point of telling Anand what a good job he’s done, and that he’s probably going to be promoted.

I have no idea if Khoon Khoon would seem as strange to an Indian audience as it does to me: but I suspect not, because they’ve clearly worked very hard at the Bollywoodisation of it. I really like Dirty Harry – but the weird thing is that I rather enjoyed Khoon Khoon too, partly because it is so similar, but also because it is so very, very different. To me at least, it seemed like a genuine oddity, a somewhat primitive and certainly dated film, but also one with real energy and colour to it. It’s very entertaining, in all sorts of ways, and most of them are intentional.

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Given the sheer volume of films celebrating the achievements of plucky little Britain during the years of the Second World War, you might be forgiven for reaching the conclusion that the cupboard of history is bare, the well is dry, everything has been done – Dunkirk, Darkest Hour, Enigma, The Imitation Game, The Gathering Storm, Into the Storm, Atonement, and that’s just from this century alone. Surely the British war movie industry is on the verge of finally running out of steam?

Well, maybe not: for here comes John Madden’s Operation Mincemeat, which has managed to identify one of the few incidents from the war not yet brought to the screen: a feat of misdirection brought about in the weeks and months leading up to the invasion of Sicily in Summer 1943. Quite apart from allowing the Allies to open a new front in the European war, the assault on Sicily is of significance as essentially being a test-run for the Normandy landings planned for the following year.

Of paramount importance is the need to keep the Nazis guessing as to what the Allies are up to – which leads to the involvement of a top-secret committee made up of members of the different armed services, with the objective of misdirecting German intelligence. Recently seconded to the group is lawyer-turned-intelligence-officer Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth); also present is RAF officer Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen). Overseeing proceedings, and basically providing an authority figure for the protagonists to kick against heroically, is Jason Isaacs as the stuffy chairman of the committee; Johnny Flynn occasionally pops up as a junior naval intelligence bod named Ian Fleming.

The idea is to get the Germans looking at Greece as the main prospective target of the Allied attack, rather than Sicily, and the scheme that Montagu and Cholmondeley cook up is to sell this idea by putting fake plans for the Greek attack on an actual corpse, which they then dump at sea somewhere it will be washed up and found by someone sympathetic to the Nazi cause. For this they need to find an appropriate corpse, then all the relevant details must be attended to, and their superiors convinced that this gambit is going to work – get it wrong, and the Germans will know exactly where the Allied taskforce is heading…

Also on the team are doughty office manager Hester (Penelope Wilton) and office worker Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald), and together they begin putting the deception together. The film makes it clear that this was one of the most spectacularly successful pieces of misdirection in military history, and it has already been the subject of one movie (1956’s The Man Who Never Was, in which Ewen Montagu himself made a cameo appearance) – but I can see how a film looking in detail at how the trick was pulled would seem like a good idea and have a decent chance of finding an audience.

The problem with Operation Mincemeat is that John Madden and scriptwriter Michelle Ashford seem to have set their sights on a more ambitious target than simply detailing one particular intelligence operation. Instead of just making a true-life spy thriller, they also have a go at making a doomed wartime romance, a drama about the personal relationships and conflicts between a group of Admiralty spies, a slightly tongue-in-cheek romp playing with some of the conventions of British espionage fiction, and… you get the idea.

Madden is probably still best remembered for Shakespeare in Love, a rich, discursive, sprawling tapestry of a movie which worked on many different levels. In a sense it was about the whole cultural impact of Shakespeare, and naturally carried with it the opportunity for many different tones. This is, in theory at least, a somewhat more serious movie about one particular Second World War intelligence operation, and so it doesn’t naturally lend itself to the same kind of approach.

Perhaps this explains the distinct sense of the movie being almost a patchwork quilt made up of fragments of different script drafts, which sometimes feels like it’s dragging its feet a bit just to get up to an appropriately ‘epic’ running time. It’s not as if the central spine of the narrative isn’t filled with fascinating and occasionally macabre detail: the first thing the team have to do is lay their hands on a corpse who could conceivably have drowned, and then ensure he is – for want of a better word – deployed before the natural processes of decay become too far advanced. Later on there is a desperate attempt to ensure the faked battle plans actually do cross the path of a German agent in Spain (the natural inclination of the principled Spanish is to give the papers straight back, unread). There could be a good, taut, interesting movie here.

