No Time to Die (2021)

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2021 #170
Cary Joji Fukunaga | 163 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English, French, Italian & Russian | 12A / PG-13

No Time to Die

Britain’s most famous secret agent is Craig, Daniel Craig for the final time in the 25th James Bond film. It’s also the fifth and (presumably) final instalment in an ongoing narrative within the series; the kind of internal continuity never before attempted in the franchise’s 59-year history. Sure, there have been some hints at continuity in the past — Connery’s Bond was almost always up against some agent of SPECTRE, and Diamonds Are Forever is technically a sequel to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service — but never to this degree, and never with such keenly-felt emotional effects on our hero.

Much fuss has been made in some quarters of Quantum of Solace being the first true sequel in the Bond canon, because it very much continues storylines from Casino Royale. If that’s the case, No Time to Die may be classed as the second such sequel, because it picks up on various hints and threads left dangling in Spectre and weaves them into its narrative. (You could also argue Spectre is a “true sequel” for the way it tries to tie together the entire Daniel Craig era, but I think No Time to Die is even more directly connected to its immediate predecessor.) All of this is primarily of note to fans of the series, mind, because it marks a change of form for this particular series. In the wider world of film franchises, that kind of continuity is nothing new. For all that it’s been a massively-popular trailblazer over the past six decades, the Bond films can be surprisingly reactive, often seeking to incorporate things that are successful in the wider filmmaking space — witness Moonraker coming on the heels of Star Wars, or Casino Royale and (especially) Quantum incorporating styles and techniques from the Jason Bourne films. All of which is really just to say that Bond is not some monolithic island unto himself — these films exist in context, just like any other.

Bond's in the spotlight

Perhaps the single most influential trend on No Time to Die is one for closure. Once upon a time, heroes carried on having adventures forever — whatever challenges they faced in one tale, they overcame and ‘rode off into the sunset’ ready to go again. Not nowadays. When Christopher Nolan decided to give Batman an ending to complete his trilogy in The Dark Knight Rises, it was seen as a radical move; an exception to the rule, just for this special case. Now, it’s de rigueur — look at Marvel bothering to wrap-up the stories of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers in Avengers: Endgame, for example. They could have had these guys toddle off only to come back with an unexplained new face, just as has happened throughout movie franchise history, but instead they pay off the audience’s investment by giving them an ending. Spectre sort of did this, giving Craig’s Bond an ambiguous conclusion where he sort of seemed to retire and drive off with the girl. But that kind of ambiguity doesn’t cut it nowadays, and so No Time to Die finds that, yes, Bond did retire, but now he’s pressed back into service so we can get a more definitive fullstop on his story.

To discuss the specifics of that ending would be to get into spoiler territory, of course, which I’m not going to do here (the film is out in most regions now, but won’t hit some markets until much later in the year; and I can understand if some people are still reticent to return to cinemas and so will wait for a home release. It’s fine — there’ll be plenty of time to talk about the ending in month and years to come, because it is, again, no spoiler to say this is an ending that will be discussed for a long time, one way or another). What I will say is that I, personally, wasn’t wholly convinced by it. I don’t know if it was the right move. I’m not entirely sure how it makes me feel. Others may have a more definitive reaction — I haven’t sought out other people’s specific thoughts, and they’re hard to stumble upon because everyone is (rightly) avoiding spoilers. That said, the mostly positive reception, from both critics and regular viewers, suggests that it’s not an outright problem — maybe people mostly love the finale, but even if they don’t, they’re like me in thinking it doesn’t undermine the quality of the rest of the film.

The new 007

And quality is in abundance throughout No Time to Die. When it emerged that it ran nearly two-and-three-quarter hours, some were concerned that was far too long for a Bond film, especially after Spectre’s two-and-a-half hours was deemed a slog by many. Such concerns prove unfounded, because No Time to Die moves at a solid lick throughout, never feeling its length — like all the best movies, whether they be 80 minutes or four hours, it’s just as long as it needs to be. In many ways it’s your standard Bond fare: there’s a nefarious villain out there planning to do something evil on a massive scale, and Bond is roped in to stop them. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And yet, the Craig era has tried to ‘fix it’. Casino Royale consciously dismantled the Bond formula, riffing on some of its famous tropes rather than including them properly (cf. his response to “shaken or stirred?”), but the subsequent films have sought to rebuild the style we knew and loved. It’s arguable whether they truly have returned Bond to his previous ways — every one of these movies subverts ‘the Bond formula’ in some way, large or small — but I think No Time to Die might be the closest. That’s not a criticism.

Certainly, it has enough new going on to not feel like a throwback. Some of that is surface level, like the new 00 being a Black woman, played perfectly by Lashana Lynch. It’s an important bit of progressiveness, for sure, but in plot terms, replace her with a white man and everything still functions the same. Again, I don’t feel like that’s a criticism — sometimes the devil is in the details, and details matter. “Making that character a Black woman instead of a white man doesn’t affect the plot” is a reason to make such a change, not an argument against it. Conversely, Léa Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann somewhat upends the traditional Bond girl role by having a secret past that has significant bearing on both the plot and Bond’s emotional state. The former may not be so new (there have been Bond girls with secrets in the past), but allowing Bond to actually have emotions, and be challenged by them, is very much a Craig-era phenomenon. Again, you can find specific examples of this throughout the series — OHMSS is the biggest example, but you could argue Brosnan’s Bond is affected by Elektra in The World Is Not Enough — but it’s never been done with such consistency, such centrality, as in the Craig era.

Can anybody find him somebody to love?

