About badblokebob

Aiming to watch at least 100 films in a year. Hence why I called my blog that. https://100filmsinayear.wordpress.com

The Man Who Reviewed Some Films

There are a lot of films about a man who did something — already on this blog I’ve written about men who invented Christmas, sued God, and, um, laughed. But I noticed I have many other reviews pending about such apparently-noteworthy fellas, so I’ve rounded most of them up into this one handy location.

Some of these men knew stuff; some shot somebody; one just had a nap… but they’re all men who had a movie named after them. They are:

  • The Man Who Knew Infinity (2015)
  • The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
  • The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
  • The Man Who Sleeps (1974)


    The Man Who Knew Infinity
    (2015)

    2019 #65
    Matthew Brown | 109 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    The Man Who Knew Infinity

    Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel) is a man of boundless intelligence that even the poverty of his home in India cannot crush. His skill for mathematics attracts the attention of noted British professor G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons), who invites him to develop his computations at Trinity College, Cambridge. Ramanujan finds that his largely-intuitive mathematical theories clash with stringent academic requirements, just as his cultural values are challenged by the prejudices of 1910s Britain. With Ramanujan’s health in decline, the two men join in a mutual struggle that would define him as one of India’s greatest scholars. — adapted from IMDb

    Writer-director Matthew Brown takes this interesting true story and turns it into an ironically by-the-numbers biopic. Even with reliable actors like Patel and Irons headlining, there are some surprisingly stuff performances, and the film struggles to truly convey the genius or importance of the maths involved. Instead, it’s just lots of characters saying “OMG look at this stuff he thought up” and other characters saying “nah mate, it’s wrong” (except in the vernacular of 1910s Cambridge, of course). Alongside that, it doesn’t have many places to go with the story or characters, so it comes to feel repetitive as it goes round and round over the same points. Even the start of World War I has no genuine impact on events, factoring into the film only because that’s when these events actually happened, so Brown seems to feel it must be mentioned. Indeed, a lot of the film feels beholden to fact in this way, though I’m sure it must be doing the usual biopic thing of bending the truth.

    3 out of 5

    The Man Who Knew Too Much
    (1956)

    2019 #84
    Alfred Hitchcock | 120 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    The Man Who Knew Too Much

    Dr. Ben McKenna (James Stewart), his wife Jo (Doris Day), and their eight-year-old son Hank are on vacation in Morocco when they witness the public murder of a mysterious man who, before he dies, manages to reveal to Ben details of an assassination about to take place in London. The plotters kidnap Hank to keep the McKennas silent, so Ben and Jo return to London to take matters into their own hands. — adapted from IMDb

    Famously, this is the time Hitchcock remade himself: he’d previously filmed The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934 while he was still working in Britain. Later, he’d compare the two by calling the original “the work of a talented amateur” while the remake “was made by a professional”, although he reportedly preferred the earlier version precisely because it wasn’t so polished.

    Undoubtedly, the 1956 Man Who Knew Too Much is not top-tier Hitchcock, but that doesn’t mean it’s without joys. Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day are perfectly cast as an ‘everyman’ American couple who accidentally get embroiled in international espionage, and Hitch could make such thrills work with his eyes closed. He’s also on top form during a sequence in the Albert Hall, a stunning set piece that lasts 12 minutes without a single word of dialogue, in which Hitch has the balls to just keep going through an entire piece of music, allowing the tension to almost build itself as he cuts around the room; even when Stewart finally turns up, we still don’t need exposition — we know exactly what’s happening.

    Although a key part of the film’s conclusion, it’s not the actual finale, which is a shame because the following plan to rescue Hank is a bit daft. And, when you think about it, the villains’ plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense either. It’s stuff like that which gets in the way of The Man Who Knew Too Much being among Hitch’s very best work, but it remains a fine suspense thriller.

    4 out of 5

    The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
    (1962)

    2020 #66
    John Ford | 118 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | U

    The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

    When US Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) returns to the town of Shinbone to attend the funeral of his friend Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), a young reporter persuades him to tell the story of why he’s there. Flashback to a quarter-century-or-so earlier, when Ransom, a newly-qualified lawyer (still played, unconvincingly, by 53-year-old Stewart), arrived in Shinbone with a plan to bring law to the West. After Ransom receives a beating from local heavy Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), he recuperates at the Ericsons’ restaurant, where he takes a job in their kitchen to repay their kindness. He develops an affection for their daughter, Hallie (Vera Miles), who’s also being wooed by young rancher Doniphon (still Wayne, also in his early 50s — it seems there was a good deal of movie star vanity in this casting). With local law enforcement refusing to do anything about Valance’s violent oppressive tactics, Ransom eventually takes it upon himself to face the villain down…

    Despite the violent promise of the title, Liberty Valance is very much a dramatic western rather than an action-packed one. Just shooting Valance isn’t the characters’ first recourse; indeed, the film on the whole is interested in the clash between the moral values of the old West and incoming modernity, and how the old ways can persist even as new ones come into force. That older Ransom is a senator is not incidental: a major part of the plot concerns Shinbone (or, rather, wherever it is) applying for statehood, and Ransom and Valance both standing to be a representative.

    All of which is fine, but unfortunately the dramatic focus seems to have resulted in the film being rather slow-going at times. The main plot is fine, but the telling could’ve been tighter — there’s a lot of stuff about Ransom washing dishes and teaching everyone to read and write. It establishes his place in town, sure, but it takes forever getting there. At the other end, Valance is actually shot a full 25 minutes before the end. There’s story to wrap up and twists to reveal, but it takes its sweet time doing it. None of which is distracting as the age-related issue I already referred to. I was genuinely puzzled why everyone kept talking about how young Ransom was, when Stewart patently isn’t, until I realised it was an example of good ol’ Hollywood vanity, where someone thought a star in his 50s could get away with playing a guy in his 20s.

    Despite that, however, Stewart and Wayne remain powerful screen presences, and the commentary on the changing face of the West — indeed, of the country as a whole — is indicative of a direction the genre continues to explore to this day (it’s what the whole of Deadwood is about, at its core).

    4 out of 5

    The Man Who Sleeps
    (1974)

    aka Un homme qui dort

    2020 #203
    Bernard Queysanne | 78 mins | digital (SD) | 4:3 | France & Tunisia / French

    The Man Who Sleeps

    When I watched this, it was ranked as one of the greatest films of all time by Letterboxd users. I did not feel the same — rather than Un homme qui dort, I found it more like Un homme qui t’endort. (That’s a joke I’m so pleased with, I’ve now used it four times.)

    At first it plays like a stereotype of French art house cinema: shot in black & white, it’s about a disaffected student, told with introspective voiceover narration, which philosophises at the level of a pretentious undergraduate, and nothing actually happens. But then I began to feel that, actually, it does a pretty good job of capturing how I’ve felt often in my life; especially back when I too was a pretentious undergraduate. But that feeling didn’t last much more than quarter-of-an-hour — and as the film is an hour and a quarter, that became a problem. As I slogged on through it, the interminable narration became repetitive; the musings less relatable. Just because warped minds exist doesn’t mean it’s worth our while to spend 78 minutes in their thoughts.

    The Man Who Sleeps is the kind of film that thinks it’s profound, but is actually pretentious. That may gel with the worldview of its undergrad subject, but, just as you wouldn’t want to listen to a real-life undergrad’s philosophising for over an hour, I don’t want to endure the same from a fictional one either. I guess it’s apt that a film titled “the man who sleeps” would be a good cure for insomnia.

    2 out of 5

    The Man Who Sleeps featured on my list of The Worst Films I Saw in 2020.

  • The 100-Week Roundup XXVIII

    The 100-Week Roundup covers films I still haven’t reviewed 100 weeks after watching them. Sometimes these are short ‘proper’ reviews; sometimes they’re only quick thoughts, or even just the notes I made while viewing.

    This week’s selection includes a few more films from April 2019

  • Early Man (2018)
  • Amour (2012)
  • Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)


    Early Man
    (2018)

    2019 #56
    Nick Park | 89 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK, France & USA / English | PG / PG

    Early Man

    Only the third feature film directed by Wallace & Gromit creator Nick Park, Early Man is about a prehistoric tribe who invented football (aka soccer) and must defend their home from a more advanced civilisation by playing a winner-takes-all footie match.

