Tag: Box office bombs

In the Heart of the Sea (2015)

In the Heart of the Sea (2015)

Hunger, desperation, the sea and a very big whale in this Moby Dick origins story

Director: Ron Howard

Cast: Chris Hemsworth (Owen Chase), Benjamin Walker (Captain George Pollard), Cillian Murphy (Matthew Joy), Tom Holland (Thomas Nickerson), Brendan Gleeson (Old Thomas Nickerson), Ben Whishaw (Herman Melville), Michele Fairley (Mrs Nickerson), Gary Beadle (William Bond), Frank Dillane (Owen Coffin), Charlotte Riley (Peggy Chase), Donald Sumpter (Paul Mason), Paul Anderson (Caleb Chappel), Joseph Mawle (Benjamin Lawrence), Edward Ashley (Barzillai Roy)

1820 and the world is run by oil. Not the sort you get out of the ground, but the sort you fish out of a whale’s corpse with a bucket. America is the leading exporter of whale oil and Nantucket is the centre of the industry. But it’s a dangerous business: as the crew of the Essex are about discover. Attacked by a whale, their ship sinks in the Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles from land. Passed-over first officer Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) and privileged captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) must set aside their differences to lead the survivors to safety. But starvation and desperation will lead those survivors to ever more desperate acts. All of this is told to Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) by final living survivor Thomas Nickerson (Tom Holland and Brendan Gleeson), and it all sounds like a perfect inspiration for that Big Whaling Book Melville wants to write.

That Melville framing device is a good place to start when reviewing the many problems of In the Heart of the Sea, Ron Howard’s misfiring attempt at a survivalist epic. When we should be consumed by concern at whether these men survive, the film keeps trying to get us care as much about whether Melville will write a novel worthy of Hawthorne. The clunky prologue eats up a good sixth of the film, and we keep cutting back for Gleeson to tell us things the script isn’t deft enough to show us. Worse, it keeps ripping us way from the survivalist story that should be film’s heart.

Howard should know this: he directed one of the best survival-against-the-odds films ever in Apollo 13. Maybe the difference is that Apollo 13 is, at heart, a hopeful story. In the Heart of the Sea is about grimy sailors in a trade the film can’t find any sympathy for, eventually drawing lots in a long boat to see who is going to get killed and eaten by the others. It’s the sort of thing Werner Herzog would (pardon the metaphor) eat up for breakfast. For Howard, a fundamentally optimistic film-maker, its an ill fit. No wonder he wants to end the film with the triumph of Moby Dick.

In the Heart of the Sea is the rare instance of a film that is too short. The narration keeps skipping over time jumps in the first hour, that means we don’t get invested in the characters (most of whom are barely distinguished from each other, especially as beards and wasted bodies become the uniform). The sinking doesn’t take place until almost an hour in the film, meaning the time we spend with them lost in boats is a mere 40 minutes or so.

That is nowhere long enough for us to get a sense of either the monotonous time or the ravages hunger and desperation have made. Difficult as that stuff is to film – and I can appreciate its hard to make five men sitting, dying slowly, in a boat visually interesting – it means the film is asking us to make a big leap when it goes in five minutes from the men leaving a stop on an abandoned island to regretfully slicing one of their party up for dinner. We need to really understand how desperation has led to this point, but the film keeps jumping forward, as if its impatient to get to it.

Understanding is a general problem in the film. It can’t get past the fact that, today, we don’t see whaling (rightly so) as a sympathetic trade. But to these men, plunging a harpoon into a whale wasn’t an act of barbarous evil. It was more than even just making a living: it was a noble calling. Several times the film makes feeble attempts to push its characters towards moral epiphanies which seem jarringly out of chase (would Owen Chase, a hardy whaler with multiple kills, really hold his hand when confronted with a whale he thinks is trying to kill him?). Clumsy parallels are drawn between the heartless corporate oil industry of today, and the ‘suits’ back at Nantucket who only care about the bottom line.

Without accepting that, to these men, striving out into the ocean to bring back whale oil was as glorious a cause as landing on the moon, the film struggles to make most of the earlier part of the film interesting. Hard to sympathise with the characters, when the film is holding their profession at a sniffy distance. The film even radically changes the future career of its hero, Owen Chase, claiming he joined the merchant navy and never whaled again (not remotely true).

On top of this, Howard doesn’t manage to make the act of sailing feel as real or as compelling as, say, Peter Weir did in Master and Commander. Everything has a slightly unconvincing CGI sheen. Strange fish-eyed lenses keep popping up zooming in on specific features of pulleys and sails (is it meant to be like a whale’s eye view?). The film never manages to really communicate the tasks taking place or the risks they carry. There is a feeble personality clash between Pollard and Chase that fills much of the second act of the film, but is written and acted with a perfunctory predictability that never makes it interesting.

You can’t argue with the commitment of everyone involved. The cast noticeably wasted themselves down to portray these starving dying men. But it all adds up to not a lot. Chris Hemsworth gives a constrained performance as Chase – his chiselled Hollywood bulk looks hideously out of place – while Cillian Murphy makes the most impact among the rest as his luckless best friend. But the film’s main failure is Howard’s inability to make us really feel every moment of these men’s agonising suffering and to really understand the desperation that drove them to lengths no man should go to. Eventually that only makes it a surprisingly disengaging experience.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Hope and friendship are put to the test in one of the most beloved films ever made

Director: Frank Darabont

Cast: Tim Robbins (Andy Dufresne), Morgan Freeman (Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding), Bob Gunton (Warden Samuel Norton), William Sadler (Heywood), Clancy Brown (Guard Bryon Hadley), Gil Bellows (Tommy Williams), James Whitmore (Brooks Hatlen), Mark Rolston (Bogs Diamond)

You’d hardly believe it… but the film now routinely listed as one of the most beloved films of all time was actually a box office bomb. The Shawshank Redemption tops many public polls of great films. It’s been the number one film on IMDB practically since the site was built. What is it about it that has had such a connection with people? Perhaps it’s because, under the multitude of genres the film touches on, it’s a film about the strengths of two things crucial to all of us: hope and friendship.

In 1947 Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a mil-mannered bank manager, is imprisoned for life in Shawshank State Prison for the murder of his wife and her lover. For the next twenty years, Andy will get busy living rather than get busy dying, finding what moments of warmth, friendship and hope he can from rebuilding the prison library to helping his fellow prisoners. But he’ll also face daily danger, from sexual assault from brutal fellow prisoners to the machinations of corrupt warden Samuel Norton (Bob Gunton). During his time in prison, his confidant and closest friend is Red (Morgan Freeman), a smart fixer who has spent decades failing his parole hearings.

This is possibly the finest Stephen King adaptation ever made – the other major contender, Kubrick’s The Shining, has the disadvantage of being loathed by the author – perhaps because it captures both the Dickensian sprawl and sentiment of King’s best work, mixed with his edge and danger. There is a charming shaggy-dog story element to The Shawshank Redemption that helps make it delightful to watch. Not only that, it carefully builds up empathy for two people, both of whom are convicted murderers. It manages this as it turns its prison setting into a universal metaphor for the helpless victim trapped in a system.

