Napoleon (1927)

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aka Napoléon vu par Abel Gance

2016 #184
Abel Gance | 333 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 + 4:1 | France / silent (English) | PG / G

Napoleon

At one point in time, arguments over rights made it seem unlikely you’d ever be able to see Abel Gance’s epic biopic of French leader Napoléon Bonaparte if you were a regular person not prone to attending all-day cinema screenings with a live orchestra and multiple intermissions. But a year ago this week things panned out so that the BFI were finally able to release it on Blu-ray. While a theatrical marathon is probably still the best way to see the film (if only for the full effect of the famed triptych finale), this release is certainly more convenient and accessible. Apparently it sold better than expected, too — I guess that’s what happens when you combine years of anticipation with being a worldwide-exclusive release of a film of this stature. It’s also a daunting film to review — for the aforementioned reasons, plus its length and its artistic importance. Nonetheless, here are what thoughts I had.

At 5½ hours, Napoleon is rather like a miniseries from the silent era — a comparison that feels more apt than ever in this age of binge-watching. It’s divided into four acts, each running anywhere from 49 to 114 minutes, but it could even be subdivided into further episodes: Napoleon’s schooldays; his observation of the French Revolution; his opposition to Corsica being sold to England; the siege of Toulon (which takes up all of Act 2 and is the best bit, in my opinion); the reign of terror (a half-hour section that barely features Napoleon); a chunk where he falls for and woos Josephine that plays like a rom-com; the invasion of Italy… Yet despite that length, the film doesn’t even reach the Napoleonic Wars. No wonder Gance wanted to do six movies — or six seasons, as we might interpret it today. (In the end, he went over-schedule and over-budget on this first film, covering just two-thirds of the story he’d intended and spending the budget for the entire series. I imagine I’d outrage some silent film fans/scholars if I called him the Peter Jackson of his day…)

Albert Dieudonne as Napoleon

Part of the fourth act is that triptych climax, a 21-minute sequence shot with three cameras side-by-side, and therefore designed to projected on three 1.33:1 screens side-by-side, to create a 4:1 widescreen image. It’s undeniably less powerful when rendered as a thin strip across a 16:9 television, suddenly shrinking the height of the image rather than suddenly tripling its width, but what other choice is there? (Well, if you’ve got three sets of equipment, the three-disc Blu-ray contains each screen full size, one per disc, so you could set it up yourself.) Even shrunk like that, the imagery in the sequence remains stunning. I bet the effect is marvellous when seen as intended. (There’s an alternate single-screen ending, which is quite different. It contains fundamentally the same ‘plot’, but there’s one whole new sequence, and the others are truncated or slightly rearranged. Worst of all, it loses the tricolour-inspired finale.)

Widescreen properly arrived when CinemaScope was invented in 1953, so Gance was about 25 years ahead of his time with that technique. It’s Napoleon’s most striking innovation, but the whole film shows off a surfeit of cinematic techniques: a wide variety of shot lengths (close-ups, medium, long, wide, etc, etc); tracks and pans, many of them fast; handheld photography, including what we’d now call ShakyCam; swaying back and forth, in and out of focus, or swinging over a large crowd; mounted on fast-moving vehicles, including dipping under the waves on a boat; in the thick of the action rather than observing it from a distance; multiple exposures and superimposition; animated maps to indicate Napoleon’s strategising; split screen; split-second impressionistically-fast cutting… and most of that’s found in just the first hour! Some of this is stuff that would still feel revolutionary when filmmakers were doing it 20, 30, even 40 years later. The fast-cut pulse-racing action scenes, like a horseback chase on Corsica, are not what you commonly expect from a silent movie, especially an ‘artistic’ one rather than a swashbuckler, say.

Epic

Lest you think a film of this vintage must be in black and white, Napoleon features a lot of tinting and toning, which works very well at times to create striking and meaningful imagery: golden sunlight illuminating the debut of La Marseillaise; the burning red of revolution forged in a furnace; a tumultuous purple ocean… Similarly, Carl Davis’ original score is great, helping to emphasise the emotion and lend the images a storytelling shape. Again, the sequence with La Marseillaise is a good example; a particularly effective tour de force. Davis makes good use of other familiar tunes for shorthand — there are variations on Rule, Britannia whenever the British are involved, for instance.

