Their Finest (2016)

2018 #223
Lone Scherfig | 117 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & Sweden / English | 12 / R*

Their Finest

One of three Dunkirk-related movies released in 2017 (which is a bit random — it wasn’t a particular anniversary or anything), Their Finest is adapted from a novel by Lissa Evans called Their Finest Hour and a Half, which is a much better title. “Their Finest” is kinda bland and meaningless — slap it on any wartime film and it’d work just as well. The original title is a neat pun, though, mixing the famous saying (which comes from a 1940 Churchill speech, if you didn’t know) with the common running time of a movie, thereby indicating when the story is set (World War 2), what it’s about (the making of movies), and indicating a tone (it’s a pun, but not an outrageous one, suggesting lightness without going full-blown comedy). Maybe someone noticed this runs nearer two hours and didn’t want to give audiences the wrong idea…

Their Finest Hour and a Half stars Gemma Arterton as Catrin Cole, a young woman in wartime London who finds work writing female characters’ dialogue in movies — “the slop”, as it’s derisively called by her combative superior, Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin). When a news story about twin sisters who took part in the evacuation of Dunkirk is fast-tracked into production, with a cast that includes fading leading man Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), Catrin and Tom wind up on location with the film, hastily rewriting to include changes mandated by the War Office. Despite Tom’s standoffish attitude and Catrin’s marriage to a good-for-nothing war artist (Jack Huston), who’s jealous of her newfound status as the breadwinner, affection begins to blossom between the two writers…

Hooray for the writers!

Yeah, much of Their Finest follows the expected shape of a story like this (the love triangle; the woman coming to be respected by her initially dubious colleagues; etc). Two things work to stop it feeling too staid: an engaging lead cast, and some weightier developments and subplots. The latter includes at least one wholly unexpected twist, which helps make this a more powerful film than the potentially-light “people go on a jolly to make a movie during the war” premise initially seems. There’s a somewhat classical balance of comedy and tragedy there, which is reminiscent of movies from the era the film’s set. Frame it in 4:3, shoot in black & white, and give everyone RP accents, and parts of it could almost be a ’40s melodrama.

Talking of accents, why oh why did they lumber Gemma Arterton with a Welsh one? It isn’t bad, exactly, but I did find it constantly distracting. Presumably it’s because the story is loosely based on the life of Diana Morgan, a Welsh screenwriter whose wartime work for Ealing Studios mostly went uncredited (though she does have one on the famous propaganda film Went the Day Well?, amongst a handful of others), but, considering it’s not actually a biopic, surely there’s no need for the accent? Well, other than to attract funding from the Welsh Government’s Media Investment Budget, I suspect… Anyway, it’s a minor complaint (as I said, her accent isn’t bad), and even with it Arterton is typically charming, generating good chemistry with Claflin, who plays a Mr Darcy-esque role as the initially-unlikeable inevitable love interest. As usual, Nighy threatens to steal the show, hamming it up just the right amount as Ambrose. He gets a significant subplot about his hard-fought transition from leading man to character actor, which also brings in Eddie Marsan and Helen McCrory — just two more high-quality actors helping round out a strong cast, which also includes Rachael Stirling, Richard E. Grant, and Jeremy Irons, among others.

She's holding a pencil, she must be a writer

Ambrose is another man who initially misreads Catrin but eventually comes round to her. I suppose the “a woman proves her worth” element is another that’s been well-worn, but it seems fitting here, given that women in the film industry are still struggling to be treated equally. In this case, it’s using the “women suddenly in the workplace” reality of WW2 to make it both feel relevant to the present while remaining era-appropriate, unlike so many period movies that project present-day values onto eras where they don’t truly fit. It’s not as heavy-handed in its moralising as others can be, either.

Indeed, I’d say the entire film is very well pitched. It straddles the comedy-drama divide skilfully, entertaining as a jolly romance set in the world of moviemaking, but with enough grit from the reality of wartime to give it an edge. Everyone involved has, I’m sure, given it their finest hour-and-a-half(-and-a-half).

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Their Finest is on BBC Two tonight at 9pm.

* It’s rated R for “some language and a scene of sexuality” — there’s a couple of “fucking”s and a brief glimpse of one practically-silhouetted breast. God, the MPAA are daft. ^

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Sholay (1975)

2018 #200
Ramesh Sippy | 205 mins | DVD | 4:3 | India / Hindi | PG

Sholay

For many Western readers (and the stats say most of mine are, though India is in 3rd of all countries for 2019 so far), there’s every chance you’ll’ve only heard of Sholay (if you’ve heard of it at all) as “one of those Indian films that’s on the IMDb Top 250 nowadays”. But in Indian culture it’s a much bigger deal, a huge and longstanding success; like Star Wars or something is to us, I guess, only without the reams of sequels and spinoffs and merchandise and theme parks. Instead, it’s enjoyed remarkable success of its own: it topped the Indian box office for 19 years, was the first film in India to celebrate a Silver Jubilee at over 100 cinemas, and eventually set a record of 60 Golden Jubilees across India. From a British perspective, in 2002 it topped the BFI’s “top ten Indian films of all time” poll, and in 2004 it was voted the “Greatest Indian Movie” in a Sky poll of 1 million British Indians. I first heard about it years ago in that context, and my desire to see it was only exacerbated when it made it onto IMDb’s list. All of which is why I chose it to be my second-ever #200.

