Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

2016 #147
Don Siegel | 77 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.00:1 | USA / English | PG

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

A sci-fi thriller about a stealth alien invasion using human duplicates (clue’s in the title), this original film version of the oft-remade Invasion of the Body Snatchers is best not at genre-movie chills, but at evoking and commenting on paranoia and what causes it.

Thematically, the narrative of insidious outsiders slowly replacing good honest people with braindead versions who are on their side has been read as either anti-communist or anti-McCarthyite, with some critics claiming the framing story (more on that in a bit) changes it from the latter to the former. Allegedly none of these themes were intended — not by the author of the original story, the screenwriter, the producer, or the director. Which doesn’t mean you can’t see them there. Indeed, director Don Siegel felt the anti-McCarthy subtext was inescapable, but he tried not to emphasise it. Whichever reading you prefer, or none, the sense of unease, distrust, and lurking danger that the film creates are a peerless reflection of paranoid feelings.

Although I deemphasised the genre aspect above, that doesn’t mean it lacks for sophistication there either. It’s as much a thriller as it is science fiction, and more mature in that regard than what’s commonly brought to mind by the phrase “50s sci-fi movie” (whether that’s fair or not). The way the mystery slowly unravels — the calmness of it; how even our heroes unwittingly allow some of it to happen — sucks you slowly deeper into its anxious grip. (“Slowly” being a relative term, because this is a short, quick movie.) Nonetheless, the most outright SF elements — the plant-like pods that the clones emerge from — are suitably creepy. Not in themselves, but when they first burst open and the bodies inside begin to ooze out… Though not strictly a horror movie (at least not as we’d define it today), those moments are chilling.

Extreme gardening

The impact of this sequence is supported by the black-and-white photography, which helps obscure any cheapness or amateurism to be found from the era- and budget-restrained special effects work. But such photography benefits the film as a whole, too, with some great film noir visuals during nighttime scenes. Siegel had previously helmed several such crime pictures (and would go on to a couple more) and it’s clear those skills crossed over. It also works very nicely with the film’s paranoia — what’s lurking in the shadows?

In some respects it’s amazing Invasion of the Body Snatchers is as successful as it is, because the studio chose to dick around with it in a couple of ways. Originally the film had some humour, which (as I think we all know by now) definitely can have a place in a horror movie, generally to help manage tension levels. Despite successful test screenings in which the audience screamed or laughed as appropriate, the studio ordered the humour be cut. I guess they then felt they’d made the film too glum, because they next ordered the addition of bookend sequences, against the wishes of both the producer and the director. It’s clear these couple of scenes were shot much later, with much less care given to their quality. They do somewhat detract from the pervading pessimistic, bleak, increasingly hopeless tone — which was why they were added, of course, so at least in that respect they’re a success.

Those late additions aren’t bad enough to ruin the film, however, which still comes away as a well-made exercise in tension.

4 out of 5

Review Round-up

Over the last ten-and-a-bit years I’ve prided myself on reviewing every new film I see. Well, at the start it was less pride and more just how I did things (and most of those early ‘reviews’ were only a couple of sentences long), but as I’ve maintained it for so long I’ve come to pride myself on it. However, of late my backlog has reached ridiculous proportions, and is only expanding.

But I’m not giving up just yet, dear reader — hence this round-up. There are some films I just don’t have a great deal to say about, where all I’ve really got are a few notes rather than a fully worked-up review. So as in days of old (i.e. 2007), I’ll quickly dash off my brief thoughts and a score. Hopefully this will become an irregular series that churns through some of my backlog.

In today’s round-up:

  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)
  • Under the Shadow (2016)
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (2016)
  • Dazed and Confused (1993)


    The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
    (1965)

    2016 #167
    Martin Ritt | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | UK / English | PG

    The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

    John le Carré’s famed story of crosses, double crosses, triple crosses… probably quadruple crosses… heck, maybe even quintuple crosses — why not?

    The storytelling is very slow and measured, which I would guess is not to all tastes — obviously not for those who only like their spies with the action and flair of Bond, but even by Le Carré standards it’s somewhat slight. That’s not to say it’s not captivating, but it lacks the sheer volume of plot that can, say, fuel a seven-episode adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Quite how the forthcoming miniseries from the makers of The Night Manager intends to be more than a TV movie… well, we’ll see.

    There’s also some gorgeous black and white photography, with the opening sequence at Check Point Charlie looking particularly glorious.