Aside from all this borderline-groundbreaking stuff, No Time to Die serves up a load of traditional Bond thrills. There are exotic locales, beautifully lensed by Linus Sandgren — he may not be as big a name as Roger Deakins, but his work makes this rival Skyfall for prettiest Bond film. There are epic action sequences — the series may have lost its rep for outrageous done-for-real stunts to Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible-funded death wish, but it can still pull together an outstanding car chase or shoot-out. The pre-titles in Italy; a party in Cuba; a chase through Norwegian woods — all could be franchise highs in the set piece department. And the production design, by series newcomer Mark Tildesley, harks back to Bond of old too, not least in the villain’s island lair. Oh yes, the villain has his own island — proper old-school Bond.

Said villain is Safin, played by Oscar-winner Rami Malek. He’s not bad by any means, but he’s weirdly miscast (it’s not obvious until you think about it, but the character is meant to be 20+ years older than the actor) and he has little to do: Bond’s on his trail for most of the film, only confronting him in the final act. Maybe that’s not so different to many older Bond films either, but it’s out of place in the Craig era, where most of the villains have directly challenged Bond throughout the movie. Still, while he may not hit the highs of Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre or Javier Bardem’s Silva, he’s slightly less “villain by numbers” than Christoph Waltz’s disappointingly underwhelming turn as Blofeld, and more memorable than Mathieu Amalric’s Dominic Greene (not the actor’s fault, I don’t think — Quantum tried so hard to keep Bond grounded and he suffers for that). In fact, he’s such a Macguffin of a villain that I’m not even sure of his motivation — I get how he intends to do A Very Bad Thing (the mechanics of it are very important, for several reasons), but I don’t recall the film ever bothering to tell me why.

Old school Bond

It’s this kind of little niggle that loses No Time to Die its edge. Make no mistake: this is an immensely entertaining Bond film. I haven’t even mentioned some of its other highs, like all-too-brief supporting turns from Jeffrey Wright, returning as Bond’s CIA chum Felix Leiter, or Ana de Armas as a rookie agent who, it turns out, is as skilled as she is gorgeous, but is most memorable for being the most amusing part of the film — you’ll wish she was in it more. For all that, I foresee the film settling in as a well-liked entry in the series, and I’m sure it will cement a reputation as the greatest last-Bond-film for any actor (its only real rival in those stakes being Licence to Kill, which barely counts as it was only Dalton’s second). But, on the flipside, it doesn’t quite hit the dizzying heights of Casino Royale or Skyfall. Is that a problem? Nah. Not everything has to be “the greatest ever” to have merit.

4 out of 5

No Time to Die is in cinemas everywhere (except Australia and China) now.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

The 100 Films Guide to…

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

If adventure has a name,
it must be Indiana Jones.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 118 minutes
BBFC: PG (cut, 1984) | 12 (uncut, 2012)
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 23rd May 1984 (USA)
UK Release: 15th June 1984
Budget: $28 million
Worldwide Gross: $333.1 million

Stars
Harrison Ford (The Conversation, Cowboys & Aliens)
Kate Capshaw (A Little Sex, Black Rain)
Ke Huy Quan (The Goonies, Finding ‘Ohana)

Director
Steven Spielberg (1941, Hook)

Screenwriters
Willard Huyck (American Graffiti, Radioland Murders)
Gloria Katz (Messiah of Evil, Howard the Duck)

Story by
George Lucas (American Graffiti, Willow)


The Story
Escaping the evil machinations of a Chinese gangster, Indiana Jones, his child sidekick Short Round, and nightclub singer Willie Scott crash-land in India, where the fate of a blighted village points them towards an ancient palace, wherein hides a secret cult practising ritual human sacrifice…

Our Hero
Boldly billed as the definitive article ‘Hero’ in some of the film’s advertising, the man in question is archaeologist and adventurer — and, indeed, archetypical movie hero — Indiana Jones.

Our Villains
The Thuggees, an ancient Indian cult still active at the remote Pankot Palace, where they’ve kidnapped and enslaved children to work in mines, and execute elaborate ceremonies of human sacrifice.

Best Supporting Character
Indy’s pint-sized Chinese sidekick, Short Round. A child sidekick sounds like a recipe for disaster, but Short Round is actually pretty fun. Spielberg liked actor Ke Huy Quan’s personality so much that he had the boy and Harrison Ford improves scenes, such as the one when Short Round accuse Indy of cheating at cards.

Memorable Quote
“We are going to die!” — Indiana Jones
(This isn’t a particularly memorable line in isolation, but it’s all in the delivery — and the sad face Ford pulls at the end.)

Memorable Scene
The film’s opening 20 minutes are an extended action sequence — more of a mini-adventure, really (there’s an entire musical number!) — that kick off the movie perfectly. Indeed, some fans even say it’s the greatest action scene in the entire series (I say it’s a contender, but the competition is stiff). I suspect Spielberg was using it to get a few things out of his system: as well as the song-and-dance, there’s a distinct James Bond vibe to the whole thing (Spielberg had put himself forward to direct a Bond film but was rebuffed).

Memorable Music
Oh, John Williams’ main theme… Okay, it’s not new — it’s from Raiders, obviously — but by God it’s good. Did you know: Williams was Oscar nominated for each of the first three Indiana Jones films, but lost every time. Raiders was beaten by Vangelis’ music for Chariots of Fire, Temple of Doom by Maurice Jarre’s score for A Passage to India, and Last Crusade by Alan Menken’s work on Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Mad, really.

Technical Wizardry
The mine cart chase is not just another fantastic action scene, but it’s also a real showcase of filmmaking tricks. It was created with a mix of footage of the star actors, stunt people, miniatures, and stop-motion animation, but it never shows off about it — it’s cut together so well and so fast that you almost don’t notice all the different techniques that have been employed to create a wholly thrilling sequence.

Letting the Side Down
Willie Scott, the nightclub singer who’s forced to tag along on Indy’s adventure, but would rather be anywhere else. She’s not a wholly terrible character, but the only time the movie really threatens to slow down is when it indulges in her screechy, squeamish side. That said, at her best, her hot-and-cold relationship with Indy generates some classic screwball-esque scenes that really help to underscore the 1935 setting.