Because, for all the pious spouting of the Warden (Bob Gunton at his most hypocritically vile), Shawshank is a place devoid of justice. On Andy’s first night in prison, a fellow new arrival is beaten to death for refusing to stop his terrified whining by head guard Hadley (a terrifyingly blank and amoral Clancy Brown). Abuse of power is pretty much endemic in Shawshank – as Andy discovers as he witnesses the guard’s casual brutality, and his accounting skills drags him into building the corrupt financial empire Norton runs with the slave labour of the prisoners.

Shawshank is all about squeezing hope out of people. It’s nothing less than a dystopian hell hole where there is no right and wrong. That’s Andy’s big impact on the place: for all its hellishness, he helps create some sort of freedom. Darabont wonderfully establishes the crushing dehumanising of the prison, so that moments where people can pretend for a moment they are free carry even more power. Whether that’s drinking cold beers on a freshly tarred roof (inveigled by Andy in return for sorting out Hadley’s inheritance tax problems) or listening to Mozart over the prison speakers. It’s there in the rebuilding of the library as a place prisoners can feel pride in or Andy coaching others to gain their school diplomas. And we feel every moment of it with them.

And that’s not even thinking about how brutish some of the other prisoners are. Much of Andy’s first few years in prison see him dodging gang rape from a group of particularly violent prisoners (led by a sneeringly vicious Mark Rolston). For that opening act, Andy is tossed as low as you can go, Darabont pulling no punches on vicious beatings or terror he has to endure. Hope becomes more powerful when it grows out of despair.

But that suffering is crucial because it gives even more warmth and power to the friendship between Andy and Red. Shawshank Redemption is a beautiful platonic love story, about a deep and lasting bond between friends. The warmth, regard and affection between these two characters, who discover how much they have in common is beautifully paced and supremely engaging.

It’s also helped a great deal by two fabulous performances from the leads. Tim Robbins’ baby-faced inscrutability is perfect for a man who may or may not be a murderer, and looks like he both needs protection and also has the internal strength to see him through anything. You can see why Red thinks, on first meeting him, he might be weak – but also never doubt for a moment that he’s strong enough to wade through the filth of Shawshank.

Opposite him is an iconic, beautiful performance from Morgan Freeman. Darabont’s film uses Freeman’s gorgeous tones to perfection through Red’s narration. Freeman of course gives Red a wonderful world-weary wisdom but also a sort of innocence. Red has worked out perfectly how to bend the rules of the prison – so confidently that he’s an awe of someone who finds out a way to break them completely. This is some of the actor’ finest work, making Red witty, shrewd, self-aware but also in some ways touchingly naïve and scared that he could never survive outside the prison.

Institutionalisation is a major danger in prison: it’s part of the danger of giving up hope, of accepting the status quo that your whole life is those four walls. But then, it’s also the terror of leaving a regimented world, where some decisions are made for you and you can always know your place. One of the film’s finest sequences covers the tragic end for Brooks, wonderfully played by James Whitmore, an educated and respected librarian inside but an irrelevant, old man outside, day-dreaming of one day being allowed to ‘go home’. It’s a danger Red knows could hit him too – after all he’s the best fixer inside, but a man with no such purpose outside.

Darabont’s film understands it. In fact, the film itself encourages the viewer to get a bit institutionalised themselves. The audience enjoys Andy’s triumphs, the commadre between the prisoners, the fun of the tables subtly turned. So much so the viewers can forget that this should be a film about getting out of this hell. (In fact you can argue, after a time, it makes prison look a little like an eternal boys camp). It shakes the viewer up as much as Andy when this status quo we’ve started to enjoy gets shaken up by the arrival of young thief Tommy (Gil Bellows). It’s a moment where the viewer realises that the film made a subtle shift from being a prison drama to a buddy movie where our heroes eek out little wins from the system: not least because this is the point when the system reminds Andy (and us) that it’s not to be messed with.

Darabont’s film reforms into a wonderful caper movie, a super-clever heist, covering Andy’s eventual escape. This is classic Ocean’s Eleven stuff and has the double delight for the audience of paying off Andy’s mistreatment and injustice and also allowing us to really enjoy how ingenious he is. Then the film switches gears effortlessly on a sixpence after this moment of delightful triumph with a low-key, tender, Red-focused coda which taps us straight back into the beautiful warmth of that friendship.

Perhaps this is why The Shawshank Redemption is so universally beloved. It’s a prison film and a buddy film, it’s a caper and it’s a film about a crushing system, it’s a film of hellish suffering and deep hope, all framed around a wonderfully judged, life-affirming friendship. Darabont’ script and direction is perfectly judged and immensely moving and the acting is perfect. It works so well because it constantly brings us back to feelings of hope and friendship. Those are universal feeling and they are beautifully presented in the film. We live with Andy being put through the wringer, and relate to him so much, that we feel as cleansed by the rainfall as he does. It’s that which lies at its success; and the brilliant way it gets you to invest in the fate of its characters.

West Side Story (2021)

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Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler are star cross’d lovers in Spielberg’s triumphant West Side Story

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Ansel Elgort (Tony), Rachel Zegler (Maria), Ariana DeBose (Antia), David Alvarez (Bernardo), Mike Faist (Riff), Rita Moreno (Valentina), Brian d’Arcy James (Officer Krupke), Corey Stoll (Lt Schrank), Josh Andres Rivera (Chino), Iris Menas (Anybodys)

Was there actually a need to remake West Side Story? It’s the question everyone was asking before the film’s release. Judging by the disaster at the Box Office (also connected to our old friend Covid), it’s a question people are still asking. Well, you remake it by refocusing and partially reinventing it while remaining loyal to the roots of what makes this one of the greatest 20th century musicals. Spielberg’s triumphant film does exactly this, in many places even exceeding the Oscar winning original. This West Side Story is full of toe-tapping, heart-breaking numbers, gloriously choreographed numbers and scenes of high emotion and social insight.

In 1957 in Manhattan’s West Side, it’s the dying days of the San Juan Hill district, which is being slowly bulldozed to build the Lincoln Centre. Scrambling to retain control of what’s left are two gangs of youths: the Jets, a group of white rough kids led by Riff (Mike Faist) and the Sharks, a migrant Puerto Rican gang led by would-be boxer Bernardo (David Alvarez). The two groups plan a ‘rumble’ to settle matters forever. A fight that ends up carrying even more importance when both communities are outraged by the burgeoning romance between former Jet leader Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Bernardo’s sister Maria (Rachel Zegler). Will love triumph over hate? Well, it’s based on Romeo and Juliet, so I’ll leave it to you to work that out.

The original, Oscar-laden, West Side Story is a ground-breaking and brilliant musical. Based closely on the triumphant original Broadway production, it showcased earth-shatteringly brilliant choreography by Jerome Robbins. The sort of grace, power, passion and beauty in movement that very few productions of anything have got anywhere near matching. Spielberg’s remake can’t match that – and wisely doesn’t try, rejigging and reinventing the choreography with touches of inspiration from Robbins’ work. But, in many ways, it matches and even surpasses the other elements of the original.

