The Post (2017)

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2018 #125
Steven Spielberg | 116 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13

The Post

Perhaps the timeliest historical movie ever made, The Post is, in its plot, about the publication of the ‘Pentagon Papers’, a leaked report that examined decades of US government decisions about the Vietnam war; but, thematically, it’s about press oversight of a government lying to its people to cover up their own wrongdoing, including trying to forcibly stop the press from performing that role — sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Not to mention that it also concerns itself with matters like whether sources who leak classified information are whistleblowers or traitors, and attitudes towards women in positions of power in the workplace.

For various reasons related to these elements, it’s attracted a lot of comparisons and accusations. For example, some have criticised it for being about a case in the ’70s rather than one in the present day. I guess allegory is tricky for some people to understand… Or, alternatively, that any such parallels were accidental, as if experienced director Steven Spielberg wasn’t aware of them. I think the film went from script to screen in just nine months for a reason…

Then there’s the inevitable comparison to Spotlight, another recent newspaper journalism-themed true-story movie, and a Best Picture winner to boot. Those who thought Spotlight was exceptional tend to think The Post doesn’t measure up. Personally, I thought Spotlight was good, but I didn’t love it as much as some others. I would hesitate to say The Post is better than it, but I would be equally as hesitant to say it isn’t as good. Arguably Spotlight is a better movie about journalism, focusing as it does on the everyday legwork and procedure that go into putting together a major story, whereas The Post has more on its mind than just the facts of how reporting works. There are also many comparisons to All the President’s Men, but I’ve still not seen that so can’t comment fairly (there is this rather excellent trivia/connection, though).

Reading the papers

Relatedly, some people think this film should’ve been about the New York Times, as they were the paper that first broke the Pentagon Papers story and initiated the legal case it all led to (and, later, they were the only paper awarded a Pulitzer Prize for the publication). There’s certainly an argument for that being the real story, but, conversely, that would be to assume the focus of this movie is solely the publication of the Pentagon Papers. In fact, The Post is the story of Katharine Graham and the Washington Post, and how the Pentagon Papers changed them both. It’s the story of an underdog-like local paper making an (inter)national mark by doing something at odds with a legal ruling — the fact they chose to back-up the Times by publishing too (even if the action was instigated as much by friendly rivalry/jealousy as it was by “freedom of the press” ethics) is an important point in itself.

It’s also the story of a woman — a business owner at a time when women didn’t hold such roles; and not a woman who confidently elbowed her way in either, but one who found this position thrust upon her — going from meek and overpowered to confident in her own mind and running the show. I’ve read reviews that think this latter element is somehow forced on the film, as if the makers didn’t notice it until halfway through and only decided to draw it out when they reached a shot near the end where Streep walks past a crowd of other women with admiring expressions. That’s not the case, obviously — that’s simply not how movies are made — and that arc is clearly in mind from the very first scene where we meet Graham. Meryl Streep is excellent in the role, which is easily the film’s most fully-realised character. Everyone else is certain of themselves and what they believe is the right thing to do, but over the course of the film she goes from quiet, uncertain, and reliant on her trusted advisor, to believing in her own instincts and standing up for them. It’s a clearly-charted but believable journey.

A man's world

Nonetheless, it’s somewhat hard to divorce The Post from the context of when it was made — the way it reflects the current climate in American politics and the news coverage thereof. But then, is that a problem? Are works of art not as much about the time in which they were made as the time in which they’re set? I guess that’s a whole other debate. That said, it carries a message that would be important in any era, about the need for reasoned, responsible, independent oversight of those who govern us.

4 out of 5

The Post is available on Amazon Prime Video UK from today.

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All the Money in the World (2017)

2018 #121
Ridley Scott | 133 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, Italy & UK / English, Italian & Arabic | 15 / R

All the Money in the World

All the Money in the World does not star Kevin Spacey. But I expect you knew that. Indeed, if you only know one thing about the film, I expect that is what you know. Spacey’s firing, and his speedy replacement by Christopher Plummer, was such a big news story that it instantly became what the movie was most famous for — and, I suspect, is what it will always be most famous for, because the film itself isn’t good enough to transcend its own reputation.

Before I get into that, let’s do the film the courtesy of describing what it’s actually about. Based on true events, it tells the story of the kidnapping of teenager John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer, no relation) in 1973 thanks to his family ties: his grandfather, J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer), was the richest man in the world. He was also a miserly old codger who refused to pay his grandson’s ransom, and the film follows his daughter-in-law Gail (Michelle Williams) as she desperately tries to arrange to get her son back, aided by the employee Getty assigns to investigate the case, former CIA operative Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg).

Even before the point of contention that drives the plot, various examples are given of what a piece of work Getty was. Whether these are based on true stories or not, I don’t know, but the film seems almost heavy-handed in creating this impression. For instance, although he’s the world’s first billionaire, he’ll do his own laundry in his hotel bath rather than pay the hotel $10 to do it for him; or he’ll spend an hour haggling a poor beggar down from $19 to $11 for an item that’s actually worth $1.2 million — although it later turns out there’s another side to that story… not that the it paints Getty in any better a light. Anyway, it’s to Plummer’s credit that he can take this kind of material and make it work, especially considering it was captured in just nine days of shooting with very little prep time.