    So, despite the Stone/Bronze Age setting, this is a sports movie — and with that in mind, the plot is as rote as they come. And, if you hadn’t guessed yet, the period setting is less historically accurate than Game of Thrones (at least Thrones is inspired by things that really happened). Plus, there are plenty of bizarre choices — like, if the story’s set in Britain, why is Tom Hiddleston doing a weird Generic European accent? But, for all that, this is an Aardman production, and so there’s tonnes of pleasure to be found in incidental details; the asides and background jokes and grace notes that frequently raise a full-blown laugh, or at the very least a warm smile.

    There’s also something to be said for the film being quite delightfully Brit-centric. When so many productions aim to be bland enough to appeal to a global audience, Park and co haven’t shied away from including an array of gags that are like to only be caught by Brits and/or footie fans. For example, there’s a reveal of the backstory of the tribe and their relationship to the sport that’s an obvious riff on England’s relationship to international football, and I don’t know how apparent that would be to overseas viewers; or characters with names like Goona and Asbo. Not that such things should turn off the uninitiated, however. For pun lovers alone there’s plenty of material, not to mention general quirkiness. I could try to explain what goes on with the duck, but it’s better I leave it for you to discover.

    Early Man isn’t Aardman’s strongest production, but their productions have a base-level charm that’s high enough to keep it ticking over, with the occasional inspired flourish to boot.

    3 out of 5

    Amour
    (2012)

    2019 #59
    Michael Haneke | 127 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | Austria, France & Germany / French & English | 12 / PG-13

    Amour

    German director Michaell Haneke may be much acclaimed by the arthouse crowd, but I’m not a huge fan of his previous works that I’ve seen (1997’s Funny Games and 2005’s Hidden — it seems I gave the latter four stars, which is not how I remember it). Palme d’Or, Oscar, and BAFTA winner Amour is the exception, however, even while some of its more arty asides hold it back somewhat.

    It’s the story of an ageing couple, Georges and Anne. When Anne has a stroke, Georges is left caring for her as her health continues to decline. In its depiction of this relationship — the strains placed on it and how it survives them — Amour is a truthful, affecting, and deeply moving character drama. Most of the major events (diagnoses, tests, a second stroke) happen off screen, with the film more concerned with day-to-day realities, but that’s part of where its power lies. It’s not so much about the big drama, more the reality of coping.

    But in between this powerful material, there’s random art house shenanigans, like a pigeon wandering into the apartment before Georges shoos it out, or a montage of impressionist paintings. Why do we see these things? I’ve not the foggiest. I guess Haneke had a purpose in mind, but goodness knows what it was — although, as he said in one interview, “consider the pigeon just a pigeon. You can interpret it any way you want. I wouldn’t describe it as a symbol. I have problems with symbols, because they always mean something specific. I don’t know what the pigeon means,” so maybe not. When combined with an overall slow pace, this resulted in the film becoming a bit of a slog for me, which was a real shame. The bits that are good — that are insightful and impactful and emotional — are so good, but, for me, those longueurs get in the way.

    4 out of 5

    Ralph Breaks the Internet
    (2018)

    2019 #62
    Rich Moore & Phil Johnston | 112 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Ralph Breaks the Internet

    The sequel to Wreck-It Ralph is indeed called Ralph Breaks the Internet, when Ralph Wrecks the Internet was right there. Although, if they wanted to be truly accurate, a better titled would’ve been Corporate Synergy: The Movie.

    The plot sees Ralph and his chum Vanellope heading out into the internet to fix the arcade game they live in. That includes an extended sequence set ‘inside’ the Oh My Disney website — originally the Disney Infinity game, but that got cancelled during production so had to be changed. I think that rather indicates the mindset and motives behind this movie: $ advertising $ . Most famously, it includes a sequence where Vanellope encounters the Disney princesses. It’s quite a funny sequence, somewhat undermined by the “no one can understand Merida (because she speaks Scottish)” gag. Imagine if they’d tried that with Tiana or Pocahontas or Moana and their accent/dialect…

    When it’s not being a big advert for its production company, Ralph Breaks the Internet seems to think it’s a clever satire of the online world. It does references and stuff, but doesn’t develop them enough to be genuine commentary — for example, Ralph finds ‘the comment section’ and it’s depressing, and then someone tells him “the first rule of the internet is never read the comments”, and… that’s it. It’s stating a widely-accepted truism as if it’s some kind of revelation or point unto itself. This extends right to the climax, which sees our heroes fighting with a giant virus born of toxic masculinity, an idea that’s somewhere between timely and fucking ridiculous (how does toxic masculinity inherently create a computer virus?)

    Other problems include a pile of plot holes and inconsistencies (such as when Vanellope does or doesn’t use her glitching ability, among others); that it’s a structural mess (the plot bounces from place to place just so it can even get started, then major motivating goals are dismissed and moved on from), which leads to it being needlessly long (surely kids’ animations are best around the 90-minute mark). Also, frankly, I don’t particularly like the characters or the style of humour they create. That’s only worsened when you shoehorn in blatant advertising, half-witted satire, and muddled messages.

    The best Disney canon movies are timeless. Heck, some of the worst ones are, too. But Ralph 2 is so about the ‘right now’ of when it was made, it’s probably already dated today, just a couple of years later, never mind how it’ll hold up in a couple of decades.

    2 out of 5

  • The Purge: Anarchy (2014)

    2019 #57
    James DeMonaco | 104 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA & France / English | 15 / R

    The Purge: Anarchy

    For those unfamiliar with the Purge franchise, they’re set in a near-future America where the law is suspended for one night a year — Purge Night — allowing the citizens to ‘purge’ their criminal impulses by committing any crime they like. Because this is America, said crimes invariably involve violence and murder. As a premise, it used to seem a little ridiculous and implausible — the kind of thing you might dream up only to think through and realise it would never work — but we live in a world where Donald Trump can be elected president, get nothing done while constantly and obviously lying about things, escape charges for crimes he blatantly committed, and still be worshipped by his followers as the only thing that can make America “great” again. So, yeah, maybe the Purge could come to pass nowadays, why the fuck not?

    The first film was a contained horror/thriller about one well-to-do family whose home comes under assault from a gang of Purge participants on the night in question. This first sequel ditches most of the Horror genre trappings to instead emulate ’70s B-actioners, in the vein of stuff like Assault on Precinct 13 or The Warriors, and it’s all the better for it.

    This time, the narrative opens up to a wider world. We’re introduced to a trio of storylines, spread around a city, which quite quickly stumble into each other and result in their protagonists teaming up, fighting their way across a hostile city (like The Warriors), trying to survive the night (like Precinct 13 — see, my comparisons aren’t just random). It reminded me a little of the early episodes of a season of 24, when it cuts around multiple disconnected characters who inevitably come into contact. (It strikes me that the best way to do a Purge TV show would be to nick 24’s real-time conceit to cover the entirety of Purge Night. I’ve no idea if the actual Purge TV show attempted anything like that.)

    Gonna get purged

    It can’t be understated how good it is that Anarchy does something different with the franchise’s basic premise. Sure, it has the same problem with the underlying concept as the first film (all crime is legal, but for some reason the only crime anyone commits is murder), but the story it tells, the environs it’s in, are completely different. Even the satirical, allegorical, political stuff (hardly the films’ forte) is more potent this time. It’s still only tangentially touched upon, but more effectively and meaningfully handled than in the first film.

    There’s also the sense that they’re trying to build a franchise now. In the first film, the whole Purge backstory was really just a backdrop/excuse for the low-budget home invasion action of the plot, but here there are more hints at what’s going on in the wider world politically. That includes the introduction of an anti-Purge movement, although it’s factored in as barely even a subplot, to the extent you feel it had to be intended as setup for future movies. In this respect it reminds me of what the Saw films used to do: tell a standalone story, but always provide a little piece of the puzzle to an ongoing narrative that was designed to run and run. When it works, as it does in Anarchy, you leave the film satisfied that you’ve had a whole story, but also ready for the next jigsaw piece (Saw-related pun very much intended). It’s quite a TV-esque way of building an ongoing narrative, the way they used to do it before everything became “an eight-hour movie”, but, hey, the media boundaries are thoroughly blurred in both directions now; and it’s better than a blatant cliffhanger that leaves the story unresolved if a sequel never happens.