Making Abel Gance’s Napoleon was an epic undertaking, as was its decades-long reconstruction, as is the viewing experience (it is 5½ hours, after all). It may not be perfect for all of that immense running time (which does not merit adjectives like “indulgent” or “excessive” but is, nonetheless, long), but it is a monumental achievement in cinema that undoubtedly deserves full marks.

5 out of 5

That completes my reviews from 2016, finally.

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Arrival (2016)

2016 #179
Denis Villeneuve | 116 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Heptapod | 12A / PG-13

This review sort of contains spoilers.

Arrival

An intelligent sci-fi movie released by a major studio?* What madness is this? A good kind of madness, because Arrival is one of the best — and, importantly, most humane — science fiction movies for years.

For one thing, it takes an unusual, but completely pragmatic, approach to alien first contact: how would we communicate with them? Most sci-fi movies gloss over this — either we don’t because they’re just killing us, or the aliens are sufficiently advanced that they already speak our language. Here, however, the focus is on Amy Adams’ linguist. The problem is approached as it would be in real life — the production sought advice from real linguists, and the only tech used is stuff we have access to today. Far removed from the usual glossy high-tech sheen of most sci-fi movies, the most important pieces of kit here are things like whiteboards and scissor lifts. It’s very mundane, and that’s the point — it’s grounded in a world we know. Apart from the aliens, of course. But while the process Adams’ character undertakes may be factual, as she begins to work on the aliens’ language its unique properties begin to have a surprising effect on her…

At the risk of sounding like one of those people who boasts about guessing a twist, I did develop a fair idea of where the film was going. (Not completely — at one point (massive pseudo-spoiler here) I thought it might be that Jeremy Renner’s character was the future-father of Adams’ past-child, in some wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey all-things-happen-at-once way that I was curious how they’d explain.) But whether you work it out in advance or not doesn’t matter, because Arrival is not a middling M. Night Shyamalan film, dependent on its twist. That it’s a revelation to the characters is enough. The emotional journey they go on is what’s more significant, and Arrival is a powerfully emotional movie. This is all carried by Amy Adams in a subtle, understated performance; one that quite possibly deserved to win the Oscar but, bafflingly, wasn’t even nominated.

We're only human after all

Despite the high-concept setup, Arrival is really a character-driven emotional drama that just happens to be about first contact with aliens. Because of that, it’s not a Sci-Fi Movie in the sense that it needs to explain why the aliens are here — despite what some commenters on the (now defunct) IMDb message boards (and similar places) seemed to think. If you’ve seen the film and are thinking “but it does explain why they’re here?”, you’re right, but apparently we need to know more specifics, otherwise the film hasn’t achieved its “stated objectives”. Yes, I agree, people who say that are talking utter bollocks.

Part of what makes Arrival so good is the way it does work on multiple levels. Despite what I just said, you can enjoy it as a pure science fiction movie, about both the logistics of first contact and some big theoretical ideas that I won’t mention because of spoilers. A lot of effort was put into the concepts underpinning the film, both the scientific theories and the functions of linguistics (the Heptapod language was developed for real; the software used to translate it is a functioning program), so it’s got a dedication to detail that rewards those interested in that aspect. It’s also, again as I said, an emotional drama; effectively a dramatisation of Tennyson’s famous adage “better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” though a unique lens. The author of the original story, Ted Chiang, started from more or less that place and then found a sci-fi concept he could use to explore it.

I think I'm turning Heptapod, I really think so

In addition to both of those, it’s also got a timely message about the state of humanity and global politics. This factor is even more pertinent now than when the film came out almost a year ago, mainly thanks to Trump. Just look at the recent willy-waggling between the US’s President You’ve-Been-Tango’d and North Korea’s Supreme Leader It’s-My-Party-And-I’ll-Blow-You-All-Up-If-I-Want-To — it’s the very stupidity that Arrival is warning against. In the film, some soldiers who watch too much nutty television and swivel-eyed internet rants almost fuck things up, while level-headed scientists and experts save the day. If only we could take some of the morons in power these days, and the even-worse people who voted for them, and strap them to a chair in front of this movie until they got the point…