The musical’s book is radically re-worked by playwright Tony Kurshner to stress the racial and social clashes between these two very different communities. Helped as well by the racially accurate casting (memories of Natalie Wood passing herself off as Puerto Rican are quickly dispatched), Spielberg’s film transforms West Side Story into a film exposing the kneejerk jingoism and xenophobia of the Jets (who are often deeply unlikeable) and the touchy, insecure defensiveness of the Puerto Rican Sharks.

Everything in the film works to establish the difficulty the Pueto Rican community had in settling in America. From language problems – most of the characters are still mastering English, with Spanish exchanges untranslated – to the obvious bias of police officers like Corey Stoll’s bullying Lt Schrank (officers and others frequently order the Puerto Ricans to “speak English”). Maria and Anita no longer work in a dress shop, but as cleaners in a department store. Racial slurs pepper the dialogue (Spic and Gringo litter the dialogue). The Jets are first seen defacing a mural of a Pueto Rican flag. Loyalty to your community – both of whom see themselves as under siege – is more important than anything. The film bubbles with an awareness of time, place and the dangers and troubles faced by migrant communities far more than the original.

For that choreography, Justin Peck keeps the inspiration of Robbins, but mixes it with his own fast-paced, electric dynamism. The big numbers dominate the screen, from opening confrontation of the Jets and Sharks to the carnivalesque America, the playful Office Krupke, the frentic Gym Dance and the ballet inspired Cool. The choreography is earthier and punchier (in some cases literally so) more than Robbins, with a rough and tumble physicality and strenuous attack that contrasts with the balletic perfection of the original. It’s both a tribute to the original and also very much its own thing – and works perfectly.

Balancing tribute and forging its new identity is also at the heart of Spielberg’s brilliant direction. He’s confident enough to shoot many of the musical numbers with a Hollywood classic style – which allows us to see and admire all the choreography. But he also mixes this with sweeping, immersive camera work, thrilling tracking shots and beautiful images – there is a great one of Tony standing in a puddle surrounded with apartment window reflections, which looks like he’s surrounded with stars. Spielberg brings the demolished buildings very much into the visual design, part of making this West Side Story, earthier and rougher. The film is electrically paced and lensed with an expert eye.

The film’s two leads are both superior to the originals. Ansel Elgort is a fine singer (with a heartfelt rendition of Maria) and dancer (he excels at Cool), even if he at times struggles to bring his slightly bland character to life. He gives Tony a puppy dog quality – that does make hard to believe this version of the character killed a man in a brawl – as well as a wonderful sense of youthful impetuousness. Opposite him Rachel Zegler – plucked from YouTube by an open casting call – is sensationally wide-eyed, youthful radiance as Maria, naïve and in love, a superb singer.

Even better though are the supporting roles. Finest of all is Ariana DeBose, for whom this film feels like the unearthing of a major talent. Her singing and dancing is awe-inspiring, but it’s DeBose’s ability to switch from warm and motherly, to flirtatious and sexy, to grief, rage and confusion and all of it feeling a natural development from one to another is extraordinary. Her major songs are the films main highlights, stunningly performed. David Alvarez is a passionate, head-strong Bernardo, convinced that he is acting for the best (like DeBose his singing and dancing is extraordinary). Mike Faist is brilliantly surly and enraged (and struggling with repressed feelings for Tony) as Riff.

And, of course, there is Rita Moreno, now playing Valentina, a re-invention of the original production’s character of Don. Moreno worked closely as a consultant with Spielberg and Peck, and gives her scenes a world-weary sadness and desire for hope. She sparks beautifully with Elgort and to see her save Anita from gang rape (still a shocking scene, as it was when Moreno played it) and then angrily spit her contempt and rage at these boys is very powerful.

West Side Story needed to justify its existence. It does this in so many ways. Wonderfully performed by the cast, Spielberg pays homage to the original and classic Hollywood musicals but mixes this with electric film-making and a far greater degree of social and racial awareness (without ever hammering the points home) that allows you to see this tragedy from a new perspectives. It reimagines without dramatically reinventing and sits beautifully alongside the original. It’s more than justified its existence: in many ways it’s even better than the original.

The Last Duel (2021)

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Adam Driver and Matt Damon fight The Last Duel in medieval France

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Matt Damon (Sir Jean de Carrouges), Adam Driver (Jacques Le Gris), Jodie Comer (Marguerite de Carrouges), Ben Affleck (Count Pierre d’Alencon), Harriet Walter (Nicole de Buchard), Alex Lawther (King Charles VI), Marton Csorkas (Crespin), Željko Ivanek (Le Coq), Tallulah Haddon (Marie), Bryony Hannah (Alice), Nathaniel Parker (Sir Robert de Thibouville), Adam Nagaitis (Adam Louvel)

The medieval era had its own solution for “He said, She said”. Let God decide via a fight to the death. After all, He would never let the injured party lose, would he? Scott’s The Last Duel is a dramatisation of one of the last French judicial duels, in December 1386, between Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and his former friend Jacques le Gris (Adam Driver), after Le Gris is accused of raping Carrouge’s wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer). Scott’s Rashomon-inspired film shows the events leading up to the duel from all three characters’ perspectives.

The three different stories we see are not radically different. Unlike Rashomon – which presented totally different versions of the same events, according to the prejudices or agendas of the storytellers – The Last Duel’s versions stress subtly different reactions or presents different fragments of an overall story. So, for instance, Le Gris and Carrouges remember different elements of a battle. Carrouges recalls the noble charge to save the innocent, saving Le Gris’ life in the final stages of combat. To Le Gris it’s a suicidal charge, in which he saves an unhorsed Carrouge’s life. After the rape, Carrouge remembers offering his wife sympathy; she remembers his anger and demand they have sex at once to “cleanse her” of the stain.

These mixed recollections work best when we see each of them remember a fateful reconciliation meeting between Le Gris and Carrouges (where Le Gris and Marguerite first meet). A wedge has been driven between them ever since Carrouges believed Le Gris cheated him out of both land and his father’s former position. When the two agree to try and put the past behind them, Carrouge asks Marguerite to give Le Gris a kiss of peace. He remembers her surprise and timidity. Le Gris remembers her as being quietly excited with a kiss that lingers. Marguerite remembers a kiss from Le Gris that lingers too long. Small moments like this are where the film is at its strongest, making its concept feel very relevant today in our world of accusation and counter accusation.

But these moments are few and far between. Most of the time there isn’t this subtle variation. Where the film is weakest is when we (frequently) see the same events, presented the same way, three times. While our perception of Carrouges changes – from the ill-treated noble he sees himself to the sullen, self-entitled whiner everyone else sees – our idea of Le Gris is fundamentally the same (blissfully self-entitled). Fundamentally, when we see events the first time, later versions only really tweak our perception of them rather than challenge it.

