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Posts Tagged ‘thriller’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A new terror has been brought to going to the multiplex. I turned up to watch a movie the other day, thinking I was in comfortably good time, only to find that the trailers were already in progress. Still, it wasn’t that big a deal, and so I and the other folk in attendance dutifully absorbed the publicity material for How to Train Your Dragon 3 (no thanks), Bumblebee (maybe, and I never thought I’d say that about a Transformers film), and Mary Poppins 2 (only if you put guns to the heads of my family). It should have occurred to me that something was amiss, but this only became apparent when the BBFC card came up, making it clear that we were all about to be exposed to Nativity Rocks!.

If you had released anthrax in the auditorium I doubt you would have seen so many people bolting for the door so rapidly. A somewhat panicked mob assembled at the concessions desk, as everyone explained (in voices perhaps an octave or so higher than normal) that they had paid to see The Girl in the Spider’s Web, not some gruellingly schmaltzy family-friendly Christmas film. Fortunately, the cinema manager only had to reboot the projector and hand out some free ticket vouchers and peace was restored: the spectre of cute singing children and a seasonal message of goodwill was banished, and we could settle down to enjoy a feast of torture, bloodletting, misogynistic violence and general Scandinavian misery.

Stieg Larssen’s Millennium books made pots of money about ten years ago, and that’s the sort of thing that Hollywood studios notice. They do seem to have formed the notion that there is an audience for films based on these books and their central characters: Sony did, after all, spend $90 million on an English-language adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo back in 2011, with A-list talent on both sides of the camera. Despite raking in two-and-a-half-times its budget, the arcane mysteries of Hollywood accounting mean that this film officially lost money, hence the rather lengthy delay before this follow-up (directed by Fede Alvarez).

Some thought seems to have gone into how to make this new film more financially viable than the previous one. The first one drew many unfavourable comparisons with the Swedish-language version with Noomi Rapace, and so the rest of the original Larssen trilogy has been skipped over in favour of the first adaptation of an authorised continuation to the series by someone else. David Fincher is still involved, but only as a producer, and Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara (with their expensive A-list salaries) have also had to look for work elsewhere. The more extreme elements of the first film have been toned down and massaged away to guarantee a more box-office-friendly 15 certificate.

As the film opens, Lisbeth Salander (she who is possessed of near-mystical computer hacking skills and a mythical piece of skin art) has become a legendary figure in Swedish society, occasionally surfacing to exact brutal vengeance on men who mistreat women. This is all basically backstory, however, for the plot proper sees Salander (now played by Claire Foy, who seems to be specialising in roles as iconic Betties) hired by a conscience-stricken atomic computer boffin (Stephen Merchant, playing it wholly straight) who has written a doomsday McGuffin for the American government and now wishes he hasn’t. The boffin wants Salander to steal the McGuffin back, which she promptly does, but before she can hand it over armed bad guys bust into her hideout, try to kill her, and steal the one and only copy of the apocalyptic app in question.

Well, this is bad news for our girl (one wonders at what point she will start to be called the woman with the Dragon Tattoo, but I digress), as the police are after her for the initial theft, and the American NSA have sent an operative (LaKeith Stanfield) to get it back too. Luckily her old associate Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason) is able to help out and puts her on the trail of a secret organisation of very nasty pieces of work known as the Spiders. In charge of this mob, and currently in possession of the doomsday McGuffin, is a mysterious woman (Sylvia Hoeks) with issues of her own where Salander is concerned…

‘I quite enjoyed it, but I could have done without all the anal rape,’ was the considered opinion of one of the support team after we went to see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in early 2012. I suspect he spoke for a significant chunk of audience, for the sheer unflinchingly bleak grimness of the movie may be one of the reasons that it under-performed at the box office. I was kind of braced for more of the same this time around, especially after the film opened with some implied child abuse and continued with the aftermath of some brutal domestic violence. Was Spider’s Web to be wall-to-wall misogynistic real-world horror?