    5 out of 5

    Under the Shadow
    (2016)

    2017 #12
    Babak Anvari | 84 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / Persian | 15 / PG-13

    Under the Shadow

    Be afraid if your doll is took — it could be the Iranian Babadook.

    Honestly, for all the creepy quality on display in this UK-funded Iran-set psychological horror, I don’t think labelling it as something of a mirror to The Babadook is unfair. It’s about a lone mother (Narges Rashidi) struggling with an awkward child (Avin Manshadi) while a malevolent supernatural entity that may be real or may just be in her head attempts to invade their home. Where the Australian horror movie invented the mythology for its creature afresh, Under the Shadow draws from Persian folklore — so, same difference to us Western viewers. The devil is in the details, then, which are fine enough to keep the film ticking over and regularly scaring you, be it with jumps or general unease.

    The Babadook may have done it better, and certainly did it first, but Under the Shadow remains an effective chiller.

    4 out of 5

    Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles:
    Out of the Shadows

    (2016)

    2017 #29
    Dave Green | 108 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, Hong Kong, China & Canada / English | 12 / PG-13

    Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows

    This first (and last? We’ll see) sequel to 2014’s Teenage Mutant Michael Bay Turtles ends with a cover of the theme from the original animated series, just in case you weren’t clear by then that it’s aspiring to be a live-action version of that particular cartoon.

    For one thing, there are appearances by a lot of popular characters who are primarily associated with that iteration of the franchise. For another, parts of the film have a very “rules of Saturday morning cartoons” feel — people thrown from a plane are immediately shown to be opening parachutes; all of the villains survive to fight another day; that kind of thing. They’ve clearly made an effort to make it lighter and funnier than its big-screen predecessor. The downside: they’ve gone a bit too far. The tone of the screenplay is “kids’ movie”, which isn’t a problem in itself, but Out of the Shadows retains the dark and realistic visual aesthetic of the first movie, plus enough violence and swears to get the PG-13 all blockbusters require, which means the overall effect is a little muddled.

    While it’s not a wholly consistent film, it does work to entertain, with funny-ish lines and kinetic CGI-fuelled action scenes. I must confess to ultimately enjoying it a fair bit… but bear in mind I was a big fan of the cartoon when I was five or six, so it did gently tickle my nostalgia soft spot.

    3 out of 5

    Dazed and Confused
    (1993)

    2017 #53
    Richard Linklater | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Dazed and Confused

    Writer-director Richard Linklater has said that with Dazed and Confused he wanted to make an anti John Hughes movie; one that showed teenage life was mundane and uneventful. So here’s a movie about what it’s like to hang out, driving around aimlessly doing nothing. Turns out it’s pretty mundane and uneventful. And most of the characters behave like dicks half the time, which isn’t exactly conducive to a good time.

    Despite that, some people love this movie; it’s often cited as being nostalgic. Well, I can’t say it worked that way for me. Indeed, I’m kinda glad I didn’t know those people in school…

    3 out of 5

  • A Christmas Carol (2009)

    aka Disney’s A Christmas Carol

    2016 #188
    Robert Zemeckis | 88 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Disney's A Christmas Carol

    You surely know the story of A Christmas Carol — if you don’t instantly, it’s the one with Scrooge and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future — so what matters is which particular adaptation this is and if it’s any good.

    Well, this is the one made by Robert Zemeckis back when he was obsessed with motion-captured computer animation, following the financial (though, I would argue, not artistic) success of The Polar Express and Beowulf. Fortunately A Christmas Carol seemed to kill off this diversion in his career (he’s since returned to making passably-received live-action films), because it’s the worst of that trilogy.

    The theoretical star of the show is Jim Carrey, who leads as Scrooge — here performed as “Jim Carrey playing an old man” — but also portrays all the ghosts, meaning he’s the only actor on screen for much of the film. Except he’s never on screen at all, of course, because CGI. Elsewise, Gary Oldman is entirely lost within the CG of Bob Cratchit, as well as, bizarrely, playing his son, Tiny Tim. The less said about this the better. Colin Firth is also here, his character designed to actually look like him — which, frankly, is even worse. There are also small supporting roles for the likes of Bob Hoskins, Robin Wright Penn, Cary Elwes, and Lesley Manville, but no one emerges from this movie with any credit.