You can see this in the rape itself, which we first see from Le Gris’ perspective. The film shows Le Gris’ understanding of consent has been twisted by most of his sexual experience being court orgies with playfully protesting prostitutes. His pursuit of a genuinely unwilling Margeurite around her room echoes exactly the pretend-chases and “chat up lines” he’s used in those earlier scenes, so we understand it’s possible he doesn’t actually understand he’s raped her. But no viewer can see Le Gris’ version as anything other than rape. In fact, the only tangible difference when we see the event from her perspective is that her screams of “No” and “Stop” are louder and the camera focuses more on her anguished face. If the film is presenting any tension about whether this is a consensual encounter or rape, it ends the second we see Le Gris’ story.

This negatively effects the drama – and actually makes Marguerite’s version seem strangely superfluous. You start to feel we might as well see all three perspectives at the same time, as the narrative trick ends up adding little to the film – especially since the film categorically states Marguerite’s version is the truth. Why not just tell the whole film from her perspective in that case? It also doesn’t help that Marguerite goes last – which means until an hour into the film, the character we should be most engaged with and sympathetic towards has stood on the side-lines.

This is particularly unfortunate as the film is striving for a feminist message. The men are callous and self-obsessed, treating women as sex toys or assets – and are praised for it. Marguerite though is intelligent and principled, marginalised by her husband and condemned as a whore when she protests her rape. She pushes her case with determination, despite discovering she will be condemned to burn if Carrouge loses (he of course is only in his own honour). Her word is only good if backed a man, and she is powerless to defend her innocence.

It’s the lot of medieval women. Harriet Walter (rocking a bizarre appearance, straight out of David Lynch’s Dune) as Carrouge’s mother tells Marguerite the same thing happened to her, but she considered it pointless (and dangerous) to press charges. What we see of the judicial system is ruthlessly unjust and misanthropic, with women harangued to confess their guild for tempting men.

But it doesn’t quite click together. It’s a shame, as many scenes are highly effective. The rape – both times we see it – is alarming. The final duel is brilliantly shot and hugely tense, not least because Marguerite stands literally on the top of an unlit bonfire watching every blow. Scott’s shoots the film with the same blue-filtered beauty he gave to the early scenes of Kingdom of Heaven.

There is of course an oddness in seeing such American actors as Damon, Affleck and Driver in period setting. The accents are an odd mix: Comer basically uses her regular (non-Scouse) performance voice, Damon does a gravelly version of his own, Walter an American twang to match Damon, Affleck is halfway to plummy Brit, Driver flattens his Californian tones. Damon is pretty good as the sulky, surly Carrouge who gets less sympathetic the more we see him, Driver is suitably charming on the surface but selfish. Comer plays wounded injustice extremely well and brings a lot of emotion to a difficult role. Affleck has the most fun, flouncing around in a blonde wig as a lordly, hedonistic pervert who likes nothing more than belittling Carrouge.

The Last Duel is part way to a decent film, but it just lacks that little bit extra to make it really come to life. Its alternative versions of the truth don’t illuminate as much as they need to – even if they are at points pleasingly subtle in their differences. It has an admirable feminist message, but defers most of it to the second half of the film (were they worried about sidelining the famous male actors?) and it’s concern that we should not doubt Marguerite at any point does undermine its drama. Handsomely filmed, it doesn’t make the impact it should. Perhaps that’s why it was one of the leading box office disasters of the Covid Pandemic?

The Devil is a Woman (1935)

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Lionel Atwill and of course Marlene Dietrich play out the final chapter of von Sternberg’s psycho-sexual fantasies in The Devil is a Woman

Director: Josef von Sternberg

Cast: Marlene Dietrich (Concha Perez), Lionel Atwill (Captain Don Pasqual Costelar), Edward Everett Horton (Governor Don Paquito), Cesar Romero (Antonio Galvan), Alison Skipworth (Senora Perez), Don Avarado (Morenito)

The Devil is a Woman has more than a whiff of being made after the Lord Mayor’s Show. It’s an impression not helped by the fact that it takes place in the aftermath of a town carnival, with Sternberg having apparently emptied the Paramount props cupboard of paper streamers. The Devil is a Woman is the final film made by Sternberg and Dietrich, a piece of contractual obligation for all concerned. Sternberg’s career deflated swiftly after it and the entire film has an autumnal sadness about it. No one seems particularly interested in what they are making, and it finds nothing new to say or do that Sternberg and Dietrich haven’t already done, other than set it in Spain (a decision that did not delight the Spanish government).

Dietrich is Concha Perez, a beyond ruthless, heartless, scheming, femme fatale who teases and uses men for her own ends with nary a second of guilt. Her web is starting to form around revolutionary Antonio Galvan (Cesar Romero). He’s warned off though by her former beau (victim?) Don Pasqual (Lionel Atwill), a middle-aged aristocrat who Concha effortlessly made dance to her tune and fund her many affairs, all while giving him just enough affection to keep him on board. Pasqual recounts his relationship with Concha in flashback – but will Antonio give a damn? Or is a duel on the cards between the two? Watch out Pasqual is an expert marksman…

For decades The Devil is a Woman was considered a lost film, until Sternberg provided one of the few copies of the film to the Venice Film Festival in 1959. This copy however did not contain the 17 minutes of footage cut from the film by Paramount (it’s a very short film, less than 80 minutes). Even found though, it’s a minor work, a little coda to seven collaborations between director and star, some of them iconic classics.

The film has all the foibles of Sternberg – and is a final indicator why this visual stylist found himself so hideously out of step in the era of the talkies. Dialogue and story are so secondary that you can’t help but notice their crudeness. When Sternberg has longer dialogue scenes, he shoots them with a cursory flatness that suggests he them over and done with as soon as possible. The passion of the film – what passion there is – goes into the visuals, whether it’s the streamer filled carnivals, the thundering rain that powers down on the duel or (of course) the sultry, painterly shots of Dietrich in luscious black-and-white.

The problem is that there isn’t really a truly striking visual in the film: perhaps Sternberg had used all his fire on The Scarlet Empress or maybe, after the disaster of that film, he was worried (or had been firmly told) that his final Paramount film had to have at least some semblance of the conventional to it. So, The Devil is a Woman is a conventional film with little flashes of imagination and visual skill – like the balloon that bursts to reveal Dietrich’s face (marksman to burst the balloon none other than Sternberg himself). It all adds to the end-of-an-era feeling that permeates the film.

The most interesting beat in the film is the feeling that we are watching yet-another on-screen playing out of Sternberg’s own psycho-sexual drama. Surely, he saw more than a bit of himself in Pasqual? The older, refined man, hopelessly infatuated with the beautiful, younger woman who drains him dry of money and prestige, but won’t commit herself to loving him? Pasqual the masochist who keeps coming back for more and more humiliation and sexual rejection? Hard not to think that there was more than a bit of Sternberg in Atwill’s performance – or that Concha’s late abandonment of Antonio to return to Pasqual was Sternberg’s own fantasy. Of course, it’s all Sternberg’s view, where he was very much the Henry Higgins. Dietrich would very well disagree.

