Persepolis (2007)

2018 #27
Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud | 92 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | France & Iran / English | 12 / PG-13

Persepolis

Adapted from co-director Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel, Persepolis is the story of an Iranian girl coming of age in the ’70s and ’80s, during and after the Iranian Revolution. Such a broad description is probably the only way to succinctly summarise it, because it’s kind of a sprawling film, about many different things — just like a life, I suppose. As well as being part biography, it’s also part history lesson, with a normal-family’s eye-view of the revolution and what followed.

Some of the events we’re shown are crazy-specific to her life (Satrapi has certainly lived a life!), and some of it is very specific to her background (i.e. all the Iranian Revolution stuff), but some of it is also very universal. For example, a sequence where she falls in love with a guy sees him depicted as a perfect, angelic boyfriend that she spends many magical times with… until he sleeps with someone else, then when she reflects on their relationship he’s an ugly ogre, and all those wonderful memories have a rotten mirror. Plenty of us have been through something akin to that, right?

Such subjective depictions are one of the benefits of the film being animated. Drawn in a simple, cartoonish style and mostly presented in black-and-white, the visuals are striking and sometimes very effective, but can also have something of a distancing effect — the atrocities of the revolution don’t hit home in quite the same way when, say, they’re executing a black-and-white cartoon rather than a real girl. Conversely, it was Satrapi who insisted on adapting her novel in animated form, with the goal of keeping it universal — in her opinion, “with live-action, it would have turned into a story of people living in a distant land who don’t look like us. At best, it would have been an exotic story, and at worst, a ‘Third-World’ story.” I suppose there’s some truth to that.

Punk is probably ded in Iran

I believe the film was produced in French, but the copy I had access to only offered the English dub. Unfortunately, this is frequently quite poor — the actors sound like they’re reading out slabs of text as quickly as they possibly can, rather than really delivering the lines. I can only presume this was necessary to fit the animation, but the end result leaves the audio feeling like a bad school presentation. I don’t hold this against the film itself, but it’s a word of warning if you have a choice of audio.

Persepolis is only an hour-and-a-half, but it’s a long one thanks to the scope of what it covers. It’s a frequently dark and bleak film too, taking in not just a violent revolution but also things like depression and attempted suicide. Frankly, it’s the kind of film which I don’t know if I’ll ever bother to watch it again, but it’s also a fascinating and informative experience that I’m unquestionably glad I’ve seen.

4 out of 5

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Mary and Max (2009)

2018 #202
Adam Elliot | 92 mins | download (HD) | 16:9 | Australia / English & Yiddish | 12

Mary and Max

I heard about Mary and Max around when it first came out. I can’t remember the context anymore, but it must’ve been positive because I’ve been meaning to watch it ever since; a desire only reiterated by its surprisingly firm placement on IMDb’s Top 250 (at time of writing, it’s ranked 176th). Nine years since said initial release (nine years?! Where does time go?!), I finally got round to, er, acquiring it, only for it to then pop up on Prime Video. C’est la vie, I guess.

Anyway, it’s about two very different and geographically distant, but similarly lonely, individuals who come into contact by the magic of mail. Mary Daisy Dinkle (voiced initially by Bethany Whitmore and later by Toni Collette) is a little girl living in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, who randomly selects a name in an address book at the post office and sends that person a letter. That person turns out to be Max Horowitz (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman, unrecognisably, at least to me), a middle-aged obese New Yorker with mental health problems. He replies, and an unlikely, long-lasting pen-pal relationship is born.

The film labels itself as being based on a true story, but writer-director Adam Elliot has said (according to IMDb) that Max was inspired by “a pen-friend in New York who I’ve been writing to for over twenty years.” So, less “based on a true story” and more “very loosely inspired by a true story” — I mean, at least half the narrative (all the shit Mary goes through) is completely fictional. Does that matter? Maybe not… but also, kinda. While the film presents a gloomy, issue-heavy take on life, it also has a whimsical side, and that “true story” claim feels like it’s trying to justify both how grim things get and how fantastical they sometimes are, too. The fact it isn’t true — that it is, at least in part, just the product of the director’s kooky imagination — therefore feels like a bit of a con, at least to me.

Crying on crayon

Still, that doesn’t mean Mary and Max is without merit. It has an empathy for people who are disadvantaged and troubled, and for the importance of finding some measure of happiness in life, however small or awkward, that is quite touching. The heavily stylised designs, desaturated colour scheme, and stop-motion animation method suit the material well — as I said, there’s a lot of bleakness here, as both Mary and Max are battered by life, which juxtaposes effectively with the “kids’ picture book” visual aesthetic. That also allows for some flights of fancy which just wouldn’t work if the film were live action. Plus, as with almost any stop-motion movie, it’s an impressive technical achievement (trivia time: there were 133 sets, 212 puppets, and 475 miniature props, including a fully-functional typewriter that took nine weeks to create!)