Making of
The dinner scene, infamous for its array of disgusting food like chilled monkey brains, came about because Spielberg, Lucas, and screenwriters Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck were concerned about keeping the audience’s attention during the expository dialogue about the Thuggee cult. Ideas such as a tiger hunt were rejected before they settled on the dinner sequence. Said Katz, “Steve and George both still react like children, so their idea was to make it as gross as possible.”

Previously on…
Indy made his debut in Raiders of the Lost Ark, although Temple of Doom is actually a prequel, set a year earlier.

Next time…
The Indiana Jones trilogy was completed in 1989 with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but that was far from the end for the character. On screen, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles traced the character’s adventures in childhood across three seasons and 32 episodes, originally released between 1992 and 1996. Over a decade later, in 2008, an older Indy returned to the big screen in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and production has just begun for an adventure starring an even older Indy, with the currently-untitled fifth film due for release next year. Away from TV and cinema screens, Indy has featured in dozens of novels, comic books, computer games, and so on, including a live stunt show at Disney World that’s now been running for over 30 years.

Awards
1 Oscar (Visual Effects)
1 Oscar nomination (Original Score)
1 BAFTA (Special Visual Effects)
3 BAFTA nominations (Cinematography, Editing, Sound)
7 Saturn Award nominations (Fantasy Film, Actor (Harrison Ford), Younger Actor (Ke Huy Quan), Director, Writing, Costumes, Make-Up)

Verdict

Whereas Raiders was balanced to perfection, Temple of Doom pushes everything that worked up to maximum: it’s more playful and it’s sillier, but it’s also more gruesome and more overtly an action movie. When it’s firing on all cylinders, it’s as good as anything else in the franchise, including scenes that stylistically evoke many a genre from classic Hollywood (there’s a hefty dash of screwball comedy in some of the relationship between Indy and Willie). Even at its worst, it’s not bad — it moves like the clappers and is committed to being almost relentlessly entertaining. Perhaps it’s a little hardcore for younger fans (and even that aspect has lessened with age, with the chest-ripping special effects looking a little ropey nowadays), but otherwise, what’s there to complain about?

Psycho Goreman (2020)

2021 #26
Steven Kostanski | 95 mins | digital (HD) | 2.40:1 | Canada / English | *

Psycho Goreman

In the recent episode of his Secrets of Cinema devoted to cult movies (which I covered here), Mark Kermode asserted that filmmakers can’t choose to make a cult movie — it’s up to the audience whether a film becomes a cult favourite or not. While this may be true in a sense, it’s also the case that, after several decades of the phenomenon being observed, any filmmaker who is interested in making a cult movie can consciously include the kinds of ingredients that provoke such devotion, thus giving themselves a head start. Psycho Goreman is one of the most recent films that seems custom-made to be a cult hit, and while only time will tell if it’s truly a “cult classic” or just a passing flavour of the month, it’s already attracted plenty of word-of-mouth attention — indeed, that’s precisely what led me to seek it out back in January, long before it had a confirmed UK release date (which, FYI, is today).

While digging up their back garden for a game, a pair of siblings — obnoxious Mimi (Nita-Josee Hanna) and her pushover older brother Luke (Owen Myre) — unearth a strange gem, which turns out to be a key imprisoning an intergalactic alien mass murderer. The monster now freed, he sets off to dominate and destroy Earth… except whoever possesses the gem can control him, and that’s Mimi. She christens her new pet/toy Psycho Goreman — PG for short — and the cruel, twisted, depraved mastermind sets about using the alien criminal for her own playful ends.

There’s a distinctly ’80s vibe to this whole setup and how it’s presented on screen, both in storytelling terms and in the use of practical suits, models, gore, and special effects. Once he’s free, PG’s old friends and enemies are all out to find him, which puts a wide array of fantastical creatures on screen. None of them are a slouch. The fact such extensive effects work must’ve been achieved on a tight budget, but by clearly enthusiastic and talented craftspeople, only furthers the throwback feel. Indeed, the creature outfits are so impressively designed and realised that, although I haven’t bought an action figure in many years, it made me really want ones of PG and, in particular, his robotic-ish police-lady nemesis, Pandora. (Funnily enough, they’re making some; but they’re retro-style, which I know is a popular thing nowadays, but I don’t think is as cool as a properly-detailed figure. Of course, those kind tend to be rather pricey; but the ones they’re making are far from cheap, especially with international postage. Oh well.)

Mimi and friends

Everything about the filmmaking here has been leveraged to tickle the nostalgia glands of genre fans who grew up with trashy but ambitious sci-fi, fantasy, and horror fare on video, probably when they were officially too young to be watching it. Added to the mix is overt and knowing comedy, because now we’re all in on the joke. I found this aspect a bit hit or miss. When writer-director Steven Kostanski’s work is really on form, it’s frigging hilarious — although do note it can be quite dark comedy at times (which works for me) — but the film doesn’t nail the schtick as consistently as I hoped it would. For every few gags that land or subplots that pay off, there’s something that misses an opportunity or seems to get forgotten. On the other hand, this roughness round the edges is part of the genuine cult movie charm. With geek culture having become mainstream, the high-value neatly-polished version of what used to be direct-to-video schlock is more-or-less what Hollywood serves up at the multiplex every couple of weeks (under normal circumstances). Arguably, a true cult movie has faults that its fans either overlook or embrace because of how much they love the overall result. Psycho Goreman certainly does enough right to inspire that kind of affection.