    In this instance, a sequel did happen; several of them, in fact, with a final instalment due later this year. I quite liked the original Purge (not to be confused with The First Purge, which is the fourth film), but I enjoyed Anarchy a lot, so they’ve got me on the hook now, even if (based on what I’ve seen online) the quality of future sequels tails off.

    4 out of 5

    The series’ third film, The Purge: Election Year, is on Channel 4 tonight at 12:10am.

    The 100-Week Roundup XXVII

    The 100-Week Roundup covers films I still haven’t reviewed 100 weeks after watching them. Sometimes these are short ‘proper’ reviews; sometimes they’re only quick thoughts, or even just the notes I made while viewing.

    This week’s selection includes the first reviews to be rounded up from April 2019

  • The Howling (1981)
  • The Gold Rush (1925)
  • A Good Year (2006)


    The Howling
    (1981)

    2019 #50
    Joe Dante | 87 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

    The Howling

    After a near-fatal encounter with a serial killer, television newswoman Karen White becomes emotionally disturbed and loses her memory. On doctor’s orders she’s sent to the Colony, a secluded retreat where the creepy residents may not be what they seem… — adapted from IMDb

    Released the same year as John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London, I think it’s fair to say The Howling has been overshadowed by its UK-set counterpart, which has left a more enduring mark on the werewolf subgenre. But it would be a shame to ignore director Joe Dante’s effort entirely, because it’s a strong movie with its own pleasures — where American Werewolf is mostly quite comical, The Howling is more of a straight-faced horror movie.

    Indeed, at the start it feels more like a ’70s thriller than a campy horror — a Network-esque newsroom drama crossed with a seedy serial killer flick, in which the handheld neon-lit photography of nighttime ‘mean streets’ reminded me of something like The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. When the plot heads out into the countryside, the sub-Hammer antics feel a bit low-rent by comparison; but once the proper werewolf action kicks off, it picks up again. Special makeup maestro Rick Baker may have abandoned this project for American Werewolf, but the special effects feature sterling work nonetheless, including a couple of superb transformations. Hurrah for practical effects.

    There’s room for improvement here — it needs a more cohesive, thorough, better paced screenplay (after an effective opening, it takes time to get going again, but then the climax is a bit rushed) — but the bits that work are so good that The Howling still ends up as a great werewolf movie.

    4 out of 5

    The Gold Rush
    (1925)

    2019 #52
    Charles Chaplin | 95 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / silent | U

    The Gold Rush

    Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush exists in two versions: the 1925 original, and a 1942 re-release for which Chaplin cut whole scenes, trimmed others, and reinserted some outtakes and alternate shots, plus adding a synced soundtrack that included voiceover narration by him. The re-release is the ‘official’ version according to Chaplin’s estate (on the 2-disc DVD I own, the ’42 version is by itself on disc 1, with the ’25 version among the special features on disc 2), but from what I read it seems most people regard the ’25 original as the superior version, so that’s the one I chose to watch.

    As with the other Chaplins I’ve seen, it’s an episodic series of skits with a linking theme — this time, his Little Tramp character is prospecting for gold in the Klondike. It’s an interesting mix of the expected slapstick humour with something that’s more… not serious, exactly (although a subplot about a wanted criminal who murders a couple of lawmen is a bit incongruous), but there are sequences that aim at distinctly different emotions, like pathos (not unfamiliar when it comes to the Little Tramp), or overt thrills, including a cliff-edge climax.

    Then there’s the ostensibly happy ending, in which our hero gets the girl. That’d be the girl who stood him up, who doesn’t really care for him, who got railroaded into posing with him and kissing him… but gets with him right after she learnt he’s now a multimillionaire. Are we sure that’s a happy ending?

    4 out of 5

    The Gold Rush was viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2019.

    A Good Year
    (2006)

    2019 #54
    Ridley Scott | 113 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English & French | 12 / PG-13

    A Good Year

    Ridley Scott, the acclaimed director perhaps destined to be best remembered for sci-fi classics like Alien and Blade Runner, and actor Russell Crowe, who made his name with hard-man roles in films like Romper Stomper and L.A. Confidential, have collaborated multiple times. Together they’ve created action-filled historical epics like Gladiator and Robin Hood, and contemporary thrillers like American Gangster and Body of Lies. But in amongst all that they made… this, an oddity on both man’s filmography: a gentle romantic dramedy about a London banker who inherits a vineyard in Provence and learns to love a simpler life.

    Ridley Scott directing a sunny romcom sounds like a daft idea, doesn’t it? Well, turns out it’s not only daft, it’s quite bad. Apparently Scott conceived the story, and everything (apart from scenes in London) was shot within eight minutes of his home in Provence. In some hands that might lead to a very personal story, but I don’t think that’s the case here. I once read someone argue that the entertainment an artist enjoys consuming isn’t necessarily the same as what they’re good at creating, and this seems like a case in point. The storyline and atmosphere may’ve been inspired by Scott’s love for the region he’s made his home, but it doesn’t match his skills as a filmmaker very well at all.

    It’s as inappropriately directed as you’d expect, with moments of almost slapstick comedy that feel decades out of date, and other parts that are shot and scored more like a thriller than a breezy comedy-drama. In front of the camera, Russell Crowe does his best to be Hugh Grant, and he could be worse, but it does make you appreciate how good Hugh Grant was at being Hugh Grant. His love interest is Marion Cotillard, playing a character whose name sounds like “Fanny Chanel” — one character responds to being told that with “ooh la la”, which might be the most succinct “British person’s view of the French” dialogue exchange ever written.

    Much as Crowe’s continued exposure to the region and its people slowly charms him, so did I gradually warm to the film. When Scott isn’t trying too hard it has a certain laidback good humour, with the bonus of beautiful scenery and beautiful women, so that it becomes not unpleasant to watch. If that sounds like damning with faint praise… well, it is. A Good Year is not a good film, but it is, ultimately, a mostly pleasant one.

    3 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup XXVI

    The 100-Week Roundup covers films I still haven’t reviewed 100 weeks after watching them. Sometimes these are short ‘proper’ reviews; sometimes they’re only quick thoughts, or even just the notes I made while viewing.

    This week’s selection, the final two films from March 2019, includes a pair of awards-worthy short animations — the first won an Oscar, the second was nominated for one. I was going to include more films in this week’s roundup (effectively bundle two weeks into one), but it felt like a disservice to this pair.

  • Paperman (2012)
  • Waltz with Bashir (2008)


    Paperman
    (2012)

    2019 #48a
    John Kahrs | 7 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 1.85:1 | USA / silent | U / G

    Paperman

    This Disney short was originally released alongside Wreck-It Ralph (and can now be found on that film’s Blu-ray; as well as on Disney+, I presume) and, as I recall, attracted a lot of praise at the time, primarily for its visual style. That was an innovation in creating 2D-looking animation via a 3D system — so it seems a bit daft that I watched it in 3D. I have to wonder if the added visual dimension highlights the underlying 3D animation, because it’s quite obviously been created in 3D with a 2D style over the top.

    That said, it look gorgeous, however you cut it. There’s an inherent beauty in how it’s executed, while the chosen black-and-white style emphasises the apparent setting (’40s New York) and also gives it a timeless quality. The 2D/3D combination works well, giving it the fluidity and dynamism of CG animation, but with a certain roughness — a hand-made-ness — that comes from 2D cel animation. Of course, that’s artificial, injected via design choices (like scruffy outlines on the characters), but it feels authentic.

    As for the actual story, it’s a charming little romantic number involving paper aeroplanes… until those sheets of folded paper become sentient and omniscient, at which point it lost me with its silliness. But as an exercise in style: lovely.