Can you put a value on a child's life? J. Paul Getty can.

When those reshoots were first reported, it was said to be possible because Getty wasn’t actually in the film much, so it wouldn’t take long to remount just his scenes. Then the film started screening, and critics said he was in a lot of the movie and the amount they must’ve reshot was phenomenal in such a short space of time. Personally, I think the truth is somewhere in between: Getty pops up throughout the film, and his presence is huge, but I’d wager his actual screen time is smaller than you’d think — similar to Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs, who notoriously won Best Actor from less than 25 minutes on screen, it feels like Plummer’s in it more than he actually is. That’s partly the film’s structure, but also the quality of his performance.

In discussing the reshoots, director Ridley Scott has commented on the differences between the two actors’ takes on the character (Plummer wasn’t shown any of Spacey’s performance before he filmed). According to IMDb, Scott felt Spacey portrayed Getty as “a more explicitly cold and unfeeling character”, while Plummer found “a warmer side to the billionaire, but the same unflinching refusal to simply pay off his son’s kidnappers.” I can’t help reading between the lines to infer that Scott felt Plummer’s performance was more nuanced, and therefore better. It beggars belief that Spacey was cast at all, really: Scott wanted Plummer, who was 88, to play the 80-year-old Getty, but the studio insisted on 58-year-old Spacey, who then had to be caked in prosthetics. Supposedly it’s because Spacey was a bigger name, but that much bigger? Really?

Anyway, it turned out for the best, because Plummer is probably the strongest element of the finished product. Although Michelle Williams is top-notch as ever, too. Mark Wahlberg has been worse than this, but he still seems slightly miscast. Ridley Scott, also, is not on top form, his direction merely unremarkable. Oh, it looks nice enough — it’s well done — but there’s little beyond glossy competence.

Negotiations

Arguably its biggest sin is that, for a movie about a high-stakes kidnapping, it’s remarkably free of tension. The closest is the climactic manhunt around a village at nighttime (an event which is an entirely fictional invention, incidentally), but even that doesn’t seem to ring all that’s possible out of proceedings. The blurb sells the film as a “race against time”, but it’s almost the opposite of that: the kidnappers hold the kid for literally months while the Gettys bicker. But maybe Scott wasn’t going for thrills? There’s definitely a thematic thing in there about wealth and power and what it does to people, and what that represents versus the importance of family or morals. But I’m not sure those issues are really brought out or explored either.

It leaves the film feeling not tense and on-edge enough to be a thriller, nor thoughtful and considered enough to be a message-driven drama. The real-life story behind the film is a compelling hook and definitely sounds like it’d make a great movie, but the conversion process has perhaps not done it justice. Maybe someone else should have a crack at it…

3 out of 5

Trust, a miniseries from Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy retelling the same events, begins its UK airing on BBC Two tonight at 10pm.

The Tree of Life (2011)

2018 #192
Terrence Malick | 139 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The Tree of Life

Writer-director Terrence Malick made just five films in the first 38 years of his directorial career, this being the fifth. In the seven years since it came out, he’s made five more. Why the long gaps before, or the sudden increase now? Who knows — Malick is notoriously interview-shy. But the answer may indeed lie with this film, sitting as it does at the fulcrum of his career. It was a project Malick had on his mind for decades (he shot material for it as far back as the ’70s), which for various reasons — primarily funding and technology, I think — it took him until this decade to achieve. Many think it was worth the wait: lots of people love it, including the Cannes jury, who awarded it the Palme d’Or. Many others… don’t: plenty of people regard it as pretentious, or at least too abstruse to care about. It’s a film that, I think, can only elicit an entirely personal reaction. So here’s mine.

The Tree of Life is about… um… oh dear, we’ve hit a snag already. Well, once it settles down (which takes the best part of an hour), what it’s literally about is a family living in Waco, Texas, in the 1950s — dad (Brad Pitt), mom (Jessica Chastain), and their three sons, Jack (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Laramie Eppler), and Steve (Tye Sheridan). The kids play around doing the kind of thing young lads did in the ’50s — running around in the woods, swimming in rivers, throwing stones through windows, murdering frogs — while being torn between the influences of their parents: their kind, gentle, caring mother, and their strict, authoritative, borderline abusive (or just straight abusive?) father.

But the film also occasionally shows as Sean Penn as grown-up Jack, working some high-level job in a present-day city. And it also shows us an extended sequence about the birth of the universe and the evolution of life on Earth. And that’s to say nothing of the epilogue… Or, indeed, the prologue, which introduces a massive event in the family’s life that is then, arguably, unreferenced by the rest of the movie.

So… yeah.

Pondering or ponderous?

