Love & Friendship (2016)

2016 #173
Whit Stillman | 94 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.78:1 | Ireland, France & Netherlands / English | U / PG

Love & Friendship

Adapted from Jane Austen’s early novella Lady Susan, writer-director Whit Stillman’s arch comedy concerns one Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), a widow with a certain reputation in polite society, which she endeavours to hide from while engaging in matchmaking machinations for both herself and her daughter.

That’s the vague version, anyway. The details of the plot are occasionally a mite too intricate to follow, especially as explanations tend to come after the fact, if they do at all. However, for those prepared to go along with it, the reward is a film that is at times hilariously funny.

Stillman’s writing and direction are both a little mannered, which will surely turn off some viewers, but the real stars are, indeed, the stars. Kate Beckinsale is phenomenal — funny, dry, biting, witty, but also conveying that Susan is making it all up as she goes, despite pretending to be in control. The other standout is Tom Bennett as the dimwitted Sir James Martin. His knowledge of the commandments and opinion of peas are particularly delightful.

Kate Beckinsale & Tom Bennett

Love & Friendship may be something of an acquired taste thanks to its stylistic affectations, but couple that with its wry sense of humour and it makes a likeable change from the heritage ambitions of most Austen adaptations. Perhaps, too, that makes it the Jane Austen film for people who don’t normally like Jane Austen films.

4 out of 5

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

2016 #142
John Huston | 96 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | PG

The Maltese Falcon

Humphrey Bogart is private dick and consummate bullshitter Sam Spade in this (re-)adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel, considered the first major film noir.

The twisty plot of murder and thievery is enlivened by duplicitous performances from femme fatale Mary Astor, an effeminate Peter Lorre, the always welcome Elisha Cook Jr., and the humungous presence of Sydney Greenstreet, making his film debut at 60 and stealing every scene.

It’s also the directorial debut of John Huston, whose work alongside cinematographer Arthur Edeson is the greatest star: the low-key lighting and dramatic angles are (like the rest of the film) archetypal noir.

4 out of 5

The Maltese Falcon was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

Tale of Tales (2015)

aka Il racconto dei racconti

2016 #148
Matteo Garrone | 134 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Italy, France & UK / English | 15 / R

Tale of Tales

Based on 17th Century Italian fairytales by Giambattista Basile, Tale of Tales relates three interlocking stories of dark fantasy. If there’s one thing that really connects them, it’s thematic: essentially, “be careful what you wish for”; or maybe “be grateful for what you’ve got”. There are primary characters in each tale who go to disgustingly extraordinary lengths to achieve what they desire — eating a sea-monster’s heart raw, breeding a giant flea, self-flaying — and it rarely turns out for the best.

If you can stomach the contents, there’s a quality cast, and the locations, production design, and cinematography are simply gorgeous.

4 out of 5

The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (1962)

aka Zoku Zatôichi monogatari

2016 #194
Kazuo Mori | 73 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

The Tale of Zatoichi Continues

Back in 2014, when I reviewed the debut Zatoichi movie a year after first watching it, I promised that reviews of the series’ future instalments would follow in 2015. Well, it’s 2017, and here’s Film #2. Yeah, this is going to be the new Rathbone Holmes, isn’t it?

Anyway, this second movie is — as its title might suggest — a direct sequel (a rarity for the series, so I gather), which sees our hero, the blind masseuse and skilled swordsman Ichi (Shintarô Katsu), back in conflict with one of the gangs from the first film. Despite that, it doesn’t start like a direct sequel at all. Reference is made to the previous film, the events of which have given Ichi a reputation, but that could be a reference to something that occurred off-screen for all its significance to the story. Later, however, we learn that Ichi is travelling to pay homage to the grave of the samurai he killed before, and we end up in the same town with some returning characters. It’s quite a nice structure for a sequel: to seem like a new adventure before revealing and exploring connections to the previous movie. Unfortunately, to say this film “explores” anything would be doing it a kindness.

All the ladies love a blind man

The consensus seems to be that The Tale of Zatoichi Continues is a faster-paced and more action-packed movie than its predecessor, which is obviously to some viewers’ taste. The fight scenes are certainly on a more epic scale: where the first movie ended with a one-on-one between Ichi and an opposing samurai, here he takes on a small army of men. It’s less than an hour-and-a-quarter long, too, at which length it’s hard to avoid running at a brisk speed. However, I thought it lacked the artistry of the first film. It’s very focused on plot rather than digging into character, which is especially problematic when it comes to a subplot about a rogue who turns out to be Ichi’s brother. It’s structured to make for good reveals, but they aren’t always well executed, and what should carry a weight of emotion ends up rushed.