While its greatest power lies in these analogies and emotional beats, it’s also a beautifully made film. Bradford Young’s photography is a little on the gloomy side at times, but it creates a clear mood — director Denis Villeneuve refers to it as “dirty sci-fi”, by which he means “the feeling that this was happening on a bad Tuesday morning”. It’s a pretty accurate description. That doesn’t preclude the film from generating some fabulous imagery, however. The sequence when they first arrive at the spacecraft by helicopter — which follows the choppers over amassed civilians queuing to see the ship, then transitions to a long oner that flies over the makeshift army base towards the giant, unusual alien craft, as clouds roll in over the hills, before continuing on down to the landing site — is majestic, and indicative of the entire film’s attitude to pace. It’s measured, not slow, and all the more effective and awe-inspiring because of it. That’s emphasised by Jóhann Jóhannsson atmospheric score, which almost lurks in the background, his work supplemented by Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight during the emotional bookends. (The latter is such an important piece to the soundtrack’s effect that Jóhannsson’s work was deemed ineligible for nomination at the Oscars, which is a shame but I can kind of see their point.)

Majestic

Arrival is a multifaceted film, which works well as both a sci-fi mystery and a reflection of current sociopolitical quandaries, but has its greatest power in the very human story that lies at its heart. The mystery and the twist are almost a distraction from this, actually — I watched the film again last night before finishing this review and enjoyed it even more than the first time. That it’s a movie best appreciated when you can see it in totality, watching it with an awareness of how it will end from when it begins, is only appropriate.

5 out of 5

Arrival is available on Amazon Prime Video UK from today.

It placed 6th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here, and also featured on my list of favourite movies from the past decade, which you can read about here.

* Only in the US, mind, which presumably means they just bought it after someone else made it, so let’s not give them too much credit. ^

Suicide Squad (2016)

2016 #178
David Ayer | 123 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English, Japanese & Spanish | 15 / PG-13

Suicide Squad

Oscar statue2017 Academy Awards
1 nomination — 1 win

Won: Best Makeup and Hairstyling.


The third movie in DC’s attempt at a shared cinematic universe always seemed like an odd choice — why adapt a minor title starring second- or third- (or even fourth-) string villains when you’ve yet to bring several of your better-known heroes to the screen? Then the trailers came out and the apparent darkly comical tone seemed to click with viewers. But apparently that wasn’t what the movie was like at all, so then the studio ordered reshoots and hired the trailer editing people to re-cut the whole movie.

That did not end well.

The final version of Suicide Squad definitely feels like a film that was messed around in post. I imagine the basic plot remains the same, however: sneaky government operative Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) comes up with a Cunning Plan to use locked-up super-villains — including the likes of Deadshot (Will Smith) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) — to undertake dangerous and/or secret missions, on the basis that these prisoners are totally expendable. Why would the villains agree? They don’t have a choice: little bombs in their head will go off if they don’t comply. Almost immediately after getting approval for her initiative, a crisis breaks out in Generic Skyscraper City that requires the Squad’s expertise — how handy! Meanwhile, the Joker (Jared Leto) is concocting a plan to free his girlfriend…

Skwad!

That there were editing tussles over Suicide Squad’s final cut becomes evident almost immediately: the way it introduces Deadshot and Harley before cutting to Waller pitching her plan is a little clunky, surely a re-ordering to get the big-name characters on screen ASAP, which becomes obvious when they’re later introduced again alongside the other candidates. However, it really goes awry when Waller’s pitch and introduction of the Enchantress is immediately followed by another meeting where Waller makes her pitch and introduces the Enchantress. Maybe the screenplay was that clunkingly constructed to begin with, or maybe they just made a ham-fisted job of the restructuring.

On a shot-to-shot level the editing is fine, but various events aren’t allowed the necessary room to breathe, the endless character introductions are a jumble, the narrative is fitfully revealed, and the overall pace is a disaster. It’s easy to believe that it was cut by trailer editors because the pace and style with which it handles some sequences is reminiscent of the storytelling economy applied in trailers. Problem is, what works in a 120-second advertisement doesn’t in a 120-minute narrative. There are bits that are well put together — the occasional strong scene or impressive visual idea — but there’s a nagging awareness that someone felt the need to mess things around.

And nobody messes with Amanda Waller

Similarly, the use of songs on the soundtrack is scattershot. Some are eye-rollingly on the nose, while others seem chucked in at random, the apparent intent to be ‘quirky’ by throwing on discordant tracks. Parts of the film are the same, like Captain Boomerang’s pink unicorn: it’s a self-consciously Funny bit that’s deployed a couple of times early on and then completely disregarded. I mean, I’m not going to argue that the lack of reference to pink unicorns after the halfway point is Suicide Squad’s biggest flaw, but it’s indicative of its sloppy handling of material.