Much of The Tree of Life is more like visual poetry than a traditional narrative film. Beautiful images glide before our eyes, some with obvious meaning, others less so. Some of the images resonate or rhyme with each other, urging us to infer our own interpretation of what we’re seeing, and why, and what it signifies. This is mostly true of the opening chunk — which lasts a good 45 to 60 minutes — and the ending. In between, more of a narrative is discernible — the stuff about the young family — although its constructed in a poetic fashion, with minimal dialogue, lots of vignettes, fragments of day-to-day life that don’t necessarily have an immediate significance.

To me, it felt like we were watching someone’s dreams or memories, presented as we really remember things: random fragments from our lives. If you think about your memories of childhood, they don’t take the form of a neat narrative in concise scenes with all the important landmarks accounted for. We do remember big events, of course, but also many small things; and some things we remember extensively, but others only fragmentarily. If you could view a person’s memories, they’d create, not a biopic, but an impressionistic collage or our lives — and this film is that, I think.

But that can still leave the viewer to question what it’s all about, especially given the extended sequence of space gases, forming planets, burgeoning microscopic lifeforms, and dinosaurs. Yes, in arguably the film’s most baffling sequence (there are many contenders), we see an event in the life of some dinosaurs. Actually, I say it’s the most baffling, but only if you stick to the film itself: of all the confusing things herein, that’s the one with the most concrete explanation, thanks to visual effects supervisor Michael L. Fink having a little chat with critic Jim Emerson about Malick’s intentions for the scene. Not everyone likes firm answers to this kind of stuff, so I’ll just link to where you can read it if you want to.

Motherly love

That said, some of the stuff I’ve already mentioned in passing I only know definitively thanks to extra-textual sources. Well, if you count the film’s end credits as extra-textual, which I suppose they’re not. But it’s only thanks to those that I know for certain which of the boys Penn was supposed to be, or that creation-of-the-universe stuff is indeed meant to be that (based on genuine science, donchaknow), and that these scenes show us the “astrophysical realm”, because there are effects credits for that. And more still can be learnt from, of all places, the Blu-ray’s chapter menu: the long creation sequence is indeed called “creation”, in case you weren’t sure. The ending is “eternity”, followed by “was it a dream?” Others include “grief”, “innocence”, “mother”, “father”, “I do what I hate” — all showing us the way towards important themes… maybe. Or perhaps they’re just convenient chapter points…

Praise for the film’s imagery is due not only to Malick, but also cinematography Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki. And it’s not even the guy’s best work — I’d argue for consistent beauty he’s surpassed it with some of the stunning, Oscar-winning stuff he’s done since — but you can see how he got from here to there: the very best shots in The Tree of Life are kind of what he does all the time in films like The Revenant. As for constructing those images into a meaningful flow, I’m never sure how much is down to an editor’s own creativity and how much is them operating machinery under the director’s instruction — I guess, like most things in the movies, it’s a collaborative mix of both. Anyway, the film has five credited editors — Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber and Mark Yoshikawa — who I’m sure must’ve been vital to the process. (Relatedly, here’s a fun anecdote from IMDb: “an Italian cinema showed the film for a week with the first two reels switched. Even though the film starts with production logos, no one in the theater noticed and thought it was all part of Terrence Malick’s ‘crazy editing style’.”)

Creation

There’s a lot of really great music and sound design as well — something Malick clearly considered important to a Lynchian degree, given that before the film plays the Blu-ray flashes up a notice advising you to “play it loud”. Alexandre Desplat is credited for the music, but a very, very long list of sourced tracks too hints at what actually happened: most of his music went unused in the final cut, with only a few minutes making it in. I imagine that feels quite unedifying, to have your work sidelined; but maybe it’s better than being ditched entirely in favour of a new score, as has happened to plenty of other composers in the past.

It’s easy to get hung up on all this filmmaking when thinking about The Tree of Life, because that’s where its own focus seems to be, as opposed to the usual things a reviewer might think to discuss first, like the screenplay or performances. But there are still actors here, and good ones at that. The movie is really centred around Hunter McCracken, and he’s very good. The casting directors saw thousands of Texan school kids while trying to cast the boys, and the effort paid off; though McCracken hasn’t done anything else since, so maybe not for him personally. The other two brothers don’t have so much to do; in fact, I kept almost forgetting one of the trio existed, so little is he on screen or relevant to events. Ironically, he’s the only one of the three who’s gone on to have a career: it’s Tye Sheridan, most recently seen as the lead in Ready Player One.

As for the adults, Sean Penn is one of the many lead actors in a Malick film whose performances have wound up on the cutting room floor. According to Lubezki, there’s enough deleted footage to make a whole movie focused on Penn’s character. Yep, sounds like Malick! Obviously such a movie would be completely different to this one, but I’d be curious to see it. More screen time is devoted to Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt, who both achieve a lot with comparatively little. Chastain is the focus early on, but it later becomes apparent that Pitt has a showier role, in a way, because of his character’s arc. There’s a pullquote on the back of the UK Blu-ray that calls it “the strongest performance of his career”, but considering his performances in the likes of Se7en and The Assassination of Jesse James, or that he’s been Oscar-nominated for his turns in Twelve Monkeys, Benjamin Button, and Moneyball, I thought that was a bit of an outlandish claim to make. To each their own, though.

Affection or headlock?