It’s a tricky film to sum up, because it offers a massive mash-up of tones and genres in a way we’re not accustomed to from Western cinema. There are whole sequences (not just fleeting moments) of broad slapstick humour, epic action, heartfelt romance, brutal violence, colourful musical numbers, intense tragedy, plus backstory that’s filled in via regular, lengthy flashbacks. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say its primary genre was Action, or Comedy, or Musical, or Western — it’s all of those things, by turn; sometimes at the same time. Apparently it’s a defining example of the “masala film”. Masala is, of course, a mix of spices in Indian cuisine, and the films that take that name blend genres together, typically (according to Wikipedia) action, comedy, romance, and melodrama, plus musical numbers.

Who doesn't enjoy a colourful sing-song?

That sounds like a recipe for disaster, but what’s perhaps most remarkable about Sholay is that it pulls them off. Thanks to engaging characters and relationships, powerful and humorous performances, quality filmmaking (there’s some strikingly effective camerawork and editing in the big scenes), it all flows. You can see why it became such a success: there’s something for everyone. And you can see why it struggles to transcend the culture it originates from, because when Western movies ever even vaguely attempt this kind of range of tones, there are trolls aplenty waiting to rip them apart for the perceived fault of being tonally inconsistent.

The heroes are Veeru (Dharmendra) and Jai (Amitabh Bachchan), a pair of crooks with hearts of gold, who are recruited by a retired policeman who once arrested them, Baldev Singh (Sanjeev Kumar), to capture a wanted outlaw, Gabbar (Amjad Khan), who’s terrorising Singh’s village, and who he has a personal history with. The way that storyline plays out is highly reminiscent of Spaghetti Westerns and the samurai movies that inspired some of them — anyone who’s seen the likes of A Fistful of Dollars, Seven Samurai, or Once Upon a Time in the West (or any of the other films that have riffed on / ripped from them) is going to see a lot of reflections here. I don’t mean that to be a criticism — after all, Dollars was an unendorsed remake of Yojimbo, and Seven Samurai was remade as classic Hollywood Western The Magnificent Seven, so there’s strong pedigree among these movies for reworking each other to excellent effect.

I'm not sure that's safe...

Sholay certainly adds its own stuff to the mix. I mean, those other films I’ve mentioned don’t have musical numbers or slapstick comedy (not much of it, anyway). Lest you think this plays as a spoof, Singh eventually unveils a tragic backstory (and a neat twist to his character), and Gabbar is a properly despicable, nasty villain. Plus, like most of the best bad guys, he’s not just evil for evil’s sake — he’s motivated to subjugate this particular village for a reason — but he’s still a properly nasty piece of work, excessively and inventively cruel. Rather than a spoof, then, the different genres come into play via an array of plots and asides. At times it does feel like a selection of unconnected subplots to bulk out the running time (and, as you may’ve noticed, it does have a long running time), but most of them come together in the end. Your tolerance for those that don’t (a lengthy comedic aside in a prison, for example) is another matter.

Musical numbers are another thing that put some people off. There are only five though, and they don’t actually drive the plot that much — I was kind of forced to assess their impact, because for some reason my DVD copy didn’t bother to subtitle the songs, leading me to search out translations online so I could get the gist. Still, when they fill several minutes of screen time each, it is nice to at least have an idea what’s being said sung!

In the West, Sholay has been hard to find at times (personally, it was years ago that I managed to source an out-of-print DVD by a label you’ve never heard of from an Amazon Marketplace seller), but as of this week it’s available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK (either as part of a subscription or to rent and buy individually), and in HD to boot! Based on the running time it’s the shorter widescreen theatrical version; there’s also a longer, open matte 4:3 “director’s cut”, which is what I watched. There’s info on the differences between the two cuts here, but the mostly it’s a couple of bits of violence that were censored. The biggest change, though, is the ending. No spoilers, but I think the original version is better — it included one of my favourite parts of the entire film, in fact. The revised version was at the insistence of India’s censor board, and includes a heavy-handed moral lecture — it’s not just less good in itself, it also feels overtly censor-mandated. Oh well.