Mary and Max’s position on a viewer-rated list like the IMDb Top 250 surprises me, because it’s an oddball little film that would seem to appeal primarily to a certain kind of viewer, and probably alienate many others with its unique mix of quirkiness and spirit-crushing realism. It makes for a sometimes uncomfortable experience — perhaps deliberately so — but underneath that lies a fundamental humanity that is, in a way, quite moving.

4 out of 5

Mary and Max is available on Amazon Prime Video UK as of yesterday.

Rocky V (1990)

2018 #206
John G. Avildsen | 104 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG-13

Rocky V

With his career apparently on the wane, the promise of a payday tempted writer and star Sylvester Stallone to reignite the Rocky franchise for one final round (as it’s turned out, this was far from the end, but more on that another time). After the cartoonish excess of Rocky IV, Stallone tried to shepherd this film back towards the series’ roots as a gritty drama, going so far as to rehire the Oscar-winning director of the first film, John G. Avildsen. It didn’t work: Rocky V was met with poor reviews and poor box office. Stallone himself has admitted its failure in the decades since: when he was asked to rate each of the Rocky films out of ten, he gave this one zero. In spite of all that, I thought it was… fine.

The plot picks up immediately after the end of Rocky IV, with the eponymous pugilist learning that the beating he took from Drago has left him with serious brain damage — one more fight could kill him. At the same time, a bad financial decision by Rocky’s brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young) leaves the Balboa family in ruins, forced to move back to their old neighbourhood. Despite lucrative fight offers, Adrian (Talia Shire) insists Rocky remained retired, which leads to him encountering Tommy Gunn (Tommy Morrison), a wannabe boxer keen to be trained by the great Rocky. As Rocky begins to live vicariously through the increasingly successful Tommy, his son, Rocky Jr (played by Stallone’s own kid, Sage Stallone) is feeling neglected, especially as he’s struggling with bullies at his rough new school.

Rocky Jr

So, you can see how the film is trying to be more grounded — gone are the flag-waving ultra-patriotic theatrics of the last film, replaced with a grim story of financial ruin, inner city hardship, and what life is like after your dreams are over. It’s all a bit much. Indeed, it’s probably too much, because Stallone’s attempt to course-correct the franchise overshoots, sailing past gritty realism and into melodrama territory. There’s a lot of shouting and emotional theatrics, and the subplots are all a bit pat. I mean, Rocky neglecting his son because he’s training a fighter who he treats like a son is a solid enough plot, but it’s kinda obvious and we’ve seen its ilk before, and the way it plays doesn’t offer an original perspective on the material. So while it does work as a story, it’s part of what I mean about it being a melodrama — it’s not realism, it’s a heightened Movie story.

The rest of the film is similarly afflicted — there are plenty of cheesy parts, but it wouldn’t be a Rocky movie if there weren’t — though some behind-the-scenes choices don’t help. For example, Tommy Morrison was a real-life boxer, which probably seemed like a clever casting decision, but, given his limited acting ability, was possibly a mistake. That said, while he’s hardly a spectacular actor, I didn’t think he’s as bad as some people say. One thing that definitely doesn’t work is the soundtrack. The film is often scored with rap songs, which don’t fit the character at all. I don’t know whose decision it was, but presumably not Avildsen’s: in 2002 he snuck a workprint version of the film out online, dubbing it the “director’s cut”, and apparently it includes a lot more of Bill Conti’s original score. There were various other changes as well (you can read a review here). I don’t know how easy that version is to find nowadays, or what kind of quality it’s available in — in the 16 years since, it’s not been granted an official release.

Balboa family values

The originally planned ending for the film had Rocky dying after the final fight, but Stallone and/or the studio thought that didn’t really fit the tone and themes of the series. Quite right, too. It also left the door open for the series to eventually continue and redeem itself: there’s the revival movie, Rocky Balboa; the spin-off with Rocky as a trainer, Creed; and the spin-off where Rocky got turned into a squirrel or a moose or something, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. I can’t wait to see how that came about. (I jest — I know he’s the squirrel.*)

Altogether, I don’t quite see why Rocky V gets so reviled. It’s certainly not the best movie in the series — indeed, it’s probably the lowest point, lacking the realism of the early films, the entertaining ridiculousness of its immediate predecessors, and the feel-good zero-to-hero arc seen in all of those — but it’s a passable-enough drama in its own right.