The Devil is a Woman has its moments. Although often (despite being very short) rather slow – the long flashback-structure back story takes it time and then some – Sternberg can still find moments of beauty. Cesar Romero brings a lot more charisma and interest to the sort of handsome beefcake role John Lodge played in The Scarlett Empress. (In a bizarre advance in-joke Romero wears something very close to a Batman style mask at one point). Dietrich is given little to do other than be as cold as possible, but she manages to add depth and shade to her character. Atwill is rather good as the masochist Pasqual and the rain-soaked duel between him and Romero is worth the price of admission.

It can’t change the fact though that this is rather a sad coda to a great collaboration, an after-thought where it’s not clear that anyone was really interested in the content itself. It’s final shot is fitting: a chariot rides away into the sunset. It fits for this partnership – and effectively for Sternberg’s career which never achieved these heights again.

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)

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Max von Sydow carries a heavy burden in Steven’s far-from The Greatest Story Ever Told

Director: George Stevens

Cast: Max von Sydow (Jesus), Dorothy McGuire (The Virgin Mary), Charlton Heston (John the Baptist), Claude Rains (Herod the Great), José Ferrer (Herod Antipas), Telly Savalas (Pontius Pilate), Martin Landau (Caiaphas), David McCallum (Judas Iscariot), Donald Pleasance (“The Dark Hermit”), Michael Anderson Jnr (James the Less), Roddy McDowell (Matthew), Gary Raymond (Peter), Joanna Dunham (Mary Magdalene), Ed Wynn (Old Aram), Angela Lansbury (Claudia), Sal Mineo (Uriah), Sidney Poitier (Simon of Cyrene), John Wayne (Centurion)

You could make a case to prosecute The Greatest Story Ever Told under the Trade Descriptions Act. In a world where we are blessed (cursed?) with a plethora of Biblical epics, few are as long, worthy, turgid or dull as George Stevens’ misguided epic. Just like Jesus in the film is plagued by a Dark Hermit representing Satan, did Stevens have a wicked angel whispering in his ear “More wide shots George, and even more Handel’s Messiah. And yes, The Duke is natural casting for a Roman Centurion…”. The Greatest Story Ever Told has some of the worst reviews Christianity has ever had – and it’s had some bad ones.

The plot covers the whole life of the Saviour so should be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a Gideon’s Bible. It was a passion project for Stevens, who spent almost five years raising the cash to bring it to the screen. When he started, the fad for self-important Biblical epics was starting to teeter. When it hit the screen, it had flat-lined. It didn’t help that The Greatest Story Ever Told was first released as an over four-hour snooze fest, laboriously paced, that managed to drain any fire or passion from one of (no matter what you believe) the most tumultuous and significant lives anyone on the planet has ever led. The film was cut down to about two hours (making it incomprehensible) and today exists as a little over three-hour epic that genuinely still feels like it’s four hours long.

Stevens gets almost nothing right here whatsoever. Self-importance permeates the entire project. The film cost $20million, double the largest amount the studio had ever spent. Ordinary storyboards were not good enough: Stevens commissioned 350 oil paintings (that’s right, an entire art gallery’s worth) to plan the picture (which probably explains why the film feels at times like a slide show of second-rate devotional imagery). The Pope was consulted on the script (wisely he didn’t take a screen credit). Stevens decided the American West made a better Holy Land than the actual Holy Land, so shot it all in Arizona, Nevada and California. It took so long to film, Joseph Schildkraut and original cinematographer William C Mellor both died while making it, while Joanna Durham (playing Mary Magdalene!) became pregnant and gave birth. Stevens shot 1,136 miles of film, enough to wrap around the Moon.

There’s something a little sad about all that effort so completely wasted. But the film is a complete dud. It’s terminally slow, not helped by its stately shooting style where the influence of all those paintings can be seen. Everything is treated with crushing import – Jesus can’t draw breath without a heavenly choir kicking in to add spiritual import to whatever he is about to say. Stevens equates grandeur with long shots so a lot of stuff happens in the widest framing possible, most ridiculously the resurrection of Lazarus which takes place in a small part of a screen consumed with a vast cliff panorama. Bizarrely, most of the miracles take place off-screen, as if Stevens worried that seeing a man walk on water, feed the five thousand or turn water into wine would stretch credulity (which surely can’t be the case for a film as genuflecting as this one).

What we get instead is Ed Wynn, Sal Mineo and Van Heflin euphorically running up a hilltop and shouting out loud the various miracles the Lamb of God has bashfully performed off-screen. Everything takes a very long time to happen and a large portion of the film is given over to a lot of Christ walking, talking at people but not really doing anything. For all the vast length, no real idea is given at all about what people were drawn to or found magnetic about Him. It’s as if Stevens is so concerned to show He was better than this world, that the film forgets to show that He was actually part of this world. Instead, we have to kept being told what a charismatic guy He is and how profound His message is: we never get to see or hear these qualities from His own lips.

For a film designed to celebrate the Greatest, the film strips out much of the awe and wonder in Him. It’s not helped by the chronic miscasting of Max von Sydow. Selected because he was a great actor who would be unfamiliar to the mid-West masses (presumably considered to be unlikely to be au fait with the work of Ingmar Bergman), von Sydow is just plain wrong for the role. His sonorous seriousness and restrained internal firmness help make the Son of God a crushing, distant bore. He’s not helped by his dialogue being entirely made-up of Bible quotes or the fact that Stevens directs him to be so stationary and granite, with much middle-distance staring, he could have been replaced with an Orthodox Icon with very little noticeable difference.

Around von Sydow, Stevens followed the norm by hiring as many star actors as possible, some of whom pop up for a few seconds. The most famous of these is of course John Wayne as the Centurion who crucifies Jesus. This cameo has entered the realms of Filmic Myth (the legendary “More Awe!”exchange). Actually, Stevens shoots Wayne with embarrassment, as if knowing getting this Western legend in is ridiculous – you can hardly spot Wayne (if you didn’t know it was him, you wouldn’t) and his line is clearly a voiceover. In a way just as egregious is Sidney Poitier’s wordless super-star appearance as Simon, distracting you from feeling the pain of Jesus’ sacrifice by saying “Oh look that’s Sidney Poitier” as he dips into frame to help carry the cross.

Of the actors who are in it long enough to make an impression, they fall into three camps: the OTT, the “staring with reverence” and the genuinely good. Of the OTT crowd, Rains and Ferrer set the bar early as various Herods but Heston steals the film as a rug-chested, manly John the Baptist, ducking heads under water in a Nevada lake, bellowing scripture to the heavens. Of the reverent, McDowell does some hard thinking as Matthew, although I have a certain fondness for Gary Raymond’s decent but chronically unreliable Peter (the scene where he bitches endlessly about a stolen cloak is possibly the only chuckle in the movie).