Vicious villainy

On the bright side, the 4:3 version isn’t great to watch compositionally. The makers wanted to produce an epic 70mm widescreen kinda movie, but didn’t have the tech to do it properly, so they shot it in full frame 4:3 on 35mm and then had it cropped and blown up in London. Watching in 4:3, it’s obvious that it was always intended to be cropped to widescreen: there’s loads of dead space above everyone’s heads, things like that. That said, every once in a while there’s a shot that seems to be perfectly framed. Maybe they look just as nice cropped, I don’t know. To further muddy the waters about different versions, five years ago Sholay was converted to 3D. Despite the film’s enduring popularity, it didn’t come close to making its money back (the conversion cost US$3.5 million, but the 3D release only grossed US$1.4 million). In the West the studio would seek to recoup more of that with home media, but apparently Blu-ray isn’t popular or successful in India, so the chance of getting a 3D BD is basically nonexistent. But, as I said, it’s on Amazon in HD now, so at least there’s that. (Hopefully it has subtitles for the songs…)

Whichever version you watch, Sholay is best described as “an experience”. Perhaps lots of Bollywood movies are like this (after all, with huge success comes huge influence, and I’m sure many have tried to emulate it), but I’m not familiar with them so this was all new to me. That epic running time makes it feel like an event to watch, and the winding plot and variety of tones it encompasses make it feel like a whole buffet of entertainment, as opposed to the just one meal that most films offer. I guess, like any food that is foreign to an individual, it comes as an acquired taste, but it’s one I enjoyed immensely. It would also be entirely accurate and fair to roll out a somewhat clichéd sentiment: if you only watch one Bollywood film, this is the one to watch.

5 out of 5

As mentioned, Sholay is available on Amazon Prime Video now.

It placed 25th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

Review Roundup

This small selection may at first look a little disparate, including as it does two comedies, with release dates separated by a quarter of a century, and a horror movie. The two points of connection are that I watched them all last year, and I didn’t really enjoy any of them.

In today’s roundup:

  • Phantasm (1979)
  • National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)
  • Step Brothers (2008)


    Phantasm
    (1979)

    2018 #92
    Don Coscarelli | 89 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Phantasm

    A cult classic horror that spawned a pile of sequels and numerous novelty-packaged disc releases, Phantasm is about a supernatural undertaker, the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), who (to quote Wikipedia) “turns the dead of earth into dwarf zombies to be sent to his planet and used as slaves.” Sounds totes plausible, right?

    Well, implausibility is no sin — many great fantasy or horror movies feed off setups that are just as outlandish. No, the problem here comes from the storytelling, because what happens in Phantasm is resolutely illogical. None of it makes any sense. No one behaves plausibly. Is there a mythology? I don’t know, because it all seems random. It appears to operate on some kind of dream logic, wherein stuff… just happens. And then at the end it’s revealed that it was, in fact, all a dream! Eesh. Are either of those things ok? Telling a story with “dream logic”, maybe. But then again, why should that be ok? We can’t control dreams, so we can’t expect them to obey the rules of narrative; but films are consciously made, so surely they should aim for coherence? And as for an “it was all a dream” ending, that’s just about the most despised device in storytelling for a reason. (Of course, there’s an “or was it?!” final twist, because it’s a horror movie and that’s how they always end.)

    It doesn’t help matters that the film simply isn’t well made. No one can act. Characters turn up out of nowhere. Most of it is cheaply shot and uninterestingly edited. There are a couple of good bits of imagery, but the rest of the movie is so nonsensical that that’s all it is — imagery. There’s no meaning attached.

    And yet the Phantasm series has its fans (or, predictably, “Phans”). Perhaps, if we’re being kind, we can say it’s an acquired taste — you either get something from its strangeness or you don’t. Clearly there are people (“Phans”) who see something in it. I wasn’t one of them.

    2 out of 5

    Phantasm featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

    National Lampoon’s
    Vacation

    (1983)

    2018 #140
    Harold Ramis | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

    National Lampoon's Vacation

    Written by John Hughes and directed by Harold Ramis, Vacation certainly has strong pedigree (I’m not even going to begin to list all the classic comedies attributable to their names). It also spawned three sequels and a remake, so it’s clearly popular. Unfortunately, something about it didn’t click with me.

    It’s about a family going on a summer holiday; specifically, a cross-country road trip from Chicago to California, to visit Disney Walley World. Naturally, the journey doesn’t go to plan, and a series of episodic hijinks ensure. These include such hilarious escapades as meeting some black people (who of course steal their hubcaps); falling asleep at the wheel and careening through a town; hanging out with a cousin who French kisses his own daughter; and accidentally dragging their aunt’s dog along behind the car until it dies. Good times!

    There’s also a song by Lindsey “Fleetwood Mac” Buckingham, called Holiday Road, which is played again and again throughout the film. I started out hating it, but by the end I was listening to it on loop while I updated all my post-viewing lists. It’s sort of gloriously terrible. Sadly, I didn’t have the same Stockholm syndrome reaction to the film itself.

    2 out of 5

    Step Brothers
    (2008)

    2018 #204
    Adam McKay | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Step Brothers

    Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly star as two developmentally-stunted man-children who are forced to live together after the former’s mom (Mary Steenburgen) and the latter’s dad (Richard Jenkins) move in together.