Anyhow, all this is “technical” stuff quite apart from what The Tree of Life is really about. Not that I’m totally clear on what that is, still. I guess maybe it’s there for us to infer what we like from it, be that religious, scientific, humanistic, or, for many a viewer, just boredom. Whether you love it or hate it — and there are certainly plenty of perfectly reasonable people at both extremes — it’s definitely an Experience; one every person who considers themselves serious about film appreciation needs to have.

4 out of 5

A new edition of The Tree of Life, which includes a different cut that’s 50 minutes longer (but, intriguingly, is not an extended cut), is released by Criterion in the US tomorrow and in the UK on November 19th.

The Disaster Artist (2017)

2018 #82
James Franco | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The Disaster Artist

James Franco’s 18th feature as director* is the story of the making of The Room, the cult favourite “Citizen Kane of bad movies”. Franco also stars as the bizarre Tommy Wiseau, a figure of mysterious background who one day decides to make a movie, funded out of his own inexplicably wealthy pocket. Along for the ride is Greg (Dave Franco), a wannabe actor who befriends Tommy at acting class before inspiring Wiseau’s divergence into auteurism. So unfurls a crazy tale of ultra-independent moviemaking by someone who doesn’t seem to know how to be human properly, never mind produce a movie. By which I mean Wiseau, not Franco.

Franco and friends (the lead cast includes his brother, his brother’s wife, and his best mate) seem to be having a jolly old time recreating their favourite bad movie, and they’re certainly not above patting themselves on the back for how well they’ve done it (there’s a self-congratulatory “look what a good job we did recreating the film!” montage at the end that lowered my opinion of the film somewhat. By all means put that as a Blu-ray special feature, but putting it in the film itself feels boastful). Of course, for aficionados of The Room such dedication pays off: there are lots of fun references — not just the obvious stuff (the recreation of actual scenes), but scattered lines and nods throughout the movie.

For those of us uninitiated, The Disaster Artist provides mixed results. For example, the sequence about the shooting of the famous “Oh hi Mark” line, which played so well as the teaser trailer, is more long-winded in the final film (unsurprisingly), but consequently it doesn’t work as well — it’s lacking the conciseness of the trailer, which emphasised the ludicrousness of the process and therefore made it funny. But, hey, if you haven’t seen the trailer…

Artists at work

Where the film manages to surprise is that it kind of has something serious to say. Obviously it’s funny — the premise, the very fact of Wiseau’s existence, inherently calls for that — but around the laughs it wants to comment on the worthiness of dedication to artistic endeavour. Wiseau may be a weird guy who made a terrible movie, but he still made that movie — when Hollywood rejected him, he had the dedication to write and produce his own film, following his own vision. His weird, terrible vision. It’s little surprise that Franco — the guy who’s somehow made 20 feature films (including another two since this came out less than a year ago, with three more beyond that completed or in post) — should be on board with that as a worthwhile achievement.

The trailers mismanaged my expectations for The Disaster Artist. They promised more hilarity than the film delivers — it’s played a little straighter than you might assume, especially given the people involved. But while it’s not consistently funny enough to land as a pure comedy, it’s also not quite heartfelt and meaningful enough to sing as a drama. It’s good, but I felt like it could’ve been better.

3 out of 5

The Disaster Artist is available on Sky Cinema from today.

* That’s not a typo — James Franco has directed 17 other movies that you’ve probably never heard about. And now you’re probably wondering, “how can someone as famous as James Franco have directed 17 movies without me ever hearing about it?” I know, because I’ve been there. ^

The Room (2003)

2018 #81
Tommy Wiseau | 99 mins | download (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | NR / R

The Room

I did not enjoy it, it’s not true, it’s bullshit, I did not enjoy it, I did naht!

Oh hi reader.

You’ve heard of The Room, right? Well, if you hadn’t before last year’s awards season, you probably have now, thanks to James Franco’s fictionalised account of its making, The Disaster Artist. I can’t remember when I first heard of The Room, but it was certainly after it had already gained a reputation among some people for being (as someone once put it) “the Citizen Kane of bad movies”; the kind of movie where its fans attend midnight screenings in costume, shout out phrases, throw items in the air, and all that palaver.

Ostensibly the story of the relationship woes of twentysomethings in San Francisco, there is nothing wrong with The Room… for the first two minutes. Then Tommy Wiseau enters a room and opens his mouth. There are no words to accurately describe Wiseau — he has to be witnessed to be believed. From there out, the film is so distractingly ridiculous that it’s easy to forget what any of it is supposed to be about. For the first half-hour it feels like they’re making a soft-core porno: the plot seems designed purely to facilitate sexual encounters (at one point a couple walk into a room and start getting it on before we’ve learnt anything else about them), most of which last several minutes to the sound of cheesy pop music (though they’ve cut out any explicit bits, so don’t go watching it just to get your jollies).

Room for a threesome?