One complaint I’ve read fairly often, even from those who fall within the film’s target audience, is that Mimi is an annoying brat. Well, it’s pretty clear that’s intentional (as opposed to, say, the result of poor casting). I wouldn’t say the film celebrates her for it, but it doesn’t really punish or develop her either, so perhaps there’s some kind of tacit acceptance there. But then, she’s a preteen girl, so I don’t know how harsh you’d expect it to be on her. Anyway, your mileage will vary as to whether she’s annoying but still amusing, or just plain irritating. I err towards the former.

Gory man

Having outlined the film’s supposed intended audience earlier, I must say it doesn’t technically include me. I was much too mainstream in my childhood viewing, so it’s only in later years that I’ve come to appreciate more of the bizarre deviances in cinematic history. Those who grew up on that stuff may get the biggest kick out of the film, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t delight in its gonzo joys. I won’t be surprised if Psycho Goreman has a bright future ahead as a new cult staple.

4 out of 5

Psycho Goreman is available on Shudder from today.

* To the best of my knowledge, it hasn’t been rated by either the BBFC or the MPAA, the two classifications I normally cite. If you’re interested, for reference, classifications in the rest of the world are all in the 15–18 range. It is very gory, but it’s obviously fake and often comical. ^

Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004)

2019 #68
Alexander Witt | 94 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | Canada, UK, Germany, France & USA / English | 15 / R

Resident Evil: Apocalypse

2002’s film adaptation of popular horror video game series Resident Evil may not have been particularly game-accurate (from what I can gather — I’ve never played them), but it was sufficiently entertaining as an action/horror movie in its own right, and consequently it spawned a sequel (and, eventually, four more). Picking up where the first movie left off — with the zombie outbreak, er, breaking out, expanding from one facility into a whole city — Resident Evil: Apocalypse widens the scope of the movie series’ action. It also begins to introduce more characters and plot points drawn from the games, presumably in a deliberate attempt to court fans who were disappointed first time round. Unfortunately, it’s all in aid of a film that just isn’t very good.

Where the first film was a riff on something like Assault on Precinct 13, Apocalypse turns its attention to another John Carpenter classic, clearly trying to be a version of Escape from New York. Set in a semi-abandoned, zombie-overrun city where it’s perpetually nighttime, Alice (Milla Jovovich) and the ragtag group of survivors she encounters must make it out before a nuclear bomb is dropped on it.

It’s a perfectly serviceable storyline, and I have no problem with movies broadly borrowing storylines and whatnot in homage to other flicks. The problem is, Apocalypse is an awfully written and produced film. The first film’s writer-director, Paul W.S. Anderson, sits out the latter role this time, but returns as sole screenwriter. His dialogue is bad, devoid of realism or logic. One example: they’re trapped in a walled-off city, remember, and when one character informs the others that tomorrow morning it’s going to be hit with a tactical nuke, the first response is: “what yield?” Like it fucking matters! They’re dropping a nuke designed to wipe out the city you’re in — doesn’t matter what precise yield it is, you’re all dead. Unsurprisingly, his characterisation isn’t any better, and the cast don’t have the chops to save it, even though there are some decent-to-excellent supporting players here, like Oded Fehr, Thomas Kretschmann, and Jared Harris.

Make my day, zombie

His narrative structure isn’t great, either. Take the ending. The closing moments of the first film could be interpreted as a cliffhanger or sequel tease, I guess, but the final shot also work in its own right as a fatalistic reveal: that despite the efforts and sacrifices of our heroes to contain the virus, it got out and the world has gone full zombie apocalypse. Here, though, the last ten minutes or so of the film are an almost total sidestep from the story we’ve had thus far, their only purpose being to suggest some onward direction for the next movie. I suppose that’s par for the course nowadays, in the era of cinematic universes, but I still don’t think it’s good form. There are ways to have hints and teases for the future without turning a significant chunk of your current movie into an extended trailer for the next one.

The paucity of quality in the screenplay could perhaps be allowed to slide if Apocalypse delivered on its main goals. It’s an action/adventure/horror flick, after all — the boxes it’s looking to tick are not “character drama” and “narrative coherence”, necessarily. Sadly, it doesn’t tick the other boxes either, more scribbles vaguely around them. The action is terribly directed, a blur of meaningless visual noise. Taking Anderson’s place in the director’s chair is Alexander Witt, who had previously been a second unit director on some very good movies, like The Hunt for Red October, Gladiator, The Bourne Identity, and Pirates of the Caribbean. I can only presume his unit wasn’t responsible for any of the action sequences in those films. Apocalypse remains his only primary directing credit: he’s gone back to second unit, working on some more very good movies, like Casino Royale, X-Men: First Class, Skyfall, and Avengers: Infinity War. For whatever reason, I guess that’s a better fit for him.

One of the advantages to coming to a film series years after the fact is you can benefit from the perspective of others. To wit, I’ve seen people say this is the worst of the series. I pray they’re right, because I’ve kinda committed to watching them all now and I’m not sure I can take another four films this poor or, God forbid, worse. I had it down as a 2 for my 2019 stats, but I can’t recall a single redeeming feature now, so:

1 out of 5

The 100-Week Roundup XXXII

The 100-Week Roundup covers films I still haven’t reviewed 100 weeks after watching them. Sometimes these are short ‘proper’ reviews; sometimes they’re only quick thoughts, or even just the notes I made while viewing.

This week’s pair are the final films from May 2019

  • The Saint (2017)
  • Hairspray (1988)


    The Saint
    (2017)

    2019 #92
    Ernie Barbarash | 91 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12

    The Saint

    Leslie Charteris’s “modern-day Robin Hood” Simon Templar, aka the Saint, was adapted into a successful film series in the ’30s and ’40s, and an enduringly popular TV series in the ’60s, so it makes sense that, every now and then, someone tries to revive the property. This latest effort began life as a TV pilot in 2013, which was rejected. Reshoots to extend it into a feature were shot in 2015, but it was only released in 2017, as a ‘tribute’ to Roger Moore (star of the ’60s series, of course, and who makes a cameo here) shortly after his death. I guess that was the only way it could find distribution. You might think the fact it failed on its own merits, twice over, before having to rely on a beloved star’s death to get any kind of release, augurs badly for the film’s quality… and you’d be right.