Splicing onto this extended scenes in which Montagu and Leslie effectively carry on a relationship-by-proxy while working out the details of the love life of their nonexistent dead officer and his equally ontologically-challenged girlfriend changes the film’s whole centre of balance, especially when it becomes clear that Cholmondeley’s objection to this kind of office fraternisation is not entirely disinterested. Suddenly the whole issue of the deception operation feels like it’s been pushed into the background of a film which is actually about the complicated personal lives of some work colleages, and each new subplot and character only contributes to this further – there’s a subplot about Montagu’s slightly feckless brother (Mark Gatiss) possibly being a Russian spy, some quite high-level political intrigue about the possible existence of an anti-Hitler movement within the upper echelons of the Nazi administration, and even some in-jokey wink-wink stuff that felt a bit tired to me – there’s a lot of knowing material about Ian Fleming trotting down to Q Branch and playing with a watch that’s secretly a buzzsaw, while Matthew Macfadyen (veteran of a 19-episode run in TV’s Spooks) gets some equally arch dialogue about the ‘spooks’ he’s working with and the nature of their activities.

Little of this is flat-out bad, but the cumulative effect of it all is to slow the film down and make it seem bloated – what feels like it should be a 100-minute movie at most eventually clocks in at over two hours. Operation Mincemeat isn’t focused or innovative enough to really stand out in what is, as noted, a rather crowded marketplace (they seem to have run out of new actors to play Churchill and so Simon Russell Beale reprises a role he’s previously played on TV). The story at the heart of this project is an undeniably fascinating one, but the problem is that Operation Mincemeat too often feels preoccupied with other matters. Predictably solid performances from a quality cast, but this feels several drafts away from a script which would be worthy of their talents.

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If you’re one of those people who takes their cinema seriously, sooner or later you develop a list of directors who you follow – you keep an eye out for a new film and do your best to get to see it. Sometimes, though, you find yourself having seen most of someone’s filmography without having consciously made an effort to. So it is with me and Guillermo del Toro – I always feel slightly smug about having gone along to del Toro’s debut, Cronos, at the art house in Hull. Didn’t see Mimic or The Devil’s Backbone, I admit, but after that I’ve pretty much seen the lot, with the exception of Crimson Peak. This is usually the point at which I mention my regret at the del Toro films I haven’t seen, because they haven’t been made – his take on the Hobbit trilogy, and his adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness.

Having won Best Picture for his last film, The Shape of Water, you might have expected that the world would have been at del Toro’s feet and he would finally have managed to persuade a major studio to finance the Lovecraft movie. But no. (The latest word seems to be that the director is looking to do a version of the story with Netflix.) Considering that his past work has been nothing if not eclectic – it includes an idiosyncratic take on the vampire myth, one of the best Marvel Comics adaptations of the 2000s, a magic-realist fable about the Spanish Civil War and a big-budget homage to Japanese tokusatsu movies – it’s pushing it to describe any new project of his as an unexpected choice, but Nightmare Alley very nearly qualifies.

Nightmare Alley started life as a 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham; the 1947 film adaptation starring Tyrone Power is not especially well-regarded or well-known – I had no awareness of it until the advertising for the new movie started to appear. Bradley Cooper plays Stanton Carlisle, whom we first meet burying a body under the floors of a remote farmhouse, which he then proceeds to burn down. Clearly he is a man with a Past. He leaves all of this far behind and travels across the country, eventually finding himself drawn to the bright lights and questionable pleasures of a travelling carnival.

Carlisle persuades the proprietor of the carny, Clem (Willem Dafoe), to give him a job, and he makes friends amongst his new co-workers – fortune-teller Zeena (Toni Collette) and her partner, alcoholic former mind-reader Pete (David Strathairn). He also finds himself very much drawn to the carnival’s ‘electric girl’, Molly (Rooney Mara). Carlisle’s quick wit and natural savvy leads him to quickly discover many of the dark secrets on which the functioning of a carnival is based, but one eludes him – Pete’s old code-book, the basis of a potentially brilliant and lucrative act. Pete refuses to share it, insisting it is dangerous – successful mentalists invariably start to believe they really have special gifts, which inevitably results in a sorry downfall. But that won’t happen to Carlisle – will it?