From there, stuff just… happens. Characters come and go at random (three actors quit the project midway through shooting, so Wiseau sometimes just invented a new character rather than reshoot existing scenes); subplots about nothing pop up now and then; and people generally behave like no human being has ever behaved. Production values are all over the place, like the sets: many are amateur-theatre-level under-designed, yet some scenes take place on a rooftop where the view has been green-screened in fairly well. It’s also awfully misogynistic… but when it’s so awful generally, does that even matter? And yet some parts almost transcend the horror: the scene on the rooftop after they save Denny from being shot is like fucking poetry, with all its repetition and… stuff. I mean, it’s really bad poetry… but really funny poetry.

I guess some people would say you have to watch The Room at one of those cinema screenings packed with die-hard fans to get the most out of it, but they also say that about Rocky Horror and I’ve never found that to be true. Of course, Rocky Horror is actually a good film, whereas The Room is only entertaining because of how bad it is. The full 99-minute experience is a bit of a drag at times, waiting for the really funny bits to roll round, but the level of incompetence is so consistent that it remains fascinating throughout.

A real human being?

However, that does make it almost impossible to rate accurately. As what it sets out to be — a serious drama about the love lives of a group of friends — it’s irredeemably awful. But that’s not why we watch it. As a so-bad-it’s-good film to laugh at… yeah, it’s pretty funny. And as that’s why I watched it, that’s how I’ll mark it: for the level of enjoyment I got out of it, irrespective of what was intended.

4 out of 5

James Franco’s dramatisation of the making of The Room, The Disaster Artist, is on Sky Cinema from today. My review is here.

Rocky IV (1985)

2018 #152
Sylvester Stallone | 92 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English & Russian | PG / PG

Rocky IV

Rocky goes a bit Rambo for an instalment that abandons the series’ early gritty social realism roots in favour of an anti-Soviet propaganda cartoon tone. And, in fact, it was released the same year as First Blood Part II, which actually marked Rambo’s shift from being about a vet with PTSD to an “America, fuck yeah!” action series. What was up with Stallone in ’85?

Anyway, back to Rocky. This time, his opponent in the ring is Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), a poster boy for Soviet superiority and their advanced training methods. With Drago’s team harping about his brilliance, Rocky’s friend Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) elects to come out of retirement to fight him and prove America’s supremacy. But the fight goes sideways, setting up a grudge match between Drago and Rocky.

Interpreting a sports movie as really being about the conflict between the USA and the Soviet Union might normally be considered subtextual analysis, but that’s not the case here — it couldn’t be more blatant. Sometimes this is as hilariously preposterous as you’d expect (Rocky’s victory speech is greeted by a standing ovation from the Soviet politburo!), but other bits actually work quite well. Take the sequence before the Creed-Drago fight: on one hand it’s a ludicrously OTT musical number; on the other, that’s the point, as shown by Drago’s confusion at the flashy spectacle going on around him, intercut with his wife’s exasperated sighs. It’s the mentality of the USA vs. the USSR encapsulated in a glitzy floorshow vs. a heavy frown.

USSR in the back

This isn’t the only bit of music in Rocky IV, though. Oh no. Far from it. Halfway through, the film basically stops dead for the sake of a music video montage of scenes from all four movies. It’s meant to signify a moment of introspection for Rocky, but it goes on for the length of an entire song. And that’s certainly not the only montage. Oh no. Far from it. At one point there’s a training montage… followed by another training montage. It’s like a spoof of itself.

And I haven’t even mentioned the robot that Paulie receives as a gift, which seems to have an AI. No, seriously. Later, he gives it a woman’s voice and refers to it as “his girl” while it delivers him beer and plays its favourite song. No, seriously.

Some people were trying a bit harder than writer-director Stallone, though. There’s a good supporting turn from Brigitte Nielsen, giving off Lady Macbeth vibes as Drago’s wife — she’s like his voice, doing all the talking in America while he just glowers around as a silent hulk of muscle. Carl Weathers is also given some good material as a Creed who’s miserable when out of the limelight, jumping at the chance to revive his fame — he revels in the renewed attention, even if it might mean his death.

Rocky IV is not a good film, but between the so-ridiculous-it’s-fun bulk and the genuinely good flashes, it’s certainly entertaining.

3 out of 5


And now, a special bonus review…

Rocky VI
(1986)

aka Rock’y

2018 #152a
Aki Kaurismäki | 8 mins | streaming | 1.85:1 | Finland / English & Finnish

Rocky VI

An early work from Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki (one of those world cinema names I recognise but couldn’t tell you a single film by), Rocky VI is not, in fact, the sixth entry in the Rocky franchise, but a short parody of the fourth one (the Roman numerals in the title being an inversion of the real film’s IV, obv.). Kaurismäki described the short as “my revenge on Mr. Stallone, who I think is an asshole.” Don’t hold back, Aki, tell us what you really think!

The film is basically all a music montage — so that’s quite accurate, then. In it, weedy little American Rock’y fights burly bushy-browed Russian fatso Igor. Rock’y spends several rounds getting absolutely pummelled, eventually falling over dead without Igor having to throw a punch. And that’s the end.

It’s too slight to be especially funny, with nothing to say other than “hey, wasn’t Rocky IV just pro-American propaganda?”, which I think we all knew. Really, Rocky IV is a better parody of Rocky IV than Rocky VI is.