    The movie relies on the notion that watching two 40-year-old men behave like bratty 10-year-olds will be constantly hilarious. Spoiler alert: it isn’t. Unlike the infamous recent collaboration between Ferrell and Reilly, Holmes & Watson, this effort does at least manage some funny bits, though they generally occur when it moves away from the primary conceit for a moment. It also has the most implausible sex scene this side of The Room, which is some kind of achievement, I guess.

    2 out of 5

  • Live by Night (2016)

    2018 #113
    Ben Affleck | 124 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Live by Night

    Ben Affleck, once a bit of a laughing stock as an actor thanks to appearing in the likes of Pearl Harbor and Gigli, managed to reinvent himself somewhat as an acclaimed director, first with Gone Baby Gone and The Town, and then cementing that reputation by winning the Best Picture Oscar with Argo. This was what he chose as his next project — another adaptation of a Dennis Lehane novel (like Gone Baby Gone), another story of a Bostonian career criminal (like The Town), another period drama (like Argo… although a wholly different period, so maybe I’m stretching the comparison now). Rather, with its Prohibition-era setting, this was a gangster drama more likely to evoke classics such as The Godfather and Road to Perdition. There was, understandably, awards buzz. Then people saw it… and, it seems, just as quickly forgot it.

    I’ve mentioned a lot of other films in that opening paragraph, and you could make endless further gangster-movie comparisons, I think — and that’s a significant part of Live by Night’s problem. Almost everything about it reminds you of something you’ve seen before, often more than once. As a work in itself, it’s not remarkable enough to outshine the familiarities. Some of the plot is quite neat, with an emphasis on cause-and-effect that sees every solution turn into a new problem, and there are some very good individual scenes, though perhaps that’s easy when you’re working with quality actors Chris Cooper.

    Equally, some parts are underdeveloped. For example, Affleck gets into a relationship with Zoe Saldana that just seems like a vague sex-based aside, until he’s suddenly declaring that he’s put aside his plans for revenge, his primary motivation, because now everything is about his life with her. I need some more more joins between those dots, please. But at least it sometimes looks very pretty, though if you just want to see that then most of the visual splendour is in the trailer. There’s a surprisingly good car chase, though.

    They appear to be living, and it looks like it's nighttime. So that all checks out, then.

    Affleck is a decent director, and, actually, a quite like him as an actor too… in the right kind of roles. I’m not sure he’s got the range necessary for this part, however. His character is a conflicted, contradictory man — he genuinely has a good heart, but he’s often prepared to put it aside to do bad things; but, at other times, that moral compass gets the better of him. It’s a tricky line to tread and make believable, and Affleck’s performance is too monotone to convincingly portray it. That leaves the centre of the movie feeling empty, which is a problem however solid the stuff around him is. Apparently the film’s original cut was closer to three hours long and heavier on character stuff, so maybe the nuance disappeared in the editing — or maybe it didn’t. We’ll likely never know.

    Live by Night received an exceptionally negative response (just 35% on Rotten Tomatoes), but I can’t see why people hated it so much. It’s not fantastic, floundering somewhat in the shadow of the other gangster movies of which it’s so often reminiscent, but it’s not a bad attempt at the genre. Though, as a significant portion of the storyline takes place in “the sunshine state”, I’m not sure how good that title is. I mean, I live more of my life by night than these gangsters do. I just spend most of that time watching and writing about movies, though — maybe I should be launching a criminal empire?

    3 out of 5

    FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992)

    2018 #99
    Bill Kroyer | 73 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & Australia / English | U / G

    FernGully: The Last Rainforest

    I remember ignoring FernGully when it came out (probably when it hit rental video rather than at the cinema) because it looked a bit rubbish. I mean, it was an animated movie but it wasn’t made by Disney — “could such things even exist?”, wondered little me (probably). As the years went by, I kinda assumed everyone else had ignored or forgotten it, leaving it as some curio I vaguely remembered from video shop walls. But fastforward to 2009 and suddenly everyone was talking about it, because it had been remade as a big-budget 3D sci-fi epic by James Cameron. Okay, Avatar wasn’t actually a FernGully remake, but the disparaging comparison came up a lot. Fastforward another decade to now (a time when Cameron’s fourfilm remake of FernGully 2: The Magical Rescue (yes FernGully got a sequel) is still over two years away (provided they don’t push it back again)), and on a whim I finally watched FernGully to see this supposed likeness for myself.

    So, what’s FernGully actually about? Well, not blue creatures on an alien moon, although it’s equally as fantastical. It’s set in the Australian rainforest, where fairies live in isolation, believing humans to have gone extinct… that is until loggers turn up to destroy their home. Fairy Crysta (Samantha Mathis) shrinks human Zak (Jonathan Ward) down to her size to save him from a falling tree, at which point he learns about their way of life — oh, right, Avatar here we are. Anyway, many years ago an evil entity called Hexxus (Tim Curry) was trapped inside a tree, which the loggers cut down, and suddenly everyone’s at threat.