It was not. I think the film is pulling a bit of a trick by establishing a tone not dissimilar to that of the Larssen books, and then going on to tell a story of a very different kind. The producers also appear to be playing a long game by attempting to establish Lisbeth Salander as the kind of genre character who a (potentially very long) series of films can be made about, the most obvious parallels being James Bond or perhaps Jason Bourne. Certainly the character as depicted in this film seems to be losing some of her depth and becoming slightly more cartoony, in addition to being almost absurdly omni-competent (She can hack anything! She can drive anything! It takes three burly men to subdue her in a fight!).

The Bourne franchise is probably the best parallel to what The Girl in the Spider’s Web feels like to watch: you have the taciturn, quietly vulnerable protagonist, who’s at much at odds with the authorities as the bad guys, you have well-staged action sequences that still manage to keep one foot in reality, and you’ve got lots of stuff with things being urgently downloaded in a crisis. And as such the film is actually pretty entertaining to watch, even if you don’t have to dig too deeply into the premise of the story to find something absurd going on.

Foy, I suppose, is okay as Salander, which is really the star part in this film (Gudnason as Blomkvist is in a very subordinate role) – it’s mostly just looking stern or stoical, depending on the requirements of the scene, but Foy is up to that. I’m not sure about the ‘Allo Sven, I got a Volvo’ accent she employs to signify she is supposedly speaking Swedish, but the film kind of obfuscates what’s going on in this area. Stanfield is reasonably good in the admittedly limited role of the token American character, but I have to say that this is not really a performance-driven film: people I’ve seen give very good turns elsewhere recently don’t make much of an impression here.

In the end, this is at its heart a very competent and polished genre movie, with a few unusually nasty moments and perhaps pretensions to be more of a character-driven drama. I have to say my expectations were not especially high, but as a thriller it is quite effective – whether or not you’re familiar with the other books or films, I would guess. Whether this will guarantee further adventures building on Larssen I’m not sure, but this one at least is entertaining enough.

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Olinka and I settled into our seats, opened a bag of chocolate eggs, and prepared to enjoy the trailers. ‘And, of course, the good thing is,’ I said, ‘that these should all be trailers for thrillers.’

‘Aren’t they always?’ said Olinka, crunching an egg.

Yes, as regular readers will be aware, Olinka’s fondness for going to the cinema is considerable, as is her nigh-on miraculous ability to watch a movie and yet not actually be aware of what genre it is. This is the woman who thought Kray twin biopic Legend was a black comedy, and that properly spooky horror movie Ghost Stories was a thriller. (She also thought that going to watch Hereditary was actually a good idea, but it would be unchivalrous to dwell on that too much.) When I suggest we go and see a film, Olinka’s first question is nearly always ‘is it a thriller?’ And the pleasant thing is that I can always answer ‘yes’, safe in the knowledge that, as far she’s concerned, it probably will be.

This time we got the previews for The Favourite, Glass, Robin Hood, and The Girl in the Lucrative Franchise, only the last of which I would honestly describe as a proper thriller, but there you go, you can never be sure these days. I think I’ve observed in the past that films that don’t fit easily into genre categories tend to have more diverse trailers running in front of them, and the fact is that the film we had gone to see is a curious mixture of genre movie and very serious drama: I speak of Widows, directed by Steve McQueen (no, the other one). It was the thriller element that I expected Olinka to enjoy, but this is also a female-led movie and I felt sure she’d appreciate that bit, too.

widows

The film is set in present-day Chicago. Viola Davis plays Veronica Rawlins, a former teacher married to Harry (Liam Neeson), who is a professional criminal (this might seem like a rather unlikely relationship for all sorts of reasons, but the actors and script are good enough to sell it to the viewer). However, no sooner has the movie got underway than we are plunged into the midst of Harry’s latest enterprise, which is going horribly awry. The robbery at least is quite successful, but then the crew are pursued by the police, there is a hail of bullets, an explosion, and a fireball. Veronica and the wives of the other robbers are now, well, widows.