    4 out of 5

    Waltz with Bashir
    (2008)

    aka Vals Im Bashir

    2019 #49
    Ari Folman | 87 mins | TV | 16:9 | Israel, France, Germany, USA, Finland, Switzerland, Belgium & Australia / Hebrew, Arabic, German & English | 18 / R

    Waltz with Bashir

    One night at a bar, an old friend tells director Ari Folman about a recurring nightmare in which he is chased by vicious dogs. They conclude that there’s a connection to their Israeli Army service in the first Lebanon War of 1982. Ari can’t remember that period of his life, so he meets and interviews old friends and veterans, hoping to discover the truth about that time and reconstruct his own memories of the conflict. — adapted from IMDb

    This search for the truth has led Waltz with Bashir to be labelled an “animated documentary”, which sounds like an odd idea, almost oxymoronic — you can tell a true story with animation, of course, but can you document something? Well, yes. Rather than talking heads, what animation allows is the visualisation of the narrators’ memories and dreams alike, and means we can flow between them, too. On a practical level, it allows the film to stage scenes that would be impossible in live-action without a huge budget, meaning it doesn’t have to compromise on the stories it tells. More thematically, having a shared style between ‘reality’ and ‘dream’, plus the distancing effect of it being drawn, not ‘real’ — of being unequivocally created, not just filmed — helps to underscore larger points about the reliability (or otherwise) of memory. The dreams are connected to the memories; are the memories a kind of dream?

    Given the time period being remembered, of course the film is about war and how that affects the mind of its participants, but it’s also memory in general, I think. You’d think such extreme, unique experiences would be unforgettable, and yet the workings of the mind and memory aren’t that straightforward. One strand I found particularly fascinating was the way people are haunted by the suffering of animals in the conflict, perhaps more so than by the human-related atrocities they saw. Is this just a coincidence of the people Folman spoken to? Is it a particular interest of Folman himself? Or is it a genuine phenomenon? I don’t know the answer, but (outside of, say, War Horse) I don’t remember it being such a clear thread in a war-related film or documentary before.

    I’ve seen people say they couldn’t connect with Waltz with Bashir because they didn’t know the history of the period well enough. Conversely, I felt that was part of why the film was so effective: not really knowing what was going on or what was being referred to, I was discovering it as the character did. Some parts along the way could perhaps have used further clarity or explanation for those of us entirely unfamiliar with the conflict, but there’s enough information disclosed to be going on with. I found the film’s ending to be powerful beyond words, and part of what makes it so shocking and impactful is not knowing about it, of learning about it for the first time with the characters.

    5 out of 5

  • But what is February, if not 2021 persevering?

    WandaVision’s penultimate episode, and one particular quote from it, has been the talk of the town lately (or: the argument of the weekend on Twitter), but here we can set aside such concerns (I mean, I’ve got a whole post with a WandaVision review in it if you did want to get into it) and just look back at all the films I watched in February 2021…


    #27 Weird Woman (1944)
    #28 Coming to America (1988)
    #29 The Burning Buddha Man (2013), aka Moeru butsuzô ningen
    #30 High Life (2018)
    #31 When the Wind Blows (1986)
    #32 Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
    #33 The Dig (2021)
    #34 Isn’t It Romantic (2019)
    #35 The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), aka Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed
    #36 Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)
    #37 Tangerines (2013), aka Mandariinid
    #38 The White Tiger (2021)
    #39 Shakespeare in Love (1998)
    #40 The Last Warning (1928)
    #41 Mortal Kombat (1995)
    #42 The Guilty (2018), aka Den skyldige
    #43 The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)
    #44 The House of Fear (1939)
    #45 Muse: Simulation Theory (2020)
    #46 News of the World (2020)
    #47 The ’Burbs (1989)
    #48 Xchange (2001)
    #49 Vampyr (1932)
    #50 Resident Evil: Extinction (2007)
    #51 Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983), aka Shu Shan – Xin Shu shan jian ke
    #52 Radioactive (2019)
    #53 Frankenstein (1931)
    Star Trek: The Motion Picture

    The Last Warning

    The Quatermass Xperiment

    Frankenstein

    .


    • I watched 27 new feature films in February.
    • That puts it in the top 10 months of all time, in 10th place — the exact same feat January only just managed (so January is now pushed out to 11th, obv).
    • It’s the best February ever, topping 2014’s 24, and is far past the February average (previously 13.2, now 14.2), as well as the rolling average for the last 12 months (previously 23.2, now 23.9), and sets the average for 2021 so far at 26.5.
    • In terms of yearly milestones, I passed both #30 (the quarter-way point of my current 120-film goal) at the earliest time ever (4th February, beating 13th February in 2016), and #50 (the halfway point of my eponymous goal), also at the earliest ever (beating 2016’s 6th March). And #53 is the furthest I’ve ever reached by the end of February, surpassing #44 from (when else) 2016. (2016 wasn’t my best year ever, just a fast starter, so if I keep this up then at some point it’s going to be different year(s) that I’m passing.)
    • Last March I commented on how many letters of the alphabet I’d ticked off — seven in January, eight in February, nine in March. Of the two remaining, I never did get to X. Well, this year I’ve finished all 26 before the end of February. In fairness, that’s because I noticed how well I’d done in January — 15! — and made a point of finishing it off. But it’s also a side effect of watching so many films so much earlier. If I looked at other years up to around the 50-film mark, whenever that was reached, perhaps I’d find those too had hit most/all letters.
    • It’s not something I mention often, but as February began I was in the middle of watching or rewatching 23 film series. That’s quite a few — I certainly wasn’t looking to add any more to the list. But sometimes you just fancy watching a ’70s big-screen spin-off of a ’60s sci-fi TV series, or a big-screen remake of a ’50s British serial, or a classic Universal horror movie. And now I’m up to 26 series underway. (I track which I’m watching via the one I need to watch next on Letterboxd here, if you’re interested.)
    • This month’s Blindspot film: the classic Universal adaptation of Frankenstein. It’s only 70 minutes long, and I always try to save such shorter films on my list for later in the year, just in case for some reason I really need ones I can easily squeeze in; but sometimes you just have to accept that, although you don’t need a 70-minuter you can easily squeeze in, that’s all you want. Also, it paired quite nicely with The Last Warning, which (as I learnt from the audio commentary on the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray) was one of the films that was essentially the forebear to Universal’s famed horror cycle.
    • Talking of The Last Warning, at #44 is The House of Fear — not the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes film (I reviewed that here), but a remake of The Last Warning that used the title of the original novel (that was then reused for the Holmes film — Universal were terrible for that in the ’30s and ’40s, apparently).
    • From last month’s “failures” I watched The Dig, The Guilty, High Life, Weird Woman, and The White Tiger.



    The 69th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

    Favourite Film of the Month
    This month, I boldly went where I’ve never gone before and started the Star Trek movie series from the beginning. Star Trek: The Motion Picture has never had a particularly good rep, but you’ve gotta start at the start, right? So it was a pleasant surprise when I really enjoyed it — to the point where I gave it five stars and a heart-thing on Letterboxd. I nearly didn’t go so high, because Wrath of Khan is “the best one” and now I’ve got nowhere to go if I do like it even more; but I don’t think you can go around rating films on that basis (you’d never give anything full marks just in case there was ever anything better), so…

    Least Favourite Film of the Month
    This month ended on a bit of a downer, with a run of films that didn’t live up to my hopes and expectations. Nonetheless, they weren’t as outright bad as some I watched earlier in the month — like Mortal Kombat, which was supposedly a mid-’90s blockbuster but actually looked like a mid-’90s syndicated TV series, with writing, acting, and fight choreography of a similar or lesser quality.

    Most Recent Best Picture Winner I Hadn’t Seen of the Month
    Shakespeare in Love is the only Oscar Best Picture winner from the last 30 years that I hadn’t seen. Hurrah! Now that I’ve ticked that one off, my oldest unseen is 1988’s Rain Man, which is helpfully on this year’s Blindspot list. After that, I’ll slip back just one year further, to 1987’s The Last Emperor. Indeed, my track record with ’80s winners isn’t great: I’ve seen more from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s (plus, obviously, the ’90s, ’00s, and ’10s). Well, I’ll tick ’em all off someday.