Examples of this disjointedness are almost endless. Like, during the climax the squad have a specific plan to deal with Enchantress’ brother, who they are aware of thanks to earlier seeing him on a ‘spy boomerang’ (don’t ask). But when the big fella comes out, their reactions are all “who the hell is this?!” and “we’re in trouble now!” It’s not a major flaw, it just doesn’t quite make sense — and when that keeps happening, I’d say the cumulative effect is a problem.

Suicide stars

On the bright side, Margot Robbie and Will Smith work overtime to both make their characters function and bring some entertainment value to the film, and they largely succeed. Viola Davis makes for a great love-to-hate character as the endlessly cunning Waller. I don’t even dislike Jared Leto’s loony take on the Joker. The rest of the cast… well, okay, the less said about them the better. For one thing, there’s a lot of them, and some don’t even need to be there. Slipknot and Katana barely serve any function, for instance, and the film only emphasises this by giving them clumsily offhand introductions.

There’s a definite sense that this version of Suicide Squad was created based on either audience feedback or the perception of what the audience wants, rather than what was actually designed to be the structure of the movie. It hasn’t worked. Scenes butt against each other in ways that surely wasn’t intended, and the longer it goes on the more it feels like bits and pieces have been dropped in or taken out all over the place. It is possible to restructure a film in post, especially when you have reshoots to smooth the joins, but Suicide Squad absolutely feels like the hash job it was reported to be. Its legacy will be the lesson of what happens when you attempt a last-minute chop-and-change re-cut.

Theatrical Cut
2 out of 5


So, is the extended cut better?

2016 #195a
David Ayer | 135 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English, Japanese & Spanish | 15

Please sir, can I have some more?

Well, firstly, this isn’t a Batman v Superman-esque situation, where the extended cut puts the film back together how it was originally meant to be and suddenly makes it work. This is exactly what it says on the tin: extended. It’s the same movie, with 13 extra minutes.

I did enjoy it more on second viewing, but I’m not sure that was because of the new material. There’s extra stuff with Harley and the Joker, which feels like it’s been shoehorned in — but then, so did their scenes that were there before. The bar scene was one of the highlights of the theatrical cut and is improved by adding back some material that was only in the trailer. Otherwise, I suspect it’s just the rewatch factor, under which circumstances familiarity can allow the brain to make connections or invent explanations that the film may not contain, but through their existence (even if it’s just in your head) the film makes more sense. Even that doesn’t absolve all of Suicide Squad’s numerous faults, but it’s something.

It’s still not a good movie, really, but at least second time round I (overall) enjoyed watching it.

Extended Cut
3 out of 5

And finally, lest you ever forget…

Road Games (1981)

aka Roadgames

2016 #132
Richard Franklin | 100 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Australia / English | 15 / PG

Road Games

I hadn’t even heard of Ozploitation thriller Road Games before April last year, when Make Mine Criterion posted an excellent write-up proposing it for release by Arrow Video. That piqued my interest, so when it was announced for release by Australia’s Umbrella Entertainment the very next day, I jumped on a pre-order lickety-split. Just a couple of months later, a film I had only recently found out about was in my hands, in a better-than-its-ever-looked remaster, having arrived from literally the other side of the world, for about the same cost as a new release from Masters of Cinema or Arrow, i.e. under £14, including postage. (Makes you wonder how Criterion justify their £17.99 price tag…)

Leaving aside the wonders of today, the film stars Stacy Keach as lorry driver Pat Quid, who one night happens to witness some shady goings on that may’ve been a murder. The next day he’s given the task of transporting a container full of carcasses to the other side of the country, because there’s a butchers’ strike over there and Aussies need their meat goddammit! On the road, he spots a vehicle connected to the possible-murder, and wonders if he’s on the trail of a killer — or if the killer’s on his. The tension only deepens when he picks up a hitchhiker (Jamie Lee Curtis), who may become the next victim…

It's impossible to find good quality stills from Road Games

Road Games’ low-budget roots and exploitation-derived genre tag may give the impression it’s a slasher movie or something, but nothing could be further from the truth (though there is one gory shot — so gory it’s a wonder the film got a PG in the US). Rather, it could best be described as Rear Windscreen, because fundamentally it’s the same story: our hero spies on a guy from a distance because he thinks he saw him commit a murder, but is it all in his head? Where Hitchcock staged that impressively in a single confined location, writer-director Richard Franklin opens it up to the whole Australian outback. In some respects that’s an even more impressive feat — of course neighbours are smooshed up against each other, but long-distance travellers? However, it doesn’t feel like a stretch that Quid keeps bumping into the same people, such is the skill of the construction.