This would be stressful enough in the normal way of things, but it gets worse: it turned out that in the fateful job-gone-wrong, Harry and the others stole two million dollars from another criminal, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). Manning has decided to go legit, or at least become a better class of criminal, by going into politics, and is currently locked in a bad-tempered electoral race with establishment candidate Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell). Manning needs the money back in order to fund his campaign, and is not about to let the fact it all got incinerated incline him to let Veronica off the hook. She has a month to raise the cash or it will go very much the worse for her.

However, Veronica finds herself the recipient of a rather unusual bequest from her late husband: a notebook containing the plans for his next heist, which would have netted him five million dollars. Rather than just selling the plans to Manning, Veronica decides that on this occasion, sisters are going to do it for themselves, and recruits two of her fellow widows (Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki) to help her execute the job…

This is, I would argue, the other Steve McQueen’s most accessible film to date, and looks every inch the slick Hollywood thriller. Nevertheless, this started life as a six-part drama on British TV thirty-five years ago: just goes to show that sometimes these things spend a while coming to fruition, I suppose (I’m sure I heard somewhere that Ann Mitchell, star of the TV version, has a walk-on part at one point in the movie, but I didn’t spot her).

Original writer Lynda La Plante gets a credit but you could be forgiven for assuming this had been written for the American screen by McQueen and collaborator Gillian Flynn (yup, the one from Gone Girl). La Plante’s plot survives essentially intact, but the idiom is wholly American, as are the social issues McQueen chooses to explore in the course of the film.

Given that McQueen’s last film was essentially 134 minutes of factually-inspired historical misery, you may not be totally surprised to learn that his version of Widows does not shy away from the darker side of life. Quite the opposite: this is a film set in a thoroughly, horribly corrupt and nihilistic world where virtually everyone seems to have given up hope and abandoned any principles they ever held. It is all about getting ahead and staying there: at one point, the mother of one of the widows basically encourages her daughter to become a call girl, as this is apparently a fairly agreeable way of earning a living. Racism, political corruption, and police brutality all feature in the plot to some degree or other.

That said, this is still a very absorbing film, helped by the fact it has a smart, intelligent script and an excellent cast – quite apart from the people I’ve already mentioned, it has Robert Duvall as Farrell’s repugnant father and Daniel Kaluuya as Manning’s brother, both of whom are very good (Kaluuya is kind of playing the unpredictable-psycho-killer-brother stock character, but manages to find some new things to do with it). And it’s not even as if it’s totally bereft of lighter moments – at one point the widows realise they’re going to need an extra pair of hands to complete the robbery, and (in the absence of anyone else remotely qualified), end up recruiting Rodriguez’s babysitter (Cynthia Erivo) to complete the team.

On the other hand, it does almost feel as if the film itself gets rather absorbed in the world of its story, rather than the heist narrative. There are a lot of characters, and the plot is inclined to sprawl somewhat (even so, not all of the widows are developed as individuals to anything like the same extent, with Michelle Rodriguez being notably less well served than Elizabeth Debicki).

I was slightly surprised when Olinka, a couple of hours in, emitted a great sigh and asked (of no-one in particular) ‘Is this film ever going to end?’ – but in retrospect I can kind of see where she was coming from. If there is a flaw in Widows, it is that this is a film with an awful lot of middle, most of which seems to have been taken as an advance on the end: the actual climactic heist does eventually materialise, but it feels like a bit of an afterthought – curiously under-developed and not really as tightly written or directed as you would expect. It is as if the more dramatic, social-commentary elements of the movie have staged a sort of coup against the heist plotline which it started with.

I am slightly saddened to have to report that, despite it still more-or-less functioning as a thriller, Olinka was less than fulsome in her praise for Widows as we left the cinema. Personally, I enjoyed the performances and the script enough for the issues with the central plotline not to be a particular issue for me. This is the kind of grown-up, quality movie which usually does very well with both critics and audiences – I’m virtually certain it will be more of a popular success than the other Steve McQueen’s last film; the question is whether it can achieve the same kind of critical triumph as well. Whatever the answer proves to be, this is a solid, intelligent movie.

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Now that First Man has provided us with an exemplary movie account of the Apollo programme and the Moon landings, all we are waiting for, surely, is for someone to do the same and make the definitive movie about the faking of the same events. (That’s how impartiality works these days, isn’t it? No matter how unsupported or ridiculous an idea is, no-one in the media is actually allowed to say so as long as there is someone who genuinely believes in it.)