The movie as a whole is oddly paced and very oddly ended. What turns out to be the de facto climax starts earlier than you’d expect, but then the film moves on from it… before suddenly stopping. Is this meant to be a cliffhanger? It doesn’t quite play like one, but it’s also unresolved. Film 1 felt like a complete story, but this ends with the need for a Part 3 — or rather a Part 2.1, because it doesn’t feel like a whole movie. The fact the next one is called New Tale of Zatoichi isn’t promising…

Brotherly love

Technical merits are similarly mixed. It’s not poorly shot, but it’s not as striking as its predecessor. The music is occasionally horrendous. There is indeed more sword fighting, and with it more involved choreography, but it doesn’t feel like an earned trade-off with the lightweight story.

The Tale of Zatoichi Continues comes with lots of great ideas and potential themes, but the rushed production seems to have led to a weak execution. It’s almost like you want to say to the filmmakers, “good effort, you’re almost there. Now try again and do it properly.” Of course, there are 23 more films where they may do exactly that…

3 out of 5

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

aka Hauru no ugoku shiro

2016 #193
Hayao Miyazaki | 114 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | Japan / English | U / PG

Howl's Moving Castle

Director Hayao Miyazaki’s first film after he won the Oscar for Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle is another fantasy adventure about a young girl encountering a magical world. Well, I’m bending that similarity a bit — the heroine is considerably older than the one in Spirited Away (a young woman rather than a girl) and she already lives in a world where magic exists (but she doesn’t seem to have encountered much of it).

Adapted from a novel by British author Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle concerns Sophie Hatter (voiced in the English version by Emily Mortimer), who works in her family’s hat shop in a fictional Mitteleuropean country in a steampunk-y past (anime really gets away with launching you into these subgenre-mash-up worlds in a way no Western work ever dares, doesn’t it?) After a brief chance encounter with famed wizard Howl (Christian Bale), Sophie is attacked by the wicked Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall) and transformed into an old woman (now voiced by Jean Simmons). She goes hunting for Howl’s titular abode/transportation, wherein she meets sentient fire Calcifer (Billy Crystal), Howl’s young assistant Markl (Josh Hutcherson), and alongside them gets swept into a brewing war with a neighbouring country.

Frankly, the plot is a bit messy, flitting from one situation to another in a way that feels in need of some streamlining. The climax is particularly hurried, underpowered, and under-explained. For example, there’s a missing prince who suddenly turns up to resolve the whole war storyline — a prince who was only mentioned in passing in some background dialogue nearly two hours earlier.

Running up that hill, no problem

However, much of the film is enjoyable in a moment-to-moment sense. The affable characters are quite delightful to get to know even as they’re getting to know each other, and there are some magical sequences. Plus it’s all beautifully designed and animated, as you’d expect from Studio Ghibli, though we should never take such achievements for granted. The English dub is pretty good too, benefitting from Disney picking it up and getting a starry cast, and no doubt the direction of Pete “Monsters Inc / Up / Inside Out” Docter and Rick Dempsey. No disrespect to the professional voice actors who work in anime day-in day-out, but they often perform with a certain stylisation that isn’t always naturalistic.

Apparently Howl’s Moving Castle is Miyazaki’s favourite from his own work, probably because some of its themes (anti-war sentiment, a positive depiction of old age, the value of compassion) are close to his heart. While those are worthwhile topics, they sit alongside the aspects mentioned above as good parts that aren’t wrapped up into a whole that equals their sum. But even if it’s not Ghibli’s finest work, it’s still a likeable fantasy adventure.

4 out of 5

Howl’s Moving Castle was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

Studio Ghibli’s first TV series, Ronja, The Robber’s Daughter, is available on Amazon Prime in the UK and USA (and presumably elsewhere too) from today.

The Pianist (2002)

2016 #175
Roman Polanski | 143 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | France, Poland, Germany & UK / English, German & Russian | 15 / R

The PianistRoman Polanski’s semi-autobiographical biopic of Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), who survived the Warsaw ghetto in World War 2 primarily through luck and good fortune, is a subtly powerful work. It may not poke at your emotions quite so readily as, say, Schindler’s List, but that’s because Polanski and screenwriter Ronald Harwood dodge histrionics or an operatic envisioning of events. Instead this feels like a grounded relation of the facts, with everyday heroism (and cruelty) the order of the day — but, of course, there’s nothing “everyday” about it.