Keach makes for an affable lead, whether chatting to his dog early on or bonding with Curtis after he picks her up. Their shared ponderings about the possible murderer are just as effective as the Stewart/Kelly interactions from the Hitchcock film, though perhaps more conspiratorial. It’s easy to draw these comparisons and mirrorings with Rear Window, but it does Road Games a bit of a disservice — it’s not simply an off-brand remake or set-in-a-different-location pseudo-sequel. That said, the parallels are equally unavoidable. There’s also some Duel in the mix, as the killer notices he’s been noticed and turns the tables on our hapless trucker — an inversion, of course, as in Spielberg’s film it’s the trucker who’s the villain.

Seeing red

Basically, while acknowledging these undoubted similarities, I’m trying not to make Road Games sound too derivative, because I don’t think it is. It’s a masterful mystery, using ever-building tension to create a properly nail-biting thriller, which leads to an unpredictable final act (the benefit of many an independently-produced thriller is that it doesn’t necessarily have to comply with a studio’s view on how it should end). While it may owe a debt to one or both of the aforementioned movies, it’s a gripping work in its own right; one which deserves a bigger audience.

5 out of 5

Road Games placed 12th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here, and also featured on my list of favourite movies from the past decade, which you can read about here.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)

2016 #134
W.D. Richter | 103 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension

Buckaroo Banzai seems to have quite the cult following in the US, but, as far as I understand, it never made an impression over here; not until the internet enabled such cults to go global, anyway. It has big-name fans (one, Kevin Smith, was developing a remake for Amazon until legal wrangles got in the way), so of course it’s been noticed in more recent times. I’ve been somehow aware of it for ages, but finally got round to seeing it last year after Arrow put it out on Blu-ray.*

For those equally unfamiliar with the film, it’s an action-adventure sci-fi satirical comedy (kinda), concerning an adventure (one of many, I imagine) of Dr. Buckaroo Banzai (RoboCop’s Peter Weller), the famous physicist, neurosurgeon, test pilot, and rock musician. While testing a device that allows him to pass through solid matter, Banzai briefly travels to another dimension. This kickstarts a series of events that leads to the escape of evil aliens the Red Lectroids, who Banzai must defeat lest it brings about the end of the world. That’s the streamlined version, anyway.

To be perfectly honest, I’ve found it quite hard to tell what I thought of Buckaroo Banzai. On the one hand, I can definitely see where it gets its cult appeal, and I appreciate some of the ways it’s being different and boundary pushing. On the other, there’s been a definite backlash to it and I can appreciate where that comes from too — the criticism that some of that “boundary pushing” is merely sloppy storytelling and crazy overacting. There are parts where it’s hard to tell if it was deliberate and quite clever, or just incompetently done. Part of the problem (but also the appeal) is that it’s played so straight. It’s unquestionably a comedy — it’s too ludicrous to be anything else, and the sheer build-up of comedic lines becomes clear as it goes on — but it’s all played with such a straight face that I can see why you’d think everyone involved believed they were making something serious.

Dr Buckaroo Banzai

There are ways it could be ‘normal’, too: it contains so many elements that could be used to construct a traditional narrative — a new member being introduced to the gang, a love interest, an inciting incident which kicks off the events of the narrative, and so on — but it chooses to use none of these in a traditional way, instead being batshit crazy and thoroughly unique with it. Interestingly, director W.D. Richter was also one of the writers on Big Trouble in Little China, which is another action-adventure movie featuring a similar loose, crazy, fever-dream style. (Of all things, he also wrote Stealth, the forgotten-as-soon-as-it-was-released jet-pilots-vs-AI action thriller starring Jessica Biel and Jamie Foxx from 2005.) I can see how, after a diet of mainstream adventure cinema, something like this could feel refreshing. It’s almost like counter-culture pulp; like a Rocky Horror for the ’80s, but without the camp. (Or, at least, not the same kind of camp — I mean, have you seen what Jeff Goldblum’s wearing?)