I joke, sort of. The weird thing is that people have been making films referencing the idea that the Moon landings were faked in a film studio since… well, since the time of the Moon landings themselves, perhaps. It’s curious that the first major book proposing this theory, We Never Went to the Moon, came out in 1976, while (arguably) an oblique suggestion of the same thing turns up in Diamonds Are Forever in 1971 – attempting to sneak out of a SPECTRE installation midway through the movie, James Bond finds himself on a soundstage mocked up to resemble the lunar surface, where a moon walk is apparently being filmed. The film offers no explanation for what’s supposed to be happening here and just carries on with the chase sequence in progress.

The list also includes Room 237, which features an extended disquisition on Kubrick’s role in the hoax and the way that The Shining is really a lengthy attempt by the director to come clean about it, and Moonwalkers, a French comedy film again focusing on Stanley Kubrick’s alleged involvement in faking the footage supposedly sent back from the Moon. Even Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar cleverly subverts the idea by suggesting that in the future the US government will start to claim the landings were indeed faked.

Top of the pile, though, is surely Peter Hyams’ 1978 film Capricorn One, which appeared just as the moon hoax theory was beginning to gain traction, and may have played a significant role in cementing the notion in the public imagination. The subject matter and cast could not be more all-American, but this is another film owing its existence to Lew Grade’s ITC Entertainment – and, I must say, one of the better ones.

The film opens with Capricorn One, the first manned mission to Mars, on the launchpad. NASA director James Kelloway (Hal Holbrook) is overseeing the countdown; the astronauts (James Brolin, Sam Waterston and O. J. Simpson) are in the capsule. An audience of politicians, other dignitaries, and members of the public has gathered to watch the take-off. But then, with minutes to go, the crew are quietly extracted from the vehicle, placed on a plane, and flown to a clandestine government installation. The spacecraft launches without them. What is going on?

Kelloway explains. Cut-backs in NASA’s budget resulted in the Capricorn programme inadvertently buying a cheap-ass life support system for the spacecraft, one which would have killed the crew in a matter of weeks (the film suggests the round-trip to Mars will take about eight months, which strikes me as rather optimistic, but I digress). Not wanting to give Congress an excuse to shut the manned space programme down, Kelloway and his backers (there seem to be shadowy, deep-state forces in play) have decided to cover this up. The mission will take place as planned – it’s just that it will really be unmanned. All the TV footage of the crew in the capsule and on the surface of Mars will be filmed in studios on Earth and inserted into the broadcasts without anyone being any the wiser.

Mission commander Brubaker (Brolin) isn’t sure about this at all, but when it is made clear that the backers of the cover-up are quite prepared to threaten his family and those of the other astronauts, he allows himself to be blackmailed into playing along. And so the mission proceeds, and also the hoax. There are problems – a young NASA tech notices irregularities between the mission telemetry and the TV footage, and is promptly disappeared by the conspirators. However, he has already passed on his discovery to cynical journalist Robert Caulfield (Elliott Gould), who launches his own investigation, placing his life in peril as a result.

But the biggest problem is yet to come. With the actual Martian landings successfully faked, the ship returns to Earth – only for the heat shield to disengage too early and the craft to disintegrate on re-entry. The crew of Capricorn One have died as heroes – except that they are still sitting around in the secret government installation, wondering why their flight to the splashdown site has been cancelled. Quickly figuring out that there has been a problem, and that their very existence now poses a threat to the hoax, they decide to make a break for it and tell the world the truth. Always assuming the conspirators don’t catch up with them first…

The first thing to say about Capricorn One is that this is a pretty good thriller, with an engaging premise, nice performances and dialogue which is rather sharper and smarter than you might expect. It’s not especially deep or lavish, but it’s fun to watch, especially in the first half, which is more concerned with the establishment and running of the hoax. It addresses the issue of just what the value of the manned space programme is, and whether it warrants all the funding it receives. Would NASA in fact be justified in mounting this kind of deception, if the alternative was the dissolution of the agency and the end of space exploration?