    Adam Rayner plays the newest incarnation of the eponymous antihero, here tasked with recovering both stolen Nigerian aid money and the thief’s teenage daughter, who was kidnapped as leverage by a mysterious crime organisation. Cue lots of tech-based heist hijinks (gotta make sure we know this is a modern adaptation) and made-on-a-budget action sequences. The overall impression is of something that would’ve been a minor success as a syndicated TV series in about 1995, which obviously means it seem badly dated by today’s standards. The content of the reshoots is a little too obvious: a tacked-on prologue and epilogue, which come in the form of long scenes in limited locations with a small cast. That said, the whole production is so cheap that these additions don’t stick out too much. That’s not a compliment.

    It’s been a very long time now since we’ve had a decent version of The Saint (I rewatched the ’90s Val Kilmer film recently and it’s not some forgotten gem). As such a storied franchise, I’m sure someone will try again — indeed, we might not have to wait long at all, as it’s been reported that Dexter Fletcher is working on a new film that will star Chris Pine. I live in hope.

    2 out of 5

    The Saint featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2019.

    Hairspray
    (1988)

    2019 #94
    John Waters | 88 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Hairspray

    John Waters is not the kind of filmmaker whose movies you’d expect to see being adapted as a big Broadway musical. But then, Hairspray is not your typical John Waters movie, leaving behind the transgressive, gross-out elements that make films such as Pink Flamingos infamous and unpalatable to this day, replacing them with the sweet story of an overweight high-schooler who wants to be a dancer on her local TV dance show, with a self helping of racial equality — it’s set in 1962 and the show’s black dancers are still segregated.

    Although the end result is resolutely PG material, the film still feels a world away from the slick big-budget studio production values of the stage-musical-based remake — a bit of the grungy, independent, low-budget roots of Waters’s other films has survived into the vibe of this film. In a way, the nice thing about that is that the two screen versions cater to different demographics. So many remakes are aimed at fundamentally the same audience, but in shiny new packaging to attract the imbeciles who refuse to watch any films made before whatever year they’ve arbitrarily selected. Conversely, the two Hairsprays are distinctly different interpretations of the same base material, with a shared socially-conscious vision, but different aesthetic and artistic goals. Both are valid; both are good. My personal preference errs towards the remake, but I appreciate the qualities of the original, too.

    4 out of 5

  • Devil’s Cargo (1948)

    2019 #93
    John F. Link | 62 mins | digital (SD) | 4:3 | USA / English

    Devil's Cargo

    The history of the fictional detective known as ‘the Falcon’ is a bit complicated (if you want a full summary, try this Wikipedia article), but the short version is that, between 1941 and 1946, RKO produced a series of 13 films featuring the character, starring first George Sanders and then his brother, Tom Conway. You can find my reviews of the series collated across these four posts. (The series is also noteworthy for containing the first screen adaptation of a Raymond Chandler novel: the third film, The Falcon Takes Over, was based on Farewell, My Lovely, two years before it was more famously filmed as Murder, My Sweet.)

    A couple of years after RKO’s Falcon series ended, Film Classics picked up the mantle, casting magician John Calvert as a different version of the character. Their series only lasted three films, of which this first is the most readily available, because it’s public domain. (Consequently, I’ve yet to see the next two. Writing this has reminded me that I was meant to be tracking them down…)

    The plot has nothing to do with cargo, belonging to Satan or otherwise. Rather, it’s the usual murder mystery setup: a playboy has been shot to death, a crook confesses his guilt to the Falcon, certain he’ll be acquitted due to his motives being (kinda) pure, but then he’s murdered too. It all unfolds as a surprisingly decent little mystery — no great head-scratcher, but it offers enough twists and turns to keep it lively. The conclusion may stretch credibility, and our hero more chances upon the identity of the killer than actually deduces it, but it suffices for a short B-movie.

    “Magic your way outta this!”

    Calvert is decent as the Falcon. He’s no Sanders or Conway, and he has the slight stiffness of a non-professional having a crack at acting, but he’s just about charming enough to carry it off. I’ve definitely seen worse performances in similar roles. I have no idea how famous or acclaimed he was as a magician, so I don’t know if the film’s references to magic and inclusion of tricks is meant as an amusing nod to his original vocation, or it was required to placate the leading man’s ego. I can imagine the production meeting, though… “We want to integrate your magic tricks into the plot.” “How?” “Well, a criminal asks you to show him some tricks, so you do.” I’m not kidding, that’s literally what happens. On the bright side, he has a sidekick dog, Brain Trust, who is cute and occasionally useful.

    As these ’40s detective B-series go, Devil’s Cargo is far from top-tier; but I’ve also seen worse — it’s better than it really ought to be.

    3 out of 5

    The Secret Life of Pets 1&2

    Imaginatively-titled sequel The Secret Life of Pets 2 is available on Netflix in the UK from today, so what better time for me to finally get round to reviewing both that film and its predecessor? (Unfortunately, the first one isn’t currently available on any subscription streaming service.)