In the booklet accompanying Arrow’s Blu-ray, James Oliver talks about cult movies and their history. “Cult” is sometimes used nowadays as a catch-all term for anything in the broad sci-fi / fantasy / horror realm, or with a dedicated and eager fanbase. It’s almost mainstream. The term’s roots lie in the opposite direction, of course — films that critics and mass moviegoers disliked but that developed a following of people who appreciate and defended them nonetheless. This is a lot easier and quicker than it used to be since VHS came along, and even more so in the era of DVD and Blu-ray. Banzai was possibly the first cult film to benefit in this way. Oliver concludes by reasoning that the film “resists easy assimilation. It plays too many games to be embraced by everyone and is, accordingly, often patronised or even denigrated, even by some of those who usually like cult movies. But such resistance just makes those who love it love it just that little bit harder. So it is a cult movie and, no matter how much the meaning of that phrase may mutate over time, it likely always will be.” Based on the aforementioned backlash — how it’s had a chance to move in a more widely-known direction but hasn’t done so — I think he’s right.

Villains

Personally, I’m still conflicted. I sort of didn’t think it was all that great, but also loved it at the same time. “Loved” might be too strong a word. I admired some of the ways it was different from the norm. Plus there are some very quotable lines, and the music that kicks off the end credits is relentlessly hummable. On balance, I really wanted to like it more than I actually did like it. Maybe I’ll get there on repeat viewings (because we know how good I am at getting round to those…)

3 out of 5

* Said Blu-ray was actually released two years ago this month — where does time go?! ^

Dragon (2011)

aka Wu xia

2016 #190
Peter Ho-sun Chan | 94 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong & China / Mandarin | 15 / R

Dragon (Wu Xia)

Donnie Yen is small town paper-maker Jinxi, who incidentally encounters and accidentally defeats two most-wanted criminals. While his village thanks him, detective Baijiu is suspicious — does Jinxi’s story add up? Is he hiding some dark past?

Takeshi Kaneshiro is expert detective Xu Baijiu, who adheres slavishly to the law after a past mistake cost him dearly. But is he delusional, inventing connections and powers for Jinxi that just aren’t there? Or are his delusions allowing him to see the truth?

As a Hong Kong production starring Donnie Yen, of course Dragon is an action movie, but there’s more to it than fisticuffs. It engages with themes of justice and redemption, and what it means not only to take the right action, but to have to find the right action to take. Apparently it began life as a remake of One-Armed Swordsman, and while obvious superficial resemblances remain (the Big Bad Boss Man is played by Jimmy Wang Yu, and Yen has to (spoilers!) lop off his own arm), you can definitely see familiar plot points in both films too. But it’s also certainly not a remake anymore. Funny how these things go.

Can I Baijiu a Jinxi?

Naturally, when the action does kick in, it’s fantastic. With the combat directed by Yen, these sequences are expertly and inventively choreographed dust-ups. It’s stylishly directed by Peter Chan — classy, but also thrilling, exciting, and sometimes innovative; and the whole is majestically shot by DP Lai Yiu-Fai (who also shot Infernal Affairs, which I still haven’t seen).

On the downside, at a couple of points I thought the story leapt a little bit or fudged a detail, which is a shame because I don’t think it needed to. This is possibly the effect of watching the international version, which is cut by around 17 minutes (full details here). While it’s a shame, it’s certainly not enough to ruin an excellent martial arts drama.

4 out of 5

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

2016 #182
David Yates | 133 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

When J.K. Rowling wrote the seven-book Harry Potter series, she didn’t just make it all up as she went along — it was well planned in advance. And she didn’t just envisage a seven-book story, either — she built a whole world, including a massive history that is only fleetingly referred to in Potter itself. It’s part of that history that the five-film Fantastic Beasts series is setting out to explore. (Despite sharing a title with a short tie-in book Rowling once wrote, Fantastic Beasts isn’t somehow an adaptation of that tiny tome, despite what some pithily moronic internet commenters who think they’re funny would believe.)