It’s a sad state of affairs that the Genuinely Good actors all play the Genuinely Bad characters – poor old Jesus, even in the story of his life the Devil gets all the best scenes. That’s literally true here as Donald Pleasence is head-and-shoulders best-in-show as a softly spoken, insinuating but deeply sinister “Dark Hermit” who tempts Jesus in the wilderness and then follows Him throughout the Holy Land, turning others against Him. Also good are David McCallum as a conflicted Judas, Telly Savalas as weary Pilate (he shaved his head for the role, loved the look and never went back) and Martin Landau, good value as a corrupt Caiaphas (“This will all be forgotten in a week” he signs the film off with saying).

That’s about all there is to enjoy about a film that probably did more to reduce attendance at Sunday School than the introduction of Sunday opening hours and football being played all day. A passion project from Stevens where he forgot to put any of that passion on the screen, it really is as long and boring as you heard, a film made with such reverent skill that no one seemed to have thought about stopping and saying “well, yes, but is it good?”. I doubt anyone is watching it up in Heaven.

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

Marlene Dietrich with a beloved friend (and the film has fun with that rumour) in The Scarlet Empress

Director: Josef von Sternberg

Cast: Marlene Dietrich (Empress Catherine), John Lodge (Count Alexey Razumovsky), Sam Jaffe (Emperor Peter III), Louise Dresser (Empress Elizaveta Petrovna), C. Aubrey Smith (Prince Christian August), Gavin Gordon (Captain Orlov), Olive Tell (Joanna Elizabeth), Ruthelma Stevens (Countess Elizaveta), Davison Calrk (Arch Episcopope), Erville Anderson (Chancellor Bestuzhev-Ryumin)

Did von Sternberg have a bet on when he made this film? “Hey Josef, what’s the maddest film you think you could make and get away with?” Either that, or perhaps he didn’t care anymore and decided his own obsessions with visuals, sexuality and Dietrich were more important than anything else. Regardless, he made The Scarlet Empress, perhaps one of the most bizarre major releases from a 1930s Studio, a sort of camp masterpiece that contains things you just won’t see any in other film, but at the same time is a disjointed, barely plotted ramble through a fable-tinged version of Russian history. Either way, it’s a truly unique film – and how many films can you say that about?

The plot loosely follows the rise of Catherine the Great (Marlene Dietrich) to power, but any resemblance to real people (living or dead) seems to be purely coincidental. Catherine arrives in Russia to power the heir to the throne, Grand Duke Peter (Sam Jaffe), a gurning simpleton more interested in his soldiers (both toys and real ones) and his mistress Elizaveta (Ruthelma Stevens) than Catherine. Russia is ruled by his mother Empress Elizaveta (Louise Dresser), a domineering matriarch. The (initially) innocent Catherine is admired by the rakeish Count Alexey (John Lodge), but must learn to master the skills of the court – and the sensuality of her own body – to take power.

The Scarlet Empress is pretty crazy. If you are coming here for a history lesson on Catherine the Great, keep on walking. Josef von Sternberg called it “a relentless excursion into style” and that’s a pretty good description. It’s a parade of his fascinations (and obsessions), set in a Russia that never really existed but I suspect Sternberg would argue ‘shouldhave done’. This is Russia as a medieval backwater, built entirely from Cossacks, icons and gargoyles, with the Russian court a ramshackle wooden palace with a throne that wouldn’t look out of place in Game of Thrones. Much of the sense of time and place is buried under this and huge chunks of the film may as well be silent cinema, so little does dialogue matter and so skilfully are emotions and events communicated visually.

However, grab this in the right mood and this is a film it’s impossible not to admire and even fall in love with a little bit. There really is nothing like this, and like much of Sternberg’s work there is a visual sweep and drama here that few other filmmakers can match. There are some truly striking images, from Cossacks riding through the palace, to Sam Jaffe’s gargoyle like face as Grand Duke Peter, to a giant drill bit punching through the eye of a wooden icon. The jaw dropping production design – sets that dwarf the actors – is mixed with misty lighting for romantic assignations and deep shadows for (literally) backstairs court intrigue.

In all this, the story counts for very little, with the primary focus being Sternberg’s obsessions. Many of those seem to be sexual. The Scarlet Empress was released right on the cusp of the Production Code being enforced in Hollywood – and it’s hard to imagine it could ever have been passed once the code was fully enforced. The film lays it’s hand out early with an S&M tinged Russian torture montage (with naked women in iron maidens, whippings, beheadings and a giant bell with the clapper replaced by a human being) and hardly stops from there. Later montages feature explosions of Peter’s soldiers, looting, shooting and orgying across Russia.

The primary lesson Catherine needs to learn in Russia is to use the power of her own sexuality. The idea of politics is even openly rejected by Catherine in favour of mastering her seductive powers. Initially a blushing, mousy innocent, she becomes increasingly coquettish and seductive as the film unfolds. In an early scene she nervously fingers a riding crop – by later in the film she’s bending it in her hands with all the confidence of a Dominatrix. Lovers come and go, as she wins supporters over to her side (she “added the army to her list of conquests” a caption deadpans at one point). Trysts grow in confidence, as Dietrich’s performance progresses from innocence to dominant knowingness.

Dietrich is as close as she’s been to a prop here, striking a series of poses in a performance that’s largely campily two dimensional. For the first 70 minutes she’s given almost nothing to do other than strike a bemused face: for the remaining 40 minutes she’s like Sternberg’s wet dream of a sexually aggressive domineering woman. Basic notes are what most of the cast are kept to, fitting the impression that they are just props in a silent film. John Lodge scowls and poses as Count Alexey and is as wooden as most of the set. Sam Jaffe is one of the gargoyles made flesh. Louise Dresser is an older version of the sexual kingpin Catherine becomes.

But that’s because it’s all about the mood and the style. The Scarlet Empress has that in absolute spades. It’s as close as you can get in the 1930s to a director of a major Hollywood studio film, pouring money into something that maybe only he will like. It’s silent film roots can be seen not only in its vast impressionistic sets, but also in the steady parade of title cards that dance across the screen to communicate what passes for the story. Acting and story are very much secondary to the mood of sexual exuberance and craziness that dominates nearly every frame of the action. The film was a massive bomb on release – perhaps because no one else could quite work out what it was – and it’s taken decades for its overblown mad genius to be recognised. But it’s a film unlike any other and for that alone you should see it.

Zardoz (1974)

Yes Sean Connery actually wears this in Zardoz

Director: John Boorman

Cast: Sean Connery (Zed), Charlotte Rampling (Consuella), Sara Kestelman (May), Niall Buggy (Arthur Frayn/Zardoz), John Alderton (Friend), Sally Anne Newton (Avalow), Bosco Hogan (George Saden)

Be warned. When a director is given the money to make any film he wants – with total creative control and no interference from anyone else – you’ve got a 50/50 chance of either getting a work of genius or a piece of pap. In the case of John Boorman’s Zardoz you definitely get the latter. Zardoz is possibly one of the most bizarre, misguided, surreal and finally plain bad films you’ll see, like a walking advert for the most pretentious and terrible outreaches of science fiction. 