2 out of 5

My Life as a Courgette (2016)

aka Ma vie de Courgette / My Life as a Zucchini

2018 #3
Claude Barras | 66 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | France & Switzerland / English | PG / PG-13

My Life as a Courgette

My Life as a Courgette (or, to use the American name for the vegetable, Zucchini) is the story of young lad Icare — who prefers to be called “Courgette”, his mother’s nickname for him — and his life after he is taken into an orphanage. If you’ve heard of it, it’s most likely because it was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 2017 Oscars.

It’s adapted from the novel Autobiographie d’une Courgette by Gilles Paris, which was apparently a realistic portrayal of the lives of orphans in France. As you can see, the film takes a more cartoonish style, at least on the surface. In fact, the whimsical production design belies the very serious nature of the story — it’s not as monumentally grim as it could be, given the subject matter, but it doesn’t shy away from some very dark areas. It handles these with an understated, calm maturity that is both befitting and refreshing. The animation itself is equally sophisticated, with innumerable little touches that add finesse and richness to the work.

Orphaned

I watched the English dubbed version, because Amazon Prime gave me no choice (the original French version is available on Amazon Video, but for some reason not also included with Prime). Fortunately, despite having a US voice cast, they stuck with “Courgette”, meaning there’s no constant annoyance of the main character being called the wrong thing. (I do wonder, though: did they have to record it all twice, or did the American release rename the film My Life as a Zucchini but then call the kid Courgette anyway?) Fortunately, the dubbing wasn’t at all bad. Of particular note is Nick Offerman, giving a remarkable restrained performance as the gentle and kindly cop Raymond. As for Courgette and his fellow orphans, I don’t know if they cast actual kids or used adult soundalikes, but they also provided uniformly strong voice work.

My Life as a Courgette is one of those “weird foreign animations” that often manages an Oscar nod but doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in Hell of winning thanks to the conservativeness of Oscar voters — there’s no way a mature, restrained animation with a quirky visual style is going to beat the latest shiny-CGI fun-time from Pixar or Disney. For those with broader tastes, however, it’s definitely worth a look.

4 out of 5

Film Noir Review Roundup

I’ve made a conscious effort to watch more film noirs this year, and today’s roundup contains a few results of that:

  • The Narrow Margin (1952)
  • Accomplice (1946)
  • Shockproof (1949)


    The Narrow Margin
    (1952)

    2018 #2
    Richard Fleischer | 68 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | PG

    The Narrow Margin

    Recognised as a classic noir, The Narrow Margin follows a detective (Charles McGraw) who must protect a mob boss’ widow (Marie Windsor) as she travels by train from Chicago to LA to give vital evidence. As the ‘tec finds himself getting involved with an attractive fellow passenger (Jacqueline White), the assassins on his trail mistake her for their actual target…

    What unfurls is an exciting plot with some solid twists and some great dialogue (enough that it earnt a Best Writing Oscar nomination, in fact), all told in a snappy running time that ensures the film powers forward like, well, a locomotive. Director Richard Fleischer makes very effective use of handheld camerawork and the train setting to create a confined, claustrophobic atmosphere that emphasises the tension and peril of the characters. It all blends into a very fine thriller.

    4 out of 5

    Accomplice
    (1946)

    2018 #16
    Walter Colmes | 66 mins | streaming | 4:3 | USA / English

    Accomplice

    Described by Paul Duncan’s Pocket Essential Film Noir as “hardboiled fun”, and by the few other people online who’ve seen it with phrases like “one of the worst assembled detective movies I’ve had the occasion to watch in a long time”, Accomplice graces my eyeballs before many no doubt finer examples of film noir by virtue of the fact it was available to stream on Amazon Prime and I thought I’d catch it while it was there.

    Adapted by Frank Gruber from his novel Simon Lash, Private Detective, it sees private detective Simon Lash (Richard Arlen) being hired to track down a missing bank executive by his concerned wife (Veda Ann Borg), but the bank insists he’s merely on vacation. As Lash digs deeper, he begins to suspect the wife may have other motives — as does, well, everyone else.

    Running little more than an hour, Accomplice’s plot races past, giving you no time to stop and consider it. Maybe that’s for the best. Conversely, it makes it feel like it doesn’t hang together, even if it actually does. But it rushes along at a scene level, too: Lash seems to figure things out as quickly as it takes the actors to say their lines. It’d be Sherlockian, if you actually believed he had the necessary information and wherewithal to make the deductions.

    There is some fun to be had in a speedy car chase and the film’s occasionally kooky location choices, like the climax being set at a castle in the middle of the desert that’s pitching itself as some kind of hotel for mid-getaway crooks (I think that was the owner’s business plan, anyway). There are other surprising flashes of entertainment, though some of them were likely unintentional, but Accomplice is not really a good film.

