Well, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, here we are at the start of the 800th edition of 24 Lies a Second, the film review column for people who don't care about films. What new offering could possibly be of sufficient stature to mark this special occasion? What work of the cinematic art could be a summation of all the myriad modes and techniques of this wonderful medium? How can one release epitomise the soul of cinema and all it can express of our essential humanity? I know what you're thinking - but unfortunately Fast and Furious X came out after the deadline for the column. So what else is around currently?
Chie Hayakawa's Plan 75 was competing at last year's Cannes in the unorthodox films section, which seems fair enough. This understated, measured film is set in what could be present-day Japan, except that society is crumbling under the weight of its elderly population and the government has responded by introducing the eponymous measure, whereby anyone aged 75 or over can volunteer to end their life, no questions asked, and in return they (or their family) receive a small grant as a thank-you payment. The story unfolds in several strands which only connect in passing at the very end of the film - a dignified but lonely old lady (Chieko Baisho), without any family and struggling to make ends meet, decides to do the right thing and signs up; one of the administrators of the programme (Hayato Isomura) discovers his estranged uncle has volunteered; a migrant worker from the Philippines (Stefanie Arianne) gets a job as a worker on the scheme.
How would one describe this film? Dystopian science-fiction? Drama? Social horror? There are elements of all of these here. The insidious nastiness of the film comes not from its premise but the contrast between the outwardly slick and cheerful way in which Plan 75 is implemented by the government and its private sector partners, and the fact that all of this is basically obfuscating the workings of a system where members of society deemed to have no further value are quietly gassed to death somewhere out of public view.
It all starts apparently even-handedly and with reserved detachment, but the reality of what it's really about gradually becomes inescapable; a succession of scenes near the end hit home like a series of hammer blows. But even beyond this, it's very clear that this is not just a film about the morality of euthanasia, but how we treat each other as human beings more generally. A fine and deeply humane film, if not a particularly comfortable one to watch.
More demographic problems in Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch's The Eight Mountains (aka Le Otto Montagne - this was in the main contest at Cannes 2022), which opens in a small village in the Italian Alps where there is only one child, Bruno. This changes for a bit when Pietro, a kid from Turin there for the summer, arrives. Bruno and Pietro become close friends, but lose touch when Bruno's father disapproves of a plan to get Bruno a better education in the city. Many years later they reconnect when they spend a summer rebuilding a house on the side of a mountain. Friendship is rekindled, even though they seem destined to follow very different paths: Pietro is a seeker, travelling the world and unsure of his place in it, while Bruno is certain he is a montanaro, or mountain-dweller: he starts his own artisan cheese-making business and settles down with one of Pietro's old girlfriends. Which of them has come closest to discovering the secret of a good life?
Well, some stunning scenery in this one, mainly of (you guessed it) mountains in Italy and Nepal. It really is breathtaking, epic stuff, a very appropriate counterpoint to a story which is quite personal and intimate but still very ambitious in its scope - it tells the story of a complex, charged friendship over nearly thirty years. As well as being an engrossing tale about these particular characters - there's a troubled relationship between Pietro and his own father in the mix - it touches on all sorts of issues about what it means to be a man and perhaps less emotionally open than one could be. It also feels like a film which unashamedly likes men, which is always welcome these days.
It's well played by Luca Marinelli and Alessandro Borghi, and fabulously photographed - it suggests an Italian facility for the bergfilme I hadn't previously suspected. It's based on a novel, which is perhaps a bit too obvious given there's a slightly pretentious voice-over at regular intervals; the film seems just a little bit too pleased about all the profound life-lessons it wants to impart. I'm not sure it's quite as wise and insightful as it thinks it is, but it's still an engrossing, very satisfying film.
Finally, with no aspirations to wisdom or insight worth mentioning, here comes James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3, 32nd entry in the universally beloved Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise (which Cannes inexplicably overlooked last year). This film feels like a bit of unfinished business, to be honest, delayed by Gunn getting fired and rehired because of some unwise old tweets and also the pandemic - the director's off to run the DC Comics movie franchise for the next few years (good luck with that one). Nevertheless, fun (and a surprising amount of pathos) abounds, as cosmic golden doofus Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) attempts to kidnap uplifted racoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and the rest of the Guardians of the Galaxy try to stop him. It all turns out to be the work of the ruthless and sadistic Higher Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), who sees a vacancy in the universe for the job of God...
The usual colourful and intricately choreographed Marvel pyrotechnics here, coupled to Gunn's own line in subversive black comedy - and what looks very much like a heartfelt message about animal rights, which wasn't really what I was expecting. Nevertheless, it's all as much goofy fun as one could hope for - there's a genuine sense of warmth and camaraderie between the different members of the rather absurd ensemble (amongst others, Vin Diesel returns as Groot the tree), and it's actually genuinely moving and poignant as the film nears its conclusion and it becomes clear this is the end of the line for the existing Guardians team. Splendid popcorn entertainment for anyone with a taste for it, and if this doesn't happen to include you - well, in the end, it's only movies, isn't it?