24 Lies a Second: Cardinals and Primates

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Cardinals and Primates

A couple of slices of pretty strong meat this week, for those with an interest in such things – also, if you will, a bit of a case of something old, something new, something borrowed, and many things absolutely dripping scarlet.

Let us begin by looking at Arkasha Stevenson's confusingly-titled prequel. The First Omen is in fact the sixth Omen in the franchise started by the actual first Omen back in 1976. You would think the film itself would be a bit less bemusing than the previous sentence, and it is, but only up to a point. Now, I think it's a safe bet that anyone going to see The First Omen will be familiar with the premise of the 1976 film, which means it potentially has a nasty case of prequelitis – if you know how the story's going to end, narrative tension is going to be thin on the ground. The film tries to get round this via a plot twist but it's quite guessable, unfortunately, especially if you've seen Rosemary's Baby.

So, nice young American girl Margaret (Nell Tiger Free) arrives in Rome in 1971 to do her novitiate prior to actually becoming a nun, with an avuncular cardinal (Bill Nighy) keeping a kindly eye on her. But there are odd things afoot at the orphanage and maternity hospital where she is working; odd behaviour amongst the nuns and a very strange little girl who keeps biting people. Coming from a troubled background herself Margaret does her best to help, until a deranged old priest (Ralph Ineson playing a version of the Patrick Troughton character from the 1976 film) pops up ranting about dark powers and unspeakable conspiracies in the shadow of the Vatican itself. . .

So, it's an interesting new take to make a film about Satanism which is also implicitly highly critical of the Catholic Church; if you can get past the oddness of the idea it makes a certain sort of sense in this context. Some thought has definitely gone into the script for this film, which I've seen suggested is part of a wave of obstetric horror films provoked by the decision to overturn Roe v Wade, not to mention the direction, too – one of the reasons I like the 1976 film, despite there being a history of my TV set blowing up while I'm watching it, is that it's a horror movie paced and filmed like a thriller, but this is much more artfully directed and photographed. There's an effectively unsettling atmosphere between all the gory set pieces and the strikingly vile moments of unlikely gynaecological happenings.

But prequelitis is a tricky beast to shake off and the film does seem uncertain as to how faithful to the original film's storyline it's going to be – they bring back Ineson's character, but his role in the story has seemingly been changed; they use Gregory Peck's image, but the original film's opening, set in 1966, is disregarded. If this does well there seems to have been some thought as to continuing the story, whether by another Omen remake or some sort of parallelquel. I'm dubious about that, to be honest, but there are enough good things about The First Omen – Stevenson's direction, and a really excellent performance by Nell Tiger Free – to make it worth watching if religious horror is your thing.

A different kind of old-time religion from that nice young Dev Patel (of Slumdog Millionaire and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel fame), who directs, co-writes, co-produces and stars in Monkey Man, which is not at all what you'd expect from someone whose career to date has largely been based around being fresh-faced and sympathetic. This is a rare example of a film intended for Netflix being promoted to a proper theatrical release (which it certainly deserves) courtesy of Jordan Peele's company.

The film is set in the fictional city of Yatana. Patel plays a character known only as the Kid, orphaned as a child by a massacre instigated by a corrupt cult leader and the police chief under his sway. We first find him taking regular beatings in Sharlto Copley's underground fight club as he plots his revenge, before conning his way into his targets' organisation and finally making his move...

There is a sense in which there is less to Monkey Man than first meets the eye (the title comes from the fact that Patel's character identifies with the mythological figure Hanuman, even down to wearing a monkey mask) – on one level it's a fairly standard avenging angel thriller with a familiar plot structure. But given just how much is meeting the eye (and ear) this is less of a problem than it might be, for Patel creates a vivid, immersive, inevitably somewhat exotic world, steeped in Hindu and Indian culture, and indulging in some bold social commentary (the jury is out on whether the film's Indian release has been delayed due to its violence or because it's a bit too politically provocative).

Oh, yes – there is quite a lot of violence, including a good old-fashioned fight in a toilet where all the cubicles get smashed, and a massed melee between some gangsters and a crack squad of transgender religious devotees. A lot of people are comparing Monkey Man to the John Wick series, but this feels more grounded in reality, and also like a film with something to say for itself about the world. Dev Patel still makes good use of his former career as a top-level taekwondo athlete, too, but this is more than just your standard action thriller. This is an impressive and very distinctive debut.

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