    Film Just Barely on the IMDb Top 250 of the Month
    When I watched it, Tangerines was the 249th film on the IMDb Top 250. It’s not there now, but it might be again tomorrow — those ones near the end are very volatile; a handful of films that switch places back and forth, jumping on and off the list, on a regular basis. So why focus any viewing efforts there? After all, eventually they’re certain to drop off when something darts in higher up (even in a movie-poor year like 2020, two films made it onto the Top 250; there are eight from 2019). Well, I feel like once these movies do definitively drop off the list, they’re liable to become a bit forgotten. Not all of them, obviously — films in the “danger zone” like Three Colours Red or It Happened One Night have enough cache to keep them talked about for other reasons — but smaller, often foreign films like Tangerines are liable to just slip away. And, in theory, they’re still great films. I mean, they may disappear from the top 250, but they’re still theoretically among the top 260, or 275, or 300 (etc), greatest films ever made. But then they won’t be on a list, so I won’t think to watch them — so better to do it now, right?

    The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
    Although it only went live early yesterday evening, my 67th TV column still managed to storm past all last month’s film reviews to by February’s most-viewed post. (A distant second, with almost exactly half as many hits, was my review of Muse: Simulation Theory — which had also been on TV. Really, TV’s the game to be in if you want those page views.)



    My Rewatchathon was right on pace this month, although that means I still have to catch up for last month’s shortfall.

    #3 Frozen 3D (2013)
    #4 The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), aka Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed
    #5 Crocodile Dundee II (1988)
    #6 Apollo 13 (1995)

    In a rare (I think probably unique) feat, The Adventuress of Prince Achmed is both 2021’s #35 and Rewatchathon 2021’s #4. This isn’t just because I enjoyed it so much (although it is very good), but because the BFI Blu-ray has a choice of soundtracks: the original 1926 musical score, or an English voiceover narration, recorded in 2013 but based on director Lotte Reiniger’s own English translation of her original German text. I watched them in that order, and felt the narration added nothing of value to the experience, especially as it sounds like it comes from a preschool storybook. Just stick to the original music.

    As for the others, I rewatched Frozen in readiness to finally watch Frozen II sometime soon (though I didn’t get round to it this month, did I). I hadn’t seen it in 3D before; the effect was solid but surprisingly low-key, although it took off anytime it snowed, etc. If you want some idea of when that “sometime soon” for the sequel might be, look to Crocodile Dundee II, which I’ve been meaning to watch since I enjoyed a rewatch of the first one… in March 2019. I’m sure I watched it as a kid (hence why it’s a rewatch), but I didn’t remember a second of it — probably because it’s a rather perfunctory sequel; kinda slow and lacking most of the charm of the original.

    Finally, Apollo 13 completed a mini Tom Hanks kick, as I watched it immediately after News of the World and The ’Burbs. It’s a great movie — indeed, I had a little word with Letterboxd about how it’s not getting the kind of ratings it deserves.


    At one point this month Twitter was all over new comedy Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, but as a premium VOD release it’s £14 and I’m not paying that to rent anything, thanks. Also going straight to rental was the latest Nic Cage craziness, Willy’s Wonderland, although at a normal rental price. Mixed reviews put me off so far, though. I did rent David Byrne’s American Utopia (on offer from Amazon), so that’ll be in next month’s viewing, and I was going to fork out for the interesting-looking documentary A Glitch in the Matrix until I saw a raft of negative reactions.

    The streamers continued to throw out brand-new exclusives, with Netflix’s Malcolm & Marie probably the most talked-about this month. It sounds irritating, to be honest, whereas Korean sci-fi Space Sweepers is probably more in my lane. Over on Amazon, Gerard Butler disaster flick Greenland, Rosamund Pike’s Golden Globe-winning I Care a Lot, and Bliss, starring Owen Wilson/Salma Hayek in a sci-fi romance from the writer/director of Another Earth, all made my watchlist but didn’t actually grab my viewing time. The same is true of teen time loop romcom The Map of Tiny Perfect Things, which feels a bit like a placeholder before Palm Springs‘ belated UK release in April.

    Talking of stuff finally making it to the UK, Netflix added Josh Trank’s Capone this week, so that can go on my watchlist out of curiosity but never actually get got to because it’s meant to be rubbish. More in my lane, perhaps, is Cold War thriller The Catcher Was a Spy, which apparently came out in 2018, but not here in the UK, where it’s just popped up as an Amazon Original. Going even older, Netflix added a mass load of Swedish films this month, including three silents — Terje Vigen, Ingeborg Holm, and Herr Arnes Pengar — that are all in IMDb’s Top 50 for the 1910s, so that’s interesting. Meanwhile, Amazon added 2013 Jason Statham actioner Homefront, which came onto Netflix US last month and shot to #1, despite being a flop on its theatrical release. I do like a bit of Statham action now and then, and this one comes recommended, so it’s probably worth a shout at some point. Another discovery was The Grand Heist — the kind of film I only hear of when it randomly pops up on a streamer or whatever, this Korean flick appears to be a period Ocean’s 11 about stealing ice… literally, blocks of ice. Sounds like it might be fun.

    My cheap MUBI subscription is still going, but even with a new title everyday they managed to add little this month that caught my interest — just Cathy Yan’s feature debut, Dead Pigs, and Ridley Scott’s Legend, which is usually on Amazon Prime anyway; plus a few titles I own on disc anyway (The African Queen, Heat, and The King of Comedy, the latter two of which I’ve seen but are long overdue a rewatch). This month’s BBC TV premiere of Stan & Ollie means that’s now on iPlayer, although it’s also still on Prime, where it’ll be in higher quality; and on All 4 I managed to miss my chance to watch Love, Simon (its spin-off series is now on Disney+ but not, apparently, the original film) and Song Kang-ho in A Taxi Driver.

    Finally, my disc purchases continued unabated. There was the release of Indicator’s second Columbia Noir set — I haven’t started the first yet, so that’s 12 minor-league noirs for me to catch up on now. Other new releases included a lavish edition of Jackie Chan classic The Young Master, restored with a choice of three different cuts, and Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death, with a choice of two cuts, only one restored. But it was sales and random discounts where people really got me: from Arrow’s 30th anniversary sale, I picked up The Apartment, Horror Express, and Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway; from a BFI offer at HMV, I scooped up the original British Gaslight, Penda’s Fen, Ian McKellen’s Richard III, That Sinking Feeling, The Wages of Fear, and their four-film Hirokazu Koreeda box set; and I also got Ken Russell’s The Devils on offer on DVD from elsewhere.

    Physical media fans will surely have noticed that Zoom changed hands this week. The new owners haven’t got their version fully up and running yet, so it remains to be seen if they’ll ruin one of the best Blu-ray retailers there was. Just before they shut down, I managed to get in one final Criterion gift card order — if you missed it’s existence, sorry to tell you now, but they sold a Criterion gift card for £50 that allowed you four titles (from a selected list). That works out at £12.50 each, which was a bargain, and because it’s been a while since I looked they had plenty in their selection that I wanted. So I snaffled up The Age of Innocence, Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman, The Cranes Are Flying, and Three Outlaw Samurai, but I could’ve chosen another four easily, maybe even eight — if I’d known for sure Zoom-as-we-knew-it was going away, I might’ve put up the extra £50, but hey-ho.


    It’s gonna be a monstrous March with Godzilla vs. Kong. Whoever wins, we win, I reckon.

    The Past Month on TV #67

    This month: real-life grief in HIV/AIDS drama It’s a Sin; superhero grief in WandaVision; and “good grief, what have they done to The West Wing?” in a charity special. Plus, more classic Twilight Zone.