    I ain't afraid of no ghosts... except this one

    In the early days of motion-captured movies many critics were inordinately concerned with the “uncanny valley”, the effect whereby an animated human being looks almost real but there’s something undefinable that’s off about them. Robert Zemeckis attracted such criticism for The Polar Express, mainly focusing on the characters’ dead eyes. No such worries here, though: the animation looks far too cheap to come anywhere near bothering uncanny valley territory. There’s an array of ludicrously mismatched character designs, which put hyper-real humans alongside cartoonish ones, all of them with blank simplistically-textured features. Rather than a movie, it looks like one very long video game cutscene.

    I don’t necessarily like getting distracted by technical merits of special effects over story, etc, but A Christmas Carol’s style — or lack thereof — is so damn distracting. Beside which, as I said at the start, this is a very familiar and oft-told tale, making the method of this particular telling all the more pertinent. At times it well conveys the free-flowing lunacy of a nightmare, at least, but who enjoys a nightmare?

    2 out of 5

    Star Trek Beyond (2016)

    2016 #183
    Justin Lin | 122 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA, Hong Kong & China / English | 12 / PG-13

    Star Trek Beyond

    The cover of Star Trek Beyond’s Blu-ray proudly proclaims that it’s “the best reviewed action movie of the year”. I don’t think that’s true (Civil War, anyone?), but it does indicate the mindset producing these films nowadays: they’re not the serious-minded sci-fi the Trek franchise was once known for, but action-orientated summer blockbusters.

    As that, Beyond is pretty entertaining. An overall lighter tone than the heavy-handed Into Darkness, plus competently executed action sequences and fewer incredulity-inducing contrivances, make for a fun adventure.

    Surprisingly, it doesn’t succumb to the modern franchise proclivity for forcing third movies to be trilogy-formers. Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising though: it was confirmed before Beyond’s release that a fourth (aka fourteenth) movie is in development, so obviously this shouldn’t feel like the end of the road for this crew. The upside of this is that Beyond can get on with its story, unworried about being Epic.

    Explosive

    The downside is it creates a “just another adventure” feel to the plot — a bread-and-butter situation for Star Trek’s original TV format, but underwhelming in an expensive blockbuster movie franchise. Consequently Beyond feels inessential. That’s an odd sensation in a franchise nowadays, where the usual MO sees every movie feed into a bigger multi-film narrative. But with Into Darkness being deliberately ignored here (thanks to its unpopularity with hardcore Trekkies) and Beyond functioning as “just another adventure”, Trek is almost a franchise-out-of-time, where individual instalments can be entirely enjoyed in isolation.

    Not that I think that’s a bad thing. Beyond may lack a certain epicness, but it’s entertaining enough for what it is.

    4 out of 5

    Star Trek Beyond is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    The Russia House (1990)

    2016 #158
    Fred Schepisi | 123 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Russian | 15 / R

    The Russia House

    Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer are on fine form in this romantic spy thriller adapted from a John le Carré novel.

    Although it takes a little time to warm up, it soon reveals a typically intricate Le Carré narrative, with everyone playing everyone else as the intelligence agencies try to use Connery’s publisher to extract a Russian defector, with Pfeiffer as the go-between he begins to fall for. It all comes to a head with one of those delightful sequences where you’re not sure who’s conning who and how, and an ending that is, shall we say, pleasingly atypical for Le Carré.

    The central performances are superb — I’m not sure Connery, playing against type as a washed-up ageing no-name, has ever been better. There’s a top-notch supporting cast too, including Roy Scheider as a CIA agent, James Fox as Connery’s MI6 handler, plus Michael Kitchen, Klaus Maria Brandauer, David Threlfall, and even Ken Russell. It looks fantastic as well, at least to me, in an unshowy, not over-processed, grainy, very film-y way. Thanks to digital photography, they literally don’t make them like this anymore; heck, thanks to digital grading they haven’t made them like this for about 20 years.

    Is that a manuscript in your pocket or are you pleased to see me?

    The Russia House is a much overlooked film, even within the small (but, recently, exponentially expanding) canon of Le Carré screen adaptations. However, with its engaging, uncommonly humane espionage story, driven by strong performances, I think it merits a degree of rediscovery.

    5 out of 5

    The Russia House placed 16th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

    Swiss Army Man (2016)

    2016 #177
    Daniel Scheinert & Daniel Kwan
    (aka Daniels) | 97 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Swiss Army Man

    If you’ve heard of Swiss Army Man, it’s likely for one thing and one thing only: this is the movie where Daniel “Harry Potter” Radcliffe plays a farting corpse with an erection. But rather than the childish super-gross-out comedy that short pitch would seem to suggest, Swiss Army Man is actually quite a sweet indie comedy-drama. With some super-gross-out comedy thrown in, natch.