    If it’s not obvious already, FernGully is pretty heavy on the environmental messaging (it’s even dedicated to “our children and our children’s children”, and there’s a note at the end of the credits about donating proceeds to the Smithsonian for environmental work). I seem to remember this was all viewed as being kinda-loony eco stuff back when the film came out. Now, of course, acceptance of those views is much wider, and what the film has to say seems a little obvious. Though we’re still destroying the planet, so I guess we’ve not learned that much in the three decades since.

    Batty, indeed

    Even more of-its-time are the musical numbers. They’re very 1992, and not in a good way. That said, although it’s a terrible song, If I’m Gonna Eat Somebody (It Might As Well Be You) is one of the best titles ever.

    One of the people lumbered with an awful tune is Robin Williams, playing a mentally-deranged rapping bat. Nonetheless, he’s definitely one of the best things in the film — not as much as his Genie was in Aladdin, but he does occasionally bring a similar irreverence. It’s needed when the rest of the film is being a bit po-faced about the magic of nature. The other vocal standout is Tim Curry, who always gives good villain. He’s supported by nice design and animation, with Hexxus visualised as a dripping oil-creature, plus a couple of other forms as the film goes on, all of which look pretty effective. Like the rest of the movie, his characterisation and motivation are very underdeveloped, and Curry’s given little to do after his initial birth/song sequence, but the character looks good.

    All in, FernGully is a decent little animated adventure — a tad earnest perhaps, but not too bad — but it’s held back by weak music and a thin plot.

    3 out of 5

    Review Roundup

    Even though my film viewing has slowed to barely a trickle recently (more about that on Thursday), my review backlog is still humongnormous (so I big I had to invent that new world to describe it).

    So, here’s another exceptionally random selection of quick reviews to help clear out a tiny fraction of it. They’re connected merely by being films I watched over a year ago. Three of them score 3 stars, one of them scores 4, and I suspect you won’t guess which that is…

    In today’s roundup:

  • American Assassin (2017)
  • Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (2017)
  • Wild Strawberries (1957)
  • Yes Man (2008)


    American Assassin
    (2017)

    2018 #79
    Michael Cuesta | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Hong Kong / English, Arabic, Italian, Polish, Turkish & Persian | 18 / R

    American Assassin

    Based on the Mitch Rapp series of novels by Vince Flynn (and, since Flynn’s death, Kyle Mills), American Assassin is an action-thriller about a CIA operative that’ll feel very familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a film starring Jason Bourne, Jack Ryan, or anything else along those lines. Indeed, it particularly reminded me of the last-but-one Jack Ryan reboot, crossed with something altogether murderier — you’ll notice this has an uncommonly high 18 certificate. I guess that was for some torture that goes on; although it also features a very intense opening scene, depicting an attack by terrorist gunmen on tourists at a beach resort. Considering this is no more than a dumb action-thriller, one might consider it a bit much to include such a viscerally-real-feeling sequence, inspired by relatively recent real-life attack(s), just to kickstart the hero’s journey…

    The film was made for just $33 million, which is chump change in modern Hollywood, and they’ve not done badly off it. The shooting locations do seem a little limited (the main sequence in Istanbul looks more like it was shot in a London shopping precinct (which, as I found out when I checked after, it was), and the bit in Poland is moderately familiar as London too (it’s Somerset House, recognisable to UK cinephiles as where Film4 host their outdoor summer screenings); but I’ve seen worse CGI in bigger-budgeted films, and the fisticuffs are decently staged.

    Altogether, it makes for quite an entertaining action thriller, with some decent scenes, but the story is wholly familiar — Mitch Rapp: Sum of All Shadow Recruits, if you will. Fans of the genre will likely get a kick out of it, especially if they’ve not seen some of the other films it feels so similar to (though if you’re a fan of the genre I don’t see how you wouldn’t’ve), but others need not apply.

    3 out of 5

    Captain Underpants:
    The First Epic Movie

    (2017)

    2018 #91
    David Soren | 85 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA, Canada, France, UK & India / English | U / PG

    Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

    Somehow I was vaguely aware of the existence of a series of books called Captain Underpants, but I’d paid them no heed because they’re for young kids, and also because they looked stupid. I thought the same thing of this movie adaptation, but then I started hearing good things about it and, well, here we are.

    It’s about two young boys who love nothing more than pranking teachers and creating superheroes. When their headteacher separates them because of the former, they manage to hypnotise him and convince him he’s the latter — the eponymous Captain Underpants. Initially that just makes their school life more fun, but then a supervillain turns up, so he’s handy for that too.

    Obviously it’s all thoroughly daft and primarily aimed at younger children — there are Messages without it being preachy, and it’s suitably irreverent and base at times. It’s the movie equivalent of mixing veg into, like, a burger, or something (I dunno, I’m not a parent. What food do you hide veg in?) But it also contains some good gags for the adults (satire!) and some clever bits of animation and stuff as well — it’s more inventive than you might expect in that regard.