If this were fiction it would seem improbable; because it’s true, it’s extraordinary.

5 out of 5

The Pianist was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

Wuthering Heights (2011)

2016 #81
Andrea Arnold | 129 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.33:1 | UK / English | 15

Wuthering Heights

A world away from heritage adaptations of classic literature (or, indeed, that Kate Bush song), Andrea Arnold’s earthy, plausible take on Emily Brontë’s beloved novel (the first half of it, anyway) won’t be to all tastes — particularly anyone after an epic romance feel — but its sparse dialogue, Malickian attention to nature, and oppressive mood make for a benumbing work of cinematic art.

The claustrophobic 4:3 framing and mist-shrouded photography lock us into an isolated world, where rough people treat each other roughly and misery begets misery, from which neither we nor the characters can escape. It’s grim up north, indeed.

5 out of 5

Bridesmaids (2011)

2016 #172
Paul Feig | 125 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Bridesmaids

Bridesmaids opens on a shot of the outside of a house, but we can hear the people inside. It sounds like they’re having sex. “I’m so glad you could come over,” one says. Cut to a view of the closed bedroom door. Still sounds like sex. “Cup my balls,” says the male voice. Our assumption is still sex. Cut to inside the bedroom, where it looks like he’s on his back and she’s on top of him — you know, having sex. And it’s maybe at this point that you realise that, yes, they are just having sex — there is no clever, funny twist coming.

Thankfully this unimaginative sequence is not indicative of Bridesmaids’ overall quality. The female participant in that first scene is Annie (co-writer Kristen Wiig), a down-on-her-luck baker who’s struggling with life since her cake store went bust. When her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) announces her engagement, she asks Annie to be her maid of honour. But Annie soon clashes with fellow bridesmaid Helen (Rose Byrne), the wealthy and glamorous wife of Lillian’s fiancé’s boss, who’s keen to replace Annie in Lillian’s affections. Wedding preparations and hilarity ensue.

Despite the rough start, there are some very, very funny parts later on; but, unexpectedly, it also works pretty well in more character-focused sections. You’re not going to mistake this for an emotional drama, but there’s more investment in the characters than you might anticipate given the cast and crew’s pedigree. I guess this is the on-screen result of a telling behind-the-scenes titbit: reportedly, producer Judd Apatow pushed hard for wild, physical comedy, while writers Wiig and Annie Mumolo preferred to go for subtler material. The film’s most notorious sequence — the diarrhoea scene — was largely at the insistence of Apatow and director Paul Feig. I feel like that probably explains a lot about how the film can be restrained and emotionally intelligent at times, and then ludicrously crude at others.

Bitch fight

Maybe it also explains how it ended up being too long. The ideal length of a comedy movie is about 90 minutes, so crossing the two-hour mark feels needless. At the very least it could do with just a tighten — trimming some scenes, or even individual shots, would make a pleasant difference. And to think, there’s an extended cut!

Even more baffling is the fact that this earnt Melissa McCarthy an Oscar nomination, which is just… daft. I mean, she’s not bad, and it’s a bit of an excursion from the kind of roles I’ve seen her play otherwise — and doing something different to your norm is the kind of thing that attracts awards attention — but an Oscar? For this? No. That’s just silly.

I guess that was due in some part to the mass of praise Bridesmaids received on its release, after which there was (of course) a massive backlash. Until I read online comments before writing, I’d forgotten just how hyped it was, and how much people turned against that. With several years’ distance things have calmed down, which probably works in the film’s favour: freed from that pressure, it entertains as a largely funny, surprisingly emotionally astute female-driven comedy.

4 out of 5

Paul Feig is a guest panellist on tonight’s episode of Insert Name Here, which is… random.

Raising Arizona (1987)

2016 #164
Joel Coen | 94 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Raising Arizona

Once upon a time I did a Media Studies A level, and (for reasons I can’t remember) our teacher showed us the pre-titles sequence of Raising Arizona because it was noteworthy for being the longest pre-titles sequence ever. As it happened our teacher was wrong, because The World Is Not Enough had already exceeded it a couple of years earlier.* And now it’s completely meaningless because most blockbusters don’t bother to show any credits until the end of the film, technically rendering the entire movie as the pre-titles “sequence”.