    The plot that leads us to the farting boner corpse begins with Hank (Paul Dano) stranded on an island and, in his lonely despair, attempting suicide. Then he spots a body washed up on the nearby beach. It turns out this isn’t a new friend, because he’s dead. Hank dubs him ‘Manny’. One thing leads to another and Hank uses Manny’s gastric expulsions to create a kind of jet ski that propels them off the island. Hank soon discovers the corpse has myriad potential uses (hence the title), especially when he starts to talk…

    Swiss Army Man is kind of like Cast Away if Wilson the volleyball was a farting corpse. Hank despairs at his situation, chats to the technically-inanimate Manny about it, and together they begin to work through the human condition. In between using Manny’s rigor mortis-powered limbs to chop wood, or his boner as a magic compass to guide them home, that is. I was going to say “it’s that kind of movie”, but I’m not sure there’s ever been another movie quite like Swiss Army Man.

    He ain't heavy, he's my farting boner corpse

    As well as the indie ruminations on the purpose and meaning of life, there are some mystery plots in play, just to keep things engaging. Who is the woman Hank keeps seeing in flashbacks? How many of Manny’s abilities are real and how much is just in Hank’s head? I mean, Manny can’t really talk… can he? What if Manny’s not the only one who’s dead? Maybe these shouldn’t be given so much focus — I don’t think the film wants to be about such plot mysteries — but they were the kind of things running through my head while watching, because you know there’s bound to be some kind of twist or reveal for what’s actually happening. Naturally, I won’t spoil that here; but perhaps the film plays even better on repeat viewings, when you can set aside such wonderings and focus even more fully on the friendship between man and corpse.

    That’s naturally powered by the two lead performances. Dano is very good as a man who’s feeling suicidal for, as it turns out, more reasons than “I’m alone on an island”; though enacting such patheticness (as a human trait rather than a criticism of his mental condition) seems very much within Dano’s wheelhouse. Radcliffe, however, is simply brilliant. Manny comes back to ‘life’ as a kind of innocent, unsure of how the world works and driven by his basest feelings; a reflection of all our inner psyches, in a way. Physically constrained by being, y’know, dead, Radcliffe manages to convey so much despite — or perhaps even partly because of — the limitations imposed upon him.

    Corpsehood

    Made for a relative pittance, technical merits are also strong, with neat special effects to convey Manny’s abilities, and a very indie-ish but fitting vocal-driven score by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell. Interestingly, the Blu-ray contains an option to watch the film without the score, which (based on the few bits I sampled) creates a remarkably different experience. That’s true of most films, of course, but here it dramatically changes the mood of some scenes. It’s less magical, in a way, and sadder, and maybe creepier, which is not the point or message of the film.

    “The farting boner corpse movie” is the kind of pithy description that will put many viewers off, but hiding behind the gross-out facade is a sweet comedy-drama about human interaction that, in its own way, is an incredibly moving, perhaps even heartwarming experience.

    4 out of 5

    Swiss Army Man is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

    Thumbs up

    The Witch (2015)

    aka The VVitch: A New-England Folktale

    2016 #171
    Robert Eggers | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 1.66:1 | USA, UK, Canada & Brazil / English | 15 / R

    The Witch

    There’s a lot to commend in this debut feature from writer-director Robert Eggers, the story of English settlers in 17th Century America who are banished from their community and begin to be affected by a supernatural force in the woods.

    With dialogue lifted from contemporary reports of witchcraft, it has a level of period authenticity that is rarely seen. I thought it was an immensely effective choice for evoking an entirely different era, but others find it a distracting affectation. Also distancing for some viewers is the understated style — it’s more of an arthouse period flick than a gore ‘n’ guts chiller; like a horror movie made by Terrence Malick. Much like the dialogue, I thought that gave it a level of realism. You know this isn’t a true story because such occult happenings aren’t real… but if they were, they’d be like this.

    It’s not a horror movie that suits all tastes, then, but I thought it was v.v. creepy and v.v. good.