    The Secret Life of Pets
    (2016)

    2019 #73
    Chris Renaud | 86 mins | digital (HD+3D) | 1.85:1 | USA, France & Japan / English | U / PG

    The Secret Life of Pets

    In a Manhattan apartment, terrier Max’s quiet life as favourite pet is upended when his owner brings home stray Duke. But they must put their quarrels aside when they get lost in the city and discover that abandoned magician’s bunny Snowball is building an army of lost pets, determined to wreak their revenge. — adapted from IMDb

    Make your main character a cute little terrier-like dog and you’ve basically halfway sold me on your movie already (see: Hotel for Dogs; Benji). It works best with a real cute little dog, of course, but The Secret Life of Pets is proof the effect can carry over to animation, at least somewhat. It helps that the behaviour of the various animals in the film is all quite well observed — heightened, obviously, but there are many reasonable riffs on pet behaviour… that is until the revolutionary group led by a bunny, who’s followed by a tattooed pig and a lizard, hijack an animal control van. That’s a bit silly.

    From the trailers, I thought the animation style looked a bit flat — presumably a deliberate choice, almost like it was going for a Peanuts Movie kinda style — but watching it in 3D adds some pleasing depth and shapeliness, especially as I don’t think flatness actually was the intended effect for the whole movie.

    The Secret Life of Pets mostly reheats, remixes, and recombines stuff you’ve seen done in other movies (although as it came out around the same time as Finding Dory, it’s really a toss up as to who can claim that “animals in control of a human vehicle” climax), but it manages just enough charm to tick over as entertaining rather than irritatingly derivative.

    3 out of 5

    The Secret Life of Pets 2
    (2019)

    2020 #81
    Chris Renaud | 86 mins | digital (HD+3D) | 1.85:1 | USA, France & Japan / English | U / PG

    The Secret Life of Pets 2

    Max faces some major changes after his owner gets married and has a child. On a family trip to the countryside, Max meets farm dog Rooster and attempts to overcome his fears. Meanwhile, Gidget tries to rescue Max’s favourite toy from a cat-packed apartment; and Snowball sets off on a mission to free a white tiger from a circus. — adapted from IMDb

    As the above plot description goes some way to indicating, The Secret Life of Pets 2 feels like watching three episodes of a Secret Life of Pets TV series strung together: for most of its running time, it cuts back and forth between three completely unrelated storylines, seemingly just so that every major character from the last movie has something to do. Things do tie together in the final quarter-hour for an all-action climax, but that doesn’t stop them being entirely disconnected until that point.

    The only thing that really elevates it above TV-level is the visuals, which show off suitably expensive and slick animation, especially in 3D. At this point it almost goes without saying that computer-animated movies look fantastic in 3D, but it’s still pleasing.

    None of which is to say The Secret Life of Pets 2 is an outright bad movie. It’s a step down from the first (as things have panned out, I’ve given them both the same score, but the first one is kind of a 3+), but it has its moments — like the opening five minutes, where Max bonds with his owner’s new kid, which are sweet and cute; or the casting of Harrison Ford as a take-no-bullshit farm-dog, which is perfect. If you liked the first movie, this one passes some time amiably.

    3 out of 5

    The Secret Life of Pets 2 is available on Netflix in the UK from today.

    The 100-Week Roundup XXXI

    The 100-Week Roundup covers films I still haven’t reviewed 100 weeks after watching them. Sometimes these are short ‘proper’ reviews; sometimes they’re only quick thoughts, or even just the notes I made while viewing.

    This week’s selection includes a trio of films I watched back in May 2019

  • Widows (2018)
  • Cosmopolis (2012)
  • The Kennel Murder Case (1933)


    Widows
    (2018)

    2019 #88
    Steve McQueen | 130 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English & Spanish | 15 / R

    Widows

    The story of four women with nothing in common, except a debt left behind by their dead husbands’ criminal activities. Set in contemporary Chicago, amid a time of turmoil, tensions build when Veronica (Viola Davis), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Belle (Cynthia Erivo) take their fate into their own hands and conspire to forge a future on their own terms.IMDb

    Best known for powerful socially/politically-conscious work like Hunger, 12 Years a Slave, and the Small Axe series, director Steve McQueen here delivers something closer to a genre movie — although, with its storyline of gangsters’ women empowering themselves, and a racially diverse cast, it still feels at least somewhat radical. As a thriller, it’s not exactly taught with tension, but it’s not too slack either — the pace is considered but not slow, allowing enough room for everything (and there’s a lot) without feeling rushed.

    4 out of 5

    Cosmopolis
    (2012)

    2019 #89
    David Cronenberg | 101 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | Canada & France / English | 15 / R

    Cosmopolis

    Riding across Manhattan in a stretch limo in order to get a haircut, a 28-year-old billionaire asset manager’s day devolves into an odyssey with a cast of characters that start to tear his world apart.IMDb

    David Cronenberg may be most famous as a horror director, but the only thing horrific about Cosmopolis is having to sit through it. It has the visual, aural, writing, and performance quality of an overambitious semi-pro early-’00s webseries, from the distractingly ugly green-screened limo windows to the “undergrad philosopher”-sounding screenplay and stiff performances. I presume this literally monotonous lack of realism must have been intentional, but doing something deliberately doesn’t inherently make it good. Cronenberg reportedly wrote the screenplay in just six days, apparently by copy-pasting the book into screenplay format and separating the dialogue from narration. That would go some way to explaining why it’s all so unnatural and impenetrable.

    1 out of 5

    Cosmopolis featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2019.

    The Kennel Murder Case
    (1933)

    2019 #91
    Michael Curtiz | 73 mins | digital (SD) | 4:3 | USA / English

    The Kennel Murder Case

    Before he starred in The Thin Man, one of the definitive detective movies, William Powell played private eye Philo Vance in a series of movies — three at Paramount across 1929 and 1930, later returning for this one at Warners. Here, Vance investigates a locked-room mystery: wealthy collector Archer Coe is dead and all signs point to suicide, but Vance had run into him the day before at the Kennel Club, where Coe was looking forward to his dog winning the next day’s competition.