It’s the year 2293, and the world is a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The “Brutes” live in the wastelands, growing food for the “Eternals” – immortal figures, leading a luxurious but empty, pointless existence on a series of country estates protected from the outside world by forcefields, their lives governed by a super computer. In the middle are the “Exterminators”, who control (i.e. kill and enslave) the Brutes and worship “Zardoz”, a giant flying head sent by the Eternals. Until, one day, Exterminator Zed (Sean Connery) sneaks his way into Zardoz and finds himself in the world of the Eternals and starts to lead them to question the point of their interminable immortality.

Zardoz looks overwhelmingly silly, and is often filmed and edited with such high-flown, empty surrealness, that it’s almost impossible to take seriously from the start. It looks so bizarre – with its terrible costumes, camp playing and overly designed look and feel – that it’s hard not to suppress a snigger. This is made worse by the shallow, pretentious and obvious social satire forced upon on once you start to concentrate on the dialogue.

It’s also one of those films that mistakes an incoherent, poorly explained plot – in which characters frequently change sides, motivations and aims at the drop of a hat – for a sort of mystical profoundity. The influence of The Prisoner is very strongly felt, from its commune-like setting to our “hero” being trapped in a stylised world where he is trying to work out the rules. But while The Prisoner manages, more or less, to suggest some sort of deeper meaning behind all the stylistic self-indulgence and pleased-with-itself babble, Zardoz just manages to be unengaging and heavily self-indulgent. 

You don’t need a philosophy major to work out the social commentary being made in a world where the richest exploit the rest of the population to live a life of ease and content. Nor is it a surprise to find that this sort of life without challenges, continuing forever, has led to stagnated and lazy lives where everything (even, to the film’s shock, sex – although of course the muscular Connery fixes that) has lost all meaning. Frankly this world takes off-cuts of several, far better and smarter films, and remixes them together into a turgid mess.

And it looks so silly. The entire design of the film constantly shoots it in the foot. How could you take Sean Connery seriously in that costume? The Eternals wear the sort of Greek-influenced hedonistic costumes that you would expect to see on a second-rate episode of Star Trek. The film frequently uses stylistic decisions that look absurd – and try too hard – from the hand gestures used to show the Eternals’ mind control (looking like a partial lift from the Macarena) to the bizarre sequences where Zed’s memory is searched using an projector, frequently using surrealist images mixed with physical theatre that frankly looks more than a little bit silly.

Sean Connery goes at this all with a respectful commitment, even if the character isn’t particularly engaging, and is hard to relate to since most of his memories seem to revolve around rape and murder. As if recognising this, there is a late plot turn where we find out that Zed is far more than he appears. But rather than making this intriguing, it makes virtually all his actions earlier in the film incoherent. But then it’s not as if that’s a problem: Charlotte Ramping, Sara Kestelman and John Alderton as the leading Eternals swop views, sides and opinions virtually scene to scene. Rampling in particular goes between plotting Zed’s death to becoming his acolyte in one conversation. For some this might be a sort of poetry. But really it’s crap.

In amongst all the nonsense, the film has a seedy, porny view of women. The Eternals seem to walk around – perhaps because they are so indifferent to sex – virtually in the buff. Connery has sex (eventually) with most of the female cast, as well as groping several others. Boobs frequently appear in shot. In one moment so bizarre it must be a joke, Zed’s sexual drive (so alien to the Eternals) is even explored by showing him some pornographic images (including some naked women mud wrestling) to see if it gets his rocks off (sadly for them, he shows much more – visible – interest in Rampling than the images they are showing). 

It all finally comes to an end in an orgy of violence intercut with images that comment on rebirth in a way that is supposed to be (no doubt) an intellectual comment on the balance between love and death – but actually is just another clumsy, empty excuse for a bit more sex and violence (and plenty of nudity). But then since the film has long since stopped making any sense (with scenes including Connery dressed as a bride, chasing himself through a hall of mirrors and briefly gaining the power to turn back time and protect others from violence with “his aura”) that it hardly seems to matter. The film had a seriously damaging impact on the careers of both Boorman (who makes a good job of the opening scene and then sees the whole film slide down a silly, indulgent and pointless mess) and Connery. Not a surprise. It’s terrible.

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

Alden Ehrenreich tries his best in Solo: A Star Wars Story

Director: Ron Howard (Phil Lord, Christopher Miller)

Cast: Alden Ehrenreich (Han Solo), Woody Harrelson (Tobias Beckett), Emilia Clarke (Qi’ra), Donald Glover (Lando Calrissian), Thandie Newton (Val), Phoebe Waller-Bridge (L3-37), Joonas Suotamo (Chewbacca), Paul Bettany (Dryden Vos), Erin Kellyman (Enfys Nest), Jon Favreau (Rio Durant)

Solo did the impossible. No not the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs. It showed you could release a Star Wars film that lost money. How could this happen? Well the easy solution is to point at the film’s disastrous shooting. Lego Movie directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were originally announced as its directors, making their live-action debuts. But Lord and Miller lacked experience, and a litany of complaints – poor direction, a demand for constant improvisation slowing shooting, failing to get enough angles to allow options in editing – led to them getting fired and replaced with Ron Howard. 

Unfortunately, even though large parts of the film had already been shot, Howard still needed to go back and reshoot large chunks (and recast, with Paul Bettany replacing the Michael K Williams as the film’s villain due to a scheduling clash). The budget ballooned to nearly $300million, a sum (with marketing costs) the film didn’t stand a chance of hitting with its poor initial buzz and mixed word of mouth. Not to mention the general (misguided) poor reaction from the core fanbase to Last Jedi, which had literally only just left theatres as this film prepared to launch.

If it seems a little unfair to open a review of the film with an anecdote about its making, that’s because the film’s tortuous journey to the screen is more interesting than most of the things that actually ended up in it. It’s an origins story for Han Solo (gamely played by a trying-his-best Alden Ehrenreich), which traces his early days towards becoming the smuggler we know, with the background given for virtually every aspect of the character: meeting Chewie, how he got his surname, where he found his blaster, how he did he win the Millennium Falcon from Lando (Donald Glover, who with his charisma and cool is the only one who manages to reinterpret his character to feel both fresh and a natural predecessor of Billy Dee Williams’ interpretation) and just how did he do that Kessel Run in 12 parsecs? 

If that sounds a bit like the film is a series of nostalgic box ticks… that’s kind of because it is. The impact is made worse by the fact that nearly all its events – from Han meeting his “mentor” Beckett through to the end of the film as he jets off to do a job for Jabba the Hutt – seem to take place in a week. As so often, the modern Stars Wars films manage to make its universe as small as possible. The sense of wearying accumulation as every half reference ever made in the old films is given a backstory, makes you wonder how boring the rest of Han’s life must have been if everything he ever talks about is connected to this one job.

The telescoped timeline also has a serious impact on much of the film’s relationships. Han and Chewie get by fine because we’ve already invested in that friendship – and Ehlenreich and Suotamo do a good job of building the regard between these two, one of the best beats from Howard’s direction. But other relationships get short-changed, particularly Beckett. Played with a maverick gusto by Woody Harrelson, this character is meant to be a model of the sort of heartless mercenary Han Solo starts A New Hope as. But the relationship of the two characters never works, because there is no sense of bond – they’ve known each other a week or two at best, and the emotional trust between them doesn’t exist, so the inevitable betrayal (when it comes) means nothing.