As I mentioned, virtually all of del Toro’s past projects have been tied to the horror and fantasy genres one way or another, so it is a little unusual to find him at the helm of a psychological thriller with a distinctly noirish edge to it (indeed, a special edition of Nightmare Alley in black and white played a few engagements just to emphasise the connection). However, this is a thriller with particularly grotesque and macabre elements to it – the story itself is a cautionary tale of hubris and nemesis, the dark side of human nature and the underbelly of the entertainment industry, but del Toro’s handling of it takes it right to the edge of being an actual horror story in earnest.

Certainly, in the carny-set portion of the story, which makes up the first half of the film, there are various subtle references to Tod Browning’s Freaks, almost as you might expect, but these take the form of half-glimpsed things in pits and cages and assorted bottled nasties, rather than the actual human deformities so prominent in the 1932 film. It feels very much like a gothic melodrama, populated by all the stock characters you might expect – though brought to life with great skill by script and performers.

Only in the second act of the story does it really begin to resemble a film noir in earnest – Carlisle finds himself moving in higher echelons of society, only to find that the possession of wealth and taste does not necessary make their owners any less flawed or morally compromised. Here we find Cate Blanchett, seemingly channeling Veronica Lake as she gives a magnificent performance as a crooked shrink, and a rather scary Richard Jenkins as a millionaire with a dark past. It seems like there’s little to connect the two parts of the story, but this is a smartly structured script – the first half is carefully setting up everything that will happen later. The result is a film which develops a powerful sense of its own inevitable momentum – you know that things are going to go wrong, and go wrong bloodily, and the canny viewer will likely also be able to figure out well in advance what the final pay-off of the film is.

Del Toro handles proceedings with his usual powerful visual sense and aptitude for atmosphere, and the film is well-played by its ensemble. In some ways it does resemble a traditional awards-season studio movie – a lavish period-set adaptation with an all-star cast, and nobody taking an extended nap or having sex with a car – but it also has the slightly askew feel to it of the director’s other work, as well as being a skillful genre pastiche. On paper it sounds like an oddity more than anything else, a coming together of various talents, ideas, and sources that don’t sounds especially cohesive. But the result is a film which is always striking to look at, and quickly becomes an enthralling, if dark, story. Del Toro’s great achievement with The Shape of Water was to dress up an obviously derivative fantasy-horror story in such arty trappings that the academy voters forgot they were giving the Best Picture Oscar to a genre movie. I could imagine something similar happening with this movie too.

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One of the things about a certain kind of lowest-common-denominator mainstream movie-making that always elicits scornful laughter from me is when the scene suddenly changes to an unmistakable cityscape showcasing – for example – the Seine, the Arc de Triomphe, and M. Eiffel’s noted tower, and the producers still feel obliged to hedge their bets by sticking a massive caption saying ‘PARIS’ (or even worse, PARIS, FRANCE) in front of it.

Nevertheless, it’s a fact that not all cities are quite so instantly recognisable, and while the opening sequence of Clint Eastwood’s 1975 film The Eiger Sanction is obviously going on somewhere in Switzerland (when comes to clues to help figure this out, the flags are a big plus), it’s not immediately clear exactly where. I was wondering about this all the way through the opening credits, as a man whose choice of a leather hat makes it very clear his character is a) shady and b) minor wanders about doing various suspicious things. (It eventually turns out that this is happening in Zurich.) The man in the leather hat, sure enough, does not long survive the opening titles, as he is the victim of a fairly nasty throat-slitting.

From this downbeat, gritty murder we are transported to the world of American academia where we meet Clint himself, who is playing the outlandish figure of Jonathan Hemlock, art history professor, expert mountaineer, retired government assassin, and monumental snob (not that any of this seems to have inclined Clint to modulate his usual performance style much). After informing his graduating class that none of them actually really appreciate art, Clint gets a classic bit where a wide-eyed young student sidles up to him and tells him she would do absolutely anything to get a good grade in an upcoming test. Having ascertained she has an apartment to herself that night, and no other engagements, Clint advises that she ‘go on home, break out the books, and study [her] little ass off.’