    Indeed, I feel like it’s all-round better than you’d expect, given the title and overall style (the kiddie design and tone; the toilet humour)… but not so much better that it warrants 4 stars, so…

    3 out of 5

    Wild Strawberries
    (1957)

    aka Smultronstället

    2018 #90
    Ingmar Bergman | 87 mins | DVD | 4:3 | Sweden / Swedish | PG

    Wild Strawberries

    “Wondrously warm, one of Bergman’s very finest achievements, and a landmark in the history of cinema,” says Geoff Andrew in the notes that accompany the UK DVD release of Wild Strawberries, one of Ingmar Bergman’s most acclaimed movies from a career filled with them. However, speaking for myself, I’m still struggle to get a handle on the director’s output.

    It’s about a grumpy old professor (Victor Sjöström) who sets out on a road trip to collect an honorary doctorate. Along the way he has various encounters with other travellers, which prompt daydreams and memories that cause him to reassess his life and its worth.

    Put like that, what it’s “about” seems obvious, though in my notes I wrote “I’m not sure I have any idea what it was about. Something to do with old age and looking back and maybe death,” so how effectively its themes come across on a first viewing is, perhaps, debatable. That said, I’m fully prepared to accept I was looking in all the wrong places, maybe focusing too much on the literal road-trip storyline and not the figurative exploration-of-self the trip was provoking.

    On the bright side, there’s some effective imagery in the dream sequences, and I found it less crushingly dull or obtuse than Persona, which is something. Maybe Bergman’s just not for me? Or not for me yet? Well, I didn’t dislike it, but at the same time I didn’t get much out of it. Maybe some day I will.

    3 out of 5

    Wild Strawberries was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project.

    Yes Man
    (2008)

    2018 #86
    Peyton Reed | 100 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA & UK / English & Korean | 12 / PG-13

    Yes Man

    Loosely based on Danny Wallace’s memoir of the same name, Yes Man stars Jim Carrey as a negative chap who attends a motivational seminar that encourages him to start saying “yes” to every opportunity that comes his way.

    On the first night, he says yes to a homeless guy who wants a lift across town, then yes to letting the guy use his phone, then yes to giving him all his cash. But it turns out the drive used all his fuel, the call used all his battery, so he can’t phone for help, and he has to trek miles in the dark to buy fuel… not that he has any cash. So much for saying “yes” to everything. But at the petrol station he meets Zooey Deschanel and they hit it off. So, yeah, point made with perhaps the most outsized karmic reward ever.

    I suppose everything about Yes Man is broadly familiar — the romcom story arc; the kooky supporting characters; Jim Carrey’s schtick (it feels very much in same vein as the high-concept ’90s comedies that made his name; although there’s no fantastic element this time, and the worst excesses of his ‘act’ are thankfully limited to one or two scenes) — but it carries it off with reasonable charm. I mean, if you have no time for Carrey’s comedies, and aren’t attracted to Deschanel being a MPDG again, then there’s nothing here that’s going to win you round. For fans of such shenanigans, however, this is a perfectly enjoyable experience. It’s a 3.5-out-of-5-er, but I had a nice time with it, so my score leans on the side of generosity.

    4 out of 5

  • The Karate Kid (2010)

    2018 #72
    Harald Zwart | 134 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & China / English & Mandarin | PG / PG

    The Karate Kid

    For some, The Karate Kid is one of the defining films of the ’80s, with a legacy so strong that, 34 years after the original film, YouTube launched a sequel/spin-off series — and it did well enough to get recommissioned twice (so far), so I guess they were right. I’m pretty sure I rented the original film on video when I was a kid, but my memories of it are incredibly vague, and I’ve no idea if I ever saw the sequels. Anyway, my point is that I don’t have a nostalgic attachment to the original, which seems to have coloured some people’s response to this remake (which is itself rapidly approaching being a decade old!) Maybe that’s for the best, because it seems to be a pretty thorough reimagining — heck, the kid doesn’t even learn karate!

    This version stars Jaden Smith (son of Will) as the eponymous child, Dre, who’s forced to move from Detroit to Beijing when his single mother (Taraji P. Henson) gets a job transfer. Struggling to find his place in a foreign country, Dre gets bullied by his schoolmates, including a young kung fu prodigy (Zhenwei Wang). During one particularly vicious beating, Dre is saved by his building’s unassuming maintenance man, Mr Han (Jackie Chan), who it turns out is a kung fu master himself. When the bullies refuse to apologise because they’re taught poor values by their master (Yu Rongguang), Han agrees to teach Dre so that he might enter a kung fu tournament and face them fairly.

    So, having a quick read through a plot summary of the original film, the actual story isn’t that different — set in China instead of the US, with different character names, and with kung fu instead of karate (apparently Sony considered changing the title to The Kung Fu Kid but producer Jerry Weintraub refused), but otherwise fundamentally the same narrative. Well, it is a remake — what do you expect?