3 out of 5

* I did not know this — I had to Google it. Never let it be said I don’t commit to a joke. ^

Behind-the-Scenes Comedy Review Roundup

A lot of people seem to enjoy spending October watching and reviewing horror movies all month, just because of one day at the end. Well, fair enough, if that’s your bag. But for now, let’s lighten the mood with a handful of pretty good comedies, all of which are related to the making of film and television… in one way or another…

In today’s roundup:

  • Mindhorn (2016)
  • In & Out (1997)
  • Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008)


    Mindhorn
    (2016)

    2018 #34
    Sean Foley | 88 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15

    Mindhorn

    Back in the ’80s, actor Richard Thorncroft (Julian Barratt) starred in Mindhorn, a successful TV show about a detective on the Isle of Man who has a cybernetic eye that can see the truth — think Bergerac meets The Six Million Dollar Man. When an escaped lunatic insists he will only speak to Mindhorn, a washed-up Thorncroft sees an opportunity to revive his career by solving a real crime.

    Produced by and co-starring Steve Coogan, there’s definitely something a little bit Alan Partridge about Mindhorn — the blustering nobody who thinks he’s a star, rubbing people up the wrong way but carrying on regardless. It’s just one of several things Mindhorn is likely to vaguely remind you of. Even if it feels somewhat derivative, it’s still pretty funny, with some of the best bits coming from throwaway cameos. The whole supporting cast is very good indeed, actually, full of strong British actors having some fun. The film seems to derail a bit when it pretends to wrap the case up after half-an-hour, but it gets funny again once it has the common sense to restart it.

    So, not the greatest Brit-com ever — heck, it’s not even the greatest action-movie-spoofing Brit-com ever (*coughHotFuzzcough*) — but it’s mostly pretty amusing.

    3 out of 5

    In & Out
    (1997)

    2018 #39
    Frank Oz | 87 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    In & Out

    Inspired by Tom Hanks’ acceptance speech at the 1994 Oscars — when, after winning for Philadelphia, he thanked a gay teacher — In & Out is about a teacher whose former pupil wins an Oscar and, during his acceptance speech, outs the teacher as gay. The twist is, the teacher in question (Kevin Kline) didn’t know he was gay, and nor did anyone else — including his fiancée (Joan Cusack). As the media descends on the quiet little old-fashioned town and whips up a frenzy, the whole thing turns into a bit of a farce, albeit with a positive underlying message about sexuality and, ultimately, community. The premise barely sustains even this brief running time, but it’s all quite good-natured and likeable.

    3 out of 5

    Zack and Miri Make a Porno
    (2008)

    2018 #179
    Kevin Smith | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / R

    Zack and Miri Make a Porno

    It’s funny how some movies cause a stir on release and then get kinda forgotten. The very concept of Zack and Miri Make a Porno (it’s in the title) was enough to give some people palpitations a decade ago, and the poster that alluded to oral sex (less a visual double entendre, more a single one) did nothing to help. And yet, does anyone really talk about it now? It’s only stuck in my mind because it’s on my 50 Unseen list from 2008, and I’ve not been able to cross it off because for a very long time it was never available to watch anywhere (it finally popped up on Netflix a couple of months ago). Well, I’m glad it did, because I really enjoyed it.

    As I said, the pitch is in the title. Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) are two old friends and housemates struggling to make ends meet, and who (through various plot machinations) decide to make a porn film together. As you do. Despite that risqué theme, the main relationship follows all your typical romcom beats; but those work because they work, and the edgy subject matter covers them up somewhat. Most surprisingly, their romance turns out to be actually quite sweet — even if major turning points hinge on things like them fucking for the first time in front of an audience. Aside from that, the film is full of the rude, crude, gross-out style humour that you’d expect, but I found it very funny nonetheless.

    4 out of 5

  • 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.

    Mission: Impossible III (2006)

    The 100 Films Guide to…

    Mission: Impossible III

    The Mission Begins

    Also Known As: M:i:III

    Country: USA, Germany, China & Italy
    Language: English
    Runtime: 126 minutes
    BBFC: 12A
    MPAA: PG-13

    Original Release: 3rd May 2006 (11 countries)
    UK Release: 4th May 2006
    US Release: 5th May 2006
    Budget: $150 million
    Worldwide Gross: $397.85 million

    Stars
    Tom Cruise (A Few Good Men, Edge of Tomorrow)
    Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote, The Master)
    Ving Rhames (Con Air, Piranha 3D)
    Michelle Monaghan (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Source Code)
    Billy Crudup (Almost Famous, Watchmen)
    Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix, John Wick: Chapter 2)

    Director
    J.J. Abrams (Star Trek, Star Wars: The Force Awakens)

    Screenwriters
    J.J. Abrams (Armageddon, Super 8)
    Alex Kurtzman (The Island, Transformers)
    Roberto Orci (The Legend of Zorro, Star Trek)

    Based on
    Mission: Impossible, a TV series created by Bruce Geller.


    The Story
    Ethan Hunt and his IMF team must track down ruthless arms dealer Owen Davian before he can get his hands on the Rabbit’s Foot, a potentially catastrophic weapon.