    It’s a Sin
    It's a SinThe latest series from writer Russell T Davies is a story he’s been mulling for a long time — I seem to remember it first being mentioned in his book The Writer’s Tale, which chronicles his final couple of years on Doctor Who, over a decade ago now. It’s had a bumpy ride to the screen, with the pitch being rejected by several networks, and eventually the planned eight episodes being negotiated down to just five. If this were a lesser writer then you’d assume the concept must have some fundamental flaw(s), but perhaps it was just the subject matter that scared so many commissioners: it’s about the emergence of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, told from the perspective of a gang of mostly-gay twentysomethings who’ll see the disease rip their world to shreds. Not exactly a cheery topic, and one still affected by taboos and ignorance all these decades later. But that’s why this is a story that needed to be told, and here it’s safe in the hands of a master screenwriter.

    That matters, because the series is balanced perfectly. You expect this story to be tragic and sad, and it is, but it’s also not some kind of misery-porn. It doesn’t hide from the devastating effects of the virus, but nor is it dwell on them unnecessarily. Nor does it sanctify the victims — they didn’t deserve what happened, but they’re human beings. Some of them deny its existence, even as evidence mounts. Some don’t take the proper precautions. Some are nice and sweet. Some are selfish. They’re human, and that’s the really important thing. Yes, this is a sad drama about young lives cut tragically short, and a condemnation of the cruel way some people (family, friends, colleagues, politicians) chose to handle that. But, more than that, it’s a celebration of those people whose lives were lost. The reason it’s so good, and so worthwhile, is because it never forgets that they weren’t just “people who got sick and died”, but people who lived.

    WandaVision  Episodes 5–8
    WandaVisionWandaVision had seemed to settle itself into a nice little groove in its first few episodes, each edition spoofing a different era of sitcom with an occasional hint at what was really going on, before episode four came along to blow that up with a raft of revelations about what had been happening outside Wanda’s little fantasy all this time. I was worried how the ensuing episodes would deal with that, as we’d been promised more eras of sitcom spoofery, but now the cat was kinda out of the bag. Well, thankfully it didn’t do the ’90s thing of following an arc-plot-heavy episode with a series of non-arc episodes that act almost as if the big developments didn’t happen. Instead, we got what I thought was a pretty nice balance between continued era-specific sitcom emulation and the exploration of what was actually going on. The latter meant sacrificing the mystery and some of the strangeness that helped those first few episodes feel so unlike anything the MCU has attempted before, but in its place we got the comforting familiarity of mystery box-style plotting. It’s certainly not as special, but it is engaging in its own way, and led to some nice surprises (Pietro) and unsurprising inevitable reveals (it was Agatha all along!)

    Now, the stage is set for the finale. Many people have expressed surprise that the show will be able to wrap everything up in a single episode. We’ll see, but I have three thoughts on that. One, don’t discount the MCU’s ability to focus hard on plot and therefore cram an awful lot into a relatively short space of time. Two, there might be less to wrap up than we think — a lot of the pervading mystery is thanks to multitudinous fan theories, and the show has already suggested it might not be being as complex as some think. And three, we know Wanda will be a major part of Doctor Strange 2, so don’t write off the idea that this series will actually leave a lot open-ended for that movie to pick up on. It would be a shame if it did that too much, because it would render the whole series as little more than a backstory-expanding prequel to the movie, but I don’t for a second believe the finale will tie everything up in a neat bow only for Wanda to return afresh in Doctor Strange — the two will surely be connected. Only a few days until we get our first idea of how…

    A West Wing Special  to Benefit When We All Vote
    A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All VoteIt’s been a very long time since I watched any of The West Wing, and I never saw it in full, but I always meant to go back and watch the whole thing properly. I thought watching this one-off charity reunion thingy might ignite my interest in finally doing that. And, indeed, this did make me want to go back and rectify that — by, ironically, clearly not being as good as the show used to be.

    I don’t know if this actually aired in the UK in the end, because it’s very much focused on getting Americans to vote in last November’s election. To achieve that, the original cast of The West Wing reunited to reenact a season three episode of the show, Hartsfield’s Landing, which is all about voting and democracy and stuff. The fact it was made in 2020 means it had to deal with COVID protocols, although that doesn’t really factor in the final result (some behind-the-scenes clips are thrown in to reassure us that they observed all the stuff they should observe) — I presume that performing it in an empty theatre with sparse props and scenery is more to do with evoking that “this is a one-off for charity” thing than a pandemic necessity.

    Anyway, as for what I was alluding to in my opening paragraph, the direction and staging of this production are nicely done, but I think you can feel that the cast are no longer on well-practised form to deliver the snappy dialogue as it’s meant to be done, and some of the original episode’s B-plots struggle in this setting by being parts of arcs that were never meant to stand alone like this. Of course, the entire thing is really just an excuse on which to hang voting PSAs, which are delivered by some celeb cameos that are kinda fun… even if the entire point is (a) limited to the US, and (b) now expired. Though it does make for a surprisingly condensed and sad reminder of how the US has, despite its unwavering national self-belief, consistently failed to actually be an exemplar of how free and fair democratic elections should work.

    More of  The Twilight Zone
    This week has brought news that the Jordan Peele revival of Twilight Zone (the launch of which first provoked my visits to the original series back in March 2019) has been cancelled after two seasons. I haven’t started that version yet (I’ve been watching these ones!), but it seems a shame — it’s such an iconic show, you feel it should do well in any era. But we’re spoilt for choice with TV nowadays, and I don’t recall any real chatter around the release of season two, so this cancellation is hardly surprising.

    What You NeedThat news aside, let’s return our gaze to the 1959–64 iteration of the programme. Having already reviewed many of the best and worst episodes of that original run, I’m now covering episodes that happened to pique my interest. First up this month, What You Need, which jumps straight onto my list of the series’ best episodes. It’s the story of a peddler who can provide people with the one small item that will be of invaluable use to them shortly, and the punter who wants to exploit this power. The episode has a nice balance of sweet whimsy and darkness; the length is perfectly paced for the half-hour; and, although it’s not got one of Twilight Zone‘s famous massive twists, the end is fitting and in-keeping. It’s nicely directed too, particularly the scene where the punter confronts the salesman in his apartment. An excellent episode that deserves to be better regarded.

    Next is an episode that some do hold in high esteem, The Night of the Meek, which is effectively a Twilight Zone Christmas special — it originally aired on 23rd December 1960, and it certainly plays up to its airdate. It’s about a drunken department store Santa, adorned in a grubby costume and matted beard, who can’t even show up for work on time, but who nonetheless has more Christmas spirit at heart than any of the sober, responsible people he encounters. It’s a little bit twee and cheesy, but also kinda charming in that “only at Christmas” way. It’s a shame it was one of the half-dozen episodes shot on videotape, because it looks absolutely terrible and that emphasises the tackiness. If it looked slicker, it might come across a bit classier, and then it might earn the “you’ll want to watch it every Christmas” accolade that I feel should be the ultimate goal of any Christmas special or movie.

    Person or Persons Unknown has a good setup: a man awakens after a drunken night out to discover no one remembers him and there’s no evidence he ever existed. It’s the kind of existential psychological horror that’s the fuel for many a good TZ tale, and it does play well for a while, but writer Charles Beaumont doesn’t have a proper ending to offer us, resorting to that most clichéd of cop-outs, “it was all a dream”. It’s a shame, but not exactly a surprise: the episode offers no clues about where it might be going or why this might be happening, so you begin to think Beaumont either has something very clever hidden up his sleeve or the reveal is going to be a tacked-on disappointment. Sadly, it’s the latter.