Set many decades before Potter, Fantastic Beasts introduces us to Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a British wizard who’s travelled to New York while researching his book on magical creatures — or “fantastic beasts”. There, he finds himself embroiled in a conflict between the local magic council and a puritanical group who want to destroy all wizards, while some creature or force is terrorising the city.

Although labelled by some as a prequel, that’s only technically true — it is set before the Potter stories, but it’s a new story in that universe rather than a tale that leads directly into the existing narrative. As such, it’s pretty newbie friendly. It reuses familiar iconography from Potter, but it does so in neat ways — there are things that are instantly recognisable to fans, but their function is not reliant on familiarity for the sake of newcomers or the less well-versed. It’s also opening up new parts of the Potterverse — or, as they want us to call it now, J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World — primarily, taking us to the USA for the first time.

Fantastic Americans and where to find them

As a new story, it develops its own particular tone and style, distinct from that of the previous movies. That partly comes from the characters we’re following: Potter is about schoolchildren, this is about adults. It’s still a 12A/PG-13, of course, but there’s a lot of wiggle-room within that category. Perhaps this is why some have found it tonally inconsistent, but I enjoyed the mix of whimsy with darkness. The overall effect was good fun, with strong action scenes and some really good — even magical — visuals. The story is bolstered by a couple of well-constructed final act twists. I found at least one to be pretty guessable, but that doesn’t detract from it being put together neatly throughout the film.

As for the widely discussed fact that this is to be the first of five movies, that fortunately doesn’t define this opening instalment. Seeds for future films are obvious because we recognise actors and, as movie-literate viewers, know how films establish things for future use; but leaving that extra-textual knowledge aside, there’s no reason this doesn’t work as a standalone adventure. People who’ve said otherwise are talking poppycock. Even stuff that initially looks like it’s purely franchise-setup has a purpose within this individual movie.

Fantastic Beasts has been dismissed in some quarters as no more than a cash-grab attempt to extend a franchise, but I thought it was one of the most enjoyable blockbusters of 2016.

4 out of 5

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

2016 #180
Dan Trachtenberg | 104 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

10 Cloverfield Lane

After Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is in a car crash, she awakens in a basement chained to a wall. Her captor, Howard (John Goodman), tells her he’s saved her life: a massive attack has taken place and they, along with an acquaintance of Howard’s called Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), are in Howard’s self-built bunker to hide from the deadly fallout. But Michelle only has Howard’s word as evidence these attacks happened at all, or that their aftermath is lethal, and can he be trusted?

For most of its running time, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a good psychological puzzle. Michelle has little choice but to trust her captor(s) / quarantine-mates and little chance to investigate the truth for herself, try as she might. I must say I never felt a particularly palpable sense of tension, despite the varied and regularly renewed attempts to make Goodman a threat, but it nonetheless works as a characterful mystery-driven single-location thriller. And then…

We’ve all read reviews where a critic (or blogger!) will write something like, “it would benefit from being 10 minutes shorter”. That sounds very precise and therefore clever, but it’s really a number plucked from thin air. No one who’s written a sentence like that has actually sat down with a film, noted all the bits they’d cut, added them up, and then presented that total in their review. It is, at best, intuition (at worst, it’s random and thoughtless). However, with 10 Cloverfield Lane I can say exactly how much needs to be cut: 9 minutes and 10 seconds. To be exact, those’d be the 9 minutes and 10 seconds between a (spoilery) revelation and the credits rolling.

Roomies

There’s no need to go into detail here — if you’ve not seen the film it’s a massive spoiler; if you have, you surely know what I’m talking about. This climax feels wholly unnecessary and like it belongs in a totally different movie. Tonally, and in terms of the main plot points that drive the story, it has absolutely nothing to do with the movie we’ve just watched. If you cut that bit out, it wouldn’t make the rest of the film any less satisfying. And because it’s so unnecessary, I found it intensely irritating.

The bulk of 10 Cloverfield Lane is a very solid contained psychological thriller, undoubtedly deserving a strong 4-star rating. Then the final ten minutes happens. It’s so misjudged, in my opinion, that it overshadows what’s come before, to the point that I’ve taken a whole star off my rating.