    Our Heroes
    Ethan Hunt has semi-retired to a life of (to-be-)wedded bliss and training new recruits, until his protégé, Lindsey Farris, goes missing on an undercover op and Ethan is persuaded back into active duty to rescue her. For that he’ll need a team, including his regular partner, hacker Luther Stickell, plus pilot Declan Gormley, and Zhen Lei, whose particular skillset I’m not sure is clarified beyond being kick-ass and looking good in a dress. Back at IMF HQ, there’s also a helping hand from funny British tech whizz Benji Dunn.

    Our Villain
    Owen Davian is not a man to be messed with — and when Hunt and his team do, Davian is hellbent on revenge. As portrayed by the peerless Philip Seymour Hoffman, he’s the most genuinely threatening villain of the entire series.

    Best Supporting Character
    The head of the IMF, Theodore Brassel, is a superb turn from Laurence Fishburne — commanding and imposing, but also drily hilarious. It’s a shame they never had him back. Alec Baldwin has taken over basically the same role in Rogue Nation and Fallout, and he’s good, but Fishburne was really good too.

    Memorable Quote
    “It’s unacceptable that chocolate makes you fat, but I’ve eaten my share and guess what?” — Brassel

    Memorable Scene
    The IMF team’s unofficial mission to capture Davian from a party in Vatican City, which involves stopping traffic in central Rome, overleaping security walls, blowing up sports cars, and, most fundamentally, switching out Davian for Hunt — wearing one of the series’ trademark masks, natch.

    Memorable Music
    Nothing against Michael Giacchino’s original score, but there’s no besting Lalo Schifrin’s fantastic main theme.

    Truly Special Effect
    The movie actually has loads of model work and CGI, as the special features attest, but the vast majority of it is totally invisible — as is the single greatest effects moment. It comes when Hunt puts on a mask of Davian: as he slips the mask over his head, the camera tracks around behind Luther, briefly hiding Hunt from our view — we assume it’s for the sake of an invisible cut to switch Cruise for Hoffman, but no: as the camera emerges out the other side, it’s still Cruise + latex. Only then, as Luther attaches the mask properly, is there a completely unnoticeable transition to the real Hoffman. Not only is it a superb bit of work, but it helps sell the idea that these masks are plausible — we’ve just seen him put one on, so they must be!

    Previously on…
    Starting out as a ’60s TV series created in the wake of James Bond’s success, Mission: Impossible’s own popularity saw it run for seven seasons into the ’70s, before being revived in the ’80s for two more seasons, and then relaunched as a Tom Cruise film franchise in the ’90s. As this one has “III” in the title, you can probably deduce that it was preceded by two others.

    Next time…
    Ditching the numbering, the M:I films have continued with Ghost Protocol, Rogue Nation, and this week’s new release, Fallout. Already a huge critical success (scoring 97% on Rotten Tomatoes), there’s no reason to think we won’t be seeing more in the future.

    Awards
    1 Empire Award (Scene of the Year (the bridge attack))
    1 Empire Award nomination (Best Thriller)
    5 Saturn Award nominations (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film, Actor (Tom Cruise), Supporting Actor (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Director, Special Effects)
    3 Teen Choice Awards nominations (Action Adventure, Actor: Drama/Action Adventure (Tom Cruise), Actress: Drama/Action Adventure (Keri Russell))
    1 World Stunt Awards nomination (Best High Work)

    Verdict

    This is where the Mission: Impossible series as we know it today begins, both stylistically (although the series never adopts a house style, the pure individuality of Brian De Palma or John Woo won’t be seen again) and narratively (while most of the plot points from 1 and 2 are never referenced again (bar an Easter egg or two), there’s stuff introduced here that’s still a major part of the series in Fallout). That said, it’s still very much a standalone movie (the series has never become reliant on continuity, though it looks like Fallout may change that somewhat).

    And what of it as a film in itself, then? Well, kind of ironically, it has more action than the John Woo movie — there’s set piece after set piece after set piece. And I don’t mean that in a bad way, because they’re almost all phenomenal examples of suspense or action filmmaking. Though, it must be said, a mite too much of it is enabled by green screen, lacking the done-for-real extravagance of the films that follow. And there are a couple of exceptions to that “phenomenal” assessment: the Shanghai skyscraper heist, which feels like they knew the film was going on too long and so what should be a huge section is rushed, with the middle chopped out; and the climax, which has its moments but is rather underpowered, just a runaround in some houses.