    4 out of 5

    Tokyo Tribe (2014)

    2016 #149
    Sion Sono | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 18

    Tokyo Tribe

    Adapted from the manga Tokyo Tribe 2, the film version is a hip-hop musical, sung (or rapped) through by an expansive cast who make up the titular tribes — gangs who rule the streets of a divided near-future (or possibly alternate reality; or possibly it doesn’t matter that much) Tokyo. The world of the story is pretty barmy, and much of the plot follows suit — I’m not going to attempt to describe it, but suffice to say it involves kidnapped girls, rescue attempts, and brewing gang warfare.

    Much of the film does feel like a cartoon brought to life, with the ultra-heightened scenario and larger-than-life scenery-chewing villains — as the big bad, Riki Takeuchi hams it up so ludicrously his performance circles back round into genius. It’d definitely be an adult cartoon, though, because director Sion Sono brings a kind of trash-art, exploitation vibe, with gratuitous helpings of nudity and violence. Indeed, that direction is indicated early on when a young female police officer ventures into gang territory and is grabbed by one of the villains who, in front of a baying crowd, rips open her shirt and begins to trace a knife around her naked breasts to explain the various gang factions. It’s kind of kinky, kind of nasty, kind of distasteful, kind of not (I mean, he is a bad guy) — if you wanted to summarise the feel of the whole film in one sequence, it’s actually not a bad start.

    When too many tribes to keep track of go to war

    I watched Tokyo Tribe out of pure curiosity (a rap musical isn’t exactly my usual kind of thing) but I ended up rather loving it, which is why it made my 2016 top 20. There I summarised that its mix of “battle rap, comic grotesques, ultra violence, gratuitous nudity, more barmy notions than you can shake a stick at, and probably the kitchen sink too, [made it] possibly the most batshit-crazy movie I’ve ever seen.” So those extremes don’t bother me per se (other than to the extent they should bother me), but there’s an undoubted not-for-everyone-ness to a lot of it. That, plus some rough edges, are all that hold me back from giving it 5 stars.

    4 out of 5

    Tokyo Tribe placed 19th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

    Cold in July (2014)

    2016 #118
    Jim Mickle | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & France / English | 15 / R

    Cold in July

    After a family man (Michael C. Hall) shoots dead an intruder in his home, the intruder’s ex-con father (Sam Shepard) threatens his family.

    People often call for more originality in their stories, then criticise a film like this for jumping around in genre and tone. Personally, I didn’t think it changed much in either. The plot is far from straightforward — twists take the story in unexpected directions with each act (if not even more often) — but as a whole it remains a neo-noir crime thriller.

    Filling out the film beyond its story, there are some great performances — Shepard, in particular, says very little but conveys his whole character and attitude. It’s very nicely shot by Ryan Samul, and there’s an amazing score by Jeff Grace.

    At first blush Cold in July may look like just another crime thriller, but, with an unguessable narrative supported by strong filmmaking, it stands out from the crowd.

    5 out of 5

    Cold in July placed 9th 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 Nice Guys (2016)

    2016 #156
    Shane Black | 116 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    The Nice Guys

    I’ve been struggling to think what to write in this review because, really, why I loved this movie can be thoroughly summed up in two words: it’s hilarious.

    Screenwriter Shane Black has been doing this kind of action-thriller buddy comedy for decades now, but he’s still got it where it counts — there are quotable lines galore, and visual gags that would be just as quotable if you could quote a visual. As a director he may not be a great visual stylist or anything, but in an era of ShakyCam and obfuscatory editing, his helmsmanship has a welcome clarity.

    As the titular duo, Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling reveal heretofore unseen comedic chops (at least as far as I was aware). Crowe is more of the straight man, though gets his share of good lines, while Gosling bumbles around with pratfalls and slapstick, like in a perfectly-executed bit with a toilet cubicle door… which I would quote but, you know, visual gag. Like most of the best characters, they’re entertaining just to be around, often making scenes of exposition as entertaining as actual set pieces. Most of the villains serve as foils for our heroes, but young Angourie Rice shines as Gosling’s clever kid.

    What do you mean there's not much chance of a sequel?

    Tonally, it’s every inch a spiritual sequel to Black’s directorial debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and I’m very much OK with that. If you copy someone else it’s plagiarism; if you copy yourself it’s your style — you know, that kind of thing. If someone lets Black do another one of these once he’s finished with The Predator — either literally The Nice Guys 2 (as has been mooted, but probably ruled out by the so-so box office) or just something else in the same vein — I would be a very happy bunny.

    5 out of 5

    The Nice Guys is available on Netflix UK from today.

    It placed 11th 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.