The other principle relationship between Solo and his childhood sweetheart, the equally mercenary Qi’ra, similarly suffers from getting lost in the shuffle of ticking off iconic references. It’s not helped by the total lack of chemistry between Ehlenreich and Emilia Clarke. Clarke herself feels painfully miscast in a role that doesn’t use any of her brightness and wit, instead pushing her into the sort of fantasy-genre, fanboy’s-dream woman she might find herself trapped into playing. This links in strongly with a terminally uninteresting criminal gang plot in which a wasted Paul Bettany – playing someone who barely seems to manage to have a personality – is the mysterious crime lord manipulating everyone.

The film goes from set piece to set piece, but none of them really stand out, and all are shot and edited together with a sort of bland competence that perhaps you could expect from a master craftsman like Howard, who works better with actors than he does special effects. The film clearly wants to go for a Firefly vibe (with its heists, mismatched criminal gang, double crosses and damaged hero not wanting to get involved in the problems of others) – and there is something quite sad that this film about an iconic character feels the need to rip off a TV show that ripped off a lot of the vibe of that original iconic character.

But then that’s the problem perhaps. This is a wallowing in nostalgia that depends on your affection for Harrison Ford’s masterful Han Solo – but which will only serve to remind viewers that, for all his work, Ehlenreich is no Ford. It also doesn’t help that the film, by its very nature, can allow no development for Solo. This is a character that spends all of Star Wars as a cynical and selfish hired gun, who acts without thinking and has no interest in helping others if there is nothing in it for him. Since Solo basically starts this origins story like this, he therefore must end the film in the same way – so other than becoming a bit more competent and worldly-wise, he’s stuck not developing in any way. This makes for a film that feels even more like a slightly pointless exercise in nostalgia.

For all that, it has its moments and is fun enough – and certainly not the worst film in the franchise. But it’s the first sign, that Disney should have heeded, that nostalgia and retelling familiar stories over and over again was not a guaranteed box office smash any more. By rooting another film in things introduced in the first two Star Wars, it reminds us again that this is a small and incestuous universe, where we see the same faces over and over again. With a film where every scene is a homage and every possible piece of trivia is laboriously given a back story, that feeling grows even more.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

Even reuniting Linda Hamilton and Arnold couldn’t save Terminator: Dark Fate from (undeserved) disaster

Director: Tim Miller

Cast: Linda Hamilton (Sarah Connor), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Carl), Mackenzie Davis (Grace), Natalia Reyes (Dani Ramos), Gabriel Luna (Rev-9), Diego Boneta (Diego Ramos), Tristan Ulloa (Felipe Gandal)

It should have been a hit. The third attempt in the last ten years to restart the Terminator franchise, after no less than two cancelled planned trilogies, this one bought back James Cameron in a producing and story capacity, pulled in Linda Hamilton to return as Sarah Connor for the first time in nearly thirty years and finally seemed to be the “true” Terminator 3. But it bombed anyway, worse than either Salvation or Genysis and finally put paid (probably) once and all for the franchise. How did it come to this?

In 1998 a T-800 Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) – one of a number sent back in time by Skynet before erased from history by our heroes in Terminator 2 – finally succeeds in killing John Connor (a CGI recreation of Edward Furlong from T2), leaving Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) distraught. Twenty-two years later and a new artificial intelligence from the future, Legion, has sent back a Terminator (Gabriel Luna) to wipe out a pivotal future figure for the human resistance Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), with the resistance once again sending back its own champion Grace (Mackenzie Davis), an artificially enhanced human. The inevitable combat between man and machine is on again, with Grace and Dani joining forces with Sarah Connor, as well as other unexpected allies.

That paragraph probably gives you a sense of what’s good and what’s bad about the film. Starting with a twist that seems to finally try and send the franchise off in a new direction – the eradication of John Connor, the person every film has been about protecting – is a brave decision. The confirmation that eternal enemy Skynet has indeed been erased from history finally changes the enemy. Arnie’s T-800 is confirmed as literally the last in existence – a killer sent from a future that now no longer exists. It looks like we are set for something entirely different.

And then of course we aren’t. Because it seems man’s reach will inevitably exceed his grasp, just as would-be Terminator film producers will always overreach themselves. Even with Skynet gone, there must always be some artificial intelligence super-computer that destroys the future, there must always be some sort of special one who must be protected at all costs, always a hero sent from the future who knows more than they can say and always an Arnie Terminator on hand for good or bad. Just as Genysis tried to re-set the table, but only reminded us what a small world is, this film tries to shake up the pieces but then replaces most of them with like-for-like and throws us into a film that has effectively exactly the same structure as the first two films.

So, after that opening scene twist, we get the arrival and meet up of the two future warriors, a scrap at an everyday setting for her hero, a series of shocked reveals about the future, some gonzo chases (this one does at least up the anti – literally – by setting one of them in a plane), a lull in proceedings while our on-the-run heroes work out whether they can trust each other, then a final smackdown in a factory where self-sacrifice is all the rage. For a film that tries to do something new, it is remarkably conservative and shows that for all the time-travel inspired gymnastics of the universe it operates in, the series is strictly tied to a set number of rules and plot mechanics.

But it’s all really confidently told. That’s almost the tragedy. This is a pretty good film. Easily the third best Terminator film made. I actually pretty enjoyed it. It has a simple narrative drive to it, an old-fashioned world where the characters throw each other about and punch each other really hard into things rather than engage in balletic, choreographed fight scenes. Tim Miller directs the whole thing with a pace and drive and if Cameron feels like he may have only really been happy to attach his name to the whole thing in return for a few story ideas and a paycheque, at least it can boast it has his definite seal of approval.

The acting is also pretty good. Linda Hamilton is a welcome return, getting some fascinating beats of intense drive mixed with deep grief. It’s a great to see an action film like this front-and-centre female characters so much. It’s a shame that this is such a franchise with such a masculine reputation, as this realignment has probably not had the impact it could have had in bringing new people in. Mackenzie Davis is impressive as Grace, Natalie Reyes growing in confidence and strength as the new messiah. Even Arnie gets to do something very different with his T-800 characterisation (after 22 years of living as human, the robot has changed beyond all recognition from the remorseless killer), not least seeing him successfully terminate a target for the first time in the franchise. 

It’s just a shame that this energetic re-telling of an old story probably suffered above all from franchise exhaustion. After reboots and restarts from Salvation to Genysis have seen their plotlines, developments and future sequels sent to the scrap heap (certainly the last two) it really seems a case that once bitten, twice bitten makes us not just shy, but running scared. At the end of the day any interest and affection the franchise had from the first two films has been burned up beyond all recognition – and this film, in the end, doesn’t reinvent the wheel enough to encourage you to come back and see what’s different. It’s a shame that this sprightly entertaining film has been terminated not by its future, but by its weary, error-strewn, past.