The second half is not as strong, as these ideas and themes get dropped in favour of the stuff of a more conventional thriller – the astronauts are pursued through the deserts of the American southwest by black helicopters (Hyams develops this into a very effective image, again perhaps fuelling conspiracy theories), while Caulfield picks up on tiny clues and slowly begins to unravel what’s been going on. In the end there is a rather effective chase between the helicopters and a biplane piloted by Telly Savalas, before a slightly abrupt ending is reached (we don’t get to see the political consequences of the film’s conclusion).

Capricorn One is entirely up-front about its subtext – the film’s poster directly asks ‘Would you be shocked to find out that the greatest moment of our recent history may not have happened at all?’, next to a picture of what looks very much like an Apollo lunar module; the Capricorn mission profile appears to closely resemble that of Apollo, more than is actually credible. Hyams appears to have come to the idea of an Apollo hoax independently, speaking in interviews of how it occurred to him that this was an event witnessed only by TV cameras, and thus more than usually susceptible to fakery.

Ironically, though, if anything the film debunks the idea of a Moon hoax rather than promoting it, simply because the conspiracy as presented here is just so implausible and inept. The suggestion is that most of NASA isn’t even in on the plot, which makes one wonder just exactly how it’s functioning – there’s a glib mention of ‘recordings from practice sessions’ being used, but who’s actually landing the spacecraft on Mars? How is this even possible? The ‘dark forces cover-up’ is also rather preposterous – after trying to kill Gould in a sabotaged car, the conspirators apparently lose interest in him entirely for weeks, before starting to take pot-shots at him and then finally having him framed for possession of drugs.

So in the end this is a film which is entertaining and briefly interesting in terms of its premise, but in the end it doesn’t quite hang together and it never really convinces. I am tempted to add that all this is true of the Apollo hoax theories, as well, but for the fact that many people still genuinely seem to believe that there is some truth to them. Maybe they also believe that there is some truth to Capricorn One. It is, as they say, a funny old world.

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As I sit down to contemplate Donovan Marsh’s Hunter Killer, I am minded to suggest a new rule of thumb for when it comes to predicting whether a film is any good or not. I already have a few of these: is the director so obscure he doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia entry? This is a bad sign. Does the film star Gerard Butler? This is a worse one. (Needless to say, Hunter Killer fails both of these tests, by which I mean the answer is yes.) To these I would add: does the film have more producers and executive producers than it does cleaning ladies?

This is certainly the case with Hunter Killer, which – thanks to my close examination of the credits, a result of the film putting my lower limbs into a state of temporary torpor and briefly trapping me in the auditorium – I can inform you has over twenty producers and execs (including Gerard Butler, perhaps unsurprisingly), but less than a dozen women who clean. I will have to do further research into this area, but my initial findings are that you should hire cleaners in bulk rather than film producers, should you have the option.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that Hunter Killer is about as good a movie as you would expect, given it is a mid-budget action thriller starring Butler as the ostensible hero. I was something of a cheerleader for Butler and his career up until about fifteen years ago, and was genuinely pleased when 300 catapulted him to a level of real stardom – but since then it seems like he hasn’t really been trying, just recycling the same kinds of movies and performances over and over again. I’m almost at the point of giving up on him entirely, but I do enjoy a slightly duff genre movie, so along I went to a matinee of Hunter Killer (at which I was entirely alone, I might add).

Things kick off with an American and a Russian submarine both going missing in mysterious circumstances, somewhere under the polar ice. The chairman of the joint chiefs, who is a growly cipher expertly phoned in by Gary Oldman, dispatches another sub to investigate, under the command of newly-promoted captain Joe Glass (Butler). Glass manages to be a fierce disciplinarian and an unpredictable loose cannon, whom we first meet displaying his macho chops by (illegally) hunting deer with a longbow in Scotland. He then gets to show his sensitive side by not actually shooting the cute little critters, before being whisked off to take command of his boat. Here he displays yet another aspect of his personality, being much given to making rather cryptic inspirational speeches to his crew – ‘I am you,’ he announces to the assembled company, then ‘Everyone you know is someone on that [missing] sub.’ Needless to say, Butler does not really manage to unite all these bizarrely arbitrary traits in a coherent characterisation.