    2 out of 5

    Shockproof
    (1949)

    2018 #68
    Douglas Sirk | 76 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | PG

    Shockproof

    When you hear “film noir” you don’t immediately think of director Douglas Sirk (nor vice versa), better known for his colourful ’50s melodramas. Well, according to They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They’s list of most-cited noir films, he helmed three, of which this is the second. The plot has plenty of noir elements, but the film actually feels more like a romantic melodrama. It’s quite an effective mix.

    So, the noir: it’s about a female murder parolee (Patricia Knight) and her parole officer (Cornel Wilde), who begins to fall in love with her. But is she still attached to the crook she took the fall for (John Baragrey)? Is she just pulling the wool over the eyes of the parole officer? That’s kind of a love triangle, hence we’re back in melodrama territory. But the advantage of it being billed as a noir rather than a romantic drama is you’re not sure where it will go. Will she fall for the good honest parole officer with his sweet younger brother and blind mother? Or will she be tempted back to the criminal love of her life? Or will it have a more tragic ending altogether?

    Well, no spoilers, but it definitely takes a turn I wasn’t expecting — the third act spins off in a whole different direction. To be honest, I didn’t really like it, but at least it was unusual, a big departure from the earlier part of the film, and it kind of worked because of that. Again, no explicit spoilers, but it comes to a neatly ironic conclusion… before there’s one extra scene, which feels tacked-on and undermines where the film had got to tonally. And that’s exactly what happened: co-producer Helen Deutsch rewrote Samuel Fuller’s screenplay and added a cop-out ending that Sirk felt ruined the film.

    Fatal femme

    At least until that point there’s stuff to enjoy. Knight’s performance is the real star: although her true nature seems to have been revealed at the start (she’s a parolee, i.e. a no-good criminal), the film adds more nuances to her than that — primarily, you can’t be sure if what she’s doing is genuine, or if she’s playing the parole officer for her own ends. There’s also an interesting turn from Baragrey: I couldn’t be sure if his acting was a bit flat, or if he was deliberately being cool, cold, calculated, thinking he’s always in control, the smartest guy in the deal. Well, even if it’s the former, it functions well as the latter.

    So, Shockproof (a title that has no relevance whatsoever, incidentally) isn’t a total disaster, with some surprising turns that are to be commended even when they don’t work. It was clearly a compromised production, but an interesting one.

    3 out of 5

  • I Am Sartana, Your Angel of Death (1969)

    aka Sono Sartana, il vostro becchino / Sartana the Gravedigger

    2018 #169
    Giuliano Carnimeo* | 103 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Italy / English | 15

    I Am Sartana, Your Angel of Death

    The second official movie to star Western antihero Sartana is, according to the blurb on Arrow’s Blu-ray release, “a more playful film than its predecessor, possessing an inventive visual style and developing its central character into a more creative and resourceful figure.” That’s bang on — and it’s a better film for it.

    It starts with a bang, too: a bank robbery that turns into an action-packed shoot-out. The leader of the gang is posing as Sartana, which puts a price on our hero’s head. He sets about trying to prove his innocence and get his revenge, while three fellow bounty hunters set about trying to kill him.

    Your Angel of Death is a lot slower paced than the non-stop action-fest of the first film, but that has its benefits: the plot is a lot clearer, and there’s more time invested in characters and non-violent set pieces (like Sartana’s card tricks), which I thought made for a more enjoyable watch overall. The storyline gives the film a “whodunnit” element, as the guy who framed Sartana is as much a mystery to us as it is to him. The film develops Sartana into a more interesting character, too, because his resourcefulness really comes out here. He doesn’t just shoot fast — he plans his strategy, uses objects as weapons in cunning ways, sometimes coming up with such things on the fly.

    Sartana takes aim

    Of the three men after Sartana, only the one played by Klaus Kinski gets any serious screen time. Kinski was a bankable actor in these kind of movies at the time, and so after his cameo-sized appearance in the first film he’s back here with a bigger role, as a somewhat camp bounty hunter. There’s a sort of running gag where he’s terrible at cards, and knows it, but can’t help playing anyway, which is quite fun. As for the other two hunters, one is used for a decent shootout-cum-chase sequence early on, but the third is introduced alongside the other two only to disappear entirely until the final duel, which makes the finale somewhat anticlimactic. One nice touch, though: Sartana clearly has a longstanding professional relationship with all three men — comrades in the bounty hunter game, or something like that — which adds an extra dimension to their encounters.

    The other standout in the supporting cast is Frank Wolff as Buddy Ben. Sartana initially thinks Ben might’ve set him up, but he was in prison at the time. From there he takes on the role of Sartana’s sidekick, kinda — we’re still not quite sure if he’s to be trusted, which is a nice dynamic.

    Barrel to barrel

    Giuliano Carnimeo’s direction is less remarkable than Gianfranco Parolini’s work on the first film… or so I’m told: every review seems to mention it, as does Arrow’s booklet. There are some nice flourishes, however, with the most obvious being that almost anytime someone is shot the camera dramatically tips over sideways, mimicking their death. Apparently the film’s more humorous and ironic tone is in keeping with Carnimeo’s style, in contrast to the more straightforward action of Parolini, and that’s a positive in my book.