    While the ensuing story unfolds a solid mystery, it lacks the charm and wit of the Thin Man films. Powell’s character is a facilitator of the plot rather than an entertaining main character; a blank slate who wanders around solving things. That lack of verve or individuality (which you do find in, say, the Falcon and Saint films, which this is on a par with in most other respects) is what really holds it back. Mind you, it has its moments: for example, much of Michael Curtiz’s direction is perfunctory studio-programmer stuff, but there’s the occasional striking shot (the discovery of a body though a keyhole) or sequence (the recap of how the murders went down, with a roving first-person view to hide the killer’s identity).

    3 out of 5

  • Nomadland (2020)

    2021 #83
    Chloé Zhao | 108 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA & Germany / English | 12 / R

    Nomadland

    Having won the top gong at the BAFTAs, the Golden Globes, the PGAs, and the DGAs, plus various other smaller ceremonies, and at film festivals of varying significance, Nomadland topped it off by winning the headline prize at the Oscars last weekend, leaving no doubt that it’s been well and truly crowned the best film of 2020. Everyone will have their own opinion on whether it is or is not, of course, but there’s no questioning where the consensus lies. For me, this is the only one of the eight Best Picture nominees that I’ve seen to date, so if I would’ve preferred a different victor, I can’t yet say. Judged in isolation, however, it seems to me that Chloé Zhao’s film is a worthy winner.

    The film follows Fern (Frances McDormand), a sixtysomething widow who ends up living on the road in a camper van, after the plant that provided work for most folk in her Nevada town is closed down in the wake of the late-’00s recession. It’s a lifestyle adopted by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of others: a whole community of modern-day nomads, travelling the American West in their van-homes, moving from one temporary seasonal job to another. It might seem fantastical — perhaps even dystopian — were it not based on a real-life subculture (and, in particular, Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century).

    Indeed, Zhao’s film plays almost like a documentary, observing Fern’s experiences in long takes, or edited in that slightly choppy way that suggests it’s been cut down from hours of footage. This is compounded by the absence of any expository voiceover or dialogue; a welcome decision that substitutes telling us what to think for a confidence to rest the film’s weight on the shoulders of Zhao’s filmmaking and McDormand’s performance, both of which are strong enough to take it. On top of that, at times the film arguably slips into genuine documentary: most of the supporting cast are real people, playing themselves or versions thereof, so when these people Fern encounters tell their stories, it not only feels real, it is real. There’s a lot of sadness — in the events that have brought people to this place, and in the struggle to live this lifestyle — but a lot of happiness in what it’s given them, too. The net result is a dignified, deeply humane portrait of people who we might describe with negative words like “homeless” or “dispossessed”, but who in reality are free, in their way. It makes for a powerful, quietly moving experience.

    A story of people

    Moments of beauty abound. Some of the places Fern visits, the scenery we get to see, are incredible. At times it feels like the film should have been shot in a taller aspect ratio. That’s partly expectations of a modern indie movie (this is the kind of film many filmmakers would opt for unmatted 16:9, or even self-consciously-old-fashioned 4:3), but also because it’s so focused on people and faces, and on small environments like the back of vans, for which a squarer ratio feels more apt. But when we reach the scenery — the wide open environs with distant horizons — the only appropriate choice is ’Scope. I bet those parts look incredible on the big screen. That there was an IMAX release felt daft when I first heard of it, but seeing those vistas, it seems justified. But it’s not just visual prettiness: when it turns out that one character has just months to live, she shares memories of stunning moments from her life, and it plays like a grounded version of Blade Runner’s “tears in rain” speech, conjuring up real (rather than fantastical) sights. The truth of it makes it just as emotionally affecting, at least.

    While it was the real people who stuck with me, for others, McDormand’s performance was the big takeaway. Some have even called it career-defining. I’m not sure about that. I don’t think she’s bad in it, by any means, but I do think she spends a lot of it being quite blank; someone for us to follow, virtually a silent audience avatar, as we hear from and about other people. Only occasionally do we get to see anything of Fern herself. If the rest of McDormand’s career was unremarkable, sure, this would be a standout role; but when you’ve got iconic turns like Fargo and Three Billboards under your belt, I’m not sure this — judged purely as a character and performance — is wholly on the same level. I doesn’t make Nomadland any less of a film, just that if you really want to see what McDormand can do as an actress, I’d say look to one of those earlier films.

    Talking of crazy assertions, some have floated the idea that Nomadland is a Western. Surely not? Well, it’s an interesting facet to consider, at least. In one scene, a character explicitly draws a link between today’s nomads and the pioneers of the Old West. They’re not necessarily wrong: these are individuals trying to create a new kind of life in an untamed landscape. If nothing else, there’s a definite parallel there. It could seem like a pretentious, self-mythologising viewpoint, but the fact it comes from an outsider (Fern’s sister, who lives a regular suburban life), rather than one of the nomads bigging themselves up, lends it more credence for me. But even if these nomads are like the pioneers, that doesn’t necessarily mean a film about them falls within the same genre. It might make an interesting point for future study, though.

    Pioneer spirit

    From what I’d seen and read in advance, I worried that I might find Nomadland a bit boring and “not my kind of thing”. For people who don’t watch this kind of film — who are more used to the regular “narrative fiction” style of cinema — I do think it helps not to approach it like a normal movie (even thought it is, technically, still a narrative fiction). If you’re expecting a clear storyline and character arcs and dialogue and whatnot, that’s not what you’re going to get. It’s more like a travelogue; almost like one of those TV documentaries where a celebrity presenter visits places worth seeing. You watch to appreciate the scenery, the places, meeting the people, experiencing a way of life; not to follow a story or character arc in the traditional sense. It’s almost a film to hang out in, or to escape with — to get away from ordinary life and spend time with these captivating, unusual places and people.

    5 out of 5

    In the UK, Nomadland will be available on Disney+ from tomorrow, Friday 30th April, and is expected to screen in cinemas when they reopen.