My point here is twofold. One: I miss the structure of all films having title sequences somewhere near the start. Two: before now all I could have told you about Raising Arizona is that “it has the longest pre-titles ever (except it doesn’t)”. Well, that and it stars Nic Cage and was directed by the Coen brothers. But now I’ve watched it and, three months after the fact, …that’s still almost all I can tell you. I also remember there was a kinda-cool semi-fantastical thing going on with, like, a demon biker or something. Oh, and it’s quite funny. Not very funny, but quite.

I have an awkward relationship with the Coen brothers. I always feel like I should be enjoying their movies more than I actually do, and I think some of their stuff is downright overrated. Unfortunately, Raising Arizona has done little to change this situation.

3 out of 5

* For what it’s worth, the length of TWINE’s pre-titles wasn’t intended. It was originally supposed to be just the stuff in Spain, with the MI6 explosion and subsequent Thames boat chase coming after the titles, but it was decided that didn’t make for a strong enough opening and it was recut. It runs about 17 minutes vs Raising Arizona’s 11. ^

Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future (1973)

aka Иван Васильевич меняет профессию / Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession

2016 #112
Leonid Gaidai | 92 mins | streaming (HD) | 4:3 | Soviet Union / Russian

Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future

I know: having seen the title of this film, you’re probably thinking some variation of, “so what’s that then?” Well, it’s only a better sci-fi film than Aliens, 2001, Metropolis, Blade Runner, or Solaris! It’s only a better comedy than Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Sherlock Jr., Some Like It Hot, It Happened One Night, or The Kid! Only a better adventure movie than North by Northwest, Lawrence of Arabia, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, or The Bridge on the River Kwai! Only the best musical ever made that isn’t The Lion King, and the 8th greatest film of one of cinema’s defining decades, the ’70s — that’s what!

Well, “that’s what” according to IMDb voters, anyway, who’ve placed it in the upper echelons of all those best-of lists. In fact, it’s a Russian sci-fi comedy, adapted from a play by Mikhail Bulgakov (most famous to Western audiences now for the TV series A Young Doctor’s Notebook starring Daniel “Harry Potter” Radcliffe and Jon “Mad Men” Hamm). Apparently it’s a huge popular classic in Russia, hence why it’s scored so well on an international movie website and shot up those lists; and, because of that, it’s a moderately (in)famous film on movie-list-checking website iCheckMovies (at least, it is in the parts of it I frequent), because it’s a film you have to see if you want to complete any of the aforementioned lists.

And so I have seen it — courtesy of Mosfilm’s YouTube channel, where it’s available for free, in HD, with English subtitles — just in case this review makes you want to watch it too. Which, you never know, it might, because it’s actually kinda fun. In the end.

Terrible meal

The plot concerns scientist Shurik (Alexsandr Demyanenko), who is trying to perfect a time machine in his apartment (as you do) but is getting grief from his busybody building supervisor Ivan Vasilievich (Yuri Yakovlev). Meanwhile, George (Leonid Kuavlev) is trying to rob a neighbouring apartment. To cut a lot of faffing short, the three of them end up transported to the past, where it turns out Ivan Vasilievich is the spitting image of Ivan the Terrible (also Yuri Yakovlev) and — to cut some more farce equally short — Ivan Vasilievich and George end up stuck in the past, pretending to be Mr Terrible and his chum, while Shurik and the real Mr Terrible are returned to the present day. More hijinks ensue!

So, you can see why its original title is the wittily understated statement Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession, and how its English title can just about get away with being such a blatant attempt to cash-in on a popular movie.

As for the film itself, it starts off not so hot, somewhat overacted and a little hard to get a grip on what’s happening — it’s also a sequel or sorts, so perhaps launches with the idea you’ve seen the previous adventures of Shurik and so know what kind of thing to expect. But as it continues… well, maybe it’s a kind of Stockholm syndrome, but I ended up rather enjoying it. It’s not genius, but it’s a fairly amusing farce once it gets going. Very of its time as an early-’70s mainstream-style silly comedy, but what’s wrong with being of your time? It also sounds like it’s fairly faithful to Bulgakov’s original play, which is a little surprising, but there you go.

Terrible face

Unsurprisingly, Ivan Vasilievich is not a better film than all those ones I listed at the start. If it got wider exposure and more IMDb votes, I’m sure it would drop down lickety-split. At the same time, I’m actually quite glad I watched it: after I eventually warmed to it, it was kinda fun.

3 out of 5