    That said, the finale does keep the focus on Hunt and his new wife, which is only fitting. This is the series’ most emotional and human film — all the stuff with Ethan and his home life/relationship is absolutely central to the movie; and the villain chooses specifically to mess with both Ethan’s protégé and his missus, making this the most “this time it’s personal” of the Missions. It isn’t even that concerned about its own big threat, making the Rabbit’s Foot the most MacGuffin-y MacGuffin ever. It’s never explained what it is — in fact, that’s even made into a bit of a joke in the penultimate scene. But we get the stakes because they have Benji give a theory about what it could be, so we know its potential. It’s neatly managed so that we believe this thing matters, but we remain focused on the characters instead of “what happens if they use the Rabbit’s Foot?” (Well, some of us do: according to Christopher McQuarrie, the lack of explanation didn’t go down well with test audiences, since when Cruise has taken it to heart that audiences like things to be explained.)

    All in all, whenever I watch M:i:III I end up loving it more than I think I will — it’s an incredibly proficient, entertaining action-thriller. That I’d still rank it near the bottom of the franchise says more about the quality of the other instalments than it does the film itself.

    The new Mission: Impossible, Fallout, is released in the UK today and in the US on Friday.

    “Christmas in July” Review Roundup

    Being someone who lives in the northern hemisphere, and up towards the top of it too, we celebrate Christmas at, y’know, Christmas. But for people who live in places where 25th December falls in summery weather, all the trappings of the festival don’t feel so appropriate. Hence at some point someone conceived of “Christmas in July”.* I don’t know when — a long time ago, probably — but I first encountered the concept a year or two back.

    Anyway, I don’t think it’s celebrated on a specific date (it’s just a thing some people do some places), but it turns out there is a “Christmas in July” in London — a great big marketing event, self-described as “the ‘London Fashion Week’ of Christmas press launches.” Well, what could be more Christmassy than massive commercialisation? That’s occurring today and tomorrow, and seemed as good a point as any to post this selection of leftover reviews from the festive viewing I enjoyed seven months ago.

    In today’s roundup:

  • Elf (2003)
  • Scrooged (1988)
  • It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)


    Elf
    (2003)

    2017 #173
    Jon Favreau | 93 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Elf

    Regarded by some as a modern Christmas classic (though it’s 15 years old now, so I’m not sure if “modern” still applies), Elf is about a human raised as one of Santa’s elves (Will Ferrell) who travels to New York to find his real dad (James Caan), in the process spreading Christmas joy with his charmingly innocent view of the holiday.

    An early starring role for Ferrell, the film is more concerned with letting him get up to funny antics than it is with, say, building fully rounded character arcs — Caan goes through his inevitable redemption in the space of one cut. It’s less character development, more character transplant. Heck, transplants take time to perform — it’s character transmogrification. By taking such short cuts it fails to earn the changes of heart for its characters, leaving it to feel kind of empty and unsatisfying on an emotional level. Nonetheless, the focus on comedy and an innocent’s eye-view of Christmas means it makes for a fairly entertaining, pleasantly festive time-killer.

    3 out of 5

    Scrooged
    (1988)

    2017 #174
    Richard Donner | 101 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG-13

    Scrooged

    Director Richard Donner transplants the most famous of all Christmas stories (that don’t star a divine baby, anyhow), Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, to the corporate ’80s in this fantasy comedy. (Most Christmas movies are “fantasy comedies”, aren’t they? Even the ones that aren’t (like, say, Home Alone kind of are. But I digress.)

    Bill Murray stars in “his first comedy since Ghostbusters”, as the UK poster boasts (“Bill Murray is back among the ghosts. Only this time, there’s no one to call.”). He’s the Scrooge figure, Frank Cross, a miserly TV executive visited by three ghosts who expose his negative effect on the world, and in turn on himself. Obviously, therefore, the film retains the broad shape of Dickens’ original story, but it goes a little further than that, taking all the salient details and adapting them to its own variation. It’s a good modernisation: true to the original, but without being slavishly beholden to translating the story word for word.

    It does feel like it could’ve been tightened up a bit, though according to Murray they “shot a big, long sloppy movie, so there’s a great deal of material that didn’t even end up in the film,” which I guess means this is already the improved version. Nonetheless, this is a Christmas tale with just enough ’80s cynicism and gentle horror to stop it being too twee, while retaining an appropriately goodhearted festiveness.

    4 out of 5

    It’s a Wonderful Life
    (1946)

    2017 #171
    Frank Capra | 130 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.33:1 | USA / English | U / PG

    It's a Wonderful Life

    I’m a little late to the party here: It’s a Wonderful Life is a Christmastime TV staple that most people have been enjoying for decades, many since childhood. Frankly, that’s the main reason I watched it — almost out of a sense of duty, owing to it being an iconic Christmas film, and also well rated on polls like the IMDb Top 250.

    So I set out merely to rectify my oversight, expecting to find it a bit saccharine and twee, and probably overrated. But no, it’s not that at all: it’s a beautiful, brilliantly made, genuinely moving film — I even got something in my eye during the conclusion, even if its heartwarmingness was objectively inevitable. Now, my only regret is I didn’t watch it sooner, so that I could’ve been re-experiencing it all my life.