Well, anyway, as the presumably somewhat-baffled crew sails into the danger zone it transpires that there is sneakiness afoot in the upper echelons of the Russian military establishment, with a coup in progress against the Russian President (Alexander Diachenko), orchestrated by the perfidious Defence Minister (Mikhail Gorevoy), who is looking to start a nuclear war with the USA for no particularly well-explained reason. However, with a US sub in the crisis zone, not to mention a special forces team (led by a somewhat unexpectedly-cast Toby Stephens), it may just be possible to save the day…

Yes, so this is not one of those films with what you could honestly describe as a stranglehold on reality. You almost wonder how long it has been in the works, given just how spectacularly misjudged its presentation of world geopolitics is – the US President is a woman, apparently named ‘Ilene Dover’ (which is a joke name, surely), who ends up ordering a rescue mission to save the Russian President (who has no tendencies to be photographed with his shirt off, in case you were wondering).

In other words it is, not to put too fine a point on it, a deeply silly film, bordering on the actually cartoonish in some places. The problem is that the makers of the film don’t appear to be particularly comfortable with making a silly cartoon of an action movie: they seem to want to make a serious and credible semi-political thriller. This desire mainly takes the form of everyone in Hunter Killer being under orders to play it absolutely straight even when the material demands at least a degree of tongue-in-cheekness. The result is regrettably predictable: when a silly film attempts to become credible by taking itself very seriously, the result is not a serious, credible film – the result is a film which manages to be both silly and rather dull.

I found myself rather missing the barking, sweating, swivel-eyed-maniac Gerard Butler of old: he’s just not that interesting when he tones it down, even if he is playing a weirdly stoical underwater nutcase at the time. On the other hand, hardly anyone makes much of an impression in this film – Gary Oldman expertly phones in his supporting turn, the rapperist Common appears as another nautical cove, and a cast-against-type Toby Stephens pops up as the leader of a US special forces unit (the movie was made in the UK, which explains the presence of a few familiar faces further down the cast list). It is, as you may have noticed, a somewhat blokey movie, with this slightly made up for by a supporting appearance by Linda Cardellini as an NSA analyst. (There are indeed some women serving on Butler’s sub, but none of them get any lines until the last twenty minutes of the film.) The late Michael Nyqvist makes one of his final appearances as a decent Russian sub captain, in a probably optimistic attempt to make it clear that not all Russians are bad guys.

That’s the thing about Hunter Killer – technically, it’s a perfectly competent movie in terms of its production and so on, but it just makes virtually no impact. There is never any real sense of danger or tension or involvement, probably because the film is just so derivative and formulaic and predictable. No doubt the film’s themes of the US military being wonderful and the deep connections felt by the brotherhood of submariners will appeal to some sectors of the intended audience, but I can’t see that translating into particularly wide appeal for anyone else. Even if you’re a really keen fan of films about submarines, Hunter Killer really has nothing new or especially accomplished to offer. But at least the sets are nice and clean.

 

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Paul Feig’s A Simple Favor (I am going to stick with the American English spelling, even though it does make my teeth itch somewhat) is not a film I would necessarily have chosen to watch, even during the bacchanal of cinema-going which I am currently enjoying after an enforced one month drought. There’s no particular reason for that, but – and I do have to remind even friends of this sometimes – I don’t go to see absolutely everything, even when I’m at a loose end. Then again, there I was: all proper work done and dusted by noon, having agreed to go and see another movie with a friend in the early evening, and with a fairly sizeable space in my schedule until then. To be perfectly honest my first choice of movie-to-fill-the-gap would probably have been Mile 22, but it had finished the previous day (lots of big new movies starting today), and Feig’s film seemed like the best option.