    Everybody was kung fu fighting. I mean, it was a kung fu tournament; that's kinda the point.

    From reading other viewer reviews, I get the impression a lot of people dislike it just because they’re nostalgic for the original or because they’re annoyed by Jaden Smith’s parents trying to make him a movie star. But if you remove those external contexts, the film offers a decent storyline and some strong performances — it’s Jackie Chan, c’mon!

    Speaking of which, there’s an alternate ending which features Chan fighting the other teacher (something that doesn’t occur in the film as released, obviously). I can see why they wanted to get more of Jackie fighting into the movie, because his is a supporting role otherwise, but it would’ve kinda diluted what the film is really about right at its climax. That said, some versions of the film are perhaps already structurally comprised: apparently the Chinese release was re-edited to make it seem like the American kid started all the fights against those good Chinese boys. I can see why Chinese censors would force that on the film, but I don’t see how it quite chimes with an ending where Dre comes out victorious.

    As for the cut the rest of us get to see, I can’t speak for how it compares to the 1984 original, but it holds up pretty well as an enjoyable film in its own right.

    4 out of 5

    Witness (1985)

    2018 #74
    Peter Weir | 108 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Witness

    Witness is, I think, one of those (many) films that used to be pretty well-known but hardly anyone seems to talk about anymore. I guess it falls into that bracket of being “very good, but not great”, and, devoid of the kind of cult appeal that can keep good-not-great movies popular for decades, it’s kind of slipped off the radar.

    It’s the story of an 8-year-old Amish boy (Lukas Haas) who, while travelling with his mother (Kelly McGillis) through Philadelphia, happens to witness the murder of an undercover cop. The case is handed to Detective John Book (Harrison Ford), who manages to get the boy to ID the murderer, but that puts the trio in danger, so they hide out among the Amish community.

    With such a storyline, the film could descend into a culture-clash comedy — the big city cop chafing against historical rural life — but, while that clash is certainly in play, it’s not milked for laughs. Rather, the film is about Book experiencing a way of life so different to his own, and it changing his perspective on the world. Indeed, with the focus it gives to Amish ways, the film almost seems like it wanted to be a documentary about that community as much as a story. Certainly, the crime plot is a little rote, though it builds to a thrilling climax, with a definite touch of “modern Western” about the film’s style and structure. Additionally, the burgeoning romance between Book and the boy’s mother is touchingly and believably handled.

    Witness protection

    Ford gives a good performance, though I didn’t think it was that far outside his usual wheelhouse, actually. Sure, this is a drama where he plays a real-world cop rather than an adventure flick where he’s a dashing space smuggler or a swashbuckling matinee idol, but he’s still a bit of a charming rogue who eventually reveals his good heart. Or maybe Ford is just so effortlessly good that he makes it look easy. Among the rest of the cast, look out for a baby-faced Viggo Mortensen, popping up briefly with no lines.

    The film’s only significant downside is a horrible synth score by Maurice Jarre. Maybe it’d be fine in itself, if ever so ’80s, but it’s an ill fit with the film’s theme about the appeal of traditional ways of life.

    Otherwise, Witness is, as I said, a good-but-not-great kind of drama; a more-than-solid effort from all involved, but not so remarkable that it’s endured among Great Movies. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, mind. Certainly, in our present era of Western cinema where that sort of dramatic movie is falling by the wayside as studios focus solely on mega-budgeted effects spectacles, this kind of film feels all the more wanted.

    4 out of 5

    Stalker (1979)

    aka Сталкер

    2018 #100
    Andrei Tarkovsky | 162 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | Soviet Union / Russian | PG

    Stalker

    Described by the blurb on its Criterion Collection Blu-ray release as “a metaphysical journey through an enigmatic post-apocalyptic landscape”, Stalker is… probably that… I guess…?

    Adapted from the novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (which, according to critic Mark Le Fanu in Criterion’s booklet, is more hardboiled pulp than artistic thinkpiece), it follows a professional ‘Stalker’ (Alexander Kaidanovsky) — someone who can enter and navigate a mysterious restricted area known only as the Zone — as he guides two latest clients, a depressed writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and an inquisitive professor (Nikolai Grinko), into the Zone and to the attraction at its heart: the Room, a place which is rumoured to grant a person’s innermost desires.

    That’s the plot, anyway. Considering it’s over two-and-a-half hours long and I just summarised most of the story, you know it’s About more than that. But suffice to say I didn’t get it. It’s just some blokes wandering around, being depressed, occasionally philosophising about bugger all; then the ‘stalker’ chap is depressed even more by his clients’ attitude at the end, for some reason; and then we see his kid has telepathic powers because… um… People think director Andrei Tarkovsky’s previous sci-fi film Solaris is slow and obtuse, but it’s pacy and its meaning is crystal-clear compared to Stalker. Indeed, watching this just made me want to watch Solaris again — that was a slow Soviet sci-fi I actually found thought-provoking and interesting. One inspired thought I will credit it with is the notion of what “innermost desire” actually means. We might think we know, but do we? If the Room grants, not what we choose to ask it for, but our true innermost desire, then it reveals the truth of our self to us… and we might not like what we find.