    I Sing the Body ElectricFamed sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury’s only formal contribution to the series, I Sing the Body Electric, is another case of a great premise writing cheques the rest of the episode can’t cash. Here, rather than running out of steam, the places it takes us to are morally questionable and raise more questions than they answer. The plot is almost like a sci-fi twist on Mary Poppins: a widowed father is struggling to bring up his three kids, so they get a robot grandma, but one of the daughters doesn’t like her. It’s eventually revealed that the daughter’s distrust stems from the belief that her dead mother “ran away” and she thinks robot-granny will do the same — but it’s okay, because granny’s a robot and can live forever. Hurrah! Maybe your mileage will differ, but the idea that mothers who die have run away from their kids, or that this grief is best handled by giving the kid a parental figure who will never die, all seems a bit distasteful. And that’s before we get to the ending, where we learn that RoboGran’s consciousness will gather with others of her kind so they can share what they’ve learned. It’s spun as if this is somehow a good thing, but to me it sounds like a prequel to The Matrix

    That good ol’ Twilight Zone staple of a man confused by his predicament arises again in Judgment Night, set aboard a passenger ship crossing the Atlantic during World War II. Maybe it’s just a coincidence of the visual style of 1960s US TV, but the way it’s shot feels very in-keeping with all those ’40s movies set on passenger ships, which helps make its setting feel authentic — if this had been made as a film in the ’40s, it would look exactly the same. Everyone aboard is concerned they’ll be sunk by a U-boat, with our protagonist particularly het up about the idea. Of course, we eventually learn why. The twist isn’t hugely surprising — it’s the kind of thing you expect from TZ and so can predict — but, like I’m finding of many episodes in this middle-ground between the series’ best and worst episodes, it’s a solid piece of work.

    Also watched…
  • Dial M for Middlesbrough — The third in Gold’s annual series of comedy murder mysteries (after 2017’s Murder on the Blackpool Express and 2018’s Death on the Tyne) aired at Christmas 2019, but I’ve only just dug it out from the depths of the DVR. I thought it was the best one yet. It’s a kind of magnificent silliness, from the first murder (which involves impalement by a swing ball pole punctuated by a perfectly-chosen pop song on the soundtrack) to outlandish plot twists (a hidden Chicago hitman) to Jason Donovan chewing up all the scenery as a former love interest for one of our heroes (complete with flashbacks to 1999 that look ever so ’80s. I guess it takes pop culture a long time to make it up north…) I presume they had to sit out 2020 because of the pandemic, but I’d welcome another outing this Christmas, please.
  • For All Mankind Season 1 Episode 1 — Finally made a start on this Apple TV+ series (which is currently releasing its second season). Season 1 review next month.

    Next month… I’m gonna review For All Mankind — didja not just read that bit? Also the WandaVision finale, plus more of “More of The Twilight Zone”.

  • Creed II (2018)

    2019 #53
    Steven Caple Jr. | 130 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English & Russian | 12 / PG-13

    Creed II

    Creed II is, as its title suggests, a sequel. But it’s even more than that — it’s like a sequel squared; perhaps even a sequel cubed. How so? Well, it is, of course, a direct continuation of Ryan Coogler’s Creed, a boxing drama which itself served as a follow-up of the Rocky films. But, as if being a sequel to a follow-up wasn’t enough, Creed II is also directly connected to the plot of Rocky IV. That makes for a funny old combination of influences: whereas Creed was arguably the most grounded and realistic Rocky movie since the first (and, with it, one of the series’ very best instalments), Rocky IV is undoubtedly the most cartoonish and ridiculous entry in the canon (although it was also the most financially successful and has a certain cheesy charm). Can Creed II reconcile the tonal disparity between its two primary forebears?

    For those not up on their Rocky continuity, Russian boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) killed Rocky’s mate Apollo Creed during a match in the ’80s (as seen in Rocky IV). Now, Drago’s son Viktor (Florian Munteanu) is a boxer too, and with Creed’s son Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) newly crowned as the world heavyweight champion, Drago Sr arranges for Drago Jr to challenge Creed Jr — who, against the advice of Rocky (Sylvester Stallone), accepts. But with the distraction of a pregnant fiancée (Tessa Thompson) and without Rocky to train him, is Adonis actually ready to take on a Drago?

    The film’s title is, obviously, meant to be read “Creed 2” because it’s a follow-up to “Creed 1”, but if you chose to read it as “Creed the 2nd” it wouldn’t be inappropriate to the movie’s themes. This is a movie all about parents and children, what they owe to each other, and how they live up to that — or fail to. It’s a meaty subject to chew on, and credited screenwriters Juel Taylor and Sylvester Stallone (there’s also a story credit for Sascha Penn and Cheo Hodari Coker) examine it from almost every conceivable angle. As Ivan pushes Viktor to vicariously reclaim their reputation, Adonis struggles with the legacy of a father he never knew, as well as the dilemma of becoming a father himself, to a daughter who may be born disabled (due to possibly inheriting her mother’s hearing condition). And while there’s a lot of father/son stuff — as you’d probably expect in a film about such a stereotypically-manly sport — the film doesn’t neglect the role of mothers either, with both Viktor’s and Adonis’s having key parts to play in how things unfold.

    Like father like son?

    One aspect of that is that the film does a lot to humanise the Dragos. In Rocky IV, they were just nasty foreigners — that film is, fundamentally, anti-Russian pro-US Cold War propaganda. Here, they’re presented as people who have problems and issues of their own. I remember Stallone talking before about how it’s always more interesting if the opponent isn’t just a Villain, but is a real character with their own arc (this was in the audio commentary for Rocky Balboa, for which Stallone injected some autobiographical material into the opponent’s storyline). That’s obviously something he failed to achieve in IV, but it’s reestablished here and, well, he’s right. It’s not like it confuses the drama of the fight — there’s no question that Creed is our hero and the one we want to see triumphant — but by giving depth to the Drago’s, showing why the fight really matters to them too, it rounds out the story; and, in this case, provides additional perspectives on the parent/child themes.

    It’s the way these films have something thematic to say that helps elevate them above mere punch-’em-ups. But it works as a sport/action movie too, finding some new twists within the familiar plot beats. I mean, when the Creed-Drago match comes before the film’s even reached the hour mark, you already have a fair idea how it’s gonna go. Without giving away specifics, what they’ve come up with leaves the contest as unfinished business, which is better motivation for the inevitable rematch than a simple “the hero lost the first time so he has to have a re-do so he can win”. This thinking extends to the final bout, too: it’s the first time in the series since Rocky III that the climactic fight doesn’t go all the way to the final round. It’s a nice change to dodge that predictability. Of course, these are really just variations on a theme — they’re still boxing matches; the options on the table are still “hero wins” or “hero loses” — but, as with many genre pieces, the devil is in the detail, and Creed II has good details.

    It's all about family

    Although this is primarily the second Creed film, there’s no doubt that it’s a little bit Rocky VIII, too. Stallone keeps saying he’s done with Rocky, then comes back for one more, but this really feels like it could serve as an ending. Well, so did the previous two films, but the idea of a grudge match between the sons of Apollo and Drago is an obvious one that I’m not surprised Hollywood came up with. It factors in and closes off so much of the series’ legacy that it’s difficult to see what would be of similar import to justify a second sequel. They could always do one “just because”, of course — there’s always a way; always more to a character’s life — but whereas the very existence of Creed suggested the potential for a sequel featuring Drago, now there’s no story left begging to be told. Nonetheless, Creed III has been announced. Whether Stallone is tempted back or sticks to his guns and lets the series move on without him, only time will tell.

    In the meantime, Creed II is a worthy addition to this storied franchise. If it can’t go the distance against some of the earlier entries, that’s through no fault of its own — the best Rocky/Creed films are all-timers; or, as they say in sporting circles, GOATs.

    4 out of 5

    Creed II is available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK from today.

    Zatoichi in Desperation (1972)

    aka Shin Zatôichi monogatari: Oreta tsue

    2020 #95
    Shintarô Katsu | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

    Zatoichi in Desperation

    The 24th and penultimate film in the original Zatoichi series is also the first to be directed by star Shintarô Katsu. (He previously wrote the 21st film, Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival, and would later direct 22 episodes of the TV series and write & direct the 1989 revival movie.) Despite such fundamental creative control by the man who arguably knew the character best, Zatoichi in Desperation is widely regarded as one of the series’ worst instalments, and yet you’ll find some people full of praise for it. It’s one of the series’ darkest entries, and I suspect it’s unpopular overall because it’s so grim; but for those who do like it, they love it.