    Your Angel of Death was a more enjoyable experience than the previous film, which was very welcome because (as I mentioned in my previous review) I’d been slightly concerned that taking a punt on this box set would turn out to be a mistake. (Well, there are still three more films to go, so we’ll see!) That said, although there’s a lot of inventiveness and fun, it’s to the film’s detriment that it often feels a little slow. My score errs on the harsh side, then, but to go the other way would be generous.

    3 out of 5

    * Credited as Anthony Ascott. ^

    Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016)

    2018 #38
    Edward Zwick | 113 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & China / English | 12 / PG-13

    Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

    It’d take a braver man than me to name a sequel Never Go Back; doubly so a sequel to a film that garnered an at-best mixed reception; triply so a sequel to an adaptation whose star was vocally and unrelentingly regarded as being terribly miscast by the book’s own fans. But Jack Reacher star — and, more importantly, producer — Tom Cruise is the kind of man who jumps out of planes all day every day for weeks on end merely to capture one relatively minor sequence in a film, so I think we can safely say he’s a much braver man than me.

    For those unfamiliar with the character, Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) is a former military police officer turned drifter — why he quit and why he hasn’t settled down like a normal person is probably explained somewhere, but I can’t remember. Naturally, as he drifts around the US he keeps finding himself involved in escapades — there wouldn’t be stories worth telling otherwise, would there? In this one, one of Reacher’s friends, Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), is arrested for espionage. Reacher is certain she’s being framed, and his investigations lead to him being set up too. As the pair go on the run to uncover a conspiracy and clear their names, there’s the added complication of having to protect teenager Samantha Dutton (Danika Yarosh), who may be Reacher’s daughter.

    What plays out is a solid plot, smattered with decent action sequences. Frankly, it’s nothing incredible, and you’d have reason to expect more distinctive work from a director of the calibre of Edward Zwick (helmer of well-regarded films like Glory, The Last Samurai, and Blood Diamond), but it’s still a good action-thriller.

    Cruise in for a bruisin'

    In the title role, Cruise is good. It’s different to his usual routine — the familiar grinning charm is dialled way down, in order to facilitate Reacher’s trademark stoicism — but he’s got a charismatic enough presence that he remains an engaging lead even without it. Smulders and Yarosh also acquit themselves well. Together, the trio make for a neat de facto family. Once they’ve been brought together, the way they move through the narrative as a unit gives the film a different vibe from the “lone hero” thing you’d expect. Unfortunately, the bad guys are as bland as anything. It lacks even one really good villain, which is an especially noticeable problem after the first film had Werner bleedin’ Herzog to chew up the scenery.

    The title Never Go Back became a truism for some observers, because the film was not a success, either with critics (38% on Rotten Tomatoes) or at the box office (just $58.7 million in the US, though it drummed up a solid $162 million worldwide). Part of that is Reacher fans’ enduring dislike for Cruise’s casting. When they were bemoaning it before the first film’s release, I thought it was probably a storm in a teacup; that they’d get used to him over time. I mean, their sole objection seemed to be that he was too short, and how important was that, really? Incredibly important, apparently, because six years and two films later they still really, really hate him in the role. (Personally, I think him being a bit of a short-arse suits the characterisation better. Reacher seems to be a guy who gets underestimated; you don’t underestimate someone who walks in with the bulk of, say, Arnie. But then I’ve never read the books, so I may be wrong about this somehow.)

    A woman's place is in the kitchen

    Fans are one thing, but what put wider audiences off? Maybe it was just the poor reviews. Producer Christopher McQuarrie (who directed the first one, but was too busy on Mission: Impossible to return for the sequel) thinks one problem was they adapted the wrong book. I believe I saw him talk about this on Twitter, which means his comments can’t be referenced (because his tweets self-destruct), but if I remember correctly he didn’t say it was a bad novel, just that it didn’t work when placed as the second in the series. He speculated that more films were needed to establish Reacher’s character and world before they told this particular story. I tend to agree. For one thing, the film has to resort to an early montage to show Reacher and Turner’s friendship growing, which could’ve been more naturally handled by spreading it over a film or two. I think the possibility of Reacher having a kid would also carry greater weight if we were more familiar with the character from multiple adventures.

    Well, it’s all academic now, given the film series is most likely over: just this week, creator Lee Child announced he intends to take the rights to TV, primarily to cast a more faithful actor after those continuing complaints about Cruise. It’ll be interesting to see if it really does make a difference having a taller actor in the role. Somehow, I suspect not. Child also said he’s aiming for the mooted series to adapt one book per 10-12 episode season. Considering he’s written 22 books already, I wonder if he believes they’ll ever get through them all…

    “Sorry son, you just don't measure up.”

    Hopefully whatever they do works, because I’ve enjoyed these Reacher films so far. Never Go Back may not be all it could be, but it’s not so poor as to merit abandoning the film series entirely — it’s above average rather than exceptional (my score errs on the harsh side, in part to differentiate it from the superior first movie). It’d be a shame to see the films tossed aside for something lesser.

    3 out of 5

    The UK TV premiere of Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm. It’s also available on Netflix UK as of yesterday.