    It’s not often you get a film with a reputation like this that manages to live up to it, but It’s a Wonderful Life is that rare exception. Indeed, it’s so good I’d even say it exceeded its reputation. Wonderful indeed.

    5 out of 5

    It’s a Wonderful Life placed 6th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

    * If you happened to think this had something to do with the football — you know, like, “if England get through to the final it’ll be like Christmas in July for the fans” — then, um, no. Sorry. ^

  • Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D (2008)

    2017 #139
    Eric Brevig | 93 mins | download (HD) | 1.78:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D

    Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D (as it’s actually titled on screen, a rarity for 3D movies) is a very loose (very, very loose) adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic fantasy novel — indeed, you could say it’s more of a sequel, as the characters’ adventure is inspired by the belief that Verne’s novel is actually an account of real events. It turns out they’re right, of course, because otherwise this would just be a movie about a man and his nephew trekking up a mountain to find nothing — which sounds like a film someone would make, but not an effects-driven summer blockbuster.

    I remember Journey 3D (as the title card indecisively morphs into before finally moving on) going down quite poorly on its release a decade ago, but, looking up sources to cite for that now, I’m not wholly correct: it has 61% on Rotten Tomatoes, which isn’t great but is still considered ‘fresh’, and grossed a respectable $242 million (off a budget of just $60 million). Nonetheless, I expected little of it (I watched it mainly because it’s on my 50 Unseen from 2008, a notoriously under-completed list) but wound up pleasantly surprised… in some respects, anyway.

    They're all right

    The key to my enjoyment was watching it in 3D, in which it plays more like a theme park attraction than a movie: from the very beginning it has loads of those “sticking stuff out into the audience” hijinks that no one bothers with anymore (indeed, after watching a dozen other 3D movies on my TV, I don’t think I’ve seen anything poke out before). Gimmicky and in your face (literally) though it may be, the effect works, it’s uncomplicatedly fun, and it makes the movie better just because it’s trying. Relatedly, this was the first film released in 4DX, the South Korean-developed theatrical format which features “tilting seats to convey motion, wind, sprays of water and sharp air, probe lights to mimic lightning, fog, scents, and other theatrical special effects”. I imagine all that palaver suits the film really well — as I said, it’s more like a theme park attraction than a regular movie anyhow.

    However, that’s just one of the reasons why I imagine it would be nearly unwatchable in 2D. All the stuff that’s kinda fun in 3D would seem pointless in 2D, and the at-the-camera things would be horrendously blatant (I mean, they are in 3D, of course, but at least their purpose is retained). And as for the rest of the movie, the direction feels very TV-ish; or, again, like a theme park attraction — it’s a bit basic, basically. Some moments push towards achieving wonder. I’m not sure they quite get there, but I’ve seen worse. (Director Eric Brevig is a visual effects guy by trade, with credits ranging from The Abyss and Total Recall up through Men in Black and The Day After Tomorrow to John Carter and The Maze Runner, and many more besides. His second film as director was the Yogi Bear movie (you know, the one with that poster), which is probably why he’s not directed anything since.)

    Remember when Hollywood thought Brendan Fraser was Harrison Ford?

    Let’s not just reserve our criticism for the direction, though: the dialogue is terrible too, including what may be the single worst (or best — it’s so bad it’s good) exchange in the entire history of movies:

    Trevor: Max was right. He was right! [shouting] Max! Was! Right! Ha ha! [to Sean] Your dad was right. He was right.
    Sean: Hannah, your dad was right too.
    Trevor: They both believed in something that everyone told them was impossible. He was right! [echoing:] He was right!

    But hey, at least it makes an effort to do that screenwriting thing of eventually paying off every single thing we learnt about earlier… except for a yo-yo, the thing with the most “this is setup for later” introduction. Maybe the scene where they needed to do some hunting got cut… There’s added incidental amusement watching it a decade on thanks to the surprisingly old-fashioned technology on display: computer monitors are still CRTs; cool kids’ mobiles are still flip phones; being able to Google while on a plane is a wonder… It’s like the film is self consciously showing off how much technology has changed in the last decade — which it isn’t, obviously, because it couldn’t’ve known. And hey, if you don’t laugh at it you’ll cry because it’ll make you feel old.

    Really, Journey 3D is cheesy, tacky, and kinda terrible… but I also enjoyed myself. Yes, a big part of that was the 3D. I’d never claim it was a good film, and I don’t think that I’d even recommend it, but I wouldn’t write off watching it again someday.

    2 out of 5

    Almost Oscar-Worthy Review Roundup

    Each of these films was nominated for multiple Oscars… but failed to win a single one.

    In today’s roundup:

  • Big (1988) — nominated for Best Actor (Tom Hanks) and Best Original Screenplay.
  • Frost/Nixon (2008) — nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Frank Langella), Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Editing.
  • Lion (2016) — nominated for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Dev Patel), Best Supporting Actress (Nicole Kidman), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Original Score.