    The plot starts with Ichi accidentally causing a polite old woman to fall from a bridge and die — as I said, cheery. The woman was on her way to visit her daughter, Nishikigi (Kiwako Taichi), so Ichi seeks her out. She’s a prostitute, so, as recompense, Ichi sets about raising the funds to free her from prostitution. Meanwhile, 14-year-old Kaede (Kyoko Yoshizawa) is also employed at Nishikigi’s brothel, to earn money to care for her younger brother Shinkichi (Yasuhiro Koume); so when some out-of-town bigwig starts letching over her, well, you can guess what route she’s set to head down. Said bigwig is funding a move by gangsters to crush the local fishermen and set up some kind of modern fishing empire. Just the kind of ordinary folk vs yakuza fight that Ichi would normally find himself embroiled in…

    Except he’s busy with Nishikigi, and that doesn’t really change. This is the cornerstone of the film’s moral thesis, which seems to be that the world is a brutal and unjust place. While kind-hearted Ichi is busy helping Nikigiki out of a perhaps-misplaced sense of duty (she doesn’t seem fussed about her mum’s demise, nor with escaping the brothel), he’s missing the people who could really use his help, i.e. Kaede and Shinkichi, or the village’s oppressed fishermen.

    Kaede and Shinkichi

    And they really could use a hand, because it’s against them that the film’s brutality is fully manifested. The gangsters burn all the villagers’ boats, then murder them for complaining about it; and while Kaede’s busy preparing to have to sell her body at 14, Shinkichi provokes the gangsters and consequently gets brutally beaten to death; and when Kaede finds his body, she commits suicide — and all of that occurs without Ichi even being aware Kaede and Shinkichi exist. Makes you wonder: were events like that playing out just offscreen in every other Ichi movie? Well, not consciously, obviously, but perhaps Katsu is provoking us to wonder about all the people Ichi has failed down the years while he was distracted elsewhere. Maybe our hero is blind in more ways than one.

    Aside from the violence, this is also an uncommonly filthy film for the series. First Ichi overhears a whore talking about how taking ten men makes her wet; then he’s hiding in a room while a couple have sex; then later a bunch of yakuza round up a mentally ill kid and start wanking him off until he ejaculates on one of them, for which they give him a beating. Yep, that all happens on screen. (Nearly every review I’ve come across comments on that last scene. Well, no surprise, really — it’s rather striking.)

    Hopefully you’re beginning to understand why this movie is so divisive. But if the content wasn’t enough, Katsu seems determined to show off with form, too. His bold directorial style evident from the off, when the old woman’s fall from the bridge is represented via an impressionistic barrage of flash-cut images. This is followed through the rest of the film by weirdly-framed close-ups and various odd angles. It doesn’t always pay off: the requisite gambling scene is a rehash of a trick from an earlier film, shot with a certain kind of dark tension (Ichi feels in genuine peril from those he swindled) that’s in-keeping with the film’s tone, but the trick itself is less entertainingly performed, the scene not as well paced and constructed. There’s also an atypical score by Kunihiko Murai, which some praise as being ’70s funk, but I thought sounded just like cheesy electronic nastiness. Sometimes, his unusual choices emphasise the film’s glum tone, as in the opening credits, which play out in silence over black — not the usual mode for a Zatoichi film, and so it somewhat suggests the goal is to prevent this as a Serious Movie.

    Blind in more ways than one

    Certainly, many describe this as a more realistic version of Zatoichi than we’ve seen before. It’s removed from the superheroics of the other movies, instead offering a brutal portrait of real violence and how it scars, with innocents suffering unnoticed and even our hero failing to emerge unscathed. Whether that’s realist or just depressive might depend on your view of the world; although, considering the time and place these films are set, I imagine its closer to reality than all of the “Ichi saves everyone” narratives. That either/or extends to the film’s reception: everyone agrees that it’s nastier, darker, and closer to reality than the other Zatoichi films, but whether that’s merited — an interesting diversion — or a case of taking things too far — a low point for the series — is a matter of personal taste.

    Personally, then, I appreciate what it was going for, but I wonder if Katsu left it too long to go there. Coming so late in the series means we’re very familiar with the tropes its subverting, which is necessary — it works best as a counterpoint to what we’ve already seen rather than as a standalone piece — but it almost feels too late to go about such subversion — it’s a departure from the groove these films have worn for themselves. Maybe Katsu should’ve entrusted such a departure to a more sure-handed director; maybe it’s the roughness of his directorial voice that makes the film what it is.

    3 out of 5

    Muse: Simulation Theory (2020)

    2021 #45
    Lance Drake | 90 mins | TV (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK / English | 15

    Muse: Simulation Theory

    Often cited as one of the best live acts around, for their latest concert movie British rock band Muse have attempted something a bit different: rather than just footage of them performing songs in front of a massive audience, Simulation Theory attempts to tell a sci-fi narrative… driven by and/or interspersed with the band performing songs in front of a massive audience, natch.

    It begins with a slow track into a television set playing a news station where the presenter is talking about some kind of global events that have been traced back to the O2 Arena in London. Cut to a team of hazmat-suited scientists entering said arena, which they find deserted. Then, an arcade machine rises from the stage. One of the scientists approaches it, tries to play it, and is transported to another time/place/something, where the arena is full of screaming fans and a certain band begin their show. From there, the film cuts back and forth between Muse performances and a storyline about alternate simulated worlds, a highly infectious disease, and a few other bits and bobs. Frankly, it’s not the most coherent tale ever told.

    Combining a concert film with a sci-fi narrative is the kind of concept that immediately piques my interest, but I’m not sure how well Simulation Theory really pulls it off. Ultimately, it’s kind of just a few scenes sprinkled between the songs. Occasionally there’s a link between the music and the story, but not as often or as clearly as one might expect. This isn’t akin to, say, Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds, where the music is like a soundtrack just waiting for its visual accompaniment. Indeed, despite the title and ’80s-style retro theming being taken from Muse’s 2018 album, fewer than half the songs performed come from that EP. That’s not a criticism, just an observation that the album wasn’t exactly waiting for the movie treatment. If that’s what they wanted to do, previous albums — like 2009’s The Resistance or 2015’s Drones — are concept albums more ready to be converted into a narrative.

    They didn't do this bit live on stage

    Setting aside the narrative aspirations, judged as ‘just’ a concert film, Simulation Theory is still only a mixed success. Perhaps because of the desire to connect it up with that cinematic storyline, the actual concert footage, editing, and sound mix are all a little too slick, feeling more like a big music video than a replication of the “in the room” experience. In fairness, that doesn’t seem to be the goal at all, with the film mixing up the order of the set list and even ditching half-a-dozen songs (more on that later). Eventually, it can no longer half-ignore the crowd. That doesn’t come until the ninth track played, Uprising, but suddenly you can really feel that Matt Bellamy has a connection with the audience, which then resurfaces in later songs (not least Mercy, aided by Bellamy going for a little off-stage walkabout).

    For me, Muse were at their creative peak back in the ’00s, so it was often when those songs emerged that I felt their performance was at its most enjoyable, with the likes of Supermassive Black Hole, Starlight, and the aforementioned Uprising. That said, the film gave me a new appreciation for some of their more recent songs, like Mercy, Algorithm, Dig Down, and Madness (I say “recent” — Madness is from 2012), although others primarily work thanks to the theatrical staging — Propaganda, for example, looks impressive on stage, but I still think it’s an odd track.

    As noted, the film has dropped several tracks from the live show, meaning we miss out on some of their very best material, like Plug In Baby, Hysteria, Time is Running Out, and Knights of Cydonia (actually the closing number in real life). That’s a shame — I’d rather the film had given us the full track list than spent time on the interstitial narrative. But why not both? Surely there wasn’t a restriction on the film’s running time? (And if there was, why?)

    Sci-fi singer

    Despite all these nits I’ve picked, overall I enjoyed Simulation Theory. It’s not wholly a success as a narrative, and, in my estimation, it’s a long way from being any kind of “greatest hits” gig for Muse; but the ambition is admirable, and most of the music plays well in situ. Plus, the finale involves a giant evil puppet hovering over the stage, so that’s got to be worth some bonus points.

    4 out of 5

    Muse: Simulation Theory is available on BBC iPlayer for the next 11 months.