3 out of 5

Our Kind of Traitor (2016)

2016 #191
Susanna White | 108 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & France / English, Russian & French | 15 / R

Our Kind of Traitor

Based on a John le Carré novel, Our Kind of Traitor sees a couple of holidaying Brits, Perry and Gail MacKendrick (Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris), befriending a Russian chap called Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), who it turns out has links to the Mafia and wants our hapless heroes to deliver an information-filled USB stick to British intelligence. As MI6 (primarily represented by Damian Lewis) seek to act on the information, the MacKendricks get drawn into the espionage game thanks to their relationship with Dima.

Some of Traitor’s detractors have a problem with it right from the off, finding the premise to be inherently ridiculous. I disagree. In fact, I think it’s quite a good plan on Dima’s part: to use an unsuspected casual acquaintance to smuggle important documents to the authorities. The way the MacKendricks continue to be involved does wind up stretching credibility, but that’s narrative structure for you — it’d be a real trick to construct a satisfying relay of perspective characters.

If anyone could pull that off it’s probably Le Carré, but this is not his most complicated plot — there are even less twists or double-crosses than you’re probably expecting — but as a tense thriller it satisfies often enough. However, Le Carré as author, plus screenwriter Hossein Amini and director Susanna White, seem to be more interested in the story’s real-world resonances. They’re using a thriller plot to bring up the kind of probably-genuine corruption we get in government today. On the one hand it feels a little obvious, especially to those of certain political leanings, but on the other it’s worth highlighting. An impassioned speech by Damian Lewis to some of his superiors sums it up, probably rather too neatly for some discerning critics.

British intelligence

Lewis is always good value, both in scenes like that and in his tentative partnership with McGregor. Although the MacKendricks are our point-of-view characters, the innocent normal people we should relate to, McGregor’s Perry is ultimately a little flat and Harris is underused. The real star is Skarsgård as the gregarious and foul-mouthed Russian banker, who is by turns unsettlingly dangerous and engagingly likeable. Or perhaps it’s the beautiful cinematography by DP Anthony Dod Mantle — the varied international locations are particularly effective at adding scale to a story that’s really about the personal interactions of four or five people.

Our Kind of Traitor is not the very best Le Carré adaptation, especially given the increasing number we’re being treated to these days, but it’s still a reasonably engrossing thriller with something to say about contemporary geopolitics.

4 out of 5

Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made (2016)

2016 #162
Tim Skousen & Jeremy Coon | 93 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English

Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made

You may have heard about this: in 1982, a group of teenagers decided to remake Raiders of the Lost Ark shot for shot, starring themselves. It was a project that ended up filling their whole adolescence, filming scenes here and there every summer for years. Decades later, their amateur recreation (known nowadays as Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation) was uncovered by director Eli Roth, who passed it to Harry Knowles to screen at a film festival he organises, and it began to gain cult notoriety. Eventually, that new appreciation led to the guys reuniting in an attempt to crowdfund production of the one scene they were never able to shoot originally. This documentary tells the stories of both the original production and the attempt to complete it.

It’s a great tale, but unfortunately it’s told in a really sloppily made documentary. The narrative is a complete jumble — it jumps in and out of stories all over the place, getting distracted by something else before looping back around. Exposition and setup are bungled, leaving the viewer constantly playing catch-up and trying to piece things together. It throws in general observations mid-film that really belong in an introduction or conclusion. It goes back and forth in time at will — presumably someone thought they’d structured it to tell the parallel stories of the original project and the 2014 shoot, but the editing isn’t clear enough to support that structure. Interviews are cut to shreds, leaving soundbite-sized snippets that often fade out while the person’s still talking, just moving away without letting them finish.

Some people never grow up...

As a viewer, you endure all of this because the underlying story is so good, but there’s a better film to be made here — one that tells the story more clearly, that better draws out the characters of the people involved, the psychology of what they’re doing, and any latent thematic points too. I mean, what these guys did is extraordinary in its dedication, but it’s also completely bizarre. Why did they start it? What does it say about them, or their lives, or maybe even the human condition? And it does say something, I’d wager — you can almost glimpse it around the edges and in the corners of the documentary, but it rarely comes close to actually exploring it. There is a section on the kids’ shitty home lives — that’s something they all seemed to share — and how the Raiders project was a refuge. At this point the editing calms down and it’s briefly very good. If the whole film had displayed that same clarity, it would merit a higher rating.

As it stands, Raiders! has a brilliant story to tell, meaning it’s worth watching to learn about that, but I yearned for it to be told better.

3 out of 5