    Big
    (1988)

    2017 #91
    Penny Marshall | 100 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG* / PG

    Big

    Big is one of those strange gaps in my viewing — the kind of film I feel I should’ve seen when I was a kid in the early ’90s but didn’t.

    Anyway, in case you’ve forgotten, it’s the one where a 12-year-old boy makes a wish and ends up as an adult, played by Tom Hanks. Rather than solve this problem in a day or two, he ends up moving to the city, getting a job, an apartment, a relationship, and all that grown-up stuff. Maybe it’s just me, but I didn’t expect that level of scale from a movie like this. Generally there’s some hijinks around “kid in an adult’s body” and it’s all solved in a day or two, but the length of time the kid’s predicament rolls on for allows the movie to tap into more than that. I mean, it’s still a funny movie, but it’s got a message about how it’s important to remember the childlike spirit, but also that it’s OK to be at whatever stage in life you’re at — don’t rush it.

    Plus the whole thing has a kind of sweet innocence that you rarely see in movies nowadays. We’re all too cynical, too concerned with realism (even in fantasy movies). If you made it today, it’d ether have to be sexed/toughened up for a PG-13, or kiddified (and likely animated) for a G. That said, that the 12-year-old boy in a man’s body is happy to sleep with the hot woman, apparently without it bothering his conscience one iota, is by far the most realistic thing about this movie.

    4 out of 5

    * The UK PG version is cut by two seconds to remove an F word. The cut is really obvious, too — was there not a TV version with an ADR’d non-swear? Anyway, it was classified uncut as a 12 in 2008, though that’s not the version they show on TV, clearly. ^

    Frost/Nixon
    (2008)

    2017 #136
    Ron Howard | 117 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | USA, UK & France / English | 15 / R

    Frost/Nixon

    Peter Morgan’s acclaimed play about the famous interviews between David Frost and President Richard Nixon (the ones where he said “when the President does it, that means it’s not illegal”) transfers to the big screen with its two lead cast members intact (Michael Sheen as Frost and Frank Langella as Nixon) and Ron Howard at the helm.

    As a film, it almost embodies every pro and con that’s ever been aimed at Howard’s directing: it’s classy and thoughtful, in the way you’d expect from a director who’s helmed eleven Oscar-nominated movies* and won two himself; but it also, for example, employs an odd framing device of having the supporting cast be interviewed as if for a documentary, which exists solely as an on-the-nose way of integrating direct-to-audience narration from the original play — my point being, it’s a bit straightforward and workmanlike.

    Still, when you’ve got actors of the calibre of Sheen and Langella giving first-rate performances (the latter got an Oscar nomination, the former didn’t, I reckon only because Americans aren’t as familiar with David Frost as us Brits are — his embodiment of the man is spot-on), and doing so in a story that’s inherently compelling (even if somewhat embellished from reality — but hey, that’s the movies!), what more do you need?

    4 out of 5

    * Many of those only in technical categories, but hey, an Oscar nom is an Oscar nom. ^

    Lion
    (2016)

    2017 #103
    Garth Davis | 119 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, Australia & USA / English, Hindi & Bengali | PG / PG-13

    Lion

    Slumdog Millionaire meets Google product placement in this film, which is remarkably based on a true story — or based on a remarkable true story, if you want to be kinder. It’s the story of Saroo Brierley, a young Indian boy (played by newcomer Sunny Pawar) who is separated from his family, ends up in an orphanage, and is adopted by Australian parents. As an adult (played by Dev Patel), he resolves to find his birthplace and family — using Google Earth.

    If it was fiction then it’d be too fantastic to believe, but because it’s true it packs a strong emotional weight, not least Saroo’s relationship with is adoptive parents, played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham. The star of the show, however, is Dev Patel. You may remember there was controversy about him being put up for Supporting Actor awards, deemed “category fraud” by some because Saroo is the lead role. Conversely, he shares it with young Sunny Pawar, and Patel doesn’t appear until almost halfway through the film. Well, the “category fraud” people are more on the money, and it’s testament to Patel’s performance that it doesn’t feel like he’s only in half the film. Pawar is great — both plausible and sweetly likeable — but while watching I didn’t realise the movie had a near 50/50 split between young and adult Saroo. Maybe this means the first half is pacier, but its not that the second part feels slow, more that Patel has to carry greater emotional weight.

    Mother and son

    Rooney Mara is also in the film, as adult Saroo’s girlfriend. Her character is in fact based on multiple real-life girlfriends, but it makes sense to consolidate them into one character for the sake of an emotional throughline. However, her storyline ultimately goes nowhere — it ends with Saroo asking her to “wait for me”. Did she? Did he go back to her? It’s not the point of the film — that’s about him finding his family, and after that emotional climax you don’t really want an epilogue about whether he gets back with his girlfriend or not — but it still feels like it’s left hanging. I suppose it isn’t — I guess we’re meant to presume she does wait for him and they get together when he returns and live happily ever after — but it doesn’t feel resolved. It shouldn’t matter — as I say, it’s not the point — but, because of that, it does.