Anna Kendrick plays Stephanie Smothers, a cheery, upbeat, perky, fluffy, home-oriented single mother whose life revolves around recipes, her son, and her vlog (which heavily features recipes and parenting tips). She is quite terrifyingly wholesome, upbeat and proactive, but is there something missing from her own lifestyle? Just what does she secretly aspire to? Well, the barest suggestion of an answer comes when she meets Emily (Blake Lively), another mum from her son’s school. Emily appears to be everything that Stephanie is not: elegant, sophisticated, a bit of a hedonistic rebel. The two women become unlikely friends, despite some occasional signs of odd behaviour on Emily’s part.

Then one day Emily asks Stephanie for a favour (Hah! Take that, American English!) – will she collect her son from school? Stephanie happily obliges, but then Emily fails to get in touch, and vanishes, apparently without a trace. Emily’s husband Sean (Henry Golding) doesn’t have a clue where she’s gone, and nor do her employers, and so the police are called. Soon everyone is beginning to fear the worst, and Stephanie and Sean find themselves drawn closer together in their shared grief. But is everything quite as it seems…?

It’s always a slightly curious thing when you find someone apparently trying to get out of their comfort zone and do something genuinely new and different, and from a certain angle this is what Paul Feig appears to be doing with this film. Feig, as you may or may not be aware, is best known as the director and occasional writer of comedy films, most frequently starring Melissa McCarthy: he’s the guy who did Bridesmaids, and also Spy and the All-Female Ghostbusters remake. So for him to be directing what looks on paper to be like a fairly mainstream thriller is a bit of a departure. Then again, the film stars Anna Kendrick, who is also not really known as a dramatic actress – okay, she’s done things like The Accountant, but even then I distinctly remember being somewhat nonplussed by the fact that this sort of thriller would feature someone who’s essentially a musical-comedy performer. (Blake Lively, on the other hand, isn’t primarily known for comedy. But then she seems to limit her film appearances rather strictly, so her profile in general is a bit more limited than I might have expected, and she hasn’t really been typed in the same way.)

My feeling is that comedy is much more difficult than straight drama, and so all things being equal I’d much rather watch a drama made by comedians than a comedy film made by drama specialists. The question is whether this film really is a drama made by comedians. Well, several key creative people on it are best known for comedy, as previously discussed, so that part is not really in doubt. But is it really a drama?

Well – I suppose it is, because lots of serious and often quite dark stuff goes on (Kendrick’s character has a particularly off-kilter element to her backstory), crimes are committed, unpleasant secrets come to light, and so on. The weird thing is that all the time you are laughing – not in a sustained, from-the-belly way, but nearly every scene contains a little bit of business or a snappy line or a reaction from Kendrick or so on. It may be that this is genuinely a comedy thriller, but if so then it is one of the blackest possible shade.

Then again, the fact that this is such a peculiarly and unexpectedly funny film works very much in its favour, because it works very well to give it its own distinctive identity. This is something that it definitely needs, because otherwise this tale of apparently-affluent couples with corrosive money troubles, mysterious disappearances in suburbia, Machiavellian scheming behind a domestic facade, and so on, would owe just a bit too much of an obvious debt to Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl and its movie adaptation.

There really did seem to me to be quite a lot of similarities between Gone Girl and A Simple Favor, but the fact that A Simple Favor doesn’t come across as being quite so thorough-goingly misanthropic, and actually contains some pretty good jokes, made me warm to it much more than its precursor. There are also signs of the film-makers being willing to admit just how implausible the story of their film is, which is always welcome (there is a joke at one point about a character writing a novel, which is apparently dismissed by other people because of its ‘far-fetched plot’).

I don’t actually mind watching movies with absurdly contrived storylines, as long as you don’t also try to tell me that this is actually a serious and mature story about deep unpleasant truths in contemporary society. Feig’s film doesn’t try to pull any of that – it’s more or less up-front about the fact that it’s a disposable piece of entertainment. This doesn’t mean that it’s a poorly made film, by any means – the performances are strong, the direction good, and the script hangs together pretty well (there are occasional slow patches). It is a little bit strange that such a dark film should also feel so upbeat and lightweight, but this is hardly a fatal flaw. Tonally odd and very derivative, but also rather entertaining.

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