    Some blokes being depressed

    The film “resists definitive interpretation” says Geoff Dyer in a featurette on Criterion’s Blu-ray. It’s “a religious allegory, a reflection of contemporaneous political anxieties, a meditation on film itself […it] envelops the viewer by opening up a multitude of possible meanings,” adds the blurb. Oy. So is it profound or just pretentious? I think the lack of clarity — the lack of definitive interpretation — can be used as evidence for both sides. Its acclaim would suggest most think it profound, so I’m the one missing something. That’s always possible. Also, I’m always wary of calling something “pretentious” — that’s become too much of a catch-all criticism for people who don’t understand an artwork and want to blame the work itself rather than their own intellectual capabilities. So we’ll have to settle on me just not understanding it.

    Some of it does look good, at least… which is handy when long stretches of it are just staring at things in unbroken takes (there’s something like 142 shots, which is about one cut every 88 seconds). Whatever the film is or isn’t trying to say, I feel fairly certain it didn’t need to take so much time to say it.

    Equal parts Annihilation but without the exciting stuff, privileged white male angst, and flicking through a photo album of deserted urban environments at someone else’s too-slow pace — with strange dashes of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and X-Men Origins: Jean Grey for good measure — Stalker is… definitely something.

    2 out of 5

    Stalker was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2018 project.

    True Romance (1993)

    2018 #150
    Tony Scott | 121 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & France / English & Italian | 18

    True Romance

    Directed by Tony Scott from Quentin Tarantino’s first screenplay,* True Romance is pretty much everything you’d expect from an early Quentin Tarantino screenplay directed by Tony Scott. It stars Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette as a pair of Bonnie and Clyde-ish lovers, who accidentally steal a load of cocaine from her pimp and end up on the run from the mob.

    At first blush, I’d say this feels much more like a Tarantino movie than a Scott one. It’s all there in the dialogue, the subject matter, the characters — it’s everything you’d expect from early QT: verbose, funny, littered with pop culture references, violent. It’s well paced, too; not exactly whip-crack fast, but also never slow or draggy. It is shot more like a Scott flick than a QT one, but only somewhat — it lacks both the slick flashiness we associate with Scott’s early work (Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II) and the grungy hyper-editing of his later stuff (Man on Fire, Domino). That said, some scenes (like one between Arquette and James Gandolfini’s underboss in a motel room, for example) are shot like Tony Scott to the nines, reiterating my opening point.

    Other observations: There’s one helluva supporting cast — it’s just littered with famous names in roles that only last a scene or two. (I could list them, but that might spoil the fun.) The sweet plinky-plonky score by Hans Zimmer is so unlike either his normal stuff or this genre of movie, which is no bad thing. On its original release the film was cut by about two minutes to get an R rating, with the original cut eventually released “unrated” on home formats, sometimes labelled the “director’s cut”. All the differences are relatively short trims to do with violence (full details here). The “director’s cut” is the only one that’s ever been released on DVD or Blu-ray anywhere, thus making the distinction between “theatrical” or “director’s cut” pretty much moot at this point… or at any point in the last 20 years, frankly.

    Clarence and Alabama go to the movies

    It’s got a funny old trailer, too: it’s centred around a bunch of made-up numbers that have no basis in the film (“60 cops, 40 agents, 30 mobsters”), it mostly features the film’s climax, and it doesn’t once mention Quentin Tarantino — I guess “from the writer of Reservoir Dogs” wasn’t considered a selling point just the year after it came out. (Though obviously it was in the UK — just see the poster atop this review.)

    Of course, nowadays it’s often regarded as “a Tarantino movie” — the copy I own is part of the Tarantino XX Blu-ray set, for instance. I wonder if that ‘divided authorship’ is why, while the film does have it’s fans, it’s not widely talked about as much as some of either man’s other work: it’s not wholly a Tony Scott film, but, without QT actually behind the camera, it’s not really a Tarantino one either. Personally, I’m a fan of both men’s work, so of course it was up my alley. I don’t think it’s the best from either of them, but mixing together the distinct styles of two such trend-setting iconoclasts does produce a unique blend.

    4 out of 5

    True Romance was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project.

    * True Romance came out between Reservoir Dogs and Natural Born Killers, but apparently QT wrote this first, then when he failed to get funding for it he wrote NBK, then when he also failed to sell that he wrote Reservoir Dogs. Another version says True Romance and NBK started out as one huge movie, written in Tarantino’s familiar chapter-based non-chronological style, until QT and his friend Roger Avery realised just how long it was and decided to divide it in two. ^