Yes, Dr Hemlock is one of those alpha-males who is afflicted by the curse of being utterly irresistible to women, the kind of man who gave impressionable young men in the 70s and 80s wholly unrealistic ideas about how to be successful with the opposite sex. But Clint has other problems, as the clandestine government department he formerly worked for are keen to get him back for One Last Job (or, more accurately, two last jobs, as they want him to kill the two men who murdered leather-hat-man at the start of the film).

Running the operation is a guy called Dragon (Thayer David), who – not to underdo things – is a raspy-voiced ex-Nazi albino. Dragon persuades Hemlock to come out of retirement by offering him not just a big pile of cash, but also tax exemption on his collection of priceless and questionably-acquired paintings. (We are meant to believe that, at the end of a long day’s art-historying, Clint will retire to his basement and contemplate his Pissarro all night, but personally I don’t buy it.)

It all feels very much like Clint has wandered into Bond movie territory and is giving us his take on the kind of persona Roger Moore was affecting around the same time, but the film keeps straying back into grittier territory throughout this opening act, and even seems to be going for a kind of blaxploitation vibe at times (Clint’s main love interest is a character named Jemima Brown, played by Vonetta McGee).

Anyway, once Clint has popped over to Europe and killed his first target (as befits a master of the stealth elimination, Clint ends up throwing him out of a third-floor window onto the verandah of a bierkeller below), it turns out the second man on the list will be participating in an attempt to climb the north face of the Eiger in a few weeks’ time. How fortunate that Clint is an ace mountain climber himself! And what dreadful bad luck that Clint’s handlers can’t actually tell him which of the members of the climbing team is the bad guy – he’ll just have to keep his eyes open and hope to spot a telling clue.

It’s a horrendously contrived plot, but a lot of the movie is fairly horrendous. The next section concerns Clint’s preparations for the climb, which involves him hiring old buddy George Kennedy as a trainer, and yomping around Arizona and Utah for a while, occasionally pausing for more whoa-ho-ho with Brenda Venus. There’s a subplot about him getting revenge on an old enemy, whose essential worthlessness is presumably meant to be implied by the fact that he’s a stereotypically camp homosexual – anyone who isn’t a young and virile alpha-male like Clint is basically treated with utter contempt by this movie.

Finally, and perhaps not before time, Clint and Kennedy head off to Switzerland for the actual attempt at climbing the Eiger. The saving grace of this movie – although it only goes some way to mitigating its flaws – is the scenery, and the footage of climbs in progress. (This applies to the sequences of Hemlock climbing in the south-west of the USA, as well.) Clint is clearly doing a lot, if not quite all, of the climbing himself, and the backdrops are also breath-taking. People who know their stuff when it comes to climbing apparently rate The Eiger Sanction very highly when it comes to authenticity (although hopefully not for its sexual politics).

There is certainly potential here for an effective thriller, with the natural tensions that exist between near-strangers forced to rely on one another during a potentially life-threatening ascent only being heightened by the knowledge that more than one of them is a ruthless killer, out for one of the others’ blood. Unfortunately, the film has taken so long to get to this point, and has generally been so crass and silly, that this whole concept never really gets going: the other climbers never really develop into fully-rounded characters, and there’s no real suspense in the later stages of the film. (Though many characters spend time in a state of suspension, or more accurately dangling.) The identity of Clint’s target is eminently guessable, and the eventual revelation leads into an underpowered climax that doesn’t quite work – the intention seems to have been to imply that Clint is really a much more ruthless killer than has previously been suggested, but not only does this idea feel like an afterthought, it also doesn’t really feel like it matters either way.

Clint emerges from it all with his dignity more or less intact, and his direction is also competent (it’s hard to believe he was on the verge of making a run of movies which were popular and critical successes – his next film was the brilliant Outlaw Josey Wales). Also on the cusp of rather bigger things was composer John Williams, who on this occasion seems to have been rather influenced by Jerry Goldsmith.

Nevertheless, it’s a film which skews haphazardly between Bond pastiche, cynical espionage drama, blaxploitation thriller, conventional action movie, and Bergfilm. It only really comes close to genuine success as the last, but this comes too late to really save the project. A rare example of Eastwood putting his name to a duffer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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