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.

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.