    So it’s not a perfect movie, but it packs enough of an emotional punch to make up for it.

    4 out of 5

  • Gangster Review Roundup

    In today’s roundup:

  • City of God (2002)
  • RocknRolla (2008)
  • Scarface (1983)


    City of God
    (2002)

    aka Cidade de Deus

    2017 #100
    Fernando Meirelles | 129 mins | DVD + download* | 1.85:1 | Brazil & France / Portuguese | 18 / R

    City of God

    What better insight into my film watching habits than this, a movie I’d been meaning to get round to for the best part of 14 years (ever since it topped Empire’s list of the best films of 2003, around the same time as I was getting into film ‘seriously’, i.e. as more than just “movies I like to watch”). Plus, it was one of my Blindspot picks back in 2015 (but didn’t get watched, obv), and it was the highest ranked film on the IMDb Top 250 that I’d not seen — all good reasons why I made it 2017’s #100.

    Adapted from a novel that was based on real events, it tells the story of how organised crime grew in Rio de Janeiro’s Cidade de Deus favela — the “City of God” of the title — from the late ’60s to the early ’80s. The main thing that struck me watching it now is how much it reminded me of the TV series Romanzo Criminale — both are basically about young people taking over and running all the crime in a city. The fact that they’re also both inspired by true stories (the series depicts a criminal gang in Rome through the ’70s and ’80s) is intriguing for different reasons. They also share certain stylistic similarities, I think, in particular the almost documentary-like visuals. The series came later, of course, so if one did inspire the other then this isn’t the copycat.

    At the risk of turning this into a review of something else, I must say that, while Romanzo Criminale is a favourite of mine (I included it in my 2017 list of Favourite TV Series of the Last 10 Years), City of God was a work I admired more than loved. Nonetheless, for anyone who likes crime epics, this is a must-see (but, uh, so is Romanzo Criminale).

    5 out of 5

    * Possibly because it’s just been sat on a shelf for over a decade (possibly just through sheer bad luck), my DVD was corrupted about halfway through and I had to, uh, source another copy. ^

    RocknRolla
    (2008)

    2017 #146
    Guy Ritchie | 110 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | UK, USA & France / English & Russian | 15 / R

    RocknRolla

    In my review of Snatch I commented that its contemporary reviews were along the lines of “oh, Lock Stock again”, and yet now it’s pretty well regarded. My memories of RocknRolla’s contemporary reviews are “oh, another Guy Ritchie London gangster film — isn’t it time he did something new?” And yet, it now seems to be pretty well regarded. Not as much as Lock Stock and Snatch, but better than you’d think “Guy Ritchie does the same schtick for a fourth time” would merit.

    Well, it is a case of Ritchie doing his usual schtick (thank God he did eventually move on, at least applying the same broad MO to some new genres), but a cast that includes the likes of Idris Elba, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, Tom Wilkinson, and Thandie Newton can’t help but elevate the material. Gerard Butler is ostensibly the lead, front-and-centre on the poster, but the movie follows the standard Ritchie template: an ensemble cast in a variety of story threads that bump into each other and overlap in different ways at different times. Even if the specifics aren’t the same as his other films, and the cinematography is more slick and big-budget than the grimy ’90s indie visuals of his debut and sophomore flick, the general style feels very familiar.

    Ultimately, I enjoyed it more than Snatch, but maybe I was just in the right mood — I mean, like I said, they’re all fundamentally the same kind of thing.

    4 out of 5

    Scarface
    (1983)

    2018 #14
    Brian De Palma | 170 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Spanish | 18 / R

    Scarface

    Brian De Palma’s in-name-only remake of 1932 gangster classic Scarface follows Al Pacino’s Cuban immigrant Tony Montana as he rises up the ranks of organised crime in ’80s Miami. As it turns out, it’s not easy being at the top.

    A near-three-hour epic (what is it with gangster movies being three hours long?), interest is sustained through Pacino’s wild-eyed performance, De Palma’s slick direction, and a story that at least has enough incident to merit that length. Also, early-career Michelle Pfeiffer, who gives a good performance as Montana’s increasingly miserable gal but, frankly, could just stand there and still keep half the population interested.

    Apparently a favourite movie among rappers, I guess some people get the wrong message from Scarface. I suppose the stylishness with which its produced has the side effect of idolising the lifestyle Montana and co lead, but the way it gradually crumbles and destroys everything should be a pretty clear indicator of how such things actually go. Still, it all makes for a heady mix.

    5 out of 5

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