    The 100-Week Roundup XXX

    Bow-chicka-wow-wow!

    Oh, er, no, sorry — it’s not that kind of XXX. It’s Roman numerals: this is the 30th 100-Week Roundup. (But if it is the other kind of XXX that you’re looking for, check out Roundup XX.)

    Still here? Lovely. So, for the uninitiated, the 100-Week Roundup covers films I still haven’t reviewed 100 weeks after watching them. Sometimes these are short ‘proper’ reviews; sometimes they’re only quick thoughts, or even just the notes I made while viewing.

    That said, as with Roundup XXIX, this week has run into some reviews that I feel would be better suited placed elsewhere; mainly, franchise entries that it would be neater to pair with their sequels. Consequently, sitting out this first roundup of May 2019 viewing are The Secret Life of Pets, Jaws 2, Ice Age: The Meltdown, and Zombieland. I’m going to have to get a wriggle on with these series roundups, though, otherwise that subsection of my backlog will get out of control…

    So, actually being reviewed here are…

  • Eyes Wide Shut (199)
  • The Eyes of Orson Welles (2018)
  • Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)


    Eyes Wide Shut
    (1999)

    2019 #72
    Stanley Kubrick | 159 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | UK & USA / English | 18 / R

    Eyes Wide Shut

    I seem to remember Eyes Wide Shut being received poorly on its release back in 1999, but then I would’ve only been 13 at the time so perhaps I missed something. Either way, it seems to have been accepted as a great movie in the two decades since (as is the case with almost every Kubrick movie — read something into that if you like).

    Numerous lengthy, analytical pieces have been written about its brilliance. This will not be one of them — my notes only include basic, ‘witty’ observations like: one minute you’re watching a “men are from Mars, woman are from Venus” kinda relationship drama, the next Tom Cruise has taken a $74.50 cab ride from Greenwich Village to an estate in the English countryside and you’re in a Hammer horror by way of David Lynch. “A Hammer horror by way of David Lynch” is a nice description, though. That sounds like my kind of film.

    And Eyes Wide Shut almost is. It’s certainly a striking, intriguing, even intoxicating film, but I didn’t find the resolution to the mystery that satisfying — I wanted something more. Perhaps I should have invested more time reading those lengthy analyses — maybe then I would be giving it a full five stars. Definitely one to revisit.

    4 out of 5

    Eyes Wide Shut was viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2019.

    The Eyes of Orson Welles
    (2018)

    2019 #74
    Mark Cousins | 100 mins | TV (HD) | 16:9 | UK / English | 12

    The Eyes of Orson Welles

    Mark Cousins, the film writer and documentarian behind the magnificent Story of Film: An Odyssey, here turns his attention to the career of one revered filmmaker: Orson Welles (obv.)

    Narrated by Cousins himself, the voiceover takes the form of a letter written to Welles, which then proceeds to tell him (so it can tell us, of course) about where he went and when; about what he saw and how he interpreted it. A lot of the time it feels like it’s patronising Welles with rhetorical questions; as if Cousins is speaking to a dementia suffer who needs help to recall their own life — “Do you remember this, Orson? This is what you thought of it, isn’t it, Orson?” It makes the film quite an uneasy experience, to me; a mix of awkward and laughable.

    Cousins also regularly makes pronouncements like, “you know where this is going, I’m sure,” which makes it seem like he’s constantly second-guessing himself. Perhaps it’s intended as an acknowledgement of his subject’s — his idol’s — cleverness. But it’s also presumptive: that this analysis is so obvious — so correct — that of course Welles would know where it’s going. His imagined response might be, “of course I knew where you were going, because you clearly have figured me out; you know me at least as well as I know myself.” It leaves little or no room for Welles to respond, “I disagree with that reading,” or, “I have no idea what you’re on about.” Of course, Welles can’t actually respond… but that doesn’t stop the film: near the end, Cousins has the gall to end to imagine a response from Welles, literally putting his own ideas into the man’s mouth in an act of presumptive self-validation.

    I can’t deny that I learnt stuff about Orson Welles and his life from this film, but then I’ve never seen or read another comprehensive biography of the man, so that was somewhat inevitable. It’s why I give this film a passing grade, even though I found almost all of quite uncomfortable to watch.

    3 out of 5

    Everybody Wants Some!!
    (2016)

    2019 #79
    Richard Linklater | 112 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Everybody Wants Some!!

    Everybody Wants Some Exclamation Mark Exclamation Mark (that’s how we should pronounce it, right?) is writer-director Richard Linklater’s “spiritual sequel” to his 1993 breakthrough movie, Dazed and Confused. That film has many fans (it’s even in the Criterion Collection), but I didn’t particularly care for it — I once referred to it as High Schoolers Are Dicks: The Movie. So while a lot of people were enthused for this followup’s existence, the comparison led me to put off watching it. A literal sequel might’ve shown some development with the characters ageing, but a “spiritual sequel”? That just sounds like code for “more of the same”.

    And yes, in a way, this is High Schoolers Are Dicks 2: College Guys Are Also Dicks. It’s funny to me when people say movies like this are nostalgic and whatnot, because usually they just make me glad not to have to bother with all that college-age shit anymore. That said, in some respects the worst parts of the film are actually when it tries to get smart — when the characters start trying to psychoanalyse the behaviour of the group. Do I really believe college-age jocks ruminate on their own need for competitiveness, or the underlying motivations for their constant teasing and joking? No, I do not.

    Still, while most of the characters are no less unlikeable than those in Dazed and Confused, I found the film itself marginally more enjoyable. These aren’t people I’d actually want to hang out with, and that’s a problem when the movie is just about hanging out with them; but, in spite of that, they are occasionally amusing, and we do occasionally get to laugh at (rather than with) them, so it’s not a total